I’m sitting in my home, at my dining room table — which, at the moment, is doubling as my office. My laptop is open in front of me. My coffee is hot. My daughter’s at school; my husband is working. The dog is sleeping. The parrot is preening. The house is perfectly quiet and peaceful.
I log onto the Internet and opened Disqus — the portal into the comment section of my two-month-old blog here at Patheos. I haven’t read the comments in a while, and there are many new ones. Many for me anyway. I read some, and suddenly the peacefulness of my house is overwhelmed by voices. Angry voices.
Irritation, frustration, condescension and disrespect are evident. Some commenters use all caps to emphasize their points — the literary version of shouting. They’re not all shouting at me; most have turned on each other. One commenter, then the other. Back and forth. Lobbing tennis balls over the net, each claiming the point.
Sometimes they throw balls at me. “What you do is horrid,” one man tells me. “Its rape of the child’s soul. I hope you see it some day, because you are a shuttle-bus driver to hell for more souls than your own.”
But mostly their arguments are unrelated to my personal opinions. Mostly they’re just relentless debates between believers and nonbelievers over evidence (and lack thereof) of various beliefs. These are, to me, the least interesting of all debates, anywhere, ever.
On the Disqus dashboard, I click on one of the most offensive commenters. Let’s say he goes by “rob,” because he actually does and who am I protecting? There is a bit of information that comes up. Lower-case rob joined Disqus 295 days ago. He’s logged 644 comments. Fifty-two people have “flagged” him. One has marked his posts as “spam.”
Then, along with all that, is a little box marked “Blacklist.” That’s where my eyes are comfortably settled right now.
When I moved my secular-parenting blog over to the massive faith machine that is Patheos, I knew to expect big changes.
Before that, I’d been blogging on my own for three years, and the growth of the blog had been slow, steady and relatively painless. My regular commenters were people who had come to know me and my philosophy. They seemed to appreciate my middle-of-the-road approach to the subject of religion. They liked that I was a proud, outspoken nonreligious person who was neither anti-religious nor intolerant of views that differed from my own. Many of the comments and letters of gratitude that I received stayed with me, as I suspect they do for all bloggers. For so many of us, our payment is emotional, rather than financial.
But here I was, moving over to a website often called “the WebMD of religion and spirituality.” Patheos was known to host hundreds of blogs, and the Atheist Channel — where I would write — was, by far, the most popular. Hemant Mehta’s blog, The Friendly Atheist, might receive millions of hits in a single month. While I didn’t aspire to that level of success, the potential for rapid growth was obvious.
The potential for criticism was obvious, too. It’s religion, after all; no matter what you say, people will disagree with you. And here, I’d be exposed to a whole new cast of characters — or, rather, they’d be exposed to me. I was up for the challenge. Plus, I was several months from releasing my first book, and the timing was ideal.
Back in my living room, most of the coffee has disappeared from my mug. It’s time to refresh. But I’m stuck in Disqus Hell.
These comments, I think to myself. This is not what I am about. These people are not my people. And are my people not commenting because they don’t want to be seen with the assholes? Have I traded my lively cocktail party for a frat-party rager?
My cursor is hovering above the blacklist button — and I am about to click on it because, fuck it, I’m tired of the shouting. As the host of this decidedly un-fun party, maybe I even have a responsibility to shut it down.
But then I stop — because what am I doing? Wouldn’t blacklisting this dude be censorship? Would I not be accused of silencing voices with which I disagree? And would that not be just a little bit true? And, moreover, some of the people I am tempted to blacklist are probably very nice people. In real life, lower-case rob may not even be an asshole. Maybe he just has bad days sometimes. I have them, too. I’m not always super-sensitive. I can be sarcastic and condescending sometimes. I’m not always my kindest self. I get drawn into arguments the way other people do.
And where would I draw the line? Even if rob needs to go, what about those slightly less relentless, or slightly less nasty, folks? I don’t want to cast myself as intolerant of honest debate.
So do I go the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye route, or the New Testament turn-the-other-cheek route? What is the greater good here? Or is there one? I know I’m not the first blogger to ever confront this issue. I’m not even the millionth.
My cursor is poised.
To click or not to click, that is the question.