That’s what everyone says, at least. If I ever mention something awful someone wrote in the Comments section of an online story, people are always like, “NO! Don’t read the comments!” But I still do. I can’t help it. Something in me cares about what is being said there. I think it’s that I’m hopeful. Hopeful that this story might be the one where people say things that are intelligent and kind, instead of things that are belligerent and hateful. Or, at the very least, maybe there will be a few people spewing hate and prejudice and lies, but THIS will be the one where the number of people opposing and standing up to the hate and prejudice and lies will dwarf the number of people giving those comments thumbs ups and likes and whatnots. I haven’t found it yet…. Maybe someday.
I read this amazing story the other day about a man named Bill Pelke who worked most of his adult life to free a woman from jail. That woman’s name was Paula Cooper, and when she was 15 years old, she murdered Bill’s grandmother Ruth Pelke (a crime for which she was sentenced to death, because at that time in Indiana, you could be as young as ten years old and receive the death penalty). Cooper was physically abused as a child, she was forced to watch her mother get raped, and she was a chronic runaway. Even though Bill Pelke initially supported the death penalty (her sentence was later reduced to Life in Prison after they changed the death penalty age to 16), he became convinced that his Grandma would not want this woman rotting away for the rest of her life in prison. Bill Pelke “begged God to give him love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family,” he forgave the woman who stabbed his Bible teacher Grandmother 33 times, and after 27 years in jail, Paula Cooper was recently released (You can watch an interview with Bill Pelke HERE). I was inspired. The people who left comments were not impressed.
If you have ever read internet comments before, you can imagine the kind of garbage that was written at the bottom of that story. Everything from racist diatribes, to laments about Paula Cooper breathing the same air as us, to promises by people to “kill her myself if I ever see her.” And then, to top it all of, the places where you can vote comments up or down were about 4 to 1 in favor of the hateful comments…. It was discouraging, to say the least.
The comments section on the internet is the cesspool of humanity. A few weeks ago when Cheerios decided to have a biracial girl on their commercial and showed a white mother and black father, they had to disable the comments because of all the hateful and racist crap people were writing. Something has got to change. These things that people are writing are not without consequence–They affect us, and they make the world more and more cynical–but there seem to be no consequences for the people writing the comments. It’s terrorism of the soul. People file this sort of thing under “Freedom of Speech” or “Right to Privacy,” but I don’t think it’s that simple. We have the right to privacy and we have the right to free speech, but we do not necessarily have the right to private speech. This stuff is speech without accountability, and it can be as harmful as any false “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech is not designed to protect some anonymous semantic sadist, spraying words like rounds from a machine gun, attempting to hit as many people as possible. Its the same reason a man in a pointy, white hood feels emboldened to say things he would never say if his identity were exposed. At least if you say something racist in person you have the risk of getting punched in the face…. These hate-filled comments are the linguistic equivalent of dropping bombs from a remotely piloted drone.
I’m not saying that I’m against free speech. I’m not. Individuals have the right to speech that the listener deems offensive and even hateful–I’m saying that there should be accountability. There has to be some way to register people for internet comments and insure the things people write can be traced back to a real person. So if you decide to write something so offensive and hateful that it makes the rest of us question whether there is any good in the world, maybe that comment is going to get back to your boss. Or your employees. Or your board of directors. This is a bit of what the Public Shaming Tumblr attempts to do–manufacture accountability for people’s words (Here is a list of offensive tweets about the Mexican-American boy who sang the National Anthem during the NBA Playoffs). The whole “Sticks & Stones” saying is full of crap–Words can hurt just like stones, and if you are going to be throwing those sorts of stones on the internet, you don’t have the right to do it from behind an anonymous white hood.
On the way home from a recent trip, we stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere to take my kids to the bathroom. In the bathroom, written in very large letters on the door, were words that no kid (or adult, for that matter) should ever have to stumble upon. I thought of The Catcher In The Rye‘s Holden Caulfield trying to erase all the “Fuck you’s” in the world, but knowing there were just too many of them. I know we can’t get rid of all of them, but part of the reason we are part of a community is to keep each other accountable. I don’t have the skills it takes to create some sort of internet registration that verifies people’s identities before allowing them to comment, but someone does. If somebody could come up with a way to do this, that would be great. The conversations and discussions that can happen online can be good things, but lack of accountability aids those who only want injure HOPE. And that is a dangerous thing. If we are all going to be using the same bathroom, we might as well work together to keep it clean. And if not clean, we can at least try to point out who is putting all the crap on the walls….
READ THIS COMMENT!. This is a beautiful, heartfelt article. Thank you for sharing it. I have recently discovered your blog and read many of them. From my point of view you are seeing and interacting with the world in the very manner in which I have always imagined Jesus did during his short body life and would endorse today. I know that Biblical scholars may take issue, but there is not always a clear line between truth and dogma and we are seeing the results of such vagueness in the form of wars, dominence, violence and hardened hearts. You refer to forms of these in the blog. Carry on with your love, clarity of expression and passion.
Wow. Thank you so much, Ida! You do the same….
It truly is a sad thing when we have to protect they eyes and ears of our children from seeing what’s behind a bathroom door, and what they might overhear in someone’s ignorant diatribe. You make the point of having to keep everyone accountable, and I WHOLE-HEARTEDLY agree. However, the fact that people are allowed to post anything they want on the web w/o a face and address gives them aninimity and NO accountability. Most of the negative that’s posted are from cowards who don’t have the guts to say what they are thinking in real life. I believe they know what they are thinking is trash. I would have a hard time believing that most of those people would be able to look the person in the eye and say half of the crap you read or hear. Maybe, I’m the one that’s naive, but I think part of the problem is that we are becoming more a society of interfacing w/ our screens and less and less w/ the human being. It’s just too easy to write down what you want…b/c there is no accountability.
Yeah. Maybe there is a place somewhere on the internet for anonymous hatred, but if it is in a place where many people visit (who are not looking for that sort of garbage), there should be some way to keep them out. Free speech does not give someone the right to spray paint racial slurs on street signs. Or my car’s windshield.
The Internet has given rise to the age of digital beer muscles. I, too, read but never post to controversial topics. No amount of sense I make will make any dent in the debate. Yet, the civil libertarian in me cringes at any disturbance to free speech.
Free speech is not not limitless. And it’s not speech without consequence. All I’m saying is that if a person wants the freedom to spray bullets of hate speech that make us all more cynical, that’s fine…. But that person’s employer should also be free to tell that person to find another job. Their speech has consequences for others–It should have consequences for them as well.
Don’t you think?
Free speech does have consequences. If I tell my wife I want to copulate with a waitress, it would not go unpunished. Ask Paula Dean about it?
Yes, an employer should have the freedom to fire or discipline over comments.
The government prosecuting over speech is an absolute no no in my book.
The anonymity of the Internet is this generation’s pen name. Should Mark Twain have been forced to write as Samuel Clements? The Guinness employee who used the name Student to publish the limited sample t-distribution would have been fired for conducting research.
Yes, the Internet is full of douche bags but enforcing a true sign in system is impractical. IP addresses are traceable… But no one is requiring idiots like us from reading the comments. Without a captive audience it’s hard to show a wrong has been committed.
Is the onus for deleting purposeless, negative comments on the hosting site. If a person made a homophobic, sexist, or racist rant that was just purely hate filled I would delete the comment as quickly as I saw it.
The comments are irresistible aren’t they? I think communication is such a good thing. Lord knows we could use more of it here (in this humble home). People have written hateful comments for generations but it used to be when snail mail was the norm, it took more time and people had more of an opportunity burn the letter before it reached its intended reader. Now someone could be reacting to a bad day and it shows up in the hurtful or hateful comments they make. It seems anoymity brings out the worst in us. We can act like a blithering idiot and there is no accountability. A mob mentality, if you will. I agree. Come out and show yourself or take your problem elsewhere.
One of the things that I have noticed lately is an increasing appreciation for less and less civility. I hear curse words come out of people’s mouths at the most inappropriate times and places. Appropriate female office attire is NOT what you see on “The Good Wife.” If I wrote up every teen that said the F-bomb in my HS classroom, I would never have time to teach! Why don’t men take their hats off anymore inside or when the Star Spangled Banner is played? I don’t want women put in burkas, nor public caneings. But young people see the lack of civility and take it as “normal.” Why are we afraid to gently admonish people? Because the response is often over-the-top. My values may not be your values. Civility, however, is also about valuing yourself. When you don’t care or value yourself, it is easy to put on grubby clothes to go do errands, or as I have seen several times lately, wear pajamas and slippers in public. If you have no reason to feel you are respectable, why must you put your insecurity out there for everyone to hear such filth come out of your mouth? The manners of 1950 don’t work today, and I am not suggesting we turn into a theocracy, or push the world into a time machine and step backwards 6 decades. What is so awful about “thank you” notes? When did it become fashionable to be crass? There are always the contrarians that ill always be against your values, however, it appears to me there is a great amount of anger that is being released as incivility. How can we reinforce good manners, and gently suggest more civil conduct, without someone pulling out a gun, a la road rage, or other undesirable consequences? Or, as the world and time turns, have we as a society endorsed incivility and ill manners as “normal”? Just some thoughts.
You know what’s really cool about writing about not reading comments… It makes you want to leave a comment. The Internet culture that allows anonymous bullying is viscous and I think the best we can do is raise our children to know it’s the wrong thing to do and empower them to raise their voice if they know a friend who is bullying online. Something needs to change… and I think it has to be a mass cultural change.
Speaking of leaving and/or reading comments: I am so glad you decided to comment on the NPR article about Aaron Collin’s Last Wish! Already enjoying roaming your site 🙂
Thank you so much. I’m glad you like it.
I like it too. I think those people who comment are the keen ones – sometimes just keen to work off their anger and hatred on something. They aren’t the majority of people. But that Paula case – I wonder what happened to the woman after release? It’s sad that a lot of people who do awful things have awful things done to them.
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