Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.