Jerry Bledsoe raised an interesting point a while ago when he asked why letters required a verifiable identity, but comments did not. The easy answer is that comments are different from letters, they don't get printed in the paper, they can be answered immediately, online rules are different. Like many easy answers, it doesn't satisfy everyone.
People have told me that they are put off by the frequent personal attacks in the comments, but I find a lot of these comments (and ones at this blog, too) more distracting than devastating.
Maybe after two decades of being published professionally I've got a thicker skin than many people. But it's also because the attacks are not, in fact, ad hominem, directed at the man, they are ad whominem, as in, Who the hell are you talking about?
Strawmen and caricatures take quite a beating online (and on talk radio), while the putative subjects of debate go untouched.
A few examples: What liberal, or Democrat, at least outside of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, thinks of Ted Kennedy as the standard bearer for their beliefs, or thinks about Ted Kennedy at all?
Yet Teddy is the go-to guy for a certain breed of commenter. You and your Ted Kennedy, they sneer. I have to look over my shoulder. Me? My Ted Kennedy?
Ditto Bill Clinton, still the default answer to every hard question. Here's the thing: If I ask, Is Ollie North an appropriate fundraiser for the Boy Scouts, asking me the same about Bill Clinton is a non sequitur. Clinton's not speaking on behalf of the Scouts next week, Ollie is. What's more, I don't think Clinton would be a very good speaker in that role, either. The response to which is...Yeah, but what about Bill Clinton?
Other bizarre comparisons raised by the Ollie question have been Ward Churchill, the obscure professor who said all those who died on 9/11 were "little Eichmanns," and some nutjob who once taught at NC State, who said all white people should be killed. When I protested Ollie, both of those guys were flung back in my face: Would you rather have these folks?
Um, no. Thanks for asking.
As previously discussed, criticizing or asking questions about the performance of the Bush adminstration cannot be brushed aside as "hate." Hell, I bet I'd like W, especially back when he drank. I just don't think he's doing a very good job. Responding to criticism by saying I hate him isn't just wrong, it's irrelevant. What if somebody who does hate him says something true?
Then there are the suppositions about me, and I guess about all "liberals," that are cartoonish and funny.
No sooner had I announced to my daughter (as I forced her to listen to oldies on Rock 92) that the national anthem of the Country of Ed could be Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Dont Ask Me No Questions," than I got a comment saying, nay, accusing me of listening to...NPR. Well, sure, sometimes. Also, sports radio and FM Talk 101.1.
The shoe just doesn't fit: I'm a middle-aged business writer, a card-carrying member of the bourgeoisie, 17 years into my first marriage, a community volunteer and a member of the same temple where my grandfather taught Hebrew school. But to read the comments, I'm a Bolshevik.
All this is kind of amusing, but it's also alarming. People aren't discussing issues, they are arguing with phantoms. The more we dehumanize each other, the easier it is to ignore each other. And it goes both ways -- cardboard-cutout "wingnut" conservatives get their share of abuse, too.
Ad hominem is not the problem. This stuff isn't too personal, it's impersonal.