another comment on comments

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? 

the internet and the Mezzogiorno

Auden on Ischia, by George Daniell

From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, W. H. Auden spent part of each year on the Island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. When he bought a small house in Austria and left Italy, he wrote a lovely and funny poem called “Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno” in which he reflected on how he, as the child of a “potato, beer-or-whiskey / Guilt culture,” never became anything more than a stranger in southern Italy.

As he thinks about the people of that region, he wonders if, despite the liveliness of the culture, they might be “without hope.” And he muses, 

                                This could be a reason
Why they take the silencers off their Vespas,
    Turn their radios up to full volume,  

And a minim saint can expect rockets — noise
    As a counter-magic, a way of saying
Boo to the Three Sisters: “Mortal we may be,
    But we are still here!”

I thought of this poem the other day when I saw this story about how NPR played a little trick on its Facebook fans: giving them a headline that was not accompanied by an actual story, but that people commented on — vociferously, confidently — anyway. Writing like this, and it constitutes the vast majority of all online commenting, is not so much an attempt at communication or rational conversation as it is an assertion of presence: “Mortal we may be, / But we are still here!” And the more assertive your comments are, the harder it is to deny your presence. Abusing people whose (often imagined) views you disdain is like taking the silencer off your Vespa; writing in all caps is like turning your radio up to full volume.
Which raises the question of why so many people feel so strongly the need to announce their presence in the internet’s comboxes. Surely not the for same reason that people like me write blog posts! 

supporting good writing

Until recently, the remarkable Matthew Battles, of Hilobrow fame, was writing a column for Gearfuse. Then the editor of Gearfuse parted company with Matthew in this oddly snarky way: you ain’t gettin’ the pageviews, smart boy, so move on along. We’re dumbin’ down.

This has prompted a conversation among some of us on Twitter, led by Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library, about whether those of us who enjoy good writing on the web — writing like Matthew’s — need to make sure we support it by leaving comments on posts we like. Sarah has in fact committed herself to doing just that, though not without some reservations.

Well . . . I am puzzled. I have considered these issues occasionally on this blog, but have never been able to find a solution to the problem of trolling, much less the far more complex problem of how to register proper appreciation for the sites and posts I really like. I tend to think that adding a comment in praise of a post might make the author feel better, but if what the site Authorities want is page views, do comments help? Wouldn’t tweeting the link (and re-tweeting when the author announces new posts) be more helpful? I suppose it depends on what kind of help is most wanted, and by whom, but . . . Any thoughts?

more comments needed?

Bob Stein writes:

People are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space. There was a much more extensive discussion of this draft on the private Read 2.0 listserve than what you see in the public CommentPress version. i begged people on the listserve to post their comments on the public version, but with few exceptions no one was willing. The really sad thing from my pov is that by refusing to join the discussion in CommentPress, people deprived themselves of the opportunity to experience category 4 social reading first hand. I am very respectful of many of the people on the read 2.0 list and would have loved to have had their first-hand reactions to the experience of engaging in the close-reading of an online document with people whose views they value.

But of course, as we all know from experience, only some “people are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space.” Many others feel no resistance at all, and comment freely without any thought intervening between the impulse and the typing. The problem is that the people who ought to be resistant flow freely, and the ones who ought not be resistant stay away. And might there not be some causal connection between the two? When, two or three years ago, the comment threads at The American Scene began to be taken over by trolls, I got emails from several smart people who had formerly been regular commenters there who told me that they weren’t going to be commenting any more because they felt that it was like taking a swim in a cesspool.

That said, I don’t think the presence (real or anticipated) of trolls is the problem with quiet pages on CommentPress sites. Rather, something like the opposite. When I see a draft of a substantial article or book on CommentPress, I feel that I owe that work a thorough reading and a careful response — and I don’t always have time for that. A quick and casual response doesn’t seem appropriate, so I tell myself I’ll come back later when I have time to read more carefully and formulate my response more precisely — but often I don’t find time to do that. A quick response would probably be better than no response at all, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it would be.

Maybe I should make a New Year’s resolution to comment more often on CommentPress sites. . . .

Someone is WRONG on the Internet!

À la XKCD, several recent posts here on Futurisms have stirred up some lively debate in comment threads. In case you missed the action, the “Transhumanist Resentment Watch” has led to a deeper exploration of some of this blog’s major themes — resentment, disease, and normalcy. A post on magic pills has sparked a discussion on medical economics. The question of libertarian enhancement continues to bounce back and forth. And my rather innocuous posting of an Isaac Asimov story has led to tangents on hedonism and accomplishment.

understanding comments, redux

I’ve written about the everlasting problem of blog comments before, as have many bloggers, and now I see that Virginia Heffernan has weighed in at the NYT. Why do we keep doing this? After all, it’s well-established that Americans in general are poorly-informed about just about everything, and that levels of hostility on the internet often reach pathological levels. So what more is there to say? Anger and stupidity are the order of the day, every day. I think we keep writing about these matters because we don't know what’s going on in any given case, in any given mind. When you get to know a particular blog well you're likely to come across a regular commentator who is just astonishing in his ignorance — but wait: how do we know he’s not just jerking our chain? Can someone really be that clueless? Or must there be malice involved? We ask questions like this because we have a natural, and apparently quite intense, interest in what makes other people tick. (Insert your favorite sociobiological explanation here.) But nothing is harder to understand than human motives, as a few minutes of self-examination would reveal to any of us. And none of these people who clog the internet with their anger and/or ignorance are interesting. So it’s curious that so many of us keep worrying over this issue.

Internet Asperger's Syndrome

That's what Jason Calcanis calls the lack of empathy, the failure to acknowledge common humanity, that he sees too often in the online world. And yes, he knows that this is an insult to people with Asperger's. See his links and also Catarina Fake's reflections for further details. Whenever someome raises these concerns, there are always plenty of people who show up and say "What, can't you take it?" or "You need a thicker skin." What these comments tend to miss is the fact that participating in online discussions is almost always a voluntary activity. So sure, most of us "can take it" — the question is, Why should we? What value do we get in return? When you blog and welcome comments, you're hoping for constructive and interesting ones, and if you get too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted ones, you're likely to consider disabling the comment function. And why shouldn't you? Nobody has an obligation to interact online, much less to do so through the one medium of blog comments. (In fact, there are some people who think that you can create better conversations by using your own blog to reply to what people say on their blogs. Kinda like what I'm doing here.) So, what counts as "too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted" comments? There's obviously not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I've been amazed for some time at the levels of hostility Megan McArdle is prepared to accept (though lately she has been more active in moderating than she used to be, and that's had a real effect on the conversation). Over at my other internet home, The American Scene, the general tone of comments is milder, but there's still too much wrangling, sneering, and mocking for my taste. I've stopped subscribing to the comments and am less inclined to visit the site at all. It's not as pleasant as it used to be, and — maybe this is a function of age — I don't see why I should expose myself to more unpleasantness than life is already prepared to deal out to me.Note that I'm still enabling comments on this blog, though. Maybe that's because I don't get too many. . . .