May 4, 2012

If you write it, own it

Commentary by Maj. T. Allen Herritage
2nd Combat Camera Squadron, Hill AFB, Utah

(AFNS) — Two recent stories on the Air Force’s web page drew significant reaction in the site’s comments section. Both a story on finance troops being awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the news that Air Force Space Command was ending wear of flight suits by non-aircrew personnel drove more comments than any story I’ve ever read on the site.

One attracted so many negative comments that the comments themselves became the subject of a story in Air Force Times. The reason for the publicity wasn’t the sheer number of comments, but their nature. Many, if not most, of the comments on both stories were sarcastic, bitter, or just plain rude.

It’s not the existence of negative comments that bothers me. I think discourse on Air Force issues is good for us as Airmen and our service as a whole. And if you take some time to consider the arguments surrounding the issues covered in these stories, there are some valid points on both sides.

This discourse can become heated. That’s okay in my book. I appreciate someone who is passionate about their opinion and ready to defend it. The problem here is that there is a direct correlation to the nature of the comment and whether or not the commentator was anonymous. Almost without exception, comments that were rude or sarcastic came from an anonymous source.

I recognize the subjectivity of the last sentence. What’s rude to one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. But it’s safe to say that the wording of most of these comments would be changed drastically, or even left unsaid, if their originator’s identity was attached to them.

The anonymity offered by the internet has given those with an axe to grind a false sense of empowerment. I say ‘false’ because the very nature of their comments limits their utility. The angry rant in the comments section rarely inspires real change and usually only serves one person — the doing the ranting.

I’m not advocating a “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” approach.

Our business is serious. Sometimes we have to say things that are unpleasant to others. But, as leaders, I think we have the duty to own it. This isn’t just about comments on a web page. It’s about accountability. If you want to criticize something, have the intestinal fortitude to defend that criticism and the manner in which it was conveyed. If you can’t own it, why say it at all?

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