i dream of being possible

Don't read the comments

I recently (mostly by accident) started reading the comments on McClean’s infamous racist article about universities being ‘too Asian’.

Predictably, the comments are a hotbed of ignorant, hateful racism. With an article like this, it isn’t too surprising. But it is generally common knowledge that for peace of mind, one should always avoid reading the comments. Perhaps one of the most universal axioms of safe interneting.

I also remember reading Anil Dash’s post on internet commenting and how websites really need to start taking responsibility for the hate speech in their commenting sections. Two years later… and well, commenting is still a problem and the only effective solution is not reading them.

So why bother?

Usually this discussion gets bogged down by calls to ‘free speech’ or ‘open discourse’. I’m not going there. Not only do I think it misses the point, but it trades on a great deal of falsehoods about the difference between free speech and hate speech.

What I do wish, is that more people truly understood that the commenting problem is a problem of technology. It isn’t the internet that has caused this. Nor is what happens in the comments exacerbated by anonymity of most online commenting systems.

I have never seen anything in the comments of a website that I haven’t heard in person and said to my face. Or someone else’s face, as the case may be. The McLean’s article is actually a great example of how we should be unsurprised about the xenophobic and racist comments, given that the article itself is xenophobic and racist.

This isn’t a technology problem. The comments on websites simply reflect offline public discourse. And they don’t even present a more serious/extreme example of it. The same people who express their hateful opinions online (with or without anonymity) express them offline.

This is a social problem and, yeah, one that we’ve been working to fix for a while. Not reading the comments isn’t good enough. I want to be able to participate in public discourse with as much casualness and freedom as all the racists, misogynists, ableist, fatphobic, etc. people do and can.

However, this isn’t going to change until large publications like Maclean’s stop publishing racist and xenophobic artiles, or biopics aren’t made that glorify rapists like Julian Assange, or have article after transmisogynist article repeatedly dehumanizing Chelsea Manning, or ‘news’ outlets like Fox News are allowed to make up lies and disseminate misinformation.

Technological solutions to the commenting problem will work best for ensuring that random hate doesn’t take over, say, your YouTube video of your child’s third birthday. But it won’t solve the problems with public discourse today.