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

Prop 8 case sent to Calif. Supreme Court

LGBT advocates frustrated over delay

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service

A 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel surprised many Proposition 8 observers Tuesday, Jan. 4 when it suddenly issued five documents relating to the case.

But there was no decision Tuesday in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the landmark case testing whether voters in California violated the U.S. Constitution when they amended the state constitution to ban marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

The bottom line of the documents was that the three-judge panel that heard arguments in an appeal of the case punted a critical question regarding legal standing to the California Supreme Court.

The appellate panel said it would not rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 until it gets a ruling from the California Supreme Court as to whether Yes on 8 proponents of the initiative have an “authoritative” entitlement to represent the voters who passed the initiative in the appeal in federal court.

The announcement frustrated and disappointed many.

“It is frustrating that this will slow the case down, especially since there is nothing in California law that gives initiative proponents the power to force an appeal when the official representatives of the state have determined that doing so is not in the best interests of the state,” said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The development struck some as odd. It appears the federal court is asking a state court whether Yes on 8 has standing to appeal a lower federal court ruling that struck down Proposition 8.

“I don’t think it was necessary to ask the California Supreme Court to rule on that issue,” said Minter, “and I am disappointed the Ninth Circuit did so.” But Ted Olson, a lead attorney on the team challenging Proposition 8, said it’s not uncommon.

And it was not really a surprise to learn the panel is struggling with the question of standing. During oral argument on Dec. 6, all three judges seemed troubled by the idea that a state governor or attorney general could, in essence, acquire an ability to veto a measure passed by voters by simply refusing to defend a challenge to its constitutionality in court. The California constitution does not provide the governor or attorney general a right to veto voter-passed initiatives.

Both Judge Stephen Reinhardt, widely perceived to be the most liberal of the panel, and Judge Randy Smith, the most conservative, seemed concerned that the governor and attorney general’s refusal to appeal the district court decision “does not seem to be consistent” with the state’s initiative system. Judge Michael Hawkins expressed frustration during arguments that the panel might be prevented from rendering a decision about the constitutionality of Proposition 8 “so it’s clear, in California, who has the right to marry and who doesn’t.” The panel seemed prepared, on Dec. 6, to ask the California Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue — and it’s somewhat curious that they waited one month before actually doing so.

In its 21-page order to the California Supreme Court, the three-judge panel asked the state court to determine whether Yes on 8 proponents have “rights under California law … to defend the constitutionality of [Proposition 8] … when the state officers charged with the laws’ enforcement … refuse to provide such a defense.”

Olson, in a telephone conference call with reporters soon after the court released its order, said that, if the California Supreme Court determines that there is no authority under state law for Yes on 8 to have standing to represent voters in the appeal, the 9th Circuit would be bound to accept that determination. However, the ruling on standing could still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

If the California Supreme Court determines Yes on 8 does not have standing and the 9th Circuit rules accordingly, then the decision of U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker on Aug. 4 will become the law throughout California, making it possible for same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses.

Judge Walker ruled that Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitutional guarantees to equal protection and due process. Although neither the attorney general nor the governor provided any defense for the initiative during the trial last January, Walker did allow Yes on 8 proponents to intervene in the trial as defenders of the measure. But the appeals panel indicated that standing in the district court does not necessarily mean Yes on 8 has standing to appeal.

If Yes on 8 does appeal a loss on the issue of standing to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the high court rules in its favor, it would then most likely send the case back to the 9th Circuit for a ruling on constitutionality.

Meanwhile, among its other documents Tuesday, the 9th Circuit panel issued a 16-page opinion that Imperial County, Calif., does not have standing to appeal the district court decision itself. The panel said it was denying the county’s claim for standing on different grounds than did Judge Walker. The panel held that, because the county simply administers the state’s marriage law, it does not have any “interest on its own” to defend. The county has 14 days in which to appeal the panel’s ruling on standing.

The panel’s formal question to the California Supreme Court is: “Whether under Article II, Section 8 of the California Constitution, or otherwise under California law, the official proponents of an initiative measure possess either a particularized interest in the initiative’s validity or the authority to assert the State’s interest in the initiative’s validity, which would enable them to defend the constitutionality of the initiative upon its adoption or appeal a judgment invalidating the initiative, when the public officials charged with that duty refuse to do so.

“If California does grant the official proponents of an initiative the authority to represent the State’s interest in defending a voter-approved initiative when public officials have declined to do so or to appeal a judgment invalidating the initiative,” states the order, “then Proponents would also have standing to appeal on behalf of the State.

“This court is obligated to ensure that it has jurisdiction over this appeal before proceeding to the important constitutional questions it presents,” says the order, “and we must dismiss the appeal if we lack jurisdiction. The certified question therefore is dispositive of our very ability to hear this case.

“It is not sufficiently clear to us, however, whether California law does so,” said the panel. “In the absence of controlling authority from the highest court of California on these important questions of an initiative proponent’s rights and interests in the particular circumstances before us, we believe we are compelled to seek such an authoritative statement of California law.”

Today’s development will, of course, delay the 9th Circuit panel’s decision on the merits of the case — whether voters can withhold marriage licenses from gay couples while granting them to straight couples.

“Further delay in restoring the freedom to marry in California is a lamentable hardship on couples,” said Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group. “But I am confident that we will regain the freedom to marry in California soon.”

NCLR’s Minter agreed.

“I am confident the California Supreme Court will hold that California law does not give initiative proponents any special power to override the decisions of the state’s elected representatives,” said Minter. “In the meantime, however, Proposition 8 remains on the books, and every day that goes by, LGBT people in California are denied the freedom to protect their families and express their love and commitment through marriage. This will delay,” he said, “but not deny, the day that Proposition 8 is gone for good.”

The full text of the order is below.

© 2011 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

CA9Doc 292

—  John Wright

Because we all have our struggles

By Polly Browning Team Ride With Pride

We all have stories, our universal commonality. We have stories of experiencing joy and laughter. Some of us experience pain and hardship on a daily basis, while others of us support and care for those who struggle.

We all share one constant: We share in the making of these stories, either alone or with others.

No matter, once again, this coming Sept. 25-26, on what is the 10th anniversary of the Lone Star Ride, we all come together and know we are not alone. For two days and three nights, I get to be “just a number” again: Number 202, one rider among many.

I get to blend in and be a part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than us all.

I have been asked to share my story. I’m humbled and hope I can do more than speak for myself, which is way too lonely. I’ve learned that our words and experiences are more alike than different.

My name is Polly Browning. I may not live in Dallas (too far from my Longhorns!), but as of September 2009, my wife and I (me being a rookie rider and Sarah being the rookie sweeper — and the cutest one, in my opinion) will now be temporarily located in Dallas once a year.

How did I get here? Laura Kerr invited me to ride a few years ago.

I remember her telling me at the time, “Polly, I need to warn you. If you say ‘yes,’ be prepared because you will be addicted to it and will be a ‘lifer,’ forever committed.”

I took on the challenge. And I immediately fell in love with this organization and its members.

As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many individuals and their families impacted by HIV and AIDS. It has been an important cause my family has supported.

But why would I choose Lone Star over staying and riding in Austin? All you have to do is come to the closing ceremonies of the Lone Star Ride, bring an open heart and watch, listen and let it all in. You will experience something indescribable and you will understand.

There simply are no words for it. For all participants, observers, whomever, you simply cannot go away with an untouched heart. Laura, I love you dearly for believing in me enough to introduce me to Lone Star.

I am a licensed clinical social worker. I am currently in the fourth year of my doctoral studies in the social work department at the University of Texas — Austin. As such, convincing me to participant in the Lone Star Ride wasn’t too difficult.

My personal path took a drastic turn in my first year in my Ph.D. program. I became someone I didn’t know at all.

I was in horrific pain. I was unable to compose my thoughts, either verbally or in writing (just a tad important to a student). I lost most of my ability to write, to move my fingers and most joints, including my feet, and my back. Any slight breeze (regardless of temperature) felt like razor blades on the skin of my arms, hands and feet.

My eyesight was affected. My ability to balance was gone. It became impossible for me to walk on my own. My wife, Sarah, got me a really cool blue walker and committed herself to making a belt to brace me in so I could be pushed around.

I was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease: RSD, or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, now called CRPS. They are still trying to figure the rest out.

The types of doctors I began seeing were foreign to me. I had every blood test, MRI, scanning this and X-raying that, and doing it again and again. The patients in the waiting area were often diagnosed with terminal illnesses, most much older than me. (It’s okay to ask — I’m 45 years young.)

No longer was I the helper, the server, the therapist. Now I was the client, the patient. The one who needed to learn how to ask for help, a skill I had not yet developed very well.

After fighting back, I began to let help in. I had to let go of my vanity, all my humility and accept the fact that I couldn’t solve it on my own.

After having a serious back surgery filled with titanium and fusions, I was restricted to lying on my back for three months, no less. I was allowed a total sitting time of 15 minutes a day. My bright blue turtle “torso” brace I wore 24/7 became my best friend. (One of my professors actually told me after that it showed off my “girlish figure!” Ha!)

That was on April 31, 2008. After I was cleared several months later, my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Spann, told me to start to cycle for my rehab.

I was still wearing my brace 24/7. Did they even make cycling jerseys big enough to cover a brace? I’d never seen anyone in the Tour de France wearing one.

So I suggested that I learn how to play soccer for my rehab. Dr. Spann again suggested cycling, being a cyclist himself.

My wife’s best friend, Laura Kerr, knew where I was at in recovery, physically, emotionally and mentally. She knew I thrive on challenges, and she suggested — and re-suggested — that I set a goal of riding 180 miles that following September in the Lone Star Ride. Yep — five months after being cleared.

Now it’s history. I said “yes,” showed up in my bright blue turtle brace, and pretended that I knew something of what I was doing.

My 14-year-old son, Sayer, had committed himself to training with me and riding the full two days with me. My wife, Sarah, committed herself to being on the sweep crew. It was a family affair from beginning to end. I became cyclist number 202, and Sayer became rider number 203. Sayer inspired many in his willingness to ride along side his mom.
I’ve been excited and ready to ride this year, but God has a sense of humor. Several weeks ago I came back out of remission. I feel different. I feel abnormal. I feel my pain. But it’s often an invisible pain to others. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by not being able to “do.”

But in 12 days, I get to just be a number again. I will be back in my brace and will be ready to ride again in twelve days, with the grace of my God.

Something deep inside tells me that many of us want to be a part of, wanting to shed our skins that cause us to feel different while dealing with our own barriers.

Some of us participating in Lone Star ride in cars; some of us ride on bikes with two or more wheels. Some of us walk on two healthy feet. Some of us require help when we walk.
Some of us ride on motorcycles and are assigned the role of protecting the riders on the routes. Some of us are strictly cyclists. Some stand on corners smiling and shouting endless cheers of encouragement.

Some of us drive our cars, sweeping and picking up riders, ready with cold AC, peanuts and snacks, cold grape Gatorade, and most important, a nice soft seat. Some of us are more behind the scenes: the medical crew, the pit crews, the training crews, the organizers, and most importantly, the people who set up the catering.

There are family and friends who come and support all of us. They share memories and stories of previous riders who have lost their lives. They trust that their tears will be received with gentleness and love. These families bring pictures of lost loved ones on t-shirts, reminding all of us why we do it.

Without the willingness of these families to share their stories, the closing ceremonies would just not be the same.

No matter what our role, or how many wheels we ride on, we all come together. We link ourselves together on the last weekend of September, and try our best to make a difference in the lives of so many living with AIDS.

To donate to Polly Browning or another Lone Star Ride participant, go online to LoneStarRide.org.

Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS takes place Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25-26, beginning and ending each day at the American Airlines Training and Convention Center, located on Hwy. 360 N., at Hwy. 183, in Fort Worth. Friends and supporters of LSR participants are invited to attend closing ceremonies on Sunday, beginning at 6 p.m.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens