Walter Pierce

The Public Squared

by Walter Pierce

What a genial bunch you Independent Weekly readers are, polite and respectful for the most part of your ideological adversaries’ feelings. Nowhere is this borne out in more convivial fashion than in the comment section on, wherein anyone with Internet service, an opinion and fingers can elbow her way into the public square, climb atop a soap box and let go a throaty howl or a barbaric yawp across the rooftops. It’s beautifully and sometimes painfully democratic with a small d. Discourse can be emphatic on the ’net — anonymity adds amplification. It also creates tomfoolery; I do not believe Chef Paul Prudhomme posted the comment about young chimpanzees making a good gumbo ingredient. But by and large the ind’s comment section is thrust and parry with rubber-tipped sabers that bend on contact, and contestants who bow at the end of matches. The proverbial gloves do come off on occasion, but they typically reveal manicured fingers. I am aware that I’ve just mixed fencing and boxing metaphors. This is a column, not a technical paper.

A former colleague whom I respect with all dues, Bill Decker at The Advertiser, wrote a recent column on the hazards of policing a comment section on a newspaper Web site. Bill’s job is hard. His public square is bustling, being centered at a daily, and it attracts the virtual carnies and road-burned travelers and country-come-to-town types typical of a busy place. Certainly there are ascots loitering about the fountain, but there’s a lot of do-rags, too, and the fish wives and greasy, smoking teamsters couldn’t give a damn about your delicate predilections. I mean that. They don’t.

Perhaps the best display of articulate dialogue in a comment section is attached to “Separate Ways ,” an article published in last week’s edition of The Independent. It details the United Way of Acadiana’s adoption of PACT United, which comprises new priorities for how it distributes funding to area non-profits. It also profiles a split between UWA and the local Boys Scouts of America affiliate. The article itself is a mere 1,247 words from start to finish. The comments section was running at roughly 4,500 words at press time this week. That’s almost a one-to-four ratio.

The running plume à plume began with “Soop,” someone whom I suspect had a puppy run over by a United Way motorcycle. In truth, Soop suspects leftist motivations in UWA’s parting with Boy Scouts. Within 12 hours of the story hitting the Web and Soop going on the offensive, UWA’s executive director and a staff member had chimed in, along with the president-elect of the local Boy Scouts. I moderated a little along the way. My last contribution was, “Calgon, take me away!”

I have little doubt this week’s cover story on the Redflex traffic-control system in Lafayette is already generating comments. Any phenomenon that would prompt otherwise sane people to stand around holding a sign will foster discourse. The imminent return of Jesus. Abortion. Gay Rights. Redflex. They’re of a kind. As journalists, we thrill at the jabbering wake our stories create. It’s Democracy with a capital D. So talk it up. We’ll keep an eye on things as best we can, remove the libel as quickly as possible, replace “uc” and “hi” in the naughty words with ampersands and asterisks, and enjoy our chattering readers.