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.

The Secular Light Show

§  As always seems to happen these days, some sourpuss simply had to comment!  §

In early November, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly a kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hannukah or Kwaanza, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

”Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”