Sunday, September 30, 2012

Don't Talk; Communicate.

In the 2004 motion picture Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey's insightful character, Joel, makes a rather profound statement: "Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating." Joel's assertion should be broadcast across this wonderful country for all to hear, and then blasted directly into the earbuds of the internet prowlers known as blog commenters. This may be prejudiced, and altogether rude, but I always picture these commenters, especially those who hone in on political blogs, as tired, middle-aged men and women sitting in their bathrobes in their dark basements at one in the morning, eyes bloodshot and arms tired from staring at the computer, shaking their fists, and forcefully pounding out hateful comments to those brave bloggers who dare share an opinion contrary to that of said bathrobe-wearing Joe Schmo.

Now, before you get angry and so offended that you ruin your nice, hot cup of coffee, let me redeem myself by saying that I absolutely realize that my assessment is rather harsh; I don't pretend to believe that behind every comment lurks a Joe Schmo with only offensive remarks. In fact, I believe some comment conversations can be surprisingly civilized and beneficial in their discussions of a particular blog post or online article. However, all too often blog commenters sprint past the number one dilemma that should be answered before anything is posted on the internet:

From my observations, 99.99% of the time, commenters say "To post!", and the internet winds up looking something like this: 
These political cartoons accurately illustrate the frequently found hateful blog comments that tarnish the beautiful invention we call the internet. Now, I know that sounds rather histrionic, but let's face it, the internet is full of biased, opinion-based, evidence-lacking, name-calling, fallacy-ridden information. This rhetoric is what Dr. Roderick Hart refers to as "hate rhetoric." Dr. Hart argued in our interview with him on September 11, 2012 (listen here) that hate rhetoric is characterized by individuals or groups attacking others for the sake of the attack, not for the sake of the argument. In addition to this, Dr. Hart asserted that anonymity on the internet not only allows us to shake the blame for our comments, but also to publish our thoughts in a split second. With the click of a mouse and hardly a second thought, our rants and raves, and all the profanity in between, a blogger, or blog commenter, can release the inner workings of their brains to the world. 
As an example of some of the more repulsive sections of these internet comments, I'd like to share with you the website "Who Will Win The 2012 Election." This website acts as a forum, where any individual who creates a free account can write both blog posts and blog comments. In response to a satirical post titled 8 Reasons Why We Should Elect Mitt Romney for President, these three comments are found that illustrate my point exactly: 
Clearly, society is more intelligent than ever.
In all seriousness, though, this small piece of an internet "conversation" is by all accounts depressing. Instead of focusing on the issues, the blog comments attack intelligence and grammar, all the while committing the very mistakes they are lampooning. These commenters are resorting to name-calling to "prove" their arguments. What they obviously don't understand is that name-calling only proves that these folks are lazy, by the transitive property, of course. 
You see, Dr. Hart asserts in his essay "Community by Negation" that hate rhetoric, which these commenters are heavily utilizing, is easy. It allows us to think, as Dr. Hart says, "in binary." When we think in vengeful, hateful terms, we are thinking in black and white, not forcing our minds to dig deeper into the issues and examine what is truly going on, and what we believe should be done about it. Instead, we resort to shallow propaganda techniques, using ever offensive language ("retarded" is kind by comparison) to voice our opinions. These commenters, as stated previously, are attacking for the sake of the attack, not because they have something judicious to say.
A second, excellent example of blog comments gone wild, occurs in the comment section of a poll on the same website. This poll is not controversial; it simply lists the political candidates from 2011 until now and asks viewers to cast their vote for who they think should be president. And, despite the seemingly mild nature of the question, the poll gathered heated responses:
This comment section can barely even be considered a conversation. As Jim Carrey so pleasantly noted in the aforementioned quotation, these people are "talking" but they aren't communicating. It's almost surprising how easily these strangers throw insults at each other, and even take sides with strangers who apparently share similar viewpoints. Dr. Hart would amount this to the fact that, in dealing with hate rhetoric, it's easy for groups of people to pick targets who are "different." For example, if Billy, Susie, and Johnny are at the playground, and they all want to play hide-and-seek, but Timmy decides he wants to play tag, the majority is going to gang up on Timmy and "attack" his idea. This scenario is amplified on the internet; because of anonymity, people feel secure enough behind their computer screens to speak their minds without fear of repercussions. Thus, they don't feel obligated to be part of a group when voicing their opinions. So, instead of Billy, Susie, and Johnny hitting Timmy on the playground because he wants to play tag, Billy writes mean comments about Timmy, Susie insults Katie's intelligence, and Johnny calls Bobby names. These blog comment sections have turned into a chaotic mass of unintelligible "conversations" that have no merit or applicability to the post they are referencing. So often comments are riddled with language that is not only offensive, but that has no actual meaning in what the commenter is trying to say, as illustrated by this political cartoon:

In short, blog comment sections hold some of the internet's most depressing and unproductive rhetoric in society today. Harsh though that assessment may be (and ironic given the medium for this discussion), I believe it accurately sums up the most extreme version of the hate rhetoric that Dr. Hart introduced. While blogging itself can often be beneficial, especially in its ability to mobilize both people and information extremely quickly, blog commenters need to take a step back and think before hitting 'enter'. American author and online writer John Scalzi suggests running through these ten questions before posting in order to become "a better commenter":
1. Do I actually have anything to say?
2. Is what I have to say actually on topic?
3. Does what I write actually stay on topic?
4. If I’m making an argument, do I actually know how to make an argument? 
5. If I’m making assertions, can what I say be backed up by actual fact?
6. If I’m refuting an assertion made by others, can what I say be backed up by fact?
7. Am I approaching this subject like a thoughtful human being, or like a particularly stupid fan?
8. Am I being an asshole to others?
9. Do I want to have a conversation or do I want to win the thread?
10. Do I know when I’m done?
These questions force the blog commenter (or the blogger) to be infinitely more empirical about what they believe and have to say. Indeed, if everyone answered these questions honestly and still wanted to post their comments, we'd be left with a much more intellectual and respectable internet community. 
To leave you on a humorous note, I encourage you to take a look at Jon Stewart's impeccable analysis of blogs, bloggers, and blog commenters. Then, think before you comment. Hate rhetoric may be easy and satisfying, but looking at the full picture and thinking empirically will leave a better impression on the blog post, and on the internet as a whole.


  1. I appreciated your analysis of uncivilized blog comments. I especially liked how you talked about the way in which people attempt to "prove" their political points using name-calling and completely irrelevant evidence. It makes me realize that most of these outrageous blog comments have almost no substance. Rather than real arguments that have gotten out of hand, they often seem to be shouting matches only tangent to the political topics they claim to be about. Again, I thought your analysis was thought-provoking and your inclusion of comics and actual examples helped frame your argument nicely.

  2. I thought that the addition of the "Ten questions you must ask yourself before saying anything" from John Scalzi was a very smart addition to your blog post. It pointed out the issue and actually provided a solution. I agree with Brock that commentators have become "shouting matches only tangent to the political topics". All to often, I find myself looking at comments before the actual piece of literature. I also like your Jim Carrey quote. Do you think that the reason people ridicule each other is become of the anonymity? Anyways, great article!