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My daily newspaper The Washington Post, like every newspaper with an online presence, offers the opportunity for every reader to comment on every published article. Facebook, Twitter, /*you_name_it*/ also offer comment spaces. My friend Mark holds the opinion that the comments often say a lot more than the article they comment upon. Me? I can barely bare to read them.

They seem to offer the same sort of experience as one finds observing the typical autopsy, what might have once been human, laid bare and violated. No, my nose isn’t disjointed because somebody’s comment peed on my birthday cake. Yes, my sense of propriety feels offended.

Comments seem, as a class, ungenerous. They trend toward outright snark. In newspapers, they rarely appreciate or elevate the original exposition. They favor savaging the author. Comments appear to have been written by folks who believe their perspective somehow superior to whichever freaking idiots wrote and edited the article. I fear they represent an accurate portrait of democracy in action.

Mark Twain claimed that in the United States, we have the absolute right to say whatever we think and the absolute responsibility not to. Sage advice in a world where best intentions seem only rarely presumed.

Commenting displays the commenters ethics in three dimensional Technicolor, an understanding even I need frequent reminders about. I know the sugar rush that comes from posting some clever throat slitting snark, though in that moment of ecstasy, I always neglect to notice that it’s my own jugular I’m puncturing.

I just delete offending comments from my Facebook posts, figuring I’m making the world a tiny bit better for it. I revel when someone posts an appreciative comment, but I delight when someone elevates the perspective with one. For me, nothing more clearly demonstrates solid character than the generous extension and elevation of the original idea. This might even include informing me that my original perspective was wrong, but never that I’m a freaking idiot because I deigned to share my perspective.

The worst examples of commenting gone wrong happen when two or more commenters set about chewing each other, ignoring the context within which they snarl. One “freaking idiot” accuses another “freaking moron” of being stupid and whatever intention started the thread gets trampled.

In a more perfect world, I would first consider the difference between a blank piece of paper and the inciting post, then consider appreciating that difference first. I’d seek to elevate the posting rather than trying to torch it to the waterline. I might even generously presume the best of intentions before opening my yap. I might even remember that “nobody can tell nobody nuthin” before trying to tell somebody something.

Should I follow these simple guidelines, I would most often follow Twain’s sage advice. Wouldn’t you?


©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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