Graeme Frost and the Enduring Question of Online Civility

I’ve been looking for a good reason to return to last week’s question of online political etiquette, and fortunately commenter Ron Goodwine provided an excellent excuse when he left this note yesterday on the original original e.politics Graeme Frost story:

So long as the Dems can find off limits people to fight their battles, the GOP is just SOL? You can’t be serious!

The Dems have made an art out of finding people who “can’t be challenged” to spout their talking points. Like Ann Coulter, I’ve had more than enough of it. The fact is, the Dems USED that kid and they should be condemned for it.

Now, nowhere in my original piece did I mean to imply that bad online manners were a strictly conservative phenomenon, and if it sounded that way, I apologize: I would argue that most anonymous mobs have the same pleasant tendency to veer toward the extreme. Plenty of examples of the collective gang-tackle exist on the Left, to which several Democratic Congressmembers (and a number of kings) can attest. The Graeme Frost case involved the online Right, so that’s who I called out, but the tendency to dehumanize the enemy knows no political boundaries.

Here’s what I’m getting at: when did it become considered obligatory in politics to demonize the other side? I’m so sick of the “Liberals eat babies”/”Conservatives are bloodthirsty warmongers” crap; it all too often reeks of tough talk for the sake of talking tough, with a bullying edge when it’s directed at the relatively powerless. In the Frost case, you had a family used as a political prop, something that baby-kissing politicians have been doing throughout living memory. Sure, if the people in question had turned out to be millionaires whose receipt of public funds made a mockery of the entire nanny-state concept, that’d be one thing. But look at ’em: they seem pretty middle-of-the-road, which is the entire point.

So here’s what I say: check for lies and hypocrisy, absolutely, but don’t be a jerk about it — wait until at least a reasonable percentage of the facts are in before you cry havoc and loose the dogs of war. And, unless you have a legitimate reason to feel that the honest and public expression of your ideas will cost you your job, your family or a life or two (i.e., you live in Burma or work for Fox News [a joke]), public political discourse generally works better when we all stand honestly behind who we are and what we say — and sign our names to it. Generally, it just doesn’t hurt to be reasonably polite even when you disagree with someone. Besides, from a cold-blooded political point of view, picking on people gratuitously makes you look bad — tough is one thing, mean is another.

Of course, I’m not talking about an absolute but a rule of thumb, and all bets are off when it concerns elected officials and others whose lives are in the public realm (celebrities, wannabes, MySpace exhibitionists, porn stars, bloggers), since there’s no way a reality show contestant (for instance) can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy. In my book at least, satire just about always get a pass, and faceless institutions may be verbally vandalized at will (527s feel no pain). But otherwise, how about we agree that some punches aimed at normal people SHOULD be pulled — that just as we wouldn’t push over a grandmother in the street, we ought not to write mean things online about a twelve-year-old kid who’s nearly been killed in a car wreck unless it’s really necessary. Liberal claptrap? My Sunday school teachers in Palestine, Texas would have taught it.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles
  • Interesting take and I’m glad I sparked another post.

    For me the real question about the original case isn’t about the 12 year old kid. As you said, he was a pawn. But the actual facts in this case actually do cause grief for Graeme Frost, his family and the Democrats. You see, the program in question was used to help Graeme in the first place. The radio response, which was obviously written for him, implied that he did not have the benefit of that help and he didn’t want other children to suffer as he had.

    I think it is deplorable when either side uses kids to make their points. It is always done to ward off rebuttal. The thinking is, “who will attack a kid?” But it isn’t the kid being attacked. It is the points that were put in the kid’s mouth that have been attack. Those have been rightly attacked as simply false.

    Any time someone takes a public position on an issue, regardless of their status, they make fair game of themselves. I’d hate to think that Graeme’s parents weren’t smart enough to understand that. They’ve certainly been smart enough to game the system into serious real estate holdings and an expensive private school.

    And that was the whole point. These people would have been a great example of why the program should be kept except that Republicans are responsible for the program, not Democrats. And no one was calling for the elimination of the program. Indeed, Bush wants to expand it, just not as broad an expansion as the Democrats want.

    Certainly politicians from both sides have used abhorrent tactics from time to time but it seems that the Democrats are doing so with increasing frequency. So I again say that they should be ashamed of themselves for using this poor kid and I would hope that their constituents would hold them accountable. I’d want the same thing if Republicans has pulled this low stunt.

    I agree with your assessment that anonymity causes people to ssay some really stupid things online, particularly bloggers. I decided early on not to be anonymous. I figured that if I want to express my opinions I ought to have the courage to stand behind them. Interestingly only liberals have called me to task for it. I understand that there are good reasons to hide your identity online and I don’t necessarily fault others for doing so. I just believe it is too easy to hide behind anonymity and say anything foolish thing that comes to mind when you don’t have to worry about what anyone might think of you.