Commenting isn’t about being a critic, but a better thinker

Editor’s note: As part of Bridge’s examination of internet vitriol, we asked a number of our most frequent commenters if they’d like to explain why they choose to chime in on our stories so often. Duane Barns (who comments as simply Duane) took us up on it.

“An open mind is a free mind. The person who closes his mind to new ideas, concepts and people is locking a door that enslaves his own mentality. Intolerance is a two-edged scythe that on its backswing cuts off opportunities and lines of communication.” -- Napoleon Hill

I was asked, as a frequent Bridge commenter, to explain why I read and comment on Bridge stories online. My reasons are simple: I like to think, I need to think, we all need to think and online is a place we can find stimulus to think.

Thinking requires focus. Our thinking is improved by interacting with others, and online has the potential to be that place. We can more easily break down the barriers between us there. We have long standing problems that we need new ideas and to develop those ideas, we need conversations, and online can be that place.

Thinking, or thinking productively, is a skill, and it needs to be developed, it needs to be stimulated and challenged, it needs to be used. When I read I think, when I write I think more, when I listen to what is said I think again about what I said and why. Each conversation, in comments, gives me an opportunity to think.

The United States is great because people were exposed to ideas, were allowed to think about those ideas and make them their own, with others they made those ideas better, and they used them to make life here better.

Online has the potential to be that place today.

Thinking is most effective when it is focused, especially when engaging a diverse commenting community. Online has the potential of providing a place for structured/focused thinking.


Our relative affluence threatens the sharing of ideas. Abundance has allowed self-aggrandizement to supersede ideas. It has made us comfortable and fearful of losing that comfort, made our politicians rationalize against change, made our government about serving programs, not about people living their lives. Our abundance has created the luxury of making everything black or white and not allowing for the grey, it makes every issue partisan. The cost of that luxury is lost opportunities for conversations, for thinking, for competing ideas to be discussed.

Even here on Bridge there are seldom conversations about competing ideas. Are we so steeped in partisanship that people won’t risk a conversation, risk looking at their ideas from different perspectives, risk helping ideas evolve? Writers of opinion articles don’t encourage conversations, they don’t engage even few commenters.

Online, we have the potential to break down those barriers. Online doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t see you, so it gets around one barrier and gives us the choice of eliminating other barriers. We can choose to read and listen and think or we simply throw up the barrier of partisanship. We can choose to use online anonymity and open our minds to explode other ideas and other thinking or we can close our minds with blind partisanship prejudice.

I have learned that one person can have an idea, but it takes a conversation for that idea to grow and become a solution. We need conversations so ideas can be shared and developed. Online has the potential to be the place of conversations that give us that needed innovation.

You have heard my reasons for being online. Are you willing to challenge me? If so, then let’s have a conversation.

Pick a topic: Better-educated children, more stable families, less government spending, less government involvement, smarter government involvement, LGBT marriage, racial harmony, improving local economies, etc., and see how diversity in thinking would have changed results.

I learned the smartest thing I can do is to ask and listen to others to find ideas that will help me do better.

Why not test your own thinking and barriers, start that conversation?

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Sat, 02/27/2016 - 9:02pm
Hi Duane, nice essay. I'm not sure I buy your explanationt, “Our abundance has created the luxury of making everything black or white and not allowing for the grey, it makes every issue partisan.” Nor does it fit with overall Post Modernist thought. Rather than our abundance, I would explain it as, What is “true or correct” is what I’d really like it to be and what I think makes me or mine happy, and intellectual laziness or fear of discomfort not to look or think any further. This is why think discussions are so difficult, because opposing parties are coming from totally different worlds thus things tend to degade quickly.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 10:33am
Matt, I appreciate your stopping to read. Opposing [partisan] parties come from the same world, one that doesn't require them to think or act, doesn't require them to solve issues/problems. The mind and body atrophy when not used, so when the mind has less demand to think it got lazy and deferred its thinking to others [partisans]. For me, partisanship move from simple Party rhetoric to all issues by the public in the 60s when labor saving devices at home and work made luxuries accessible to the mass market. A time when needs were satisfied so wants became the driver of thinking and doing, people didn't have to think or do they could let others do it for them. Partisanship become a means for non-Party people to make a career of partisanship. That seems to be when the explosion of the economic ‘middle-class’ happened.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 4:25pm
Duane my point is that today the different sides of the great debates come from different philosophical worlds so far apart even your talents couldn't bridge them, short of a month or three if you can figure out where to start. But being a bunch of spoiled brats as you contend certainly doesn't help the process but don't feel totally explains it. In the not distant past it was more likely for R's and D's to have reasoned discussions largely because they both had a somewhat similar moral starting point. Granted details may lead to different interpretations. Today, and increasingly over the last 30 years this is far from true and discussions seem to go nowhere if not elevate the difference . The behavior of some commenters in some places (not really Bridge) being bemoaned in this series of Bridge opinion columns has been standard behavior toward speakers in academic settings for decades. Any doubt, what would happen if Gov. Snyder was invited to give an address at his Alma matter, U of M? Ann Arbor would be in flames. (Although this or similar has been happening for several decades). Thanks.
Tue, 03/01/2016 - 1:05am
There are different philosophies but there is a commonality, a lack of individual thinking. I don’t see people as spoiled, it’s that they no longer have to work to meet their needs. That lack of need to work has left them without the skills for defining a problem and solving it. Currently the ‘partisan’ issue leaders frame their issue like the TV ads. They make the issues appeal to the emotions and make sure there is no need for their followers to think and they do it in less than 30 seconds. They don’t define the problem in specific terms, they never talk about the root causes of a problem are so they ensure that people have no way to resolve their issue. Simply listen to how partisans attack the non-believers have to think. Partisans claim non-believers are greedy and don’t care, they talk in phrases rather than sentences, they always talk about money never about results [never about accountability], they always exaggerate to make their point. It is no different claiming 11 million can’t be deported or claiming families can’t be broken up [while government programs for the ‘poor’ encourage just that]. Solving problems is much like thinking or other activities, you have to use it regularly before you can be accomplished at it. Being a partisan ensures you never have to think or solve problems, you just have to be emotional.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 9:40am
On line conversations can help sharpen and enrich the way we pursue understanding of issues. Such effort, though, should help any participator to more effectively organize and present informed points of view in every day conversations with one another, face to face. Hope that happens. John
William C. Plumpe
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 11:24am
As Descarte said "I think therefore I am". (I knew my philosophy classes at U of M way back when (LSA 74) would come in handy someday). On a practical level I comment because I'm retired and need something to do. Best to keep the mind sharp. And my major at U of M was English so I'm not really that far afield. I'm trying to start a second career as a journalist too. But on a more intellectual and existential level I think there is a need as Descarte alluded to for an individual to define their existence by thinking and figuring things out. That is one thing that separates humans from most other animals---the ability to think and problem solve and beyond that to have self awareness. Our humanity is defined by what and how we think. I can't say for sure that animals have or don't have self awareness but I do know I do. And not that animals can't and don't problem solve but humans by their very nature are the ultimate thinkers and problem solvers in the animal kingdom. It's who we are. We are human because we are thinking animals. Animals who spend a lot of their time thinking. My comments not only shed light on issues and encourage creative thought and even possible solutions but also help to define who I am and my role in the world. Which hopefully makes my living in it easier for me and better for all of us. Funny how things work out that way.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 2:06pm
William, What do you see your purpose to be as a journalist? I agree with what you say, but how do we move it to the day-to-day and stimulate people to think and act, especially when they have gotten out of that habit?
David L Richards
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 9:34pm
Here are some of the reasons I comment, and some observations about it. First, my father used to say (I don't think this was original with him) "the only things worth talking about are politics and religion". Now, those topics are near forbidden in face to face interaction. Second, I want to test my ideas. Is there a reasonable response? Third, while few people immediately acknowledge that their opinions change upon confrontation with an effective comment, over time, I think people do react, so it is possible to influence readers. Fourth, arrogant people who think there is no reasonable opposing point of view need to see an opposing reasonable point of view. Fifth, you may have some expertise or insight that is worthwhile to other people. Sixth and last, it allows you to vent, the same reason people go to the ballpark and yell at the umpire.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 9:41pm
David, All points I agree with. What interests me most are your ideas you want to test. I would like to be part of you test group, were don't hear enough ideas.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 9:42am
A better choice could have been made regarding the photo/cartoon associated to this article. It presents a form of suggestion of which responsible editors should not need an education.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 9:45am
Duane et al. Wonderful discussion. I read often but don't comment as often as I think about doing it. You have inspired me to get into the conversation more often. With regard to partisan thinking and speaking, I find that people of all views tend to have an idea about what life should look like, an idea about what they don't like about the opposing view, but not so many ideas about how to get to the result they want. For example some people on the left say that "water is a human right" but I have heard very few proposals re how to provide clean drinking water to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay that take into account how to pay for the costs of water treatment infrastructure, maintenance operation and staffing in a way that will be acceptable to all parties involved. Some people on the right talk about "shrinking government" but I have heard very few proposals about how this hoped for small government will maintain the military, our infrastructure, and address threats that cross state borders, such as terrorism, major natural disasters or disease outbreaks. And don't even mention health care or support for seniors or the disabled or for the poor. There is real work to do here by real people. Let's talk!
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 1:46pm
Joyce, I agree that the partisan from whatever perspective have their idea of what live should look like, what they fail to do is try an understand why it isn't that way [root causes] and try to find the ways to overcome those causes. I hadn't thought about t water as a human right. I believe what we get for free is always undervalued and wasted, so someone will have to give me reason to think about it. I have thought about a leaner/smaller government. I know many discredit the idea of looking at private companies as a model to consider. What they fail to see and what makes the companies/organizations successful over time is how the resources [people] are used, how they are focused. The long surviving companies have change their organization and their approach to people. They do that in a couple of ways; they focus people/organizations by using a well defined organizational purpose to guide people in their actions and thinking. They also respect and utilize the knowledge, skills, and judgment of people to flatten or delayer the bureaucracy [they place more responsibility on the individual and they give them added authority]. These companies also are results focused and implement program/process accountability [performance metrics]. I think there are aspects of the those approaches that could have similar impact on government organizations. If you have a particular government activity or government service you wonder how it could be more successful with either a smaller staff or serve more people with the existing staff, mention it and let's have a conversation about how it might be done.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 11:59am
Thank you all.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 1:54pm
Barry, Thank you for stopping by and reading. Let's start a conversation, what is the topic that comes to mind you would like to talk about, I would like to hear your perspective and talk about it?
Martha Toth
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 3:27pm
Hi, Duane. Nice to have a picture to go with your name. I, too, am (mostly) retired, which gives me both the time and the freedom (no worries about impact on my job) to advocate for causes important to me. I persist in believing that people can still be persuaded by a logical argument. More importantly, perhaps, I think they can be educated by someone with some expertise in a particular area. I disagree, however, with your analysis of why we became so polarized as a society. I trace it back to television news switching from a source of network prestige and a public duty to just another money-making product. Abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine had an effect, too, but the profit motive was the real corrupter. First, local news became all about car crashes, scandals, and anything with video. National news gradually tilted toward human interest stories, consumer advice, crashes, violence, and scandal, and now routinely features viral Internet videos. Because they need to sell to us, they give us what we want, not what we need. We are entertained, rather than informed. And brands got ever narrower, appealing to specific audiences so that the viewer need never be troubled with a hint of other views. This is how Romney became convinced he had won the 2012 election: he never heard other perspectives within his echo chamber. I am not picking on him -- that's just the first dramatic example that comes to mind of the effect of limiting one's input. Thank God for the remaining few newspapers that practice actual journalism, and for the few commercial-free outlets like The Bridge that do not cater to a niche group. Everywhere else, our information on current events seems filtered and siloed, so that we never need doubt the correctness of our own opinions.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 5:58pm
Martha, When do you think we [the public] began to polarize into partisanship on issues? I see it as the 60s, because that seemed to be when issues other than economic ones had public involvement that crossed community/city boundaries to a level where the media cover them as national stories lasting for weeks and months and even years.
Tue, 03/01/2016 - 1:40pm
I find this article interesting, I belong to two very good discussion groups about politics. My interest in politics and current events have been sharpened by them. At first they were like the rabid troll-a-thons we often see online: name-calling, clichéd, parroting some radio-head or some pundit. Then we required people post neutral evidence showing support for the position, assertion, etc. At that point the discussions became more interesting, and the people posting were people who actually wanted to understand, not "win" a point. People added to their knowledge and came to understand others' views better. Of course those too lazy or too ignorant to find evidence wandered off somewhere else. So the requirement was somewhat divisive, but at least those of us left have developed some friendships and new understandings.