I have long since given up reading the comments section of online publications. On the occasion that I do read what I have written – once it’s published I typically don’t care much – I am often gobsmacked by the comments, and the lack of understanding of how journalism works.
While there is a general ignorance about how journalism works – hence you will find defenders of the worst villains who have been exposed by the media, responding by saying journalists should lay charges; that is not the job of a journalist – and commentators can be toxic, at the worst of times. They can be mean and nasty, in general (I am desperately trying to avoid the using the word stupid), and at the best of times, and on the rarest of occasions they can be constructive – and helpful. The worst are those who point out typographical or grammatical mistakes. It’s no wonder that I “enjoy” seeing such mistakes in the newspapers I enjoy the most; The Guardian, The Financial Times, the Straits Times, the South China Morning Post or Malaysiakini, and publications like Jacobin, or Harpers and The Nation.
Anyway, last week, one commentator on my column in the Daily Maverick was especially disappointing. The commentator makes several points, some good some bad which I can pick at, but it’s often not worth doing so. I do, nonetheless, want to pick on two or issues that stand out. The first is his (by the name I assume it’s a he) reference to my admission of sorts, that I was educated in the European tradition. The subtext is that I had previously been critical of the liberalism that we inherited from Europe, which somehow seems contradictory, presumably because I ought to know better, or that I was duplicitous. My immediate response to this is that having been immersed in Eurocentric thought, I have a reliable sense of what it represents, what it promotes and where it has gone wrong – or right.
The second point is that I don’t state, outright, that I am not a fan of the EFF, nor do I condemn them. Let me separate my response into three. First, if the commentator read intertextually (all the columns that I had written in the particular space) he might get a sense of my views on the EFF. Second, I have (also previously) written about my drift towards essayism, and at the start of the column referred to Sylvia Plath’s confessional writing. So, the commentator ought to know what I was doing with the brief essay. Finally, I try, frequently, to leave things hanging – so to speak – because I believe that readers ought to make up their own minds. So, if I said I was interested in the rise of ethno-nationalism and fascism around the world, the reader can decisive for him or herself what they think of fascism or ethno-nationalism. Or if I described a series of events during the Second World War, the reader can/should be able to decide for themselves whether the war was good or bad.
Actually, as I write this, I am reminded of a previous commentator who, in response to my opinion piece on Chief Justice Moegoeng Moegoeng’s religious exhortations, said that he was (now) satisfied, because I had shown my Marxist orientation. I am not sure how he reached that conclusion, but, as mentioned above, readers can decide for themselves, and make up their own minds. I write, I don’t tell anyone what to think.
This is what the commentator wrote: “Fortunately Ismael [sic] you show your true colours as a Marxist ideologist. If that is your world view then we know where t h e vitriol comes from AB”
That was derived from what was essentially a humanist response to the Chief Justice’s remarks, and my claims that religious beliefs tend to draw on mythology, false beliefs and rely on faith – when scientific explanations are necessary for things like the virgin birth, which I am fairly certain, is a bio-chemical process, and not magical or miraculous.
It sits there like an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol. It groans as hatred expands its force, waiting for any point of dissent to break it – to unleash its full fury on targets who dare convey some measure of civility or dissent (if you want almost guaranteed hate, be a woman). Comment sections, to me, are the chronic pain centres of the internet, the part of the digital body we’re all forced to accept exists, but must manage by injecting policies and systems into.
It makes sense that the “Comments” sections of publications are sometimes disabled or moderated. While I think it is good practice for a writer to engage with readers in the comments section, there are times when it is futile – especially if the reader would rather drop a comment or opinion, and leave the room before anyone replies, or when it descends into crude argument.