Online comments and the death of civil discourse

When you can spout off anonymously and don’t have to talk face to face, it becomes too easy to attack one another

DAVID WEBB  |  Special Contributor

I sometimes wonder if the blogosphere was designed for a class of people that enjoys animal fights over a good movie or a football game. That’s what the blogs of practically all publications often resemble today — a dogfight between readers and journalists, readers and readers, and even journalists and journalists.

There’s something about the ability to instantly lash out at another person without having to look them in the eye that generates written warfare on blogs’ comments sections. The added benefit of being able to exchange written blows without the writers providing full names or even first names seems to make going to battle even more inviting.

The blog spectacles draw crowds of invisible observers sitting in front of their monitors watching the warriors and cheering them on to more aggression. Occasionally, the observers get so caught up in the action that they even get drawn into it.

It’s turned out to be a highly contagious atmosphere, and journalists themselves have become infected with some of the more severe cases of what I’m calling blogoitis.

One of the more spectacular blog slugouts in Dallas occurred about four years ago between two high-profile columnists from competing publications.

The gentlemen, both of whom I’m acquainted with in a casual sort of way, let loose on each other like it was World War III — and the plan was for no one to be left standing.

The funny part about it was that both writers are pretty laid back individuals that in person seem incapable of such hostility.

And on Dallas Voice’s blog, Instant Tea, there have been countless battles waged between all of the parties I mentioned above. I admit to succumbing to it myself in more than one category.

Given that no one is actually getting physically bludgeoned, it might seem almost harmless — if it were not for the resulting complications. It’s one of the laws of the universe: According to one of Newton’s laws of physics, “Every action is accompanied by a reaction of equal magnitude but opposite direction.”

In that regard, I think we’re probably seeing a chilling effect arising. I’ve had journalists and readers tell me the experience of a blog fight had left them feeling bad for several days. If a journalist or a reader knows that their words will result in an immediate, symbolic public stoning, it could easily lead anyone to keep their opinions to themselves.

Since the relevantly recent birth of the Internet’s blogosphere, the phenomena of cyber-bullying has also developed. One example of it is the presence of activist groups that maintain e-mail lists for the purpose of launching campaigns to flood blogs with complaints anytime something is written that they don’t like.

I’ve had a few unpleasant, unforgettable experiences with that.

I wrote a column last year that a group of activists didn’t like. One of the members of the group admitted to me that he had heard about the column over dinner one night and immediately launched an e-mail campaign against me without even reading the column. He told me about it because after looking at my blog and seeing how supportive I had been of his group over the years, he actually read the column and then decided to call off the dogs.

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. It appeared that most of the people who sent complaining e-mails also hadn’t read my column. In fact, they so distorted what I had written, that even I was becoming unsure of what I had actually said.

In any event, criticism does come with the territory for anyone who steps into the public domain, so none of this is meant to imply that criticism and debate shouldn’t take place.

But it does seem like everyone, myself included, should think about what they are writing before posting a comment on a blog — and then strive to be respectful. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to write something that is unfair and could be regretted later.

David Webb is a former staff writer for the Dallas Voice. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28.

—  John Wright

WATCH: 6 Marble Falls teens accused of sending threatening anti-gay texts to opposing QB

A plea bargain is likely for six Marble Falls teens accused of sending anti-gay and threatening text messages to a Dripping Springs football player. KXAN in Austin reports:

The messages contained homosexual slurs and profanities.

An arrest warrant shows one message said, “You better be prepared to get ripped limb from to ******* limb Friday night you big *****.”

Another read, “Oh, so you are going to be a little ***** and not text back *****?”

Lt. Leroy Opiela with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office said the Dripping Springs football player found those messages on his phone and told his parents.

An upcoming football game between the Marble Falls Mustangs and Dripping Springs Tigers was apparently behind the messages.

The six 17-year-olds are charged with harssment via telephone, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. However, under the plea deal, they’ll avoid jail time in exchange for completing community service, write letters of apology and take a bullying class.

—  John Wright

Just in time for Texas-OU weekend, Norman passes resolution marking LGBT history month

The other day we mentioned that Equality Texas and The Equality Network of Oklahoma are hosting a joint fundraiser/watch party at the Brick in Dallas during Saturday’s Texas-Oklahoma football game. But regardless of whether the Sooners prevail on the gridiron, it looks like the Equality Network will be celebrating a victory (and no, we’re not referring to Thursday night’s dramatic comeback win by Oklahoma State over Texas A&M). On Tuesday, the city council in Norman, which is home to OU, voted 7-1 to declare October as GLBT history month in the city. It may not sound like a very big deal, but in a state that’s home to politicians like Sally Kern, it’s progress. According to The Oklahoman, one councilmember said he received messages on his answering machine that “threatened [his] livelihood” if he supported the proposal. And about 100 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, with about half supporting the proposal and half opposing it. Here’s a report from The Equality Network:

Norman City Council Makes Historic Vote

September 30, 2010 – Norman, Oklahoma – On Tuesday evening, after four hours of impassioned debate, the Norman City Council voted 7 to 1 to declare October LGBT history month.  The vote makes Norman the first municipality in the state to issue an offical proclamation honoring the historic contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

The vigorous discussion included citizens with wildly divergent opinions on LGBT equality.  When faced with the final vote, many councilors attested to the galvanizing effect that being bombarded by sometimes vitriolic anti-gay sentiment had upon them.  Doug Cubberley, the councilor representing Ward 7, expressed concern that while his district was evenly split on whether or not to support the declaration, he felt morally compelled to support it.  His colleague from Ward 6, James Griffith, asserted that while he had been intitially inclined to oppose the resolution, constituent feedback changed his mind.  Griffith admitted that he had not known that an Oklahoma citizen can still be legally fired from his or her job or evicted from a rented property solely on the basis of sexual orientation.  Mayor Cindy Rosenthal added her strong support for the LGBT History Month proclamation.  Councilor Dan Quinn, representing Ward 8, cast the lone dissenting vote.

“We are very inspired by tonight’s overwhelming recognition of the invaluable and vibrant role of LGBT people in our nation’s history.  With this vote, the Norman City Council honors that rich legacy and makes a powerful statement about inclusivity and fairness in our state.”  asserted Kathy L. Williams, Ph.D., president of The Equality Network.

A full text of the LGBT History Month proclamation can be found here.

—  John Wright

It’s Texas-OU weekend and parking will be a pain — but hopefully not a costly pain

Finding safe — and legal — parking can be tough on any weekend in Oak Lawn. But throw in the annual Texas-OU showdown, and finding parking anywhere gets even tougher.

A parking scam during the 2008 Texas-OU weekend cost a lot of football fans some big bucks. But Dallas city officials said this week that they will be coordinating with state agencies as they did last year to make sure nobody gets scammed again.

The ’08 scam was a coordinated effort between fake parking attendants and licensed towing companies, where “unsuspecting fans were flagged into private parking lots where they paid the ‘attendants’ to let them park for the game. Towing companies then swooped in and hauled off the vehicles,” the city’s statement said.

Last year, the city put new procedures in place to avoid such scams, including special permits and city-issued signs to let people know where they could park, and Dallas police and the Texas Department of Licensing beefed up patrols and enforcement around Fair Park. They will be doing the same this year.

Paul Curington with the Dallas Police Department’s parking enforcement division suggested people headed to the game park inside Fair Park where fees will probably be lower and the area safer. But those who park in an off-site private lot or in someone’s yard need to look for the official green signs that indicate that property owner has a valid city permit to offer parking, and a “towing enforced sign.”

If you  head down to Oak Lawn in your own car, be sure to park in a well-lit area — one where your vehicle won’t get towed — and park as close to your destination as possible. Don’t walk alone, and stay out of the dark areas. Park in one of the lots with security if you can.

Curington also suggests leaving the car at home and taking DART to the game. The same holds true for those headed to Oak Lawn to party, either before, during or after the football game. If you don’t want to ride the bus, consider a taxi; it might cost a few bucks, but not as much as having your car towed and sure as hell not as much as being robbed or assaulted. Isn’t it worth a little extra to be safe?

—  admin