When I first moved to New York, the locals, it seemed, were more than ready to offer advice on anything, whether you asked or not: where to shop, where to eat, which subway to take, who to vote for, who to root for, or the best way to get where you wanted to go, even if they had not a clue. It was kind of cute, if at times a little overwhelming and maybe even a little iconic: the opinionated New York local.
These days, we're all New Yorkers.
What might be a passing impulse to have and render an opinion has been “legitimized” and encouraged by the availability of multiple outlets from which we can make ourselves heard. No longer must we stand on a corner shouting about the End of Times or write endless letters to the editor in hopes of getting the word out there. The level playing field provided by the blogosphere means that we can all weigh in almost anywhere on almost any subject, day or night. The opportunity to reach hundreds, even thousand, any time, day or night, is intoxicating, like crack or Red Bull for the opinionated and even the marginally opinionated. Who can resist commenting?
I’m not against opinions and I’m certainly not against comments, especially those that are amusing or instructive, supportive or even contrary and most importantly, considered. Sometimes we all have something to add to the conversation.
But let’s face it, all opinions are not created equal. And not all opinions need to be expressed.
Virginia Heffernan, New York Times television critic and columnist on all things media, noted in an article last year that commenters often responded to stories with comments that “are hardly models of astuteness.” Scanning the online comments that follow pieces by respected journalist Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, Heffernan observed the commenters feel free to criticize, make assumptions, or cast aspersions about the author but didn’t “… provide a sustained or inventive analysis.” Instead they posted illogical arguments or poorly researched rebuttals apparently so that they could go on record as having joined the discussion.
Most of us might have qualms about making public statements without having our facts straight but these things appeared not to matter to the commenters, Heffernan concluded. And these noise-makers, she wrote, swamp the occasional “rare, bright voices” who might contribute to a meaningful dialogue.
The tone of so many online comments, inspired perhaps by talk radio and the idea of “freedom to be one’s own person” often veers between petulant and outraged. Commenters, it seems, come looking for a fight and stand ready to argue, even if it’s on, say, Salon’s food page (“You don’t hard boil an egg for fourteen minutes, you dimwit!”). They are simultaneously ready to hand out insults and take offense. They take pride in speaking “the truth” in voices that are often shrill, mean-spirited, or vitriolic. Too many are there to provoke, to hector, to lecture, or to rant. Of course, sometimes even the benign commenters (“I really like what you said.”) don’t seem to know when to let well enough alone, rambling on and derailing any chance of a meaningful discussion.
I’ve had comments on my opinion pieces that were tough but fair, that pointed to holes in my reasoning and flaws in my construct or that disagreed with the substance of my position. I appreciate seeing an issue through “new” eyes; alternate points of view and reasonable opposition are welcome. Of course, I don’t like to be lectured (who does?) and I’m not a fan of public humiliation, whether my own and someone else’s. If there were guidelines for commenters (oh, what a glorious thought!), they might begin with admonitions to stow the snark and bury the urge to bloviate.Or maybe we’d paraphrase little Thumper’s mother (with apologies and full attribution to Disney) and render this advice: If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.
image: Seattle Weekly blog