Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Avoiding the Comments

Continuing the Internet civility theme, Heina at Skepchick argues that people should not actively discourage others from engaging with people acting abusively online if they want to engage with such people.

For instance, common refrains on Internet are "avoid the comments" and "don't feed the trolls." Acknowledging that it's valid for people to choose not to engage, Heina also writes:
"If someone really is commenting in bad faith, allowing their comment to stand without a peep in the way of disagreement can serve as unintentional validation. The audience following along at home can readily assume, at the very least, that everyone is okay with what was expressed. Worse, they might assume that the opinion is not only valid but also representative and acceptable. Who is really that gullible, you ask? How about children, or adults who, for whatever reason, are socially isolated?"
I agree.

Relatedly, I used to engage in a non/anti-feminist forum that runs two versions of posts - one which allows "regular" commenting and one that does not allow "hostile" commenting.  The thinking seems to be that having "no hostility" threads might foster dialogue between feminists and those who are critical or, dare I say, hostile to feminism.

The moderators, when I have participated there in the past, seemed perplexed that I would check out the abusive commentary directed toward myself and other feminists in the "regular" thread and then, based on the cite's condoning of hostile commentary in those threads, refuse to comment even in the purportedly non-hostile threads.  

As a blogger myself, I get that bloggers don't necessarily agree with everything that's said in comments to their blogs, even if they don't jump into the commentary to explicitly say so.  Yet, by framing the hostile threads as "regular," it often seemed to me that these threads were actually the "what anti-feminists say when they're venting and don't care about dialogue with actual feminists" and, therefore, more candid.  And, when abusive and hostile comments were continually allowed without reprimand in "regular" threads, it certainly lent itself to the impression that the entire forum itself was dominated by anti-feminist readers and blog owners who condoned the hostility, if not the opinions themselves.

Anyway, it's an interesting idea to suggest that maybe we do to some degree have a social obligation to actually counter people acting abusively when we are able to - mentally, physically, and spiritually.

A couple of months ago, I posted this video of bystanders intervening when a waitress was loudly being rude to a same-sex couple and their children in a restaurant. I also asked commenters how they thought they might respond in real life to such incivility had they witnessed it. Interestingly, Maggie Gallagher(!) claimed she would have called the waitresses behavior inappropriate and stood there until a supervisor showed up. Yet, Maggie has also made a living out of publicly making statements similar to the waitress', who said "I think they need a dad" to the same-sex couple in front of their kids.

So, I wondered, was it the content of the waitress' speech or the waitress' approach that Maggie objected to? Did she object because it maybe made opponents of LGBT rights look "bad" and "mean"? Or, was she sincerely concerned about the welfare of the same-sex family?  I have no idea.  I'm not going to try to parse that one.

Just as people behave abusively online in many different ways and for many different reasons, so it seems to go with bystander intervention as well. In an excellent article about the history of "trolling," Whitney Phillips writes:
"...[T]he division between trolls and regular Internet users is hardly clear cut. Compartmentalizing bigoted speech and behavior within some poorly-defined online non-category—'trolling'—that somehow manages to subsume every unpleasant interaction on the internet while establishing a clear demarcation between the 'them' who trolls and the 'us' who does not only obscures that fact, and precludes serious conversations about systemic harassment and bigotry. If it’s all the trolls’ fault, in other words, if they are the clearly aberrant bad guys, then we don’t have to think about how our actions feed into and are fed by the same prejudices that give rise to these kinds of aggressive behaviors—namely racism, classism, sexism, and trans- and homophobia, to name a few."
Again, this point circles back to the point I've made before that people can be problematic in some contexts and friendly in others, which seems absurdly obvious to even write. Even members of the Westboro Baptist Church, after all, can be seen as nice sometimes.  That kind of thinking doesn't seem too popular as the US political climate and the so-called "culture wars" invite us to think that people like "us" are 100% good and people like "them" are 100% evil.

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