Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 6 October 2010

Is Internet making us stoopid commenters?

The immediacy and sometimes anonymity of Internet does help turn some seemingly normal people into offensive bigots. But  should we, because of them, completely abolish our right to be offensive?

As I’ve said before, Nicholas Carr is wrong to think the Internet is making us stupid. But to hear all of my arguments for this, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a good few years. By 2014 or so, I’ll either have finished that thesis, or have somewhat refuted it by no longer being able to construct a coherent sentence, thanks to excessive exposure to the numerous distractions available on the “interwebs”.

Despite my conviction that he and others are making false claims about the long-term effects of our reliance on the Internet for communication and information, much of the evidence I have before me can’t help but make me sympathetic to his thesis.

The case in point is the recent column by Theresa Mallinson, or more accurately, some of the comments in response to her column. Reading these left me with the brief impression that I was reading one of those other South African online newspapers. The ones that seem to actively recruit racists, misogynists, anthropologists and so on to vent various forms of brain-dead and mind-numbing spleen in the comments to their articles.

It is perhaps the case that certain individuals are happy to be as offensive in person as they are behind their keyboards. Maybe the desire to engage in name-calling and personal abuse in response to someone’s opinion occurs, for some, in all interactions, whether digital or physical. Or maybe there’s something true about the notion that because I might never meet you except as a digital construct, it becomes permissible for me to engage with you as offensively as I choose.

Of course, it’s possible that a particular column could be offensive to some, and it is also possible that the author intended to offend. If this is the case, a response from readers is certainly merited, and may also be desirable. You might hope to dissuade an author from expressing certain sentiments in certain ways, or you might even hope to dissuade a publication from giving offensive sentiments a platform.

But neither of these goals is likely to be achieved by being offensive in response to perceived offense. In other words, abuse in response to someone else’s opinions or arguments is usually not a sound strategy – it doesn’t accomplish anything more interesting than telling other readers that you’re an insecure bully.

I am not saying that we need always be polite and respectful. Many ideas are deserving of no respect at all and we can justifiably struggle to respect a person when it appears that all or most of their ideas fit this description. But one starts – or should start – with attempts at reason and persuasion, because it is precisely the failure of those strategies that provides any possible legitimacy to ridicule.

In other words, because all other strategies for asserting the superiority of your own view have failed, you might feel inclined to abusing another or another’s views. It’s not necessarily defensible to do so, but it’s certainly more defensible, in that you can point to the fact that he or she has had every opportunity to hear reason and to change his or her mind, but is too stupid to get the point.

Even this is problematic. Because if you are right and your opponent is genuinely too stupid or uninformed to see sense on a particular issue, should we not be more sympathetic to their obvious handicaps instead of poking fun at them? Perhaps they genuinely can’t help themselves and actually can’t understand your incredulity at the notion that the world might be 6,000 years old, nor any of the arguments against such absurdities.

For a perfect illustration of this, watch (or re-watch) the infamous video of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort explaining how the banana is proof of intelligent design. The example is of two men revelling in an astounding level of ignorance, refusing to adhere to even the simplest rules of logic. In Comfort’s case, I know this has been pointed out to him, repeatedly. Is there a point at which ridiculing him for these points of view is similar to laughing at people in wheelchairs?

If it’s true that I cannot fix the paralysis of your lower limbs by ridiculing them, perhaps it is also sometimes true that I can’t rid you of idiotic beliefs by calling you names. The complication, of course, is that sometimes ridicule does work and it can do so in two distinct ways. First, it might be the case that you’re stubborn rather than intellectually handicapped, and that the ridicule might shame you into doing some thinking.

Second, it could be the case that while you’re a lost cause on whom neither reason nor ridicule can have any effect, we’ve actually long-since stopped caring about you. Instead, we ridicule you to show others how foolish your views are and, thereby, to dissuade them from holding those views themselves. We also, of course, hope to dissuade all others from breeding with you, so as to further minimise the chances of there being more people like you in the future.

So I do reserve my right to be offensive, even though I might – and hope to – choose to use that right responsibly. As Theodore Dalrymple reminds us in his “Thank you for not expressing yourself”, “The immediacy of the response which the Internet makes possible also means that people are able to vent their spleen in a way which was not possible, or likely, before. The putting of pen to paper, to say nothing of the act of posting the resultant letter, requires more deliberation than sitting at a computer and firing off an angry email or posting on a website.”

This, I believe, captures the essence of when it is permissible rather than gratuitously offensive to resort to abuse: Would you have said the same things in an old-fashioned letter to the editor? Would you say the same thing to the columnist in person, if you were to meet him at a dinner party? If yes, I say go ahead. But if not, perhaps you should do yourself and all of us a favour, and simply shut up. DM