Sick Sad Week: An Urgent Call to End the Coulterization of Debate at Associated Content

This will be a special edition of Sick Sad Week. Typically, the Sick Sad Week column looks at the best of the worst in the world of national news. But this week will instead focus on the sick sad goings-on here at Associated Content. Regular, long-time visitors to Associated Content have no doubt noticed that various changes in format have taken place regarding the rating system and the comment sections on articles here. Of course, Associated Content is hardly the only site on the internet where readers are allowed to express opinion and the problems this site is experiencing are being experienced around the web. It is, in many respects, a problem that is merely a symptom of a significantly larger problem.

At the risk of turning this article into one of my usual ideological screeds-something I am hoping to avoid this time around-I have come to describe this problem as the Coulterizaton of debate. (As proof of my sincere hope to try to avoid indulging in ideology, I will refrain from using my own personal anagrammatical appellation for Ms. Coulter.) Over the past few months-but with increasing intensity over the past few weeks-I as well as many other writers and readers have noticed a distinctive and unpleasant turn that the comments left on articles at Associated Content have taken. Rather than engaging in intellectual disagreement and analytical debate with the ideas and opinions being expressed, more and more comments are being left that belong more on blogs-or even on the side of walls-than on a web site devoted to providing information on literally every topic imaginable. At its best, Associated Content could become the destination of choice for people in need of a huge information database. Associated Content could become the destination of choice for those looking to read about something and then take part in intelligent and thoughtful debate with not ony the writer, but other readers. But the way things are going here, that isn’t going to happen.

The average commentary has, of course, never risen to the level of even collegiate debating teams, but for a long time it mostly managed to rise above the level of middle school insults. Obviously, some topics don’t exactly cry out for profoundly critical replies, but that doesn’t mean they should be the target of personal assaults. In fact, the justification for personal comments left to insult the writer or another reader are very difficult to find. Nonetheless, personal attacks seem to be the rule of the day. I guess it’s easier to simply reduce a person to a stereotype and then attack that particular stereotype based on one’s own personal prejudices than it is to reply with a well-reasoned argument on the actual content. This is what I mean when I refer to this problem as Coulterization.

Ann Coulter is the epitome of this type of unreasoned personal assaults. The reason Ann Coulter is hated by so many people is not because of her views on topics; who the hell knows what her views are? She never actually expresses an opinion on anything, she merely attacks the person whose opinion she doesn’t agree with. Instead of coming up with factual evidence to support her contentions, she practices the art of avoidance; she avoids having to actually prove anything she says. Instead of responding to Rep. John Murtha’s condemnation the various justifications Pres. Bush used to start the war in Iraq, she calls for his assassination. But she never proves him wrong. She never proves anyone wrong.

The Coulterization of debate is felt everywhere. People like Joe Scarborough invite her on his show to discuss politics, but instead of actually discussing politics what happens is that Coulter says something insulting and the person representing the liberal point of view has no choice but to respond ot it and before you know it instead of getting two sides of an issue, Scarborough has once again managed to reduce his show down to the exact same lowest common demoninator that he hypocritically whines about. But wait, you may be saying. Aren’t I doing the exact same thing by calling Joe Scarborough a whiner? No, because I’ll give you an example of why Joe Scarborough is a hypocrite instead of just calling him one.

Joe Scarborough has expended a tremendous amount of breath speaking out against the influence of liberal Hollywood stars. Someone on his staff expended far less of their time labeling the section of his show where he whines about the influence of liberal Hollywood as “Hollyweird.” (Gee, isn’t that original AND clever?) But have you ever noticed HOW Joe Scarborough goes about complaining about Hollywood liberals? That’s right, by featuring news about Hollywood liberals on the ON EVERY SINGLE EPISODE. I am currently engaging in debate with Joe Scarborough by suggesting that when he complains about Hollywood liberals by featuring them on his show and talking about them on his show and showing footage of them on his show he isn’t really complaining about their influence; he is using them to boost his ratings. I would suggest to Joe Scarborough that if he is really concerned about the influence of Hollywood liberals on society, maybe he should consider NOT featuring them on his show. Maybe he should ponder whether ignoring them and not giving them a nightly showcase might not just possibly be a better way. But then again, if he were to do that, his ratings would suffer.

Now, isn’t that better than my simply writing Joe Scarborough is transvestite homosexual who is secretly in love with Michael Moore?

The Coulterization of debate has done such damage to this country that when Keith Olbermann gives an eloquent, heartfelt, well-reasoned editorial about how misguided Donald Rumsfeld is to suggest that openly expressing dissent about the Iraq war has more in common with Nazi Germany than Revolutionary America it flies right over the head of most people. The Coulterization of debate has led to a situation in which if you aren’t calling for someone’s assassination or you aren’t questioning their sexuality they don’t how to respond. Keith Olbermann used such longstanding tactics of debate as using Rumsfeld’s own words against himself, of making analogies to history that goes back more than two years. Olbermann had the temerity to use irony and words like “hubris” and quotes from people who have never hosted a talk show or reality show. In other words, Olbermann didn’t stoop to saying Rumsfeld was just an idiot. No wonder the Coulterites didn’t know how to respond.

The Coulterization of debate can be felt here at Associated Content mostly in the comment section and, tangentially, in the ratings. There are probably very few Associated Content producers with a clout over 5 or 6 who haven’t received at least one disgustingly personal attack. Typically, the most egregious of comments are left by cowards who use a pseudonym and don’t have the guts to leave their real name. But that isn’t to say there aren’t some registered content producers who don’t at least have the guts. The really odd thing is that if you do have a dissenting opinion that you feel so strongly about that you are willing to call into question a writer’s intelligence, looks or sexuality you have the option of not only responding with an article yourself, but of making money by submitting it. Of course, that would require thought and a modicum of writing ability. Clearly, from the semi-literate comments I’ve seen left not only on my own articles, but on the work of others, this is well beyond the capacity of the average Coulterite.

A friend of mine made a particularly incisive observation about the type of people who leave not personal attacks, but comments that contain little critical reasoning. His complaint was specifically about those who come at things from the right wing of the political spectrum, but I’ve seen comments here from the left that fit. He pointed out that many people who leave the kind of comments that respond to a hot button issue but don’t bother to use any actual facts to back up their case are really just looking to provoke. They don’t use logic or factual information because all they are really looking to do is make people angry and when they succeed they win because they have managed to distract the argument away from its core. And the best way for them to do this is turn a complex issue into a straw man debate. His example was the argument that even our heads of government currently resort to: if you disagree with Pres. Bush’s method of combating terrorism then that CAN ONLY mean that you must want the terrorists to win and attack us again. Instead of actively and thoughtfully engaging in a debate over the possibilities that we could actually fight terrorists in some other way, they frame the argument fallaciously. And if they fail to do that, it’s time to move on to their last refuge. Attack the writer because anything he says must be wrong because he’s a right-wing or left-wing woolly head. (Of course, sometimes this is a reliable indicator: Based on a history of wrongheadedness, there really is no reason ever to turn on Fox News or pay attention to John Kerry).

Things have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, however, and it does not bode well for Associated Content. There appears to be a concerted effort underway to vote down the ratings of writers here who express liberal viewpoints. Comments that are written at a level barely above a sixth grade special education class that blast either the liberal viewpoint or-more often-the liberal writer are suddenly receiving thumbs-up in the triple figures. Comments that support the liberal point of view, on the other hand, are receiving an equally bizarre number of thumbs-down. Maybe it’s just simply a case that Associated Content has become much more popular. But if so, Associated Content has suddenly become hugely popular with a specific demographic: That 38% of Americans who still support Pres. Bush and the war in Iraq. It certainly does strike one as strange that though the overwhelming number of Americans no longer believe Pres. Bush is doing even a mediocre job, much less a great job, the ratings and comments here would lead one to suspect that Mr. Bush is the second coming ofâÂ?¦wellâÂ?¦Jesus.

Another reason to suspect that the low ratings on liberal writers and high ratings on conservative writers is the result of a concerted effort rather than a stunning new influx of readers is that the number of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on comments are not spread equally across the range of topics. In other words, it seems as though the only comments on articles that receive anything close to high double or triple digit figures are those that specifically present a liberal political opinion. And finally, perhaps the most striking thing about this situation is that despite the appearance that dozens and dozens of people apparently agree with those who are critical of liberal thought, only a handful are moved to leave a comment themselves. I ask you, if one hundred people are so convinced that a critic who is barely capable of forming a coherent thought in opposition to my own is so much in the right, why wouldn’t they be moved to leave a comment themselves? Strange, indeed. Strange to the point where I can’t help but suspect that the person voting up the comment might just be the person who left the comment in the first place. Which, if so, moves from the arena of strange to just plain sad.

Of course, I realize I’ll be accused of being a conspiracy theorist. But anyone who has read my article on Oliver Stone’s JFK film will immediately realize that I am hardly given to such flights of fancy. (Oswald acted alone; get used to it!). Nor am I suggesting that these people don’t have a perfect right to engage in such activity. I am a supporter of the First Amendment. Which is why I will no longer allow comments to be left on my articles that attack me personally, or members of my family (as has happened), or to respond with lies and misinformation. The First Amendment gives me the right to decide what kind of comments I want on the same page as my article. I have nothing against intelligently reasoned responses, which is why so far I haven’t deleted comments left by Associated Content producer Greg Reeson. There is a pretty wide ideological divide between me and Greg Reeson-at least as wide as the divide between me and some others-but the difference is that when Greg disagrees with my liberal point of view he responds in an intellectually challenging manner. Greg Reeson’s comments are an example that I would not hesitate to use in my call for the level of debate expressed at Associated Content to rise rather than lower.

Lest anyone be salivating at this point in their desire to point out my own personal attacks on the comment box somewhere on Associated Content, let me beat you to it. I have left a number of comments that I regret. I have already made an effort to stop doing it and I make a vow here to stop completely. I promise that I will never leave a comment on any article here-or anywhere else-that attacks the writer personally or attacks the ideas of the writer without offering reasons why.

This is not the same thing as calling for no criticism. I believe in criticism; I believe it has the power to transform. But there’s a difference between criticism and just being a jerk. There’s a difference between expressing an opinion and being a jerk. As an example, I wrote an article in which I expressed my opinion that Halle Berry isn’t the stunningly beautiful woman most people think she is. Let me reiterate: I didn’t say she was ugly, I didn’t say she wasn’t attractive, I didn’t say every other woman in the world is prettier. I simply said that in my opinion she wasn’t everything she’s made out to be. I expected to get some replies, though frankly not as many as I did. And I certainly expected to have my eyesight questioned. And that’s fine; the article was meant to be a little playful and provocative. I wasn’t expecting deeply profound engagement with the issue of Halle Berry’s attractiveness. What I got were other people’s personal opinions, and that’s why most of the comments are still there, including the ones that question my own attractivness. (Although I did delete-on account of stupidity-a comment that said unattractive people have no right to comment on other people’s looks).

Another comment no longer there is the comment supposedly posted by someone who lives 15 minutes away from me and knows what I and my wife looks like and who described my wife as butt-ugly. Anyone who makes a comment in which they imply they know me or have had some kind of contact with me, but who does it anonymously will not only get deleted but blocked. In fact, unless you have something brilliant to say, if you refuse to use your real name, you will be blocked. I have the guts to put my own name on my articles; anyone leaving a comment should have the same. (By the way, to the person who posted that comment about my wife, you should know that to get from even the westernmost point of Pace to where I live in the 15 minutes you say it takes would require your breaking the speed limit and running red lights, so if you do have the guts to give me your name, I’ll forward it to the good people at the Florida Highway Patrol.)

Criticism is good for Associated Content. Debate is good for Associated Content. But the kind of debate and criticism that is currently becoming the norm is not good. The Coulterization of debate in America is the standard now on television and radio and the internet. Standing out of the crowd on the internet is difficult usually. But not this time. We can make Associated Content stand out and bring in more and more readers to our writing by doing something so simple it almost seems like a trap. We can all benefit by turning Associated Content into an internet community that no longer puts up with simpleminded criticism. Let’s demand of our readers that they engage our articles thoughtfully and without resorting to personal attacks. Let’s turn Associated Content into a place that actually becomes a target for those who want to bring it down to the level of debate practiced by the likes of Ann Coulter. But most of all, let’s really tick those people off by not allowing it to happen.

And for those who say I’m calling for the restriction of the First Amendment rights of others to practice free speech, I respond thusly: If you disagree with what I or anyone else says and find that your comment has been deleted, then just click on that little tab above the article that says Publish. In that way you can not only continue expressing your right to free speech, but you can earn some spending money as well. Everybody wins.

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