I write several regular columns for varied publications and have done so for years. As a writer, college professor, and public speaker, I’m constantly being evaluated. I carefully read all evaluations from my students, even when it might be painful, and evaluations that are sometimes provided to me by organizations that have invited me to speak. However, I rarely read feedback when my articles are posted online. I also choose not to read the comments section on any article I read online.
It isn’t that I don’t care about other perspectives, but so often, even in professional publications, “comments” lack any coherence and are simply people venting. This reactionary acrimony is also often littered with personal attacks and insults. It seems that some readers believe that writers are personally challenging them. These perceived “attacks” from writers are met with all guns blazing in comments.
While I recognize that some articles are provocative, sometimes a position is simply being presented for thought. In my own work, most often I’m trying to give readers something to think about as opposed to proselytizing my own opinion. Readers don’t have to agree with me and, in fact, I rarely state what I personally believe. But you wouldn’t know it from some of the email I get.
For example, in one recent email, a reader wrote a blistering paragraph, littered with typos and misspellings, saying that I should have said something that I, in fact, did say. At the same time, he was complaining about something I didn’t say. At the very least he didn’t read carefully.
Many times over the 25 or 30 years I’ve written this column, angry readers have challenged something I said while providing no evidence other than that they think it and didn’t like what I said. This is the very definition of ignorance.
On the other hand, I’ve received some brilliant critiques from readers who, instead of attacking me personally, taking my words out of context, or just “thinking” something, formulated a respectful and well-supported argument against the point I was making. Even though I’d rather get positive feedback, I actually enjoy respectfully responding to this type of critique and thanking them for their thoughtful position.
Years ago, when email was new, a wise friend recognized a risk of email that most of us have come to know quite well. He told me, “Never send an emotional email the same day you write it. Wait a day.” Those were wise words.
He recognized that instant messaging allowed one’s better judgment to be overridden by emotions. With a cooler head 24 hours later, one can avoid sending harsh words that can’t be taken back.
And that’s why I don’t read the comments section in any digital publication — my own or anyone else’s. It doesn’t take any thoughtfulness to blurt out some emotional reaction and hit send. When I’ve employed my friend’s advice in my own emails, I nearly always have either modified what I wrote or deleted it altogether.
The angry and impulsive “let me tell you what I think…” approach rarely leads to healthy dialog and never leads to a change in anyone’s opinion.
Our social media culture is partially to blame. These ubiquitous cultural platforms have changed us, leading us to think everyone is interested in what sandwich we had for lunch. After all, people “like” it so I must be right.
But something deeper than that is also going on. For most of my first 35 years of teaching college students, before class, after class, and during breaks, students would talk to each other. Now as soon as there is a free moment, their heads are down looking at their phones.
The phone itself isn’t the problem, but rather it is how we use it. Instead of making our world personal and engaging with those around us, we too often make our worlds small and egocentric. Such isolation and self-centeredness allows one to feel justified in attacking some writer without any careful thought. We think it, people agree, so it must be so.
Rodney King famously said, “Can’t we all just get along?” I fear that hope is just a dream and that civil discourse and true intellectual debate is a thing of the past. But maybe we can change that.
Whether it is a political, religious, or social issue, it is hard to find people who have any interest whatsoever in a position different than their own. Maybe a good New Year’s resolution would be to set anger aside, use our brains, and just try to be nice.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]