Thursday, January 9, 2014

Online comments - gentility, grace ... and censorship?

The Vancouver Sun reported this week that online news providers -- like AOL, Huffington Post and others -- are taking steps to tone down some of the rhetoric in comments regarding stories. The growth of social media like blogs and Twitter has coincided with (or contributed to) the rise of the Age of Nasty. Having been part of TransLink's cutting-edge rise in direct communications with the public, I've seen how easy it is for someone to launch a day-destroying (or even job-destroying) salvo and then duck-and-cover.

The main part of the solution described in the Sun article is exactly what we need: require commenters to use their right names. Nothing tones down rhetoric like making someone publicly accountable for their words. My mother used to advise me, "never say anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the New York Times", and there were moments in my career in broadcast and media relations that I rather wished I'd remembered that.

But the part that gives me concern is the suggestion that moderators on these sites screen out "offensive" comments: you know - racism, bigotry, violence, etc., etc. I get the notion of preventing blowhards from dominating a conversation or ensuring the follow-up discourse stays on-topic, but monitoring against "offensiveness" smacks of censorship. I've long maintained (and believe me, I used to be all-for stifling people whose views didn't square with my own) that truth is its own defense and doesn't need to hide behind rules and regulations. One person's bigotry may be another person's strongly-held belief; it's only when those beliefs are aired-out fairly that the truth becomes clearer.

About 20 years ago, the late Sam Kinison brought his standup comedy act to Victoria. A crowd of protesters -- including the Member of Parliament at the time -- picketed the Royal Theatre, demanding the show be shut down. I went to review it for Monday magazine, which at the time was an "alternative" weekly. "Are you going in?" I asked the MP. "Absolutely not!" he said. "I'll have no part of that bigotry." "Then how do you know what it is?" "I've heard."

And truth to tell, I found his act horrific. Certainly, the people who went enjoyed it, and unfortunately, they appeared to represent a particular mentality and lifestyle. Maybe Sam was out to hold up a mirror and get us asking why we found it funny to put down people of different ethnic groups, the homeless and impoverished, and so forth. Sadly, Sam didn't live long enough to tell us.

Maybe through being able to express even the most misguided of opinions, the person expressing them can get an idea of how misguided their thinking is. That doesn't happen if they're being suppressed, driven underground, or forced to yell their thoughts into a paper bag.

Make someone responsible for what they say by requiring them to associate their name with it, fine; moderate against domination and name-calling, great; but that should be all we need to improve the level of online discourse.

"Speak the truth in love," says the Apostle Paul; and "I do not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," said Voltaire. The Internet is "growing up," as the Sun article says, and those two quotations can help make sure it matures, as well.

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