One of the things I enjoy most about writing this column is the conversations that it spawns.

While I've always had many opinions on many things (a friend once told me I "have an opinion on everything", he was not wrong), sharing those opinions in such a public way has been an interesting experience.

I've spent years debating everything from the moon landing to local politics to the catechism of the Catholic Church with my friends and family.

While we don't always agree, in fact we often don't, the debate is always respectful. Which, in my opinion, at least, is the way debate should be.


The whole point of debate is to share your opinion, your view of the world, and maybe learn something from someone else's. I don't think the point is to make everyone agree with you. Although that's not what some of the trolls online would have you believe.

You see the main difference between expressing my opinions here and a friendly debate with a mate over coffee is the way in which people respond. When one of these columns gets posted on our website, any man or his dog can comment. Likewise on Facebook.

If you've never read the online comments on our news website or Facebook, give it a go.

You might be surprised. The comments sections are like the letters to the editor page - a place for debate on whatever issues are important to the community. It can be a fascinating place.

However, the difference with online comments is that it's far easier to bash out some anonymous emotion-driven comment at your keyboard and hit send than it is to sit down and write a letter, putting your name, address and phone number to it, as you would when writing to our editor.

Debate in our online space can be fierce and while the comments aren't usually offensive, occasionally it does get personal. You see, it's much easier to attack the writer than it is the subject.

As journalists, or people who share our opinions in a public space, we open ourselves up to all sorts of criticism. You have to have a thick skin to sign up for this.

The Guardian recently turned 10 years' worth of its online comments into a massive data pool, analysing it to see what sort of stories and opinion pieces garnered the most blocked comments. Their policy is similar to ours; they don't tolerate hate speech, or anything that doesn't add to the debate. They block comments that are sexist or racist or threats to rape, kill or maim its writers. Thankfully such threats are rare. The Guardian doesn't, however, block something just because their staff disagree with it. Neither do we.

Their data mining found that of the 10 most abused writers, eight were female and the two male writers were both black.

Jessica Valenti was a recipient of the dubious honour of being in that top 10. She says: "Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying 'You're stupid', 'You're terrible', 'You suck', 'I can't believe you get paid for this'. It's a terrible way to go to work."

While I've not had anything even remotely as bad as that, I have had my share of personal attacks. In one hilarious instance, I got called a one-eyed bigot for supporting an initiative that would reduce our local non-profit organisations' administration costs. I still can't get my head around that one. But you have to laugh, because if you took it to heart, you'd never get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I'm not saying I don't want people to comment. Please, do keep writing in. I love that you engage in the things we're writing about. It means you care as much as we do. I just think we need to carefully consider how we comment. Spare a thought for the moderators who have to read every single rant that gets posted. Attack the subject, not the writer.

Do keep challenging my view. I have been known to change my mind at times. Debate is healthy and should be encouraged. Hate speech should not. Get fired up, I love that, just don't say anything you wouldn't say to my face, or wouldn't want said to yours.

Leave the trolls to the fairytales.