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What about just stopping the hiding of comments for a while to see what that does? This idea seems to have a lot of support, in this thread at least. Frankly, other than a bit of a bruised ego (which really shouldn't be a problem for the vast majority of participants here that seem to be grown adults), the only negative that comes from down votes is making it harder to see the comments. So if you take that away, a good chunk of the problem is solved right there. Also, it probably removes some of the motivation to downvote stuff, which addresses the other part of the problem..

I feel like this would be a relatively easy, painless, and appropriate response. See what happens with that, and do something more if it seems necessary after a month or two.