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Why I Will Always & Forever Read the Comments

Lately, it seems that I can’t turn anywhere on the Internet without coming across statuses, memes, and even entire Twitter accounts dedicated to anti-comment sentiment. People repeat the refrain over and over: don’t read the comments. While I understand that reading and engaging with the comments can be incredibly exhausting and that not everyone is up for the task, I am troubled by the active discouraging of people who want to engage from engaging if they so choose.

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I am going to use the above meme to illustrate what I find to be dismissive and dangerous about the “just don’t deal with the comments” argument. The meme embodies exactly what is wrong with the sentiments expressed by those who keep telling everyone to never engage commenters. Again, I am not addressing those who feel better off with the choice to not engage, but those who believe that no one should engage, that engagement is an utterly unworthy goal and a waste of time.

First of all, such thinking divides people along very questionable lines. To call on people to divide the world into “haters/”jerks” (i.e. people who aren’t worth engaging) and the rest of us, (i.e. who are worth engaging) is to foster rather knee-jerk assessments of people. After all, isn’t part of the reason why “the comments” as a whole are so bad is that we’ve forgotten that it’s another human being at the other end making said comments? How exactly is stooping to the bad-comment-maker’s level and dehumanizing them going to encourage them to humanize others?

Secondly, it assumes that people who say terrible things in the comments are either commenting in bad faith or with completely unshakable certainty in the terrible beliefs they are expressing.

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?

If someone’s comment reflects a sincerely horrible belief, why do we assume that they cannot be “whispered” to? How many of us can claim that we have never held an incorrect view, one that we eventually changed thanks to being exposed to new evidence and arguments? Heck, how many of us can confidently assert that we will never eventually change a current belief because it will turn out to be wrong? We all have believed, said, and done things of which, in hindsight, we are properly ashamed. We are currently chagrined at their memory because at some point, something that someone said got to us in some way and led us to our currently reformed states. Sure, a single comment is unlikely to change someone’s worldview, but to aim for such an improbable end is unrealistic in the first place.

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Commenting is, in this way, like debating a theist. You don’t do it expecting someone to instantly declare to you that they agree with you and are ready to fully renounce their past views. Instead, you’re calling on your opponent and their sympathizers in the audience to examine their views more closely. Furthermore, you’re debating more for the benefit of the doubters in your audience than in the hopes of your opponent recanting.

Lastly, and most importantly, enforcing disengagement from the comments allows the very people anti-comment types brand “haters” and “jerks” to win the Internet. It becomes their space to spew their bile in a completely unchecked fashion. This is especially true when people advise others to not only refrain from reading the comments, but also to steer entirely clear of certain parts of the Internet. The logic goes something like this: “everybody knows” that YouTube comments, all default subreddits, etc. are “bad,” so just don’t go there. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. All it does is make it easy to avoid the ugliness of society. It doesn’t solve anything to allow assholes to reign unchecked on mainstream, popular websites. In the case of YouTube comments, that particular video site is the second most popular search engine in the world. That means that most people are going to use it at some point; at least some of them might look below the videos they are viewing and see what’s been posted there. As for Reddit, is it not troubling that the default subreddits there, i.e. the most popular by definition, are such cesspools? Are we really going to let what amounts to the public square of the Internet be overrun by vileness?

Of course, it pays to be selective about where we choose to engage and none is obligated to engage. All I ask is that those who choose not to engage quit pretending that any and all engagement is foolish, futile, or naive. Their personal reasons for not engaging do not erase the social need for engagement, and those of us who can and want do it ought to do it whenever possible.

If we silence ourselves, we’ve already lost.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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14 Comments

  1. Commenting is, in this way, like debating a theist. You don’t do it expecting someone to instantly declare to you that they agree with you and are ready to fully renounce their past views. Instead, you’re calling on your opponent and their sympathizers in the audience to examine their views more closely. Furthermore, you’re debating more for the benefit of the doubters in your audience than in the hopes of your opponent recanting.

    I can’t say that I 100% agree with this. Why? Well, debate online, even if in comments, can go on for some time, and its possible to address every supposed ‘fact’ some theist brings up. But, in the normal world, its going to depend on the theist. One interested in honest debate, or who simply doesn’t have a great deal of practice at it, *may* give you the chance to address a small number of issues, without going off on tangents. The “professional” ones, who always ask for debates, and set up venues to do so with you, etc., employ a method of “debate” that is rather like giving you a rolled up news paper, and then aiming a ball launcher at you, set on super fast. Their method is to overwhelm with the absurd. To deluge with so many issues, and irrelevancies, false ideas, poor logic, and crazy arguments, that you can’t win, because you can never, in the context of that single debate ***ever*** address them all.

    There is no debating such a person. All you are doing is setting yourself up, in such a context, to have them sideline what ever things you do pick out of the mess to address, and tell everyone, “But look at the thousand other things they didn’t have an answer for!” There is no debate in such cases, just an ambush. Which is why, if possible, its better to use an online venue, and one not controlled by them (and thus likely to also delete/edit comments, when they don’t like them).

    But, otherwise, yeah, its not the hardliners you are worried about, its the fence sitters, and, if you are very lucky, the occasional “rare” person that is a hardliner, but only because no one in their isolated world has ever stood up against their assertions, and addressed them. Something that, as I said, doesn’t, and very nearly cannot, happen in a live debate.

  2. Strangely, my YouTube experience is actually among the more pleasant of my online activities. Of course, I watch craft/sewing/painting vids, so I expect that has pretty much everything to do it….

  3. While I can appreciate the sentiment expressed in this piece, I do disagree with it to some degree.

    I’m guessing that the people that are likely to mount the most impassioned defense of a position are probably also a lot more likely to wade into a comments not just in spite of a “do not read the comments” warning, but probably even because of it. If anything I think that the no-comment crusade (before this I didn’t know there was such a thing) is sort of counter-productive. If anything, it might even encourage people.

    Also, I think your characterization of haters as people whom you might disagree with is just a little bit facile. There’s disagreement (like maybe what I’m doing here) and then there is hate. If you deny my identity, deny my humanity, or if you call for my elimination, that’s hate, and it has no place in rational discourse. Certainly it’s not something to be treated respected. Maybe you didn’t intended to conflate hate with disagreement, but I think there is a rather stark difference, and I’d even be offended (and have been) when people say otherwise. I say this as a transsexual women. I’m pretty confident that I know what hate looks like.

  4. I can agree that as a blanket statement ‘don’t read the comments’ is overreaching. But not engaging on unmoderated sites makes perfect sense to me. Also, I don’t debate with theists. The ones I care the most about, my family, are completely unreachable. I don’t think shouting matches of any kind are worthwhile, because they don’t accomplish anything except fomenting bad feelings. If there is no good faith in the “discussion”, then I think it’s totally fair to say don’t bother. A friend had posted something on reddit, and there were unkind comments. I went and downvoted them, but it’s on a very small page. I certainly can’t downvote all of youtube. If I vlogged, though, I’d moderate the page. I think calling for moderation is a much more effective route than arguing with shouty jerks who all seem to have more time than me, although I’m unemployed right now.

  5. There’s certainly a balance to strike, but I’ve found it very soothing to use the analogy of a party or a bar. If you’re having a nice conversation with friends, and someone starts being a jerk and generally ruining your fun, avoiding that person isn’t a violation of their freedom of speech or shutting down dialogue. It’s just avoiding a jerk with bad manners.

  6. I really really dislike that twitter account. It’s victim blaming, and should we really let shitty, toxic ideas go unchallenged and be okay with this?

    Not everything deserves a response, and one must be vigilant in engaging concern trolls that just want to waste your time, but I despise the idea that it’s the reader’s fault that people are posting garbage on the internet.

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