MERCER-GOLDEN: Opinions run amok

I prefer to read the News in print, always. Not just because the News goes well with breakfast — though it does — but also because I can read the articles without reading the comments that inevitably accumulate on the online versions. Whenever I do turn to the online version of the News, I am by turns entertained and terrified to read what anonymous responders have written and what they have written about each other.

I write this article as an English-History of Art major who spends most of her time arguing about writing and ideas. My political views are far to the left, and I stand firmly behind President Jed Bartlett of The West Wing in my belief that no price is too high to pay for free speech. But I’m also old-fashioned in my feelings about politeness and personal accountability, and I believe that we can speak freely and politely at the same time, expressing disagreement in constructive and impersonal ways. We live in a relatively insular community, and while many people have assured me that some of the most aggressive commenters are not Yalies, I’m not so sure. I dislike the thought that I live amongst a number of people, however small, who are capable of making such vicious comments online.

Anonymity cuts two ways: it liberates people to say what they feel, but this liberation often sours rapidly. False names allow responders to write hateful things online, attacking writers of articles, the city of New Haven, even the News itself. Writers and editors make mistakes sometimes in their articles, and even when they are not in fact mistaken, they may write things that we disagree with. Just as we hope to be given the benefit of the doubt on that paper we finished 15 minutes before it was due, so too do these writers and editors deserve respect and compassion.

It is also far harder to express an initial opinion that it is to tear it down, and harder to follow a sustained argument to its logical end than to unpick a small part of it or digress to an unrelated thought. I have often read both tendencies on the News’ website. I understand that the News’ website should be a place where people can speak anonymously, if they choose to, but the condition of anonymity should be grounded in the assumption that people will respond thoughtfully even if it involves a digression.

We must find ways to attack arguments, not individuals. We need to cultivate the talents of provoking discussion without rudeness, and criticizing without meanness. Then the discourse on the News’ website will be the kind of conversation that we have in our classrooms, in our dining halls and in our suites. We owe that much to our institution, and more importantly, to each other.

At the risk of becoming exactly the kind of meta English-History of Art major we all love to hate, I will say that I expect to see some comments on the online version of this article along the lines of “Hey fat face, stop bandying around your highbrow morality. We’ll say what we want.” If I believe anything about the people who write comments on the News’ website, it’s that there is no chance that they will stop talking. I celebrate that they are talking to each other, discussing the essential issues of the day, and sharing their personal opinions. Technology has allowed us to imagine free speech in new and exciting ways. But our task as a community is to continue to uphold the value of free speech without tarnishing it with pettiness, incivility and cruelty.

Perhaps the greatest fear I have about the News’ website is that the anonymous commentary will pass over into real life, leading to less sharing of diverse opinions and personal experiences in public forums because of the potential fallout. I haven’t yet lived the implications of putting myself forward in this public way, but I am nervous about the consequences.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

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