Sunday 24 March 2013

If you don’t want to be judged, why are you posting on the Internet?




I am increasingly seeing these phrases, or some variation thereof, attached to posts on the Web.  So, I have to ask:  What part of public forum, potentially viewable by anyone in the world, don’t these posters understand?  If you post something that anyone can read and respond to, you don’t get to dictate the response.  If, for example, you post in a breastfeeding Yahoo! Group that you are planning to wean at two weeks because you just don’t want to be bothered and formula is easier, how can you expect a global group of militant breastfeeders not to excoriate you?  I have seen such a post, with “no judging, just supportive & positive comments” stuck onto the end.

This trend of demanding only positive, nonjudgmental comments is alarming and says a lot about how our society values self-esteem over truth, and feelings over facts.  As an adjunct professor, I teach a basic course in civil liberties in which we spend considerable time parsing out the rights contained in the First Amendment.  I always ask the class if there are any forms of speech that are not protected.  A few students are usually familiar with slander, libel, threats, and obscenity, but, without fail, every class there is always at least one student who asserts that speech that is mean or hurts someone’s feelings is not protected speech.  When I explain to them that, whilst saying mean things that hurt someone’s feelings might indicate that you aren’t a very nice person, it won’t get you arrested, they are always surprised.  Inevitably someone brings up whatever story has been in the media recently about a professional athlete being fined for using a racial epithet or an employee fired for saying on Facebook that his boss is a jerk.  At this point I explain the difference between public and private entities, and how private companies are not bound by the First Amendment.  It is obvious that this topic is confusing to people.  Speech rights prevent the government from censoring the marketplace of ideas but they only apply to the government, not private companies or individuals.  Protection from official government censorship is not the same as the complete absence of consequences.  Just because you can’t be thrown in jail or fined for saying something, doesn’t mean that others can’t respond and retaliate.  You can call someone a bitch, and they can call you an asshole right back.  You can’t insult someone in their own home and claim free speech rights when they show you the door.

By the same token, you own your little piece of Internet real estate and you are at perfect liberty to delete any comments for any reason on your blog or Facebook page or in groups you moderate.   If you only want positive comments on your blog posts or Facebook wall, that is your prerogative.  My argument is not with the right to delete comments with which you disagree but with the choice to do so.  By entertaining only viewpoints with which you agree, that validate your behavior and opinions, you are myopically limiting your perspective.

That is not to say you have to let every trollish post remain.  Posts that insult without making a counterargument or that are clearly posted by trolls who are only trying to sow discord rather than stimulate genuine debate, are no more than spam and should be treated as such.  But deleting posts that challenge your position is a sign of weakness.  Do you, on some level, know that your opinion won’t stand up to a factual challenge?  Are you looking for support because you realise, on some level, that what you are doing is wrong?  As an intactivist, I see anti-circ comments deleted all the time by posters who have mutilated their child and don’t want to be told that they made an uninformed decision.  Mutilators don’t want to be confronted with the facts that prove the harm they have done to their own child.  They want to do the Internet equivalent of covering their ears and shouting, “LALALALA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

A closely related phenomenon is the tendency of posters to state that you must respect their opinion.  Even if you disagree, the thinking goes, you have an obligation to respect their views and, by extension, them.  (“You may not want to circumcise your son but I did and you have to respect my choice.  My son, my choice.  You have no right to judge me…” and similar nauseating bullshit.)  I cannot fathom where this idea that opposing viewpoints, and the people who hold them, somehow deserve respect comes from.  Is it related to the fact that we are supposed to debate our opponents in a civil fashion, avoiding ad hominem attacks?  But that doesn’t imply respecting the person or their views.  Is it somehow an outgrowth of freedom of conscience – i.e., because you can believe whatever you damn well please, every opinion is somehow equally worthy of respect?  But that doesn’t make sense either.  It is a mystery where this misguided idea comes from, but it is nearly ubiquitous.  This despite the fact that it doesn’t stand up to even the slightest challenge.  If someone holds the view that women should be subservient to men, or that the clitorises of girls should be removed at birth so the women will not enjoy sex and so not be inclined to cheat on their assigned husbands, I have not the remotest shred of respect for those views nor the people who hold such views.  None.  Whatsoever.  Zero respect.  Less than zero, if that is possible.  Could you respect a misogynist?  A racist?  Someone who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old?  Someone who firmly believes that a 9 year old girl should be forced to carry her rapist’s baby to term?  Can you now see how absurd the idea that you should respect opposing viewpoints is?

All of this nonsense about respecting people’s opinions and not judging them implies that all choices are equal: “Hey, you may make different choices or hold different views, but it’s a free country.  I am free to make my own individual choices and you cannot judge them or criticize them….”  Wait a minute—what was that last bit?  I can’t judge you or criticize you?  Um, why the hell not?  Free speech does not exempt you from criticism.  You have free speech to put your views out there, but so do I, to condemn your views or judge them or refute them, as I see fit.

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