I have been thinking a good deal lately about the frequent lack of civility in the blogosphere. I am always surprised when I read a blog post or comment that is not so much an attempt at meaningful commentary as it is a smackdown, WWF-style. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me. But it does.
I probably sound like an old fogey saying that, but there it is. I know why it happens, and I know that the Internet is a wonderful means of communication and interaction. And yet I still find myself taken aback by some of the downright nasty things that get said online.
Now, I generally can ignore all of this, and I do not view virtual sniping as some sort of Sign of the Times. I have a higher opinion of human nature than to think that people used to be civil, and then along came the Internet, and now all the youngsters have no taste or class. That kind of inter-generational tension is nothing new.
But when it started happening on this blog, that really gave me pause. It did not happen a lot, but it happened some. And then it happened more. And I have found it harder to ignore or overlook on this blog, because this is a blog about lawyering and law careers. And one of the key characteristics of a good lawyer is . . . civility.
So that's the great irony here: people behaving in an incivil manner on a blog devoted to a profession that should espouse civility. (Yes, I know the profession falls short--but that's all the more reason to champion the ideal, isn't it?) I could act as a traffic cop, of course, stepping in as necessary to remind people to tone it down, and deleting the occasional comment that goes too far. I guess that is what I am doing now. But my real point is that even if and when there is discussion on this blog, anonymous potshots do damage. They threaten to dilute the discussion. And perhaps even worse, they change the tenor of the discussion, and the blog as a whole.
For me, the greatest corrosive effect of negativity and sniping is that any comment that is edgy may be assumed to be a negative one. That's of course not true, but I myself have already fallen into that trap. Recently I read a very intelligent and well-done comment to a recent post on this blog--a comment that added a lot to the discussion in a very substantive way. But I incorrectly concluded that the reader also was taking a jab at me. Not true; read the comments. But at the time that's how I took it. I have to believe that I did so partly because I was primed to think that way.
That little event is a good example of what is happening on a much larger scale in the American legal profession. Lawyers often do not expect civility, so they do not give it. They assume that statements (by clients, by opposing counsel, by colleagues) are meant to be negative, when they might not be. And these assumptions are made because too many lawyers have been conditioned to play smackdown, instead of play nice.
I am of course not suggesting that lawyers should not be advocates or play hard ball when necessary. Of course they should. But there is a distinction between advocacy and civility, and it sometimes gets lost. If a lawyer (or lawyer-to-be) is going to go after opposing counsel, or someone in the legal blogosphere, I suggest that it be done with professionalism.