By Luanne Rife
I dislike our editorial page blog because I hate what it does to me. Few people check their rigidity and stereotypes to engage in a meaningful exchange.
Anonymous posters to our RoundTable often start their comments with generalities — “All conservatives think…” or “You liberals are so…” — then punctuate them with a charge of hypocrisy or stupidity. In between, they pack in plenty of mean. Sound familiar?
I find myself willing to strike back. I type a biting barb and just before I hit post, I delete it and compose a more reasoned response.
I’d like to think that I temper my remarks because I’m such a lovely person. But what if no one knew it was me? Would I still be respectful? Wait. Don’t answer that. Answer this instead: What would happen if a group of self-selected people agreed to debate online with the guiding rule being they had to own their comments in the same manner as we demand of letter writers?
Would the absence of anonymity prompt civility?
As we approach the two-year anniversary of Voices of the Valleys, our alternative-blog blog, I feel qualified to answer that.
First a little background. Each panelist is required to post a name, hometown, photo and biographical sketch. (We leave the details up to the individual, knowing that some are more comfortable than others with what they disclose online).
Each Friday, I post the week’s question. Panelists who want to discuss that particular topic jump in. By noon Tuesday, they can post an official answer of fewer than 300 words that I consider for our Sunday section, but they can talk all week about that topic or any other.
When VoV (as they refer to themselves) first started, the Voices stepped gingerly. Within a few weeks, robust debates broke out, and members came up with a rule of their own: Stereotypes, labels and talking points aren’t welcome.
It didn’t take long before they also were asking getting-to-know-you questions, finding similarities and differences. For example, two men of far different political persuasions, education levels and careers seemingly had little in common. Then they discovered each had three daughters about the same age, each had a daughter covered in tattoos and each was planning a daughter’s wedding. They bonded.
Before long, friendships formed offline, including a peculiar alliance. A few of the men challenge each other so vigorously that if they were seated at a dinner party the host would interject a banality, hoping to diffuse the exchange. The members of this particular subgroup learned they all have at least one dog. So on many Saturdays, they meet up and enjoy a long hike with their dogs, only to later resume their debate online.
Which doesn’t mean all is pleasant at VoV. Some personalities just rub each other wrong.
At times, I get e-mails like this one from a Voice with bruised feelings:
“He’s a bit insufferable if you ask me, which you have not. So, I quit. Please remove me however you do that. I cannot stand ridicule and disrespect….”
Yet, he stuck with it, and a few months later when another Voice threatened to quit, responded:
“I tried this. I even asked Luanne to take me off the mailing list. Didn’t work. … Here I’ll sound very egotistical, which I admit readily I am, we — you and I and every person on this panel — have important things to say. We may debate each other with rancor and spit and screams, but what we have to say is important, if for no other reason than to get it out of ourselves. I found that I was choking to death by reading the posts and not jumping in. I do not believe you can stay out. You’ve got so much to contribute to us and have not even begun to get it all out.”
The other Voice who thought about quitting is still there, too.
I expect both will be at the next gathering of the Voices. We’ll soon plan our winter get-together. Last January, one Voice, a docent at the local art museum, arranged a private evening tour, followed by a lovely dinner. Each summer, everyone who can brings a covered dish to a park for an afternoon picnic and a little guitar picking.
It’s just like any family reunion with its own crazy Uncle Ed and boorish Cousin Bob. They’ve all come to know each other and have welcomed new members into the fold — as long as they play by the one unwavering rule: Tell us who you are and we’ll be happy to talk with you.
Those who drop in, cloaked in anonymity just to throw bombs find out quickly their kind isn’t welcome. They either convert to the VoV way or they’re ignored. Both have happened.
Last January, when we approached our first anniversary, I asked them to reflect on this experiment in bringing strangers together to debate in the hope of prompting informed, civil debate.
I’ll leave you with two of the comments we received:
From one Voice: "Like many of you I had no idea of how this experiment would work from a structural standpoint. On the surface it appeared that we would receive our assignment from Mother Luanne, work like beavers to formulate an appropriate response then submit it within the allotted time, end of topic, then wait for new orders. Who could have guessed that this forum would become the group that we now are, a rather eclectic bunch, some local, some with roots elsewhere, old(er), younger, professional, not so professional, representing a wide spectrum of thoughts and ideas and even those guilty of long run-on sentences (like this one) waiting for Betty [the English teacher] to appear?"
And from another: "Everyone on the panel has used this week to hug and kiss and rave about their deep and abiding affection for every other panel member, even the ones who normally infuriate them. I’ve even felt the soft brush of a few kisses myself. Me — that cold-hearted conservative who wants children to starve and people to go without health care. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt the love this week, and I’m afraid I could get used to it. Hopefully, it won’t change me, but I’m worried, and I find myself looking down at my chest occasionally just to make sure my heart isn’t bleeding."
Luanne Rife is an editorial writer at the Roanoke Times.