Internet comments: the poisoned well

Connor Wood

I didn’t really expect Gemli from the New York Times to have a change of heart last week after I called out his/her comments as examples of internet intolerance. Of course, I didn’t expect Gemli to even find or read my post, either, but he or she did – so that’s something! Predictably, no minds were changed in the discussion that ensued here at Patheos, and Gemli signed off without acknowledging that maybe it would be better not to refer to conservative congresspeople as cannibals. Sigh. Such is life.

The problem is not that congresspeople shouldn’t be taken to task. They should be. The problem, instead, is that Gemli’s comments – and a disheartening proportion of the other “most popular” comments in the New York Times – convey the impression that it’s obvious, even axiomatic, that conservative columnists such as David Brooks are not acting in good faith. If David Brooks says something, such commenters automatically assume that it is dangerous and sinister – because David Brooks said it. It’s circular reasoning driven up by unreflective ideology. (And as I wrote last week, these kneejerk ideological reflexes are just as bad – actually, let’s be honest, often way, way worse – among conservative commenters at places like Fox News, so this isn’t a one-sided thing.)

Now, take a gander at recent research suggesting that highly negative comments inspire readers to react in much more polarized ways to the actual subjects of news articles. To invent an example, if a website published an article about tax breaks for solar energy and all the comments were pleasant or neutral, then readers would generally – it seems – be able to weigh the arguments for and against those tax breaks with equanimity and come to reasonable conclusions. (My hope would be that they’d support them). But if many of the comments were abusive, nasty, or name-calling, then the readership would quickly split along partisan lines – in this case, meaning that progressives would support the tax breaks and conservatives reject them.

The upshot? Antagonistic or mean-spirited comments are not merely throwaways that no one actually reads, as some have argued. In reality, internet comments have a profound influence on the way readers respond to the issues.

After reading an article on an important topic, a reader has an invaluable opportunity to ask herself questions, to roll around new ideas in her head, to try out the different perspectives to see how they fit. These are the first steps to building a worthwhile opinion, founded on critical engagement with the subject matter.

But if the majority of the comments after the article give no benefit of the doubt, if they convey the unmistakeable impression that one side is simply not acting in good faith, then nearly all readers will simply fall defensively into their default ideologies – liberals will take up the “liberal” stance, conservatives the “conservative” one. If there was anything to be gained by exploring the new ideas and comparing them to one another, the opportunity to do so is lost.

Gemli’s comments assume, of course, that everything is already decided, that there is no benefit to be had from considering new ideas if they come from conservatives. For Gemli, the battle lines are drawn between the side of Good (urbane, educated, blue-state, progressive, liberal, secular) and the side of Evil (rural, red-state, religious, conservative, traditionalist). This is, of course, the type of exclusionary rhetoric we see in wartime (“Never trust a Russian!”) It springs from the assumption that there is nothing more to be gained from discourse, that the well has been poisoned and the only thing now is fight.

But is the well poisoned? My guiding belief, as attested to abundantly on this blog, is that conservative and liberal perspectives are complementary, and necessary for a society to thrive. Progressives understand the danger of entrenched power systems, and are the champions of cultural and creative innovation. It’s the progressive or liberal spirit that encourages a society to try out new social forms, to try to level inequality, to apply the acid bath of critical questioning to time-wearied traditions. Progressives understand that large, impersonal social systems can have horribly oppressive effects on real, individual people, and that systemic violence such as racism genuinely alters the odds of success in life. They also intuit accurately the ways that traditions and religions set up boundaries between groups, and they courageously challenge those boundaries.

Conservatives, meanwhile – not so much the libertarians, but traditionalists and religious conservatives – understand that cultures take a tremendous amount of time and energy to build, and that social order is never to be taken for granted. If enough traditions are discarded, if the bonds of continuity between generations are completely severed, then chaos threatens. And social chaos is not fun. My particular interest in traditionalism comes from recognizing the hidden but powerful ways that religion orders and structures culture, for example by placing ritualized constraints on individuals’ autonomy and desires in order to build up the discipline it takes to be a reliable member of a community. Religious believers understand the necessity of such social sculpting in a way that secular thinkers generally don’t.

The thing is, both of these perspectives are immensely useful for understanding today’s social realities. David Brooks and his ilk, of course, stress the “tradition and religion” angle. For example, Brooks often argues that declining marriage rates and booming out-of-wedlock births bode ill for the lower and working classes. This is plainly true. Marriage is a ritualized relationship. Rituals, as a rule, clarify and enforce social obligations. Marriage thus encourages a level of commitment and investment that living together or hooking up simply can’t match; this commitment, in turn, greatly increases the odds of children’s success. The hollowing out of marriage among the less-advantaged classes thus means that future generations in those communities are going to be even more unstable. This is bad for everybody, especially the kids who are going to grow up with absent dads and harried, impoverished moms.

(Note that this conservative perspective stresses investment barriers. Traditionalism of all kinds intuitively understands that if people are free to enter and exit relationships as they choose, those relationships will be as reliable as a used-car salesman in a TV movie. Marriage, by erecting legal and ritual barriers against easy escape, keeps people from fleeing the relationship whenever things get a little rough. The result is lasting, if imperfect, relationships, and – on average – moms and dads who actually stick around.)

But the progressive or liberal view has its own contributions that are every bit as valuable and cutting. Are we just supposed to blame lower-class folks for abandoning marriage and other social traditions, and bringing chaos upon themselves? No way. Systemic oppression really is operating here. Why would you choose to embark on a high-investment lifestyle – marriage, college, 2.5 kids – when everywhere you look you see signs that you’re not going to ever earn more than 20k, and will therefore never have anything substantial to invest? Why would you try to become part of the established social system when that very system has thrown many of your family members in jail for years – for absurdly minor drug offenses? Why would you hold out for sex with a marriageable partner when, because of structural injustice, nobody in your social circle has the means or opportunity to get educated, earn a decent living, put down roots?

You have to deeply inhabit both of these perspectives in order to gain a handle on the truth. Traditions give people the tools and the instructions for putting down roots. But big, impersonal social systems can determine whether it’s sensible, or even possible, to do so. We can’t fix just one side of this thing. We have to work on both – which means being genuinely open to the insights that each offers.

This matters. It’s not just an interesting theoretical topic. If we were allowed to actually compare the different ideas and ideological interpretations we encounter each day on their own merits, we might come to some generalized agreements, or at least compromises, about where things ought to be heading in this country and how to solve our biggest problems. But this isn’t likely to happen as long as the general tenor of public conversation is spoiled by invectives, name-calling, and the taken-for-granted assumption that no one can afford to give the Other Guys the slightest benefit of the doubt.


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