As anyone knows who has spent much time reading what I write, especially on Twitter, I am endlessly fascinated/puzzled/horrified by the malice and ignorance manifested in many online comments. I’ve been prompted to think about all this again by a handful of recent posts. 

Rebecca Mead’s profile of Mary Beard includes much food for thought, especially regarding the grace and charity and forgiveness that Beard has exhibited towards some people who have been really nasty to her. 

In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.” One of Beard’s followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behavior; meanwhile, he apologized. Beard’s object is not simply to embarrass offenders; it is to educate women. Before social media, she argues, it was possible for young women like those she teaches at Cambridge to enjoy the benefits of feminist advances without even being aware of the battles fought on their behalf, and to imagine that such attitudes are a thing of the past. Beard says, “Most of my students would have denied, I think, that there was still a major current of misogyny in Western culture.”…

The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

What exceptional kindness on her part! But it is also a reminder that the end of (most) legal discrimination against women has not marked the end of misogyny but rather in many cases its intensification. Hatred often emerges when people feel that their social positions are threatened, a tendency that the Ku Klux Klan exploited for decades in the South — a tendency that demagogues almost invariably exploit.

If anything good has come out of anonymous blog comments, it may be the awareness of how deep-seated, and frighteningly intense, these hatreds are. (Though this is a lesson that the True Believers in the inevitability of moral progress seem incapable of learning: thus Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s insistence that “we’ve … become a nation that’s infinitely less bigoted and misogynist” than we used to be. Almost infinitely less? Tell that to Mary Beard, whose attackers don’t come just from the U.K. Or tell the writers at Jezebel.) The end of legal discrimination is an important, an essential, achievement; but there’s a great deal of good that it doesn’t and cannot do — which is an important truth demonstrated by the response to every advance in legal equality, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

But sheer malice, or malice born from ressentiment, is not the only problem with online commentary. It’s often mixed with other things. See this post by my buddy Rod Dreher, which considers how a conservative pundit named Erick Erickson has alienated his base by suggesting that sometimes Christian commitment can conflict with standard conservative positions, and that when that happens Christian commitment needs to win out. Rod writes, 

I’ve mentioned before how y’all can’t know how many nasty comments I don’t post. We’re doing really well on this blog’s traffic, and will before much longer cross the one million page views per month mark. Still, if I had the traffic that I imagine Red State does, I don’t know how I would be able to both write the blog and manage the comments section. Every day or two we decide to block a commenter who has been consistently nasty, or who has posted something so ugly that I don’t want to see them on this site again. I’d say about two-thirds of them are from the political left, but what they share with their compatriots in nastiness on the political right is the belief that their side is pure, and the other side is pure evil. American politics have never been the School of Athens, of course, and certainly not at the populist level. But I would like to believe that we Christians have higher loyalties that restrain us from rolling in the mud with ideological haters.

I would like to think that. It’s hard, I know. Believe me, I know. I struggle with this all the time, myself. But all you need to do is read the comments section on any blog or website having to do with politics and current events, and you will despair of democracy, and maybe even of humanity. I’m pleased and proud that this blog’s comments section is not like that. I’ve worked hard, and do work hard, to keep it that way, but so do you all, and again, I want to thank you.

And he’s right: his comments section is not like that. But only because he (like Ta-Nehisi Coates, another careful cultivator of his blog’s comments) relentlessly prunes it; if Rod enabled unmoderated comments, his whole site would be an utter cesspool in a matter of days. Probably hours. The online analogue to Gresham’s Law, that bad comments drive out good, is ironclad. 

Again, sheer malice is not the only reason for this. The Erickson case is instructive in this regard: Erickson is telling people that certain positions they would like to hold together may not be perfectly compatible with one another. It is difficult to overstate how passionately many people hate being told that, because if it is true, then they may have to make very difficult choices. So when you present them with such complexities, they not only become agitated but determine to believe that you hold positions you don’t hold — simplistic positions that they can (or feel they can) easily refute. 

So, for example, take the comments on this post of Rod’s about what he calls the Benedict Option, and Rod’s responses to them. You see person after person insisting that the Benedict Option involves a frightened and complete withdrawal from society into a tiny isolated community of the same-minded — no matter how many times Rod says that that’s not what he’s talking about, and not what the communities is invokes do. Again and again (not just in this post but in many he has written on the subject) he says That’s not what I wrote — and again and again they persist in attributing to him simplistic and extreme claims. Why? Because those are the claims they can (or think they can) refute. 

Just through linking to the post on Twitter I got the same kinds of comments: people attributing to Rod views he has never held. I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it. So agitators have to be portrayed as extremists who hold bizarre and evidently indefensible views. 

In some ways these tendencies make me even sadder than does the presence of the purely hateful. The malicious can often be ignored and marginalized; but what can we do when we have to explain over and over and over again that what the commenter is attacking is not our view? That we never stated or even implied it? I would estimate that more than two-thirds of the critical comments I receive on Twitter and even in comments here are based on straightforward misunderstandings of this kind: the kind that stem from a desire for mental simplicity and exacerbated by hastiness — the hastiness that leads people to argue with stuff they haven’t even read

One last thought: Why am I so perennially concerned with this topic? (People have asked me that before.) I think it’s because I’m a teacher, with a professional interest in helping people to understand things that they didn’t previously understand. All of the strategies and tactics I have learned over the years to guide people towards understanding are close to useless in the online world. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because I’m not in a position of authority in relation to blog commenters. They haven’t paid to be taught by me; they haven’t given me the power to evaluate their work; they probably don’t think I’m any smarter or know any more than they do. Why should they even try to understand what I’m actually saying, especially if it doesn’t fit into the mental pigeonholes they already have? 


  1. A modest proposal:

    1) A blogger recruits a panel of ~20 "Approved Commentors" for his/her blog.
    2) The Approved Commentors are thoughtfully selected to include a healthy mix of people who usually share the blogger's worldview and people who generally do not. And to include a healthy mix of people who share the blogger's subject matter expertise and people who do not but who do bring some other interesting perspective to bear.
    3) The real life identity of Approved Commentors is known to the blogger, though perhaps (at the Commentor's choosing) hidden behind a veil of pseudonymity to the public.
    4) Approved Commentors can post comments freely and without moderation.
    5) However Approved Commentors are strictly limited to a maximum of 3 comments per thread and encouraged to limit their contribution to 1 (or 0) comments on most topics.
    6) In addition, interested readers can send a personal e-mail to the blogger with comments that he or she is free to post as "Guest Comments."
    7) Guest Comments will be posted only when the blogger has the time to read through his or her e-mail to select valuable contributions, when they are civil, when they add something meaningful to the comment thread and when they address the original post rather than one of the other comments in the comment thread (this last point is, I think, important to making the model workable).

    This model allows for a rich comment thread to arise on any given post without any efforts aimed at moderation on the part of the blogger, but preserves the ability of the blogger to moderate comments that do not come from a "trusted source." And it enforces norms about how far from the original post a given thread is allowed to wander, and how frequently a commentor can make the same basic argument in different words. A Commentor (whether Approved or Guest) who truly cannot live within these constraints is an excellent candidate to start his or her own blog.

  2. A time that stands out for me is when I got into a heated exchange with PetefromBaltimore on a TNC post. I can't even remember exactly what started it. I think that Pete said something about how Andrew Sullivan's DC and NY residencies were an example of the disconnect between liberal pundits and blue collar America. In hindsight he had a legitimate point, even if too broad. But it set me to accusing Pete of being a conservative who doesn't care about working class people. Then he fired something back. Then I said "Well if you think I'm an elitist then why don't you come down to NC and see the diner I eat at regularly that is filled with Republicans." Then TNC stepped in and said "Both of you tone it down. This is getting weirdly personal." And as soon as he said that, I realized how stupid our argument was and apologized to Pete, and he apologized back. It was especially stupid because I usually find Pete one of the most thought provoking and sympathetic conservative voices at the Atlantic. But had TNC not stepped in, we probably would have gone on and said some pretty nasty things to each other. I find that elsewhere on the Atlantic is dangerous for me because I'm especially tempted to post some nasty and cutting things. It's especially easy to go overboard when you know that Molly Ball or Conor Friedersdorf aren't going to step in and tell you to stop.

    TNC has typically generated some of the most insightful comments from women on the internet. Yet I notice I rarely see any of the women who post on TNC's page posting anywhere else on the Atlantic. I think that's because TNC, though he admits to bias in moderating, nevertheless allows no abusive comments directed at women (and most of the time deletes any abusive comments directed at men).

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