Back in 2007 I had the temerity to suggest that H-Net’s days might be numbered. That suggestion earned me, among other things, the title “renegade blogger.” Now, it seems, I’ve made the transition to “sociopathic pond scum.” As I told some teenagers last night, I suppose that means I’ve finally arrived on the Internet.
A few samples from the emails I’ve begun receiving in response to Yoni Appelbaum’s article on Atlantic.com about my course Lying About the Past are instructive of the level of “debate” going on in my inbox. I say “debate” because it really isn’t a conversation. Rather, what I’m getting is lots of bile from around the world.
Chris Sherlock of Sydney, Australia writes, “You are nothing more than a vandal, officially sanctioned by the university. This makes you an unmitigated bastard.”
Staton Richardson writes, “You seem a little sociopathic, according to the article. Fix history, don’t make it worse.”
A.S. writes, “Please, stop vandalizing Wikipedia for the sake of vandalizing. What’s the point?”
The lead comment on the Atlantic site reads: “This professor and his brood are pond scum. They are worse than parasites and deserve all the scorn society has at its disposal.”
And in a very wide-ranging discussion on MetaFilter, an unknown user writes, “Wow, I didn’t know you could major in douchebaggery.”
I’ve been reading these comments and it seems to me on first blush that the two nerves my students and I touched have to do with the general idea of falsifying history for educational purposes (good idea? bad idea?) and the sanctity of Wikipedia issue. Much of the anger directed my way is based on the supposition that my students vandalized Wikipedia this semester–a thing they didn’t do. Their entries, as I wrote yesterday, were 100% true and based entirely on actual historical sources.
Given Appelbaum’s take on the weak nature of Wikipedia’s community, I think it’s worth thinking for a minute about why anything that seems to have sullied the sanctity of Wikipedia would elicit such vitriol?
The other question I’ll be thinking about is the larger question of how the free speech space that is the Internet creates a venue for a relatively low level of discourse. Back in December 2011, Claire Potter wrote a very interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the dangers of being a feminist blogger. The issues that Potter grapples with and the level of trollery she faces are obviously much more important/much worse than what’s come across my screen today. But her take on what happens when one’s ideas–controversial ideas–find their way into the wilds of the Internet is, I think, well worth thinking about.
The comments I’ve received (not all were bad) also brought to mind a recent column by the Ombudsman for The Washington Post in which he discussed a new commenting policy at the washingtonpost.com website that will, it is hoped, reduce the trollery there.
Is it a bad idea to limit the speech of the haters? In general, I fall on the side of John Stuart Mill and argue for virtually unfettered freedom of speech. How else can controversial ideas be aired, debated, and refined? On this blog I’ve published a number of comments that have been very sharply worded attacks on me or my ideas. What I have not published are ad hominem attacks on others, leaving it to the haters to find other venues for those thoughts.
For now I’m going to order up some baseball hats that say “Sociopathic Pond Scum.”