The Problem With Comments

When we talk about race and gender, online conversations grow predictably toxic. Is silence consent?   

May 14, 2015

Here are some of the things I believe:

  • There is such a thing as rape culture and it flourishes in the US.
  • White privilege is a problem that is too often invisible to whites.
  • Black lives matter.
  • We messed up the climate and we should cop to it so we can figure out what to do.
  • Gamergate was not about journalism ethics.

For some, these are uncontroversial beliefs, so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning. For others, them’s fighting words. I'm in a peculiar place. I have tenure - that is, have been granted the unusual privilege of being encouraged to speak publicly without fear of losing my job. I shouldn’t avoid an issue because I just don’t want to deal with the comments - lengthy and tiresome arguments over whether it’s really white people in America are who are suffering from racism, that it’s men who are oppressed by feminists, that pointing out the power of words is censorship, that all lives matter but blacks who get killed by police would have been fine if they just followed orders and showed more respect for authority. And so on. 

I’m thinking about this in part because a black woman academic has had to apologize publicly for describing white male students with a phrase often applied to young black men in a tweet. And because of the comments about that story and others related to it. There’s also this. And this. And this. And so forth.

Lately it seems as if every news story, essay, or blog post here at Inside Higher Ed that touches on race or gender attracts a lot of vitriolic comments, often from repeat visitors, sometimes from drive-by trolls who scan the web for certain keywords and pounce. Inside Higher Ed moderates comments, and I’m glad they do. It's probably not fun seeing what doesn't meet their guidelines, and it has to be expensive to screen every posting. Even so, there have been many times lately when I read something interesting here (or, to be fair, at the Washington Post or the Guardian or any number of sites with comments enabled), and I get discouraged from participating because the comment thread is full of hostility and bristling outrage that somehow reverses meaning like Orwellian doublespeak. Calling out racism is racist. Calling out sexism is sexist. Speaking up is censorship. And  it’s up to you to explain, again and again, your position to people who don’t want to hear it but get angry if you don’t engage and provide lots of citations, too, and then just come back for more.

I value the conversational nature of the Internet but there are times lately when I start to read a comment thread here and click away because it’s just too toxic. And then I wonder – is it okay to be silent? Would responding just make it worse, or are there people who think “whoa, there’s no place for me here” and I should try to make room for them? “Don’t read the comments” doesn’t seem adequate anymore. 

If I ever hesitate to write about a topic because I don’t want to deal with the comments, that’s probably a sign that it’s a thing I really need to write about. Libraries exist to support curiosity and intellectual freedom and they try to create cultural spaces where people can engage with hard questions and a variety of possible answers without fear. They’re places of conversation, but not generally places where they are settled because winning isn't the point. Librarians – especially ones like me with job security that was given specifically so that I could say what I think needs saying without worrying – need to walk that walk. And maybe when I see a comment that really pushes my buttons I should look for a way to respond because not everyone feels safe doing that.  

Now I have to go track down a couple of new books from MIT (and h/t to Andromeda Yelton for telling me about them) - This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture by Whitney Phillips and Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web by Joseph M. Reagle. For a nicely analytical take on how moderation works with a dollop of legal thinking, I can recommend James Grimmelmann's "The Virtues of Moderation." If you know of other good reads on the subject, let me know ... in the comments. 


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