Toronto
2 min

The monster at the end of this book

Last month when gay man Jake Raynard was bashed in Thunder Bay, Xtra.ca linked to a local story about the attack posted on Tbnewswatch.com, in addition to publishing our own take on the incident. As I read through the Tbnewswatch piece and neared the end I shuddered to see how many comments were posted below it. I cringed in anticipation of what I’d find there.

As much as I love the intertubes and the easy access the net provides to all kinds of crazy information and content (OMG ponies!) I am constantly astonished by how nasty — and prejudiced — so many online commentators are. It’s as if the moment you offer folks the cloak of anonymity all their (possibly otherwise repressed) homophobia, racism, sexism, whatever starts spewing out all over the place.

In this instance, however, the comments were overwhelmingly supportive of Raynard and his ordeal — suspiciously so. As one commentator notes, “[A]ll of the comments have stood against the idea of attacking someone over what goes on in their personal lives. While there have been a few individuals offering ‘thumbs down,’ I am proud to say that people are getting better as we are collectively standing against these types of crimes.”

As lovely as it would be to suspend disbelief and imagine that this collection of posted comments really does reflect the prevailing sentiment in TBay (or even just among the site’s readership) I just can’t do it. There must be another explanation.

A quick look over the site reveals that comments are moderated and have to be approved before they’re displayed, which I suspect accounts for the absence of the “The fag got what was coming to him” comments I was cynically expecting.

How wonderfully refreshing — and yet how dangerous.

While the safety of a moderated space is very tempting — who doesn’t want to be reassured in the wake of a violent gaybashing that the dehumanizing beliefs behind such an attack are universally rejected? — it can quickly lead to an unrealistically diminished sense of the scope of homophobia in the world which can, in turn, lead toward apathy. It also denies us a chance to communicate with those who hate us, for whatever that might be worth in terms of finding common ground.

Unlike at Tbnewswatch.com comments on Xtra.ca aren’t moderated. They’re posted directly and more or less instantaneously. However there is a mechanism by which readers can flag comments they have concerns about so that comments that are libelous can quickly be removed from the site.

On a fairly regular basis Xtra.ca comments get flagged for an editor’s attention because they are deemed to be hateful in some way. Common explanations from the flagging parties include “This is homophobic” or “I object to these comments” or, my favourite, “It’s obvious.”

While it may indeed be obvious that certain comments posted to Xtra.ca are problematic, that isn’t necessarily a reason to remove them. Many people’s opinions and beliefs are problematic; their comments are simply a reflection of that. Removing the evidence of that dissent does nothing to forward the conversation; it just shuts it down and lets us pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. Instead of removing such comments, I generally encourage readers to respond to them.

Don’t get me wrong. Reading hateful responses — on Xtra.ca or anywhere else on the internet — pisses me off too. As it should. It’s that sort of righteous anger that feeds our activism that leads to change.

It’s also true that sometimes it’s just plain ol’ disheartening to be confronted with the evidence of so much hate and some days, when I know I’m not feeling up to it, I’ll give the comments sections a miss. But I want that choice.