Comments Sections and the Death of Civilization
In my forty-plus years on Earth, I have witnessed many phenomena that someone, somewhere posited as the death-knell of the American Empire, western civilization, even the world—Feminism, Civil Rights, rock and roll, pornography, punk rock couture, secularization, country music, Republicans, goth fashion, communism, hip-hop, Democrats, rich people, poor people, gay marriage and/or adoption, nuclear proliferation, socialism, capitalism, Sarah Palin. My paternal grandparents, I was once told, firmly believed that the Beatles signaled the end of the world, and all those guys wanted to do most of the time was hold your hand or smoke a little pot. My parents stood aghast at posters of KISS, Black Sabbath, Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, ad infinitum. Conservative white people everywhere freaked out (some still do) at gangsta rap, at Public Enemy, at Kanye West and Jay-Z. And those are just a few examples from music. Add in politics, movies, television, religion, and so forth, and we’ve seen many potential Ends of the World.
Me? I think the death knell of civilization as we conceive of it might just be websites’ comments sections.
I’ve said this before elsewhere, but I’m serious about it. If you ever want to feel better about your personality, your knowledge, your attitude, and your command of the English language, go read the comments section on a website. If you can make it past the pre-K spelling and punctuation, the scathing vituperation of even the most innocuous text, the name-calling, and the blatant disregard for other human beings, you’ll find that only one in twenty posts has anything approaching an original, critical, debatable, intriguing idea.
Website comments sections are where manners, good grammar, empathy, and healthy debate go to die.
I’ve often said that the best thing about the Internet is that it provides an instantaneous, democratic forum in which anyone with the ability to find a connected computer can speak out, use their voices, contribute to the national dialogue. And the worst thing about the Internet is that it provides an instantaneous, democratic forum in which anyone with the ability to find a connected computer can speak out, use their voices, and contribute to the national dialogue. I try my hardest to avoid the comments sections these days (except my own, which have yet to be overtaken by sub-literate trolls with an axe to grind), but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I’ll read an article and wonder what people think about it—the ideas, the implications, the different ways we might understand it, how it might help connect us to each other and to our culture.
But for every thoughtful, eloquent post, you’ll find fifteen or twenty that say nothing at all. And if you’ve never had the displeasure of slogging through such comments, believe me when I say that these “writers” say nothing at the tops of their lungs, and in language that would make Noam Chomsky weep, if not jump off the nearest bridge.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a pay-per-view scheduled during the first week of August. It’s one of those shows that seem cursed; training injuries have caused several fights to be shuffled as opponents come in and drop out. The co-main event was cancelled altogether. But the main event itself attained a new level of intrigue when Phil Davis, and up-and-coming but currently limited fighter, had to drop out of his fight with former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. In Davis’ place, the UFC called on Tito Ortiz, another former light heavyweight champion and one of the sports’ pioneers. Ortiz recently won his first fight in five years, a shocking submission victory over young lion Ryan Bader. Ortiz suffered no damage in the fight, so he was healthy enough and suddenly hot enough to plug into a main event, even at short notice.
Here are some of the comments on the UFC article announcing the replacement. I have copied and pasted these without correcting anything.
An initial post: “need to bring lidell back for 1 more just to put tito back on the bottom where he belongs!”
A reply to that one: “fuck dat nigga chuck [note: Liddell is white.]. where is he at …getting drunk while the hated Tito Ortiz is trying pretty f*****g hard 2 prove everybody that he still has that drive n ppl still doubt him???cmon ppl grow up. look same situation wit rashad, although rashad talked shit 2 rampage n everybody hated him 4 that, …HE BACKED IT UP!!! n dont get me wrong I LUV RAMPAGE . HE IS PURE NATURAL BEAST . IDK BOUT U GUYS BUT I THINK U SHOULD JUDGE PPL BY THEIR PERFORMANCES N SAME GOES 4 CHAEL SONNEN, HE TALKED SHIT BUT HE WHOOPED THE LIVING FUCK OUT OF ANDERSON SILVA!!!! just sayin “
Another initial post: “tittoooooo is going to get knocked the fuck out.”
A reply: “Tito never been ko idiot!!!..”
Another: “Guess you don’t watch UFC. Chuck knocked him out.”
Another: “your right he just gets hit and puss’s out or plays possum.”
This is discourse? The paradigm seems to go like this: Person A makes a short comment in the most aggressive manner possible. Person B calls that person an idiot (or stupid, uninformed, retarded) for having an opinion different from his/her own. Persons C, D, and E take up the conversation in kind, burying any salient points in badly-spelled text message-speak, all-caps shouting, curse words that add nothing to the debate other than more unnecessary aggression. Even those who seemingly agree with you couch their posts in the language of back-handed compliments or out-and-out dismissal.
People talk at each other, not to each other. They turn into keyboard warriors, ready to get in someone’s face and denigrate that person’s intelligence, knowledge, personality, and reason to live, none of which they would be likely to do in person, even late at night in a sports bar. As a result, you can feel your own IQ lowering with each comment you read. And your own aggression might rise as you realize how many truly stupid, wasteful people exist in the world.
Ah, but this sort of thing isn’t limited to websites dedicated to sports where people beat the crap out of each other. Here are some comments on Entertainment Weekly’s recent review of the film Horrible Bosses, which critic Lisa Schwarzbaum (whom I admire) liked enough to give an A-.
“Funny this movie just dosen’t look that good to me. I’ll wait to rent it.” (Not a stupid comment or an offensively mean one, but doesn’t it miss the opportunity to start an interesting, helpful discussion? Why not tell us WHY the movie doesn’t look that good?)
“I was planning on seeing this movie anyways but now that Lisa has approved it, I will for sure be checking it out Friday night !” (Good for you—you said something positive! However, I’d still like to know WHY you trust Lisa so much. When has she been right in your opinion, and why? How often do you think she’s wrong? Why follow her recommendation without question? And if you have reasons for following, why not share them? You might enlighten at least one hater out there. Speaking of which…)
“There’s only one word this trash: Stupidity. And yet, you give it an A-? This is exactly why I don’t listen to critics.” (Why is it trash? Why is it stupid—because you say so? Who are you, and what are your qualifications? How is this one review somehow indicative of every critic’s entire oeuvre?)
“A- really??? For this crass, hopelessly broad unsubtle, uncleverly potty humor (literally) filled toilet of a film? Makes The Hangover 2 look like Dostoyevsky. That bad, despite the cast.” (This one at least intrigues me, but I’d still like to know what specifically strikes you as crass, or broad, or unsubtle, or unclever (is that a word?). Also, you assume that we didn’t like The Hangover 2 and that we do like Dostoyevsky. You’ve got my attention; now tell me more.)
Of course, EW.com readers have a hard character limit for their comments, so there’s only so much they can do. But can’t we do better than this? Here’s one that goes into more detail, but falls into the UFC commenters’ problems with unnecessary rudeness:
“I saw “Horrible Bosses” at a sneak preview and enjoyed it a lot, but an A- is goddamn generous to the point of pandering. There was a lot of room for improvement, and a lot a reasons it won’t hold up to the films of Mike Judge. BTW, let’s remember that you gave “Midnight in Paris,” a likely Best Picture nominee, a grade B. Recalling why, your main gripe/reason was that Paris was too pretty, and more glamourized than it actually is. Do you think in a comic fantasy that Paris should be ugly? Duh.”
See, why do we have to do these kinds of things to each other? I don’t have a problem with the foul language per se; I just don’t think it’s necessary to make the point and thus may turn readers away from your more salient criticisms. The “duh” at the end basically says that the critic is stupid. Why is that necessary? Why not just call attention to a potential flaw in her reasoning? Why do we have to use our keyboards like talons to rip at each other? This writer starts out by saying that he liked the film but spends the rest of the post attacking the critic. By the way—“likely Best Picture nominee” doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves more than a B, given the eclecticism of tastes and the expanded Best Picture field.
I could have added a “you dumbass” or a “as anybody who knows anything would tell you,” but that would just antagonize people unnecessarily. We can make a point without bashing others over the head with it. We can talk to other people, even on the Internet, as if they are human beings who should be respected, at least until they prove that they don’t deserve it. And disagreeing with us is not a sufficient reason for disrespect.
If the world ended today and, sometime later, an alien found only comments sections with which to judge the human race, he or she would likely characterize us as a savage, isolated people with little grasp of language, manners, or respect. And then he or she would probably not be surprised when discovering that we regularly blow each other up, join political parties more interested in beating each other about the heads and shoulders than in serving us, shoot each other over parking spaces and baseball games, and marginalize/oppress/kill those who are different from us.
Language matters. Courtesy matters. Rational thought and meaningful debate matter. The Internet has given us a cheap, easily-accessible forum for using these tools. And we’re squandering it.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.