Thursday, January 21, 2016

Read Before You Comment

You see, I was once a Boy Scout— So there I am, trying to think of things outside of myself, ready to do a good turn for somebody every day, going onto the Internet, and then… I find myself feeling not-so-noble. This happens when I am reading a non-chivalrous comment. Yuck.

They say a Scout is observant. What I have observed, all too often, is people posting replies, comments, when it is excruciatingly obvious they haven’t been alert to what the other person wrote. How could they be so mistaken about words that are resting motionless, right there on the screen, in black and white? Clearly, they have read without seeing.

Call it the human factor. One of my favorite Internet blogger and essayists, Scott Berkun, once wrote with a smiley face, after enduring a long series of irresponsible replies on his blog post, “It is hard to defend myself against something I didn’t quite say.”

As for me, whether it’s commenting on what I saw on the World Wide Web, or reporting on what I heard at a community center meeting last night, I try to be responsible and in control of myself. I like to think that, as a housewife once said of me, I can be trusted to “give an even handed report.” Others, at least on the web, seemingly give in to their human factor. My poor auntie, for instance, although too proud to prevaricate, was pathetically blind to her propensity to exaggerate past the point of dishonesty. Poor Auntie Pam. Some people just won’t try for self-control. Some don’t try to be ladies or gentlemen.

Of course some people genuinely don’t want to be gentlefolk, or wholesome clean-cut Boy Scouts. In fact, I can imagine happily going over on a Saturday afternoon to hang out with a man who is happily uncombed, unshaven and wearing a rumpled shirt. He’s comfortable. But if we decide to go out to the mall? He shaves. Similarly, if he and I are sitting at our tables in a community of on-line computer users, or on chairs in a church basement, or perched on logs around a communal campfire, then we have a responsibility to be pro-social, to reach for the stars of our better nature.

By now, in modern times, here in the western world, everyone knows the classic sin of the censor: to attempt to censor others from something you yourself haven’t bothered to read, or can’t bring yourself to read—allowing your self-righteousness to overshadow your self-responsibility. What may not be a sin, but is still harmful, is: when you reply to something on the Web without first reading it with due diligence. That’s when a shadow falls onto all the screens of all the other people in that temporary community of readers, a shadow that does not nourish those people. If you won’t read, then don’t type.

On second thought, I suppose a few people, not like you and me, aren’t merely lazy or uninformed about their social responsibility, but truly enjoy being shady people. So it’s no wonder Alain de Botton, from last week’s post, won't allow comments on his news site. No chilly shadows allowed.

Naturally the “human factor,” so prevalent yet so wrong, has been addressed by others before now. I myself, mindful of the Boy Scout motto, once attempted to “be prepared” by coming up in advance with some feedback we citizens on the Internet could use to help keep our public square civilized. That was in an essay archived back in August 2010 called Polite Blogs. Two years earlier computer expert Paul Graham, one of my favorite writers of original web essays, in March of 2008 noted, “The web is turning into a conversation.”

Graham tried to raise awareness on How to Disagree by categorizing levels of reply. The second-lowest, second-most despicable level, (after name-calling) is the ad hominem reply (Latin, from ad “to the,” and hom “man”) where a person avoids honestly and logically facing an issue by instead attacking the man. Although this wimpy avoidance defies common sense, it would seem many people wanting to join the cyber forum are, sad to say, without good sense.

As a Boy Scout I cared about my community, and I still care today. Call it a lifestyle choice: I will gladly pick up old litter that has blown into the forum. And every summer Boy Scouts and Girl Guides revisit the issue of how to avoid starting forest fires, because we know that some people, long after Smokey the bear cub has died of old age, still haven’t learned. Today I am feeling a need to revisit the issue of how to democratically disagree in the cyber forum.

This week my brain is jolted, like taking a cold-water camp shower in June, at seeing the aforementioned Paul Graham being “replied to.” He’s now being attacked through articles on the Web after posting an essay called Economic Inequality. His essay has sure started a fire. I see Graham being attacked by a writer (link) as being a “self-described essayist” (He is an essayist) and as a “robber baron” (Some of his essays are explicitly against “robber barons”)

Over the weekend I’ve read three flaring attacks on Graham, and I suppose there will be more out there. Twice he has replied with an essay to defend himself, that I know of, without feeling a need to file his essay-replies onto his essay site, no doubt because he feels a tad undignified at stooping to reply. Life, he says, is too short. (“No filing” means if you are reading this a year from now, then you might not find his replies without extra searching, so here’s a link)

Graham’s explanation for the ignoble responses is interesting. He hypothesizes that writers have read his essay title, expanded the title out to what they imagined such an essay would be about, and then replied to what they imagined. At first I lean back—that sounds too laughable, too original—but then I curl down sadly to admit, “Yes, that sounds true.”

For one of the pieces refuting Graham, Graham writes, “I agree with almost all of it.” I’m sure the writer, whom I think was writing against an imaginary bad guy, would be surprised to hear that.

As Graham explains, the hypothesis implies the remedy: Don’t attack the man, but do quote the parts of an essay you disagree with, and refute those quoted parts. I guess doing so helps you focus, helps you read word for word, helps you make any of your stupidity plain, even to yourself.

Is such “imagining” a shadow cousin to skimming? Well, something surprising I’ve learned from the Internet, very surprising, is that so many people go through life skimming their screens. Perhaps they skim their pages too. It could be they have never read carefully any pages that could develop their careful thinking. Maybe these folks genuinely prefer TV to reading, being folks who only “read” the screen because they “have to.” Think so? Well, live and let live, says I. It’s OK to skim if you want to, I guess. Maybe. Yuck. But I am sure of one thing: If skimming the screen is your habit, and if you choose to be negative to someone in public on the Web, then you have a responsibility to STOP—and scroll back up to the top, read down word for word, and only then compose your reply.  

As for me, I guess the most lasting part of my Boy Scout years was the encouragement to be “observant” and “alert.” Not blindly skimming through my precious time on earth. As a young teenage Boy Scout I was encouraged to be kind to animals, gentle with the weak, and patient with the stupid. It was a lonely thirteen-year old girl in Japan, Lain Iwakura, who said, “We are all connected.” Yes. Let’s all read, and let’s all think, before we type.

Sean Crawford

~Today I made some deliberate links, not like last week. Given the topic, I thought some people might be too stressed to wait until they got to the footnotes, or type in their own search term.

~Since I've written about poverty before, I thought I would include this slightly related link.

~After an essay a couple summers back, a reader laughed and suggested I print up a T-shirt with my phrase,
“If you skim
you’re dim.”

~Poor Lain. Thirteen years old. Even though children normally like to read (or view) about a kid a year or two older that they are, the anime (Japanese animation) series about Lain is labeled “for ages sixteen and up.” For good reason.

If you are a North American parent, raised on Saturday morning cartoons, and if you hear from people that Japanese animation is excellent, far above the level of ordinary Hollywood cartoons about superheroes, students in the shopping mall and Daffy Duck, and if you are wondering how the heck such excellence could possibly be true, then a good place to start exploring anime is a show with only thirteen TV episodes and a final ending: Serial Experiments Lain. I found it very moving. Here’s the opening theme song. (link) 

The series was made back in the 20th century, back before there were handheld tablets and devices. So the creators had to imagine a futuristic world.

~I wrote about Lain and two other nerdy main characters in my essay Silence and Three Nerd Heroes, archived May 2013.

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