Every so often, I will find myself reading the comments section of online newspaper articles. Every time this happens I will, without fail, immediately regret my decision as I become angrier and more astounded at the stupidity of the human race. However, there is something that draws me back; something almost addictive, perhaps founded on the naïve belief that people will one day engage in reasonable discussion and leave offensive, over-emotional, poorly spelt rhetoric behind them. Every time, my hope is in vain.
This is not just true of YouTube comments, Facebook discussions or the Daily Mail Online. The attitude behind offensive, irrational and angry responses to pretty much any piece of news or opinion published online extends into the wider realms of the Internet as well, seeping into long blog posts about the evils of government or religion or environmentalism. It is an attitude that the Internet, wonderful and vast vehicle of self-expression that it is, inevitably cultivates. Here is a forum where you can hide behind a computer screen, where the target of your abuse need never see your face (and you need never see theirs), and where emotionally-charged language and dodgy research are the norm.
In 1969, then-President Richard Nixon referred to a “silent majority” of American people as he asked for support in his strategy to end the Vietnam War. What we have today is the opposite: we have a “noisy majority”, where everybody and anybody believes that their voice should be heard above all others. The culture of insults and offensive commentary on internet articles displays this to the extreme; there is an instinct, cultivated by the Internet’s offer of anonymity, to be reactionary in opinion, to respond violently and aggressively to anybody who dares voice a point of view even slightly out of line with one’s own. The attitude goes that opinion is sacred; to challenge somebody’s stance on an issue is to challenge the very notion of freedom of speech, to threaten their very identity, the essence of their being. As such, this attitude continues, angry and defensive, and immediate responses are required, with no thought given to the fact that the opposing party might just have something of use to say.
All factions are to some extent guilty of this. Left or right politics; liberal or conservative religion; social justice campaigners or pure Ayn Rand-ians. Angered, impulsive rhetoric breeds more of the same, especially when the views expressed are indelibly posted on the Internet for all to see. Because one person has expressed views in public and potentially permanent way, another is quick to react in order to make sure the opposite position is given a voice as well. Of course, there are times when noisiness is necessary, useful and emancipatory: one could point to any number of Internet-based campaigns which give a platform to sections of society that are often sidelined in mainstream political discourse and the media. It is not inherently a bad thing to counter an opinion one disagrees with. But the vehicle of the Internet, with its “microblogging” and 140-character phrases, encourages arguments based on nothing more than a gut response to somebody else’s gut response to an issue that neither party has truly thought through.
It takes a lot of time to do your research; it takes a lot of thought to eloquently and inoffensively express opinions that you are aware cause debate and disagreement. But in the end, nothing is ever going to come of simply shouting at each other. This post is a plea for people to think things through before they initiate, or respond to, a discussion, and to remember that when engaging with anybody’s ideas, you are engaging with a human being, not a screen. Thank you.