I get into a lot of fights on the internet. This is not surprising: I have Strong Opinions about many things, and, having changed my own views after reading certain arguments on numerous occasions, I’m a big believer in the power of discussion to change hearts and minds. The internet and people both being what they are, these fights aren’t always the most civil affairs, and sometimes the rhetorical intensity escalates alarmingly. When it does, there’s one thing I try to do that frequently seems to steer things back towards calmer waters: I try to pass the pertinent Ideological Turing Test.Read More
We all know it. It's rule No. 1 of the internet: Don't Read The Comments.
Most often, this is because the comments section is infested with trolls, people spewing racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of hateful bile. (Hence Lewis's Law: The comments on any article about feminism demonstrate the necessity of feminism.) While it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a given commenter is earnest but confused as opposed to flat-out trolling, I think most people would agree that there's little point in engaging those in the latter category.
Sometimes, tho, the comments will actually be on point, there will be an actual discussion of the issues going on, with people on both sides arguing in good faith. And sometimes, especially when the discussion involves the fundamental human rights of an oppressed group, the people in these comment threads, usually those who are members of the oppressed group in question, will become visibly hurt and angry. This can manifest in caps-lock-laden declarations ("I'M SO FUCKING DONE WITH THIS") or sardonic mockery ("lol, misandry"), but either way, they are often then accused of being "immature" or otherwise criticized for not carrying on a "reasoned, dispassionate intellectual debate" about issues that affect them on a deeply personal level.
I'm sure many of you reading this are familiar with a slew of defenses of this behavior (the angry, hurt commenting, not the criticism thereof). Members of oppressed groups are, you know, oppressed, and asking them to set aside the genuine hurt that they feel for the sake of a "calm" debate about their fundamental rights is pretty gross. (If you want a more thoro explanation of this concept, look up "tone policing" and have a field day. tl;dr: If your commitment to, say, "basic human rights for trans people" is contingent upon trans people being nice to you, people are probably right to question how deep that commitment really is.) This is all old hat.
Today I want to take a different tack.
I have never been a heavy commenter. At times, tho, I have been a heavy comment reader, especially back in middle school and high school, when I had different priorities involving how to use my free time. These were dark days indeed, my friends, when I didn't understand what feminism was, still thought I was heterosexual, and was kinda homophobic to boot. (What can I say? I had a lot to learn.) But still, I'd often wind up reading long comment threads about these issues, rife with some people arguing calmly and logically for whatever it was (gay marriage crops up a lot in my memory, but it could have been for any of a number of other issues) and others raging in anger and hurt.
And I have to say, it was the latter category that gave me the most pause.
Because carefully reasoned arguments? Sure, if you're being strictly methodical and intensely rational, those can be hard to overcome. But if you're reading quickly, just trying to get a feel for the positions? It is very easy to just go "Eh . . . maybe. I don't really care enough to tease it out and put my finger on it precisely, but I feel like there's something I disagree with buried in there, so I'm not going to accept that position as my own. And reasonable people disagree about things all the time, so like whatever.". But people screaming with hurt? People so upset by these positions that they could do nothing but cry out in frustration and rage? That's a lot hard to dismiss. Those comments made me hold myself accountable. "OK," I would think to myself, "If you're going to continue to hold a position that is this upsetting to this many people, you had better be damn sure that you can answer every objection to it." Those comments made me go back and do the careful, methodical work of trying to pick holes in the opposition.
And often I couldn't. Often, the discomfort I felt reading those arguments wasn't the discomfort of a hidden logical flaw but was instead the discomfort of realizing that I held a homophobic (or sexist or racist or . . . ) position and being confronted with the necessity of change. I never would have done that work if it hadn't been for those angry comments. In all likelihood, I would still be the sexist, racist, homophobic jerk I was in middle school. (I am not claiming to have completely rid myself of any of these ideologies. But to the extent that I have gotten better about them, I feel a pretty direct causal link to angry people commenting on the internet.)
Many of the attacks on tone policing that I've seen quietly abandon this point. I've read too many articles that, while offering a full-throated defense of the acceptability and necessity of unapologetic, confrontational outrage, tacitly seem to cede that these angry comments don't win over allies. Winning over allies isn't the goal of every debate, nor should it be, but even when it is, I maintain that calm, dispassionate comments are not the only kind that are helpful.
Because when you're commenting in a public or semi-public forum, you're not only engaging with the other commenters. You're also leaving a record for other people just passing by. Snark and fury may not directly convince the person posting counterarguments, but they can have a powerful effect on people lurking on the sidelines. I'm not arguing that everyone should scream all the time in every context; I am merely offering another defense of its use that I often see get short shrift.
So if you're thinking of tone policing: 1) Don't do it, because it only ever serves to further oppression and 2) Remember that there are people who read without commenting. It isn't always about you.