I listen to the radio all night. (I can’t be left alone in the dark with my own thoughts.) I did the same when I lived in the USA. The fare there was usually crazier than on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, which made it, of course, far more entertaining. (Like Donald Trump, for us lucky non-Americans.) I remember one interviewee indignantly justifying killing his wife and burying her on a mountainside because she hadn’t had his dinner on the table on time (‘well, what would you have done?’) – though I suspect that was a wind-up. Another interviewee, however, was deadly serious. The programme was a ‘phone-in’ about the British and American bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Someone mentioned the London Blitz of 1940. A caller maintained that this was launched in retaliation for the Dresden bombing. What interested me was his refusal to accept that he must have been wrong, in view of the chronology. This could not simply be a ‘matter of opinion.’ ‘But I’m a free American,’ he riposted, ‘and can believe whatever I like.’
This is true on one level, of course, but rather discouraging for those of us who believe in free rational debate. At the time I comforted myself by reflecting that this was probably a particularly American kind of libertarianism. It couldn’t happen in Britain, or at least not on so wide a scale as I met it nearly every day in America. That thought helped me to get to sleep at last. It is only in the past 5-10 years that I have – metaphorically speaking – been cruelly woken out of this illusion. The agency of this enlightenment – my vision on the road to Damascus – has been the internet, and in particular the discussions that go on ‘below the line’ (btl) of some quite sensible and rational posts. They have revealed to me the rank stupidity of a far larger proportion of the population than I had ever suspected. The shock of this has begun to undermine my belief in democracy, no less.
I recognise the flaws in this argument. (I try to be a rational being, after all.) Firstly, I was clearly being naive in not spotting this before btl started up. Stupid comments probably made up a majority of print editors’ post-bags, before editors edited them out for publication. (I’ve not been an editor, so I didn’t know that.) So it’s not new. The other flaw is that I could very well be over-estimating both the numbers and the significance of these trolls. (Is that the right word?) Maybe they only amount to a few hundred, after all. My initial suspicion, inferred from both the content and the style of their contributions, was that most of them must be pimply adolescents darkly crouched over their computers in their rooms when their mothers think they’re revising or tucked up in bed. That reassured me for one reason: if they were adolescents, it meant they didn’t have the vote. If the political fate of my country depended on large numbers of voters whose only contribution to any political discussion was ‘Osborne is a wanker’ (even if I might agree with them on this), it seemed a bit scary. But I’m starting to think that this is exactly the situation we’re in. ‘I’m a free Briton’ (or whatever). ‘I can spout any nonsense I like.’
I imagine that more worldly people than I have been aware of this for years. The whole political propaganda industry, after all, must be predicated on it, or at least allow for it. It’s dangerous for politicians openly to belittle the rationality of their electorate, for fear of being dismissed as elitists or snobs. The question is, whether they exploit the ignorance (like Trump, though he may well believe what he spouts), or try to combat it, or at least to divert it into more sensible paths. And then, of course, my pimply adolescents may be more of a minority than they appear btl. In which case we can all relax.
Perhaps the btl phenomenon has simply revealed what has always been there, under the surface, in which case it could be said to be performing a valuable service in shaking us naïfs out of our illusions. On the other hand I wonder whether it doesn’t also partly create the problem, in two ways. One is that it gives people the idea that it’s OK to express their views in print, on anything at all, whether they have any special knowledge of the area or not. As an author, essayist, reviewer and occasional blogger, I’ve made it a rule not to comment publicly – even btl – on anything I don’t have a particular expertise in, which would enable me, therefore, to contribute. This blog may be the first time I’ve broken this rule; except that of course I do have some close knowledge of btl, having been ignorantly traduced there a number of times. (One comment on the LRB blog thought I was a BNP supporter; a more recent Guardian one surmised that I must be a physical ‘coward’. Well, I may be: I hope not but I’ve not yet had my courage tested under fire; but there was no way he or she could have inferred that from the article they were commenting on.) That’s not the reason for my discontent, however. (Whoever reads these comments? I don’t, any longer.) The main one is the stupidity and ignorance displayed in so many of them, which offends against my rational delusions, or what Graham Wallas long ago called (in Human Nature in Politics, 1908) the ‘intellectualist assumption’ of people like me. And that’s because they’re encouraged, by the opportunity btl gives them, to think that their views are worth anything.
The other contribution of blogsites to this trait is that they seek these opinions instantaneously, and allow them to be offered anonymously. ‘Instantaneous’ means that btl bloggers don’t have to give themselves time to think. Sometimes it appears that they don’t even give themselves time to read the articles they are commenting on. A single word near the beginning might set off a stream of prejudice. (That’s my experience, in the cases I cited.) Anonymity – or more accurately, pseudonymity, often under pen-names that themselves attest to their writers’ immaturity – means that they can’t be held to task for what they write. There may be excuses for anonymity in certain cases: for whistle-blowers, for example, or people fearing violence on account of their views. For most people, however, the only reason for using a pseudonym is to allow them to write any nonsense without comeback – except from other pseudonymous bloggers on the same site. But – to return to our stupid American radio show caller-in – as well as being ‘free’ to say what you want, you should be ‘responsible’ for it. The other way really is a ‘coward’s’ way; the equivalent of ‘anonymous letters’ in a past age, when they were always rightly despised. Why aren’t they any more?
A final thought. It’s just as well my blog has scarcely any ‘followers’, or this post too might attract dozens of silly responses btl. As well of course as some intelligent and useful ones – not all bloggers are idiots; but I haven’t got time these days to separate these from the chaff.
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Being relatively new to this game, I was delighted when I found that WordPress allow me to moderate comments before they appear. One problem with other blogsites is that they hardly seem to be moderated at all, which means that one has to trawl through hundreds – sometimes even thousands – of dross in order to find the pearls. (I’m referring here mainly to newspaper sites.) Clearly this blog is unlikely to attract the sort of rubbish I’m writing about here, which means that, yes, we can have some worthwhile discussions.
My objection to pseudonyms still stands. Of course they’re justified in some cases, as I said; but they much more frequently serve as excuses for flinging abuse, or even just plain silliness, without any redress. The commentators know who I am; I feel I should know who they are too. That’s fair. Otherwise,as I say, the practice is merely cowardly. For this reason, I never reply to pseudonymous comments.
It’s interesting that the only comments I’ve had on this blog so far have been about blogging. I wonder what – if anything – that indicates?
Perhaps I can suggest an alternative view of pseudonyms. When I began my blog Languagehat in 2002, I was employed by a corporation which might well have looked askance on my publishing material, however well written and however removed from the dangerous topics of politics, religion, and commerce, that did not reflect its corporate identity, so I kept my real name hidden and posted there and elsewhere as “languagehat.” It became a fairly well-known moniker in various online venues, so that even when I began freelancing and no longer had to worry about revealing my real name (which is Steve Dodson, as is clearly stated on the sidebar of my blog) I kept posting comments under it, because that way people would know who I was, whereas my real name would mean nothing to them. As a consequence, and ironically, it would actually do more damage to my reputation to publish insults or absurdities as “languagehat” than as “Steve Dodson”; it is my pseudonymous good name that is at stake.
I came here because I saw your reaction to blog comments back in 2011 at the LRB, and so I may be shouting down the proverbial rain barrel in the middle of Afghanistan. But ignorance and folly are not confined to the comments section. There are plenty of people in universities, both students and (alas) faculty, whose ignorance — more to the point, whose will to ignorance — is on exactly the same level, though not so publicly expressed. (Indeed, your own remarks about the high table at Cambridge make it clear that you know that.) Nevertheless it would be idle to deny, as Dorothy Sayers said in a slightly different connection, that sense and learning are also to be found in universities, if one knows where to look.
I myself manage to read a fair number of low-volume blogs (only one posts as often as daily). Some of these don’t allow comments for one or another reason, and I am sometimes regretful about this, because I often believe I have a useful contribution I’d like to make. But the rest, the ones I care most about, are the homes of genuine discussions, involving not only the blogger but a community of interested and highly knowledgeable commentators, often scholars in the same or another field, or amateurs who are both keen and highly informed. The occasional troll may enter, but is generally shown the door by the patient and (for the most part) united efforts of the community. The resulting discussions are a delight, one that I would never be able to participate in otherwise with my student days far behind me and no present connection to academia. I don’t name names here (though I will on request) because your tastes in subject matter aren’t likely to be the same as mine, but they all have far more light than heat: comments are passionately expressed, but the passion is informed by either actual learning or an actual spirit of inquiry. Who can beat that?