In our culture of global connectedness, dialogue and opinion, more often opinion, are as widespread as the air we breathe. In communication ethics, “the public arena does not offer the final answer; it is the place where one takes a grounded stance, engages the grounded stances of others, and makes a decision (Armett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009, p. 103). It is also the place that protects and promotes discernment among many different ideas. It functions well when public space for conversation is the goal, the highest good, and not one’s own opinion (Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009).
Yet the comments we see on news sites are more often than not, opinion. Voices are heard, statements are made, opinions are cast, but does any true learning from the other really take place?
Take, for example, an article posted July 30, 2017 on the New York Times website, Putin, Responding to Sanctions, Orders U.S. to Cut Diplomatic Staff by 755 by Neil MacFarquhar. 930 comments are posted in response to this article. Of those, 432 were selected as “reader’s picks” and 31 as “New York Times picks.”
An excess of choices can make us feel overwhelmed (Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009). In deciding which and how many of the comments on this article to read, I first clicked on the “All” tab. Many of the first-loading, first-seen comments are opinions, stated firmly. The writers of the comments do not seem to have come to the online discussion table to discern, be curious, be confused, and to make a decision, even if it means changing their minds, after reading multiple statements and discussion posts. They seem to have arrived at the site to stamp the page, rather than “protect the public space of enlightenment” (Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009, p. 104).
In these comments, private opinion, rather than public discourse, seems to be the goal. Readers tended to prefer comments that show “undue confidence” and “unsubstantiated opinion (Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, 2009). Many of these comments reflect confidence and knowledge but lack an open-endedness that might further the discussion, allowing readers to make decisions based on having read a multiplicity of information. I next clicked on the “Readers'” tab. These comments demonstrated a whittle down, discerned list of more knowledge, but also are primarily opinion statements.
If one wished to make decisions in this context, in the arena of the public sphere of “sacred space” where disoursce and learning can lead to reframing of thought and positive changes in our systems, he might choose to click on the New York Times picks. On the whole, these comments demonstrate some working knowledge of our U.S. political system and of our history. Unlike the readers’ picks, many of these comments use language such as, “I wonder,” “hopefully,” and “if.” Gene B. wrote, “It’s time to scale back the hate rhetoric before it’s too late, and focus on what we have in common” (MacFarquhar, 2017).
Gene B.’s statement is an opinion, but one that encourages discovery of common ground as a starting place for discourse. One could argue that the media is biased in this case, The New York Times having it’s own pick list of comments. I believe the intent of the New York Times is to foster public discourse and learning from those who bear different opinions and levels of knowledge.
In a small sense, The New York Times is acting as an informed moderator of its own website, posting the reader comments they find to benefit the furtherance of the discussion. However, I think informed moderators would be an improvement. Informed moderators could post open-ended questions, to which they would often receive opinionated answers. Yet a moderator could prompt, ask why-type questions, and pull some commenters into deeper conversations.
The challenge would lie in the delicate balance between supporting freedom of speech and promoting the good of the sacred space of public discourse. There is a risk of separating, of silencing voices if what might be considered unethical or inappropriate comments are deleted from conversation.
On the other hand, too many comments that demonstrate “undue confidence” and “unsubstantiated opinion” shut discussion down. They do not encourage those who feel differently to enter into dialogue. Those who disagree either remain silent, or they speak their opinions loudly. Speaking opinions too loudly discourages level-headed, researched, grounded dialogue, shutting those who would ask questions down with aggressive statement. An example is Rolf Rolfsson’s comment that” The U.S. Congress is starting a new Cold War with Russia that will have no good end” (MacFarquahr, 2017).
I wonder whose voices are missing in the field of comments? For one, there are not historians, constitutional law professionals or U.N. Ambassadors weighing in with their opinions on Donald Trump’s and Congress’ actions.
Too many opinions are overwhelmed and do not create sacred space in the public arena for discernment. Informed moderators could pare down material, choose comments for multiple views on an argument an option the floor for discussion.
I wonder what it would be like if we stopped writing our opinions down on line, but instead began posing questions that carry great meaning?
Arnett, R. C., Fritz, J. M., & Bell, L. M. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: dialogue and difference. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
MacFarquhar, N. (2017, July 30). Putin, Responding to Sanctions, Orders U.S. to Cut Diplomatic Staff by 755. Retrieved July 30, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/30/world/europe/russia-sanctions-us-diplomats-expelled.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news