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What Constitutes a "Personal Attack?"

Original post made by POGO, Woodside: other, on Oct 17, 2010

Those who pay attention to The Almanac’s Town Square website have witnessed a disturbing trend during the past few weeks. The trend I reference is the increasing number of so-called personal attacks and bashing by posters.

I refer to them as “so-called” because not all qualify. It is important for us to distinguish between real personal attacks and those that are merely feigned injury.

A recent example concerned last week’s threads about the installation of night lights at Menlo-Atherton High School. Instead of using the forum to productively generate ideas for bridging the gap between the school’s legitimate desire for night athletics and the neighborhood’s legitimate requirement for peaceful enjoyment, it became a hate-fest where advocates claimed rich neighbors were depriving children. One remarkable poster even suggested that anyone opposed to the school’s lights should die. Really? That’s the best you got?

Not only are these claims unfair, uniformed and childish, but because they polarize each side, they are incredibly unproductive. The winners end up being the lawyers, who will settle the matter for $850 an hour in court, usually to no one’s satisfaction.

Even more recently, I noted Colleen Anderson’s thread “Stop the bashing of people directly” and her plea to posters to lower the volume of their voices and address the issues. Remarkably, just three hours after making her post, Ms. Anderson was herself attacked for her previous and unfortunate comments about a candidate’s health issues (which were deemed to be “personal attacks”). If “let he who is without sin” is our standard, this forum is going to be a very lonely place. It was a nice sentiment by Ms. Anderson while it lasted.

More disturbing however, is the transparent baiting and subsequent ganging up that is now an active and coordinated strategy from a small but organized group of posters and advocacy groups. Instead of addressing the issue intellectually, they find it easier to smear a poster, usually by redirecting the discussion to an unrelated matter such as a poster’s other political affiliations, lack of experience or first-hand knowledge, or the last resort accusation of being an interloper.

The original poster is often sucked into the whirlpool and the thread migrates and devolves. Just this morning, The Almanac’s editors had to close yet another thread because it became nothing more than personal attacks. Sad and no one benefits from the imposed silence on an important issue.

I have to sadly confess my own contribution to this unfortunate mess. When someone challenges my credentials, I assume license to challenge theirs. When someone shows a stunning inconsistency in their positions, I call them out, intentionally without mercy.

I’m not sure those responses constitute “personal attacks” but that doesn’t stop those on the receiving end from feigning injury and crying “foul.” They usually remind me of the old, masked, professional wrestlers who professed outrage that a referee would ever accuse them of wrongdoing… as they sneakily turn away and pull brass knuckles out of their tights and bloody their opponent.

I’m sure each of us has our own standards for what constitutes a personal attack but it is obviously difficult to state a set of objective rules. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

So fair warning: if you make a claim or show an inconsistency and it is refuted, that is not a personal attack. And if you so obviously feign injury, please don’t forget to wear your tights and mask.

Comments (6)

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Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 11:01 am


There is also another element/twist to the negative postings, that is sometimes posters are using other posters names which has happened to me and I see Peter has just had it happen to him.

We are all learning how to use this form of communication, I'm thrilled it is available, it has saved an Atherton woman's life, even with its flaws.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 17, 2010 at 11:09 am

I think that it is worth noting that those topics which devolve to personal attacks are seldom, in total, very productive. I also note that 99% of the personal attacks come from a very small number of unregistered anonymous posters. Perhaps the editors will consider restrict all posting to registered users.

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

I find myself agreeing more and more with Mr. Carpenter the more time I spend on this forum. I agree that it would probably cut down on a lot of the garbage posts if a poster had to be registrered. I still don't agree they should have to use their true name. If registered, the editor knows who these people are and if they repeatedly violate the terms of agreement they can be barred from further participation.

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Posted by peter carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 12:31 am

peter carpenter is a registered user.

I think a suitable compromise would be to require all posters to be registered while still allowing those registered users to use an anonymous names - but only one name per user so that posters can develop source credibility, or lack thereof.

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Posted by stevlevin
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Oct 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm

stevlevin is a registered user.

I think it's an intriguing dilemma: How to encourage free and open, yet responsible communication? I see pros and cons with either extreme: (a) allow anyone to post anything anonymously, or (b) allow posts only registered users who have a confirmed identity (at least confirmed to the webhost.)

Perhaps a creative solution is to offer 2 levels of participation:
- If you login to your account and confirm your identity, your post appears with a certain background color, or marker, or in a separate section
- If you post without logging in, your message is posted with a different background or in a section reserved for anonymous posters.

This allows everyone to participate at the level of their choosing...and gives the reader the option of assigning more weight to the identified users.

Any support or upgrades to this idea, please?

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

I dislike blatant attacks by those who have no means of defending themselves against people who group themselves and are "regulars" here daily and are almost too "clubby". Those who resort to anger and name calling do it out of frustration because they find this entire Peninsula thinks their sheds don't stink.
This is a very old fashioned snobbish and snotty area to those who are just regular people and who may not have the education or travel experience to deal with your own attacks with your finesse.
Personally, I would like to really let a few selfish and self serving elitists really "get it" once in a while.
Frankly, I have lived worldwide and known some of the most intriguing people in the world but never was intimidated by good manners or an occasional scathing wit. But, the majority of the ALMANAC snobs do not think much of "average" citizens and it is apparent when I see some of the attitudes here and in public.I also resent even more, the lack of participation of the "younger" voices who are very much against many of the ideas posted here. I get to be around many of the areas young crowds through my own family and their opinions are vastly different than most of their parents and the "older generation" who think they have all of the ideas based on old rules and old laws.They will, for the most part, make this area their own homes.These young also have a deeper involvement with people of the world and tend to have great humor......they can be "funny/rude" in a way not meant to least, most of those I have met.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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