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OffGuardian tells Jessica Valenti why ‘Comment is Free’ matters (because she apparently doesn’t know)

by BlackCatte

The Guardian is unraveling. Having tried to manage its own readers with draconian moderation, it now admits even that policy is a humiliating failure and – today – it tries a new angle – banning comments completely

It obviously isn’t putting its full weight behind this idea at this point, because it chooses Jessica Valenti to float the idea, and she’s not someone you’d entrust with anything but a fairly forlorn hope. Her role at the Graun is to talk interminable nonsense on a wide variety of “social issue” clickbait topics, with a special reference to reality-reversal victim narratives. So she’s ideal for a test-run on this latest bit of “consensus totalitarianism” the management trust has come up with. Let’s skim through what she says. It’s not clever, but it is revealing…

“…It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m not fond of comments sections. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many female writers who are….”

Two sentences in and I have to interject. Jessica – I’m a female writer, and I am fond of comment sections. Actually, if we can think bigger than our own personal comfort zones for just a moment, I firmly believe comment sections, forums, and all places online where information is freely exchanged are an incredible step forward in the liberation of human thought.

“…On most sites – from YouTube to local newspapers – comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage….”

True. We all get garbage, and trolls, and spam, and idiots hawking insane ideas. But that’s free speech. It includes the freedom to talk garbage. So why not woman-up and take it. And don’t forget we also get insight, thoughtful criticism, challenges to our group-think, facts or points of view we might otherwise never be exposed to. With the advent of the internet for the first time in human history ordinary people can become part of news dissemination. In the comments section they can correct mistakes (or lies), add links to other sources of information, debate the ideas being put across.

It’s a quiet revolution that has entirely broken the mainstream’s monopoly on creating consensus. It’s a small miracle and a huge achievement for human emancipation.

And yet here you are, advocating for closing it down.

“…There’s a reason, after all, that the refrain “don’t read the comments” has become ubiquitous among journalists.”

Yes there is – but I don’t think it’s a good reason. I think the institutionalised fear and hostility and avoidance you all feel towards your own readership is quite shocking. Does it not occur to you that you should listen to them, engage with what they say? You come over as baffled, angry and out of touch, like some fading monarchy on the eve of revolution.

“…But if we’re not to read them, why have them at all?…”

Good question Jessica – if you and your chums at Graun HQ don’t read the comments, what’s the point in them being there? Hmmm…let me think of a possible answer…oh, wait – maybe it’s all the thousands of other people beside you and your chums, who read your paper and might not like being denied any opportunity to have a voice? Why does this even need to be explained to you? Have you all become so inward-looking, self-referencing and self-reinforcing that you’ve gone collectively mad?

“I wasn’t always a comments-hater…Comments even made my writing better those days; feedback from readers broadened the way I thought and sometimes changed my mind…But as the internet and audiences grew, so did the bile. Now if feels as if comments uphold power structures instead of subverting them: sexism, racism and homophobia are the norm; threats and harassment are common. (That’s not even counting social media.)”

Well it might “feel” (to you) as if comments “uphold power structures”, but that’s just a blatant attempt at squaring your calls for censorship with the self-delusion that you are all about speaking truth to power. You’re not about that Jessica. You’re paid by the Graun to write clickbait designed to make a lot of noise about mostly non-issues and “subvert” precisely nothing, and you’re apparently so lost to reality that you’re currently advocating for wholesale censorship of free speech in the name of feminism and oppressed minorities.

“As Laurie Penny has written, ‘An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.'”

Ok….Let’s just say that sounds like a set of issues better dealt with by Ms Penny and her (I hope) extensive team of analysts. We should probably leave them to it and get on…

“The problem is so bad that online harassment is a keynote subject this year at the Online News Association conference.”

Well, of course it is. When they close down free speech on the internet it will be to protect us all from harassment. That way no one will be able to complain. And if they do they can be arrested. For harassment.

“Comments sections also give the impression that all thoughts are created equal when, well, they’re not.”

True. They aren’t. Do you think we should censor stupidity? Because I have to tell you – that probably would not work out so well for you.

“When Popular Science stopped publishing comments, for example, it was because “everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again…scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’”

I think you should question the skein of thought that led to you putting the word ‘debate’ in ironic quotation marks. I mean do you even know there is no such thing as “scientific certainty?” It’s an oxymoron. Science is an open-ended process that is constantly testing itself and its own hypotheses, and is always “up for grabs”. When Popular Science close their comments down they aren’t doing it in the name of science, any more than the Graun will be doing it in the name of freedom. It’s just the authoritarianism in the system expressing itself. Creeping in. Bit by bit.

“My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!)
Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid

[…]

For writers, wading into comments doesn’t make a lot of sense – it’s like working a second shift where you willingly subject yourself to attacks from people you have never met and hopefully never will. Especially if you are a woman.”

Small sidebar moment: Don’t think me unkind, but has it occurred to you that when people call your writing “stupid” it’s not necessarily a patriarchal conspiracy by white males to rob you of your dignity, but just a sign you’re not very good at what you do?

I mean, is there anything that ever happens to you that can’t be viewed as some aspect of your perennial female victimhood? I’m a feminist, and I live in total awareness of the plight of women over the ages, but here’s a tip: fifty per cent of the population live with being non-male, and most of us manage to avoid seeing it as some sort of lifelong free pass to blame everyone else for our own failures.

“It’s true, I could just stop reading comments. But I shouldn’t have to. Ignoring hateful things doesn’t make them go away, and telling women to simply avoid comments is just another way of saying we’re too lazy or overwhelmed to fix the real problem.Websites and news sources are increasingly moving forward without comments because they find them unnecessary and counterproductive. In my perfect world, more places would follow their lead.Because the nastiness on our doorstep has piled too high for too long, and I just want to get out of the house.”

Absolutely. Why should other people be allowed to retain their right to free speech when Jessica Valenti doesn’t like what they say? Take it down. Take it all down. The most important thing is that Jessica shouldn’t have to go through the emotional trauma of not reading something.

Cuz, when you think about it, other people having different opinions from yours is a kind of harassment. It’s really aggression. It’s really hate speech against your belief system. When people disagree with you, they assault you with their unwanted thoughts. Especially if you’re a woman. We need to “fix the real problem” and stop people freely expressing themselves. Let’s all try to make Jessica’s “perfect world” a reality.

freespeech

But wait a moment, Jess…I’m a woman too. Which means I’m also a victim of – well, everything, and also entitled to not be harassed by people whose opinions totally piss me off.

People like you for example. The kind of jargon-wittering, agenda-hyping, bandwagon-jumping “feminist” that none of us need speaking in our name; one of the “me-me” crowd who confuses vacuous narcissism with personal politics, self-appointed victimhood with equality and vindictive gender-rage with challenging the patriarchy. People who are paid to promote fuzzy ideas of personal entitlement that require the dissolution of other people’s freedoms in order to be effective, and to exploit the exploitation of women and minorities for the promotion of Stalinist notions of social control which strip everyone of their basic human rights in the name of protecting them.

To quote a great sage on the topic – It’s true, I could just stop reading you. But I shouldn’t have to. Ignoring hateful things doesn’t make them go away, so I want you to stop harassing me with your opinions, respect my dignity as a woman and desist from writing in the Guardian.

Because the nastiness on our doorstep has piled too high for too long.


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