The Deacon's Bench

Part of the problem that gave rise to this post may well be anonymity. In the blogosphere, you can be anyone, or no one, and get away with almost anything. No one needs to be accountable, or own up to their words. Commenters are shielded by a velvet curtain.   

The columnist Leonard Pitts touched on something similar last month:

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time.

There was this new medium, the Internet, and newspapers were posting stories on it, and someone decided to create a forum where readers could discuss and debate what they just read. It must have seemed an inspiration kissed by the spirit of Jefferson: a free public space where each of us could have his or her say.

Unfortunately, the reality of the thing has proven to be something else entirely. For proof, see the message boards of pretty much any paper. Or just wade in the nearest cesspool. The experiences are equivalent.

Far from validating some high-minded ideal of public debate, message boards — particularly those inadequately policed by their newspapers and/or dealing with highly emotional matters — have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.

For every person who offers some trenchant observation on the point at hand, there are a dozen who are so far off point they couldn’t find their way back with a compass and road map. For every person who brings up some telling fact, there are a dozen whose “facts” are fantasies freshly made up to suit the exigencies of arguments they otherwise cannot win.

Why have message boards failed to live up to the noble expectations?

The answer in a word is, anonymity. The fact that on a message board — unlike in an old-fashioned letter to the editor — no one is required to identify themselves, no one is required to say who they are and own what they’ve said, has inspired many to vent their most reptilian thoughts.

So, some of us are intrigued by what recently happened in Cleveland. It seems someone using the alias “lawmiss” had posted provocative comments and scathing personal attacks on the website of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Some of those comments and attacks evinced an unlikely familiarity with cases being heard by a local judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold. When lawmiss made a comment about the mental state of a reporter’s relative, the paper decided to trace the nickname. It found that the postings came from Judge Saffold’s personal e-mail account.

Saffold claims her 23-year-old daughter authored the comments. Sydney Saffold, who lives in another city, supports her mom’s story. Believe them if you choose.

Read on. He makes some very good points.

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