By Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel
NORWALK, Conn. – A few years ago, a local education blog called NorwalkNet was shut down shortly after its founder introduced a policy that allowed her, and only her, to identify the source of comments. The new policy was implemented because of the increasingly nasty nature of the many anonymous postings that appeared each day, as well as the suspicion that a few contributors were posting dozens of comments daily, all under the name “anonymous.”
Her suspicion was on the mark. In the weeks after the new policy was implemented, only three people – all of whom had always used their real names – contributed anything.
Another education blog, Norwalk Speaks, took its place and, unfortunately, another slew of anonymous bloggers has been busy attacking, often in extremely nasty and personal terms, everyone and everything associated with education reform in the city. My guess is that all those anonymous postings are from the same few people who destroyed the earlier blog. (Unlike NorwalkNet, it is not even possible to identify the administrator of Norwalk Speaks.)
If not controlled or at least properly monitored, who knows how far the attacks will go. I recall a story in one of the electronic newspapers that appeared at the end of April. It was about problems associated with NEON. One of the comments was, “Burn it down.” That was it, nothing else. And it was signed, “wcracka.” I contacted the publication and I believe the racist post was removed.
Even though the use of multiple pseudonyms is still a problem, it is now monitored more carefully by some publications. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that much of the over-the-top cheerleading for one of the Democratic mayoral candidates was being written by the same person using different names. The editors immediately warned the person to stop.
I believe that civility is a necessary requirement if broadly based democratic discussion is to prevail. The verbal attacks, especially the anonymous ones, even if only a small percentage of the comments, have a chilling effect on residents who might otherwise comment on this or that issue affecting the city.
Some have argued that public officials and resident-writers should have a thick skin and should expect the worst whenever they write something. Why? Why should a thick skin be deemed a requirement to participate in public debate? Every parent and teacher I know believes it is not OK for children to use name-calling when honest disagreements arise. But nowadays we’re supposed to believe it’s perfectly reasonable to hurl every type of invective imaginable, especially when using a pseudonym?
And others, inexplicably, have created a false equivalent by arguing that disagreement or going negative on issues is basically the same as negativity in personal terms. I had a strange experience a few months ago when a commentator (on Facebook, of all places) accused me of being negative. I replied that my negativity was in fact a difference of opinion on some issues. He said, in return, that he didn’t “buy it,” and then went on to call me rude and a bully, all the while believing, I assume, that what he was writing was legitimate give-and-take.
Name calling and personal insults are not the only problem with our local commentary, though I believe it is the most significant because of its chilling effect. A related problem is the direct and indirect accusations that city officials have no qualifications to make reasonable decisions, that they do not have the professional expertise to weigh in on matters such as budgets, contracts, procurement, etc.
I happen to find this assumption absurd. I have known many elected and appointed city officials, both Democratic and Republican, with a wealth of educational and occupational experience that puts them in a perfect position to evaluate the items that come before them. We are being asked to assume that highly skilled professionals and non-professionals alike, once they are elected or appointed, somehow leave their wealth of knowledge at home when they attend meetings and cast votes.
If we truly want the most competent and knowledgeable residents to participate in public affairs, if we want people to comfortably take part in electronic discussions, we cannot continue to make having a thick skin a major requirement for participation.
Now I suppose the mud-slinging will begin. But my fingers are crossed.