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.
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.
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.