The suggestion “Don’t read the comments” is a well-established adage among many sufficiently familiar with the internet today. It’s meant so that readers do not have to suffer the headache and despair from the realization that the first person to comment can’t seem to write a sentence without a derogatory slur and the second person to comment thinks that that is sufficient to condemn them as Literally Hitler (does that need a hashtag?). Many point to the comments section of sites like Yahoo!, YouTube, and various news sources to highlight the problems of the protection of anonymity.
But there’s something that the comments section is able to provide. Although some will use the protection of anonymity to be trolls, some will use it to state their candid opinions. In a comments section, one can hear the voice of the people. Sometimes the voice is terribly and unreasonably angry, but it’s still important to be able to hear what the public seems to think. The comments section is a chance to gauge where the centers of opinion seem to be.
In fact, I would suggest that the “problem” of the protection of anonymity should be looked at from a different direction, as an opportunity to understand the true streams of ideas that exist in the thoughts of the public. I am frequently frustrated by the fact that people that I talk to in real life do not seem to be expressing to me their genuine thoughts in conversation. There is a “fear of judgment” for opinions not condoned or not typical in the current state of society’s discourse. But these opinions sometimes want out, and anonymity provides an avenue for the “safe” sharing of them. And I contend that is a good thing. I would much rather know about “disturbing” patterns of thought that exist than to not be aware of them and to contribute to their brewing and possibly escalation in silence.
I often find that the span of opinions a given person would not condemn as pure vileness is claustrophobically narrow. When talking with others about pathological worldviews, I find that others often speak of a certain stream of opinion as completely terrible, and for which I feel that I’m about as distanced from such an opinion as they are, but for which how unreasonable I find that particular opinion is much less than they do. I often think that people fail to recognize that certain views have at least progressed significantly further than quite a lot of others, and that such views are actually quite elevated from the bottom of the barrel. I also think many views are possibly quite within a margin of error of where my views are, given the amount of the world I’m aware I do not know about.
I believe I have views that I think most of the world finds disturbing. I think that most people do. In fact, even if the particular unusual opinions that you and I have may clash, I contend that we should acknowledge an agreement we have that the default worldview of the current world is terrifying. Someone who thinks the world as it is right now has nothing wrong with it has a mindset that I would consider very scary, and I think you would agree with me on that. Somewhere among the “crack opinions”, someone has an idea that will actually propel the world forward, one that the next generation sees as an idea that brought great social progress. A lot of what we consider standards of civility today are ideas yesterday condemned as disgusting.
Would it not be better if we could be more frank with each other about our crazy thoughts, to produce a more accurate representation of how we look at things, to understand better how differently different people approach the world? In order to do so, we have to expand the margin of opinions we are okay with listening to. And what I have found is that reading internet comments quickly makes a lot more of them more bearable to read. I still cringe when I read comments, but really more often I laugh, because if anything, with absurdity comes entertainment. Words should not hurt me that often.
I have come up with something that I call the Czech Criterion, which is a low bar for which when I find someone’s ideas terrible, I’m able to compare it to that standard and realize that they already seem that much more reasonable than those of so many people, and am able to place at least the minimum of respect in their thoughts for being at least above that bar. Here’s how it goes: is what they’re saying more reasonable than proposing to bomb the Czech Republic in retaliation for the Tsarnaevs’ bombing of the Boston Marathon? This is a view I just cannot respect, one that (a) considers the bombing of a country a proportionate response to the bombing of a marathon, (b) decides that the actions of two people accurately represent the creed of a nation, and (c) fails to realize that Chechnya is not the Czech Republic, and does not bother to figure such a distinction out before suggesting such a violent course of action. (If you can find a way to reasonably defend this view, though, I’d like to listen, because maybe there’s a very small chance you will say something very profound, or, more probably, I just want to watch you try to defend this view.) Believe it or not, this was actually the reaction of many Americans, enough such that the Czech ambassador to the United States had to remind Americans that the Czech Republic is not Chechnya. If a comment passes the Czech criterion, the commenter has demonstrated that their frank opinions are more reasonable than those of a huge quantity of people. And that, I feel, deserves a small amount of recognition, even if comments need to go much further to become worth reasoning with. When considering the Czech criterion, I find a huge amount of comments much more bearable to read. And by doing so, I start to be able to hear raw thoughts and emotion, things that even if I often don’t want to hear, I’m glad I’ll be able to find if I want to. It is the price to pay for truth, and for true thoughts, it’s not too high a price at all.
I still read the comments. They sound like the wonderful dissonances of the freedom of speech. I would be terrified if instead of them there was the silence of their suppression.