Me and Others
For other people, as readers, what is my responsibility when I write? How much reading comprehension may I reasonably expect? As a schoolchild doing Reading Comprehension tests, I always assumed that as adults we would understand fully, just as we would one day be able to write and do arithmetic. Was I wrong? To put it crudely: How much stupidity is normal and OK?
For example, during page making, at my college newspaper, I remember my editor being gleeful. The previous week something controversial had been published. Now she was putting two censorious letters, side by side, onto the letters page… letters showing diametrically opposed interpretations of what had been written in the first place! One of the two writers, who would surely want to read closely how her ally in print beside her would agree, would then be mortified to realize she had messed up badly by not reading closely in the first place.
If my editor was gleeful, I can understand. Reporters hate censors. If the classic sin of the censor is to ask society to censor, to blot out from existence, something she has not even read, then surely it is almost as sinful to censure without first reading. … I mean, sure, skim and get hot under the collar all you want in the privacy of your own home; you may feel pleased rustling the newspaper and snorting, “harrumph!” But if you plan to write a public letter —or an Internet forum comment— that would hurt people’s feelings, then you have a duty to first read the piece that you are offended by, taking responsibility to read it word for word, sentence by sentence.
Or am I being too responsible?
In the privacy of a three man group, a very loose “group,” where the other two are locked in eye contact and arguing… and I realize there is a miscommunication, that they both “don’t get it” as to what they are talking about, or maybe just one is not getting it, do I have a duty to break their eye contact and bust in? Maybe not, if I am being ignored like mere chopped liver; surely not if I am a bystander they don’t even know.
What’s strange is when I watch this happen not in real space but in web space, on a blog comment section, or thread. Sometimes people “don’t get” where the other person is coming from, sometimes they make a human honest mistake. More often, though, they are being irresponsible. Not solely from being lazy. I see people assuming and projecting, from their petty motivations or having an ax to grind, sometimes from a desire to compete and be superior. Some folks find it easy to offend and be offended, while seemingly never having their own feeling hurt, and therefore, it appears, never caring if they hurt others.
(One of the ways I know my fellow males are the weaker sex is they aren’t tough enough to feel hurt)
For example, web essayist Paul Graham once pointed out that if you watched television about four hours a day, including commercials, then you were spending a quarter of your life before the boob tube. On the essay comment thread, someone didn’t sincerely ask clarification from other commenters, but instead, with a scornful tone, said Graham couldn’t do math. No one else, including me, bothered to tell that needlessly impolite person that a day only has sixteen hours, because you sleep for eight.
Maybe “reading comprehension” is a cousin to “listening comprehension.” Back when I was in real space, having “meaning of life” conversations at university, if a person had unworthy motivations, or a vested interest in poor listening comprehension, or was too quick to scorn, then I would see no point in conversing. In fairness, I have known people who would argue because it was their one chance all day to “feel some passion,” and I even attended a few meetings of a very argumentative science fiction novel discussion group, but truly such people were rare in my circles. In college I was there to seek the truth, not score points: I felt no responsibility to talk with a man who was vexatious in spirit. Someone else could be his friend.
In blog-space today, as the non-readers are migrating more to social media and Youtube, you might think that those who still read blogs are folks who read, and maybe even have library cards, folks who have a good chance of having gone to college. College, eh? And even if they didn’t go, well, they would have picked up the proper ethics of discourse from our culture, without ever attending college, just as an atheist would instinctively know how to talk in church. Even a cavalry trooper, if in church among civilians for his first time, would strive mightily to refrain from swearing like a trooper.
I mentioned Paul Graham. He’s very well known in computer nerd circles for his essays. Maybe I’m too innocent, but I never have any problems with his essays. It probably helps that he always runs early drafts past some friends before he posts. He said once he likes it if his friends laugh, which means they were surprised, which means he was able to offer a new idea. Well, he once posted an essay called Economic Inequality. Someone “refuted” it at length. So Graham, feeling attacked, wrote a rebuttal, saying he and his detractor agreed on practically everything. Someone else “refuted” it too, and Graham defended himself again. I put “refuted” in quotation marks, because you can’t refute what you haven’t read.
To me, Graham’s detractors had a carelessly irresponsible level of reading comprehension. Call it “stupid,” and hey, call it “bad,” because of the effects on other conversations in the virtual forum.
Graham says it’s as if they had read the essay title, imagined what a rich computer guy would say, and then wrote their response against the imaginary article in their head. Weird, I know. To avoid this, Graham points out, you can quote the parts you disagree with, thus ensuring you have read it.
As a child long ago, doing those reading tests, I never thought it would come to this. Quoting because otherwise you can’t read? Like I said, weird. I didn’t realize how many people had dark currents messing up their vision until I started reading the comment threads on many blogs. This would be back when “troll” was a new word to me. Incidentally, Graham did an article on trolls, where he said, in my words, “A troll never sees a troll in the mirror.”
Me and Others
I guess people don’t know when their shadow side is messing them up. As I was reminded this month. Not from reading my comments to others down a comment thread, but from theirs to me. As it happens, one of my joys in life is commenting, but this was the first time in my life I have ever stirred up red and black emotions on a comment thread. Weird.
My responsibility (A preview)
… Well, I’m at over 1,000 words. Better stop. Next week I could touch on what happened with me, and say how one of my joys is helping my fellow commenters comprehend what a nice blogger is saying, and evolve a decision at last as to what my responsibility is for my own writing, which you may find useful. But of course I won’t tell you what to decide—Oops, is that a troll-proofing, patronizing thing to say?
Next week I could start in right where this piece ended. So long!
~Here is a link to a hub and spoke: Paul Graham’s essay, followed by links (spokes) to his detractors and his rebuttals, and even to his shorter, trying-to-be-idiot-proof version of his essay.
~Here is a link to Graham analyzing the problem of “trolls” and what he could do about it with his new forum, Hacker News.