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.