The knee-jerk negative reaction of online comments to ideas that challenge them is not merely something unattractive, it’s a force that acts to prevent such ideas from being voiced in the first place.
This is something Ryan Holiday touches on in his new book, Trust Me, I’m Lying. Controversial ideas are shot down by snark, by bloggers using the idea as a target for their next article, and commenters mindlessly jumping into the fray. The only people who benefit are those with nothing to lose: “People who need to be talked about, like attention-hungry reality stars. There is nothing that you could say that would hurt the cast of Jersey Shore. They need you to talk about them, to insult them, and to make fun of them is to do that. They have no reputation to ruin, only notoriety to gain.” Fragile, controversial ideas that challenge the reader’s deep held beliefs? They’re the casualties.
Nietzsche divided society into two groups: the free thinkers who challenge existing assumptions and give birth to new ideas, and the conservatives who maintain the status quo. Both are engaged in a never ending struggle, one pushing for advance and change, the other for stability and restraint. The way comments work online is tilted towards the latter, not by intelligent design, but simply by the way the technology collides with human emotion. Anger rises to the top and acts as that restraining force, preventing new and fragile ideas being voiced for the fear of suffering ridicule and snark.
The culprit is anger, not the person voicing the comment. There is an old Latin saying, Ira furor brevis est, which translates: Anger is brief moment of insanity. Anger makes a fool of all of us, however clever or stupid you may be.
It’s a shame that online discussions work as convenient outlets for these primal emotions rather than helping us suppress them. Could the discussion mechanism be altered in some way to remedy this? Maybe, though I can’t imagine any easy solutions.
Ultimately though, while technology can be modified to try to facilitate a particular outcome, it’s up to every one of us to be the person we ought to be, to guard ourselves against the assault of knee-jerk emotions, to control our responses and set the right example for others to follow.