- The Troll Slayer
- Pedagogy is useless in cyberspace (or trolls will be trolls)
- Christian Derangement Syndrome
- Looking only where the light is
- Resenting what they’ve got that I lost
It has been a long time – actually, forever, I think – since I devoted a day to hatred, spite, malice, racism, anti-semitism and willful incorrigible misrepresentation. Let the fault be cured!
(Reader Advisory: I admire all the writers and don’t intentionally put down anyone identifiable. If you’re looking for help venting your spleen, move along now, there’s nothing to see here.)
The Troll Slayer from the New Yorker prompted several of the following comments, so it gets the place of honor:
Finally, Beard arrived at the contemporary chorus of Twitter trolls and online commenters. “The more I’ve looked at the details of the threats and the insults that women are on the receiving end of, the more some of them seem to fit into the old patterns of prejudice and assumption that I have been talking about,” she said. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.” Such online interjections—“ ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain”—often contain threats of violence, a “predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder, and so forth.” She mildly reported one tweet that had been directed at her: “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”
The targeting of Beard is hardly a singular instance of online misogyny, and she is quick to note that there are differences of degree. A comment about one’s teeth is rude; a rape threat is criminal. After Caroline Criado-Perez, a thirty-year-old activist, launched a campaign last spring to have an accomplished woman represented on the British ten-pound note, she was subjected to multiple threats of rape and murder via Twitter. (Her effort succeeded nonetheless: Jane Austen will soon appear on the currency.) Stella Creasy, a Member of Parliament, received similar threats after expressing support for Criado-Perez. Last summer, Caitlin Moran, the newspaper columnist, mobilized a day of “Twitter silence” to protest the site’s slow response to threats of violence against women; Beard intended to participate, but broke her silence when she received a tweeted bomb threat, which she reported to the police as well as to her followers. When the hour of the threatened explosion had passed, she tweeted, with sang-froid, “We are still here. So unless the trolling bomber’s timekeeping is rotten . . . all is well.”
An early online experience was instructive. Just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Beard was asked by the London Review of Books to contribute her thoughts. She argued, astringently, that it served little purpose to decry the attacks as “cowardly,” or to go no further in analyzing the motivations of the perpetrators than to call them terrorists: “There are very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it. They do what they do for a cause; because they are at war.” The attacks needed to be understood not merely as an atrocity but as a response to Western foreign policy, and she alluded to a common sentiment in her community—“that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.” She received angry e-mails from correspondents who understood her to have callously suggested that the workers in the Twin Towers deserved to die.
Alan Jacobs at the New Atlantis responds:
Hatred often emerges when people feel that their social positions are threatened, a tendency that the Ku Klux Klan exploited for decades in the South — a tendency that demagogues almost invariably exploit.
If anything good has come out of anonymous blog comments, it may be the awareness of how deep-seated, and frighteningly intense, these hatreds are. (Though this is a lesson that the True Believers in the inevitability of moral progress seem incapable of learning: thus Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s insistence that “we’ve … become a nation that’s infinitely less bigoted and misogynist” than we used to be. Almost infinitely less? Tell that to Mary Beard, whose attackers don’t come just from the U.K. Or tell thewriters at Jezebel.) The end of legal discrimination is an important, an essential, achievement; but there’s a great deal of good that it doesn’t and cannot do — which is an important truth demonstrated by the response to every advance in legal equality, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
But sheer malice, or malice born from ressentiment, is not the only problem with online commentary. It’s often mixed with other things. See this post by my buddy Rod Dreher, which considers how a conservative pundit named Erick Erickson has alienated his base by suggesting that sometimes Christian commitment can conflict with standard conservative positions, and that when that happens Christian commitment needs to win out. Rod writes,
I’ve mentioned before how y’all can’t know how many nasty comments I don’t post. We’re doing really well on this blog’s traffic, and will before much longer cross the one million page views per month mark. Still, if I had the traffic that I imagine Red State does, I don’t know how I would be able to both write the blog and manage the comments section. Every day or two we decide to block a commenter who has been consistently nasty, or who has posted something so ugly that I don’t want to see them on this site again. I’d say about two-thirds of them are from the political left, but what they share with their compatriots in nastiness on the political right is the belief that their side is pure, and the other side is pure evil. American politics have never been the School of Athens, of course, and certainly not at the populist level. But I would like to believe that we Christians have higher loyalties that restrain us from rolling in the mud with ideological haters.
I would like to think that. It’s hard, I know. Believe me, I know. I struggle with this all the time, myself. But all you need to do is read the comments section on any blog or website having to do with politics and current events, and you will despair of democracy, and maybe even of humanity. I’m pleased and proud that this blog’s comments section is not like that. I’ve worked hard, and do work hard, to keep it that way, but so do you all, and again, I want to thank you.
And he’s right: his comments section is not like that. But only because he (like Ta-Nehisi Coates, another careful cultivator of his blog’s comments) relentlessly prunes it; if Rod enabled unmoderated comments, his whole site would be an utter cesspool in a matter of days. Probably hours. The online analogue to Gresham’s Law, that bad comments drive out good, is ironclad.
One last thought: Why am I so perennially concerned with this topic? (People have asked me that before.) I think it’s because I’m a teacher, with a professional interest in helping people to understand things that they didn’t previously understand. All of the strategies and tactics I have learned over the years to guide people towards understanding are close to useless in the online world. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because I’m not in a position of authority in relation to blog commenters. They haven’t paid to be taught by me; they haven’t given me the power to evaluate their work; they probably don’t think I’m any smarter or know any more than they do. Why should they even try to understand what I’m actually saying, especially if it doesn’t fit into the mental pigeonholes they already have?
Jacobs also refers to a rather mild form of quasi-hatred also pandemic in social media: the incorrigible misrepresentation of certain ideas that – well, here’s Jacobs:
I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it.
Rod Dreher (we’re approaching mutual admiration society here) quotes Jacobs talking about Mary Beard and about Dreher’s own travails when Dreher mentions what he calls “the Benedict Option.” He likens the incorrigible misrepresenters, defending their easy conscience, to the proverbial drunk:
It’s like the old joke about the man [“drunk” as I heard it] who looks for his lost car keys under the streetlight. A passerby asks him why he’s searching there, when he might have lost them anywhere on the block. Says the man, “Because this is where the light is.”
Finally, what I found most affecting was Elizabeth Scalia, A Nation Pulling Apart (Or A People Sticking Together) who wasn’t writing about Mary Beard, or Rod Dreher, or Alan Jacobs, but about her own mother’s hatred:
That my mother hated Jews was clear, although why she hated them was one of those shameful mysteries I doubt she could have explained had I asked her. What I heard, growing up, sounded like jealousy and resentment. As a waitress in a catering hall, she would serve at Bar Mitzvah receptions and then come home seething about the amounts of money she imagined the young guest of honor had taken in.
Her resentment was palpable and ugly, and—as resentments do—it said much more about my mother than it did about any of the cracked-voice teens she smiled at through gritted teeth while serving dessert. Her own German-Irish family had shattered itself with drink, greedy bickering, and capricious marriages. Stalled on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and keenly aware of all she did not have or would never accomplish, I doubt it ever occurred to her that what she was really resenting was precisely what had gone missing from her life: a sense of identity, communal trust, and support. “Those Jews really stick together,” she would rant, never pausing to consider how the pogroms and ashes of not-distant history were the costly components of so strong a glue.
When my mother served Jews, she encountered doting parents, stable families of sober purpose, curious minds possessed of a singular identity, thirsting for education and determined to transcend the pain and deprivations of their past. All she could manage to see, however, was entitlement, privilege and grasping ambition, avarice and arrogant insularity.
Read it all. I think it connects up with the other four perfectly well.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)