March 14, 2010

Opinion: Lack of civility greets letters


Regardless of how much energy might be generated by wind farms in Maine, none of it will match the hot air on the Internet.

It would be one thing if the comments from the faceless and pseudonymous e-mailers were merely overheated – as opposed to petty, juvenile and downright cruel.

But that's the age we inhabit.

With all of its blessings, high-speed technology brings some curses. One of them is providing individuals with a forum to attack others and their opinions without clearly identifying themselves.

If you want to see evidence of this, you need only follow the comments thread on a page, whose link is given below, on the Portland Press Herald's Web site. You will see perhaps as many as 50 comments, many from the same persons, regarding four letters to the editor written to the newspaper in support of wind turbines.

A few of the comments are reasoned and kind. Most are angry and petty. Here's the link:

A reader, Julia Dalphin of Cape Elizabeth, alerted me to the lack of civility displayed toward eight students at Waynflete, the private school in Portland, who had written letters to the editor.

Wrote Ms. Dalphin:

"I think that it is important to point out that the letters sent to the editor are just that, letters. They represent an opinion. This is not a news story, reported on objectively. That being said, I believe that the opinions represented in the letters written by this group of Waynflete students are thoughtful and well expressed.

"On the other hand, most of the comments seem to either be attacks on the teacher of these students, the students themselves or the education they are receiving. How unfortunate that thoughtful writing and legitimate opinion expressed by the younger members of our community are met with a response that does not allow for true dialogue and, ultimately, learning, on both sides of the fence.

"I suspect that these students are not 'brainwashed.' I suspect they are intelligent young people who can think for themselves and deserve the opportunity for discourse. Perhaps someone could step up to the plate and offer a truly engaging opinion from the other side that offers these students the credit they are due, rather than the embarrassing display of rudeness; arguments that attack the person and not the content; and the general, overall, condescending tone that most of these comments (not all, but most) take."

Her letter struck a chord with me on two counts. I am conflicted about the opportunity we offer online readers to comment on stories, letters and columns. The debate appearing in these comments is healthy and invigorating. The ability to hide behind an e-mail address bothers me.

Forced to choose, as those of us are in this business, we let our readers have their say within boundaries of taste and word length.

So that's one issue. The second is the lack of civility in much of the political discourse these days.

A few blocks away from these Waynflete students' school, at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the Rev. Constantine Sarantides expressed the same concern in part of his sermon last Sunday. The Holy Trinity pastor said he worries about our society's increased inability to discuss controversial topics politely and with genuine respect for differences of opinion.

After hearing the sermon and reading Ms. Dalphin's note, I knew I would find angry and demeaning comments on the Web site in reaction to the students' letters. Luckily, there were readers who rose to the students' defense:

james48 said:

"While you may oppose the opinions voiced by the students from Waynflete, Arthur, there is no reason for you to be so condescending and snarky in your comments: '... the little dears are well-read. ...' The most objectionable noises generated by wind power are the collective whines of the nimby element. Economic opposition to wind power sounds more like subtle propaganda from big oil. Perhaps you and your cohorts have a better plan for declaring independence from the oil sheiks; if so, let's hear it."

(Continued on page 2)

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