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Have you no shame?

This is a cross-post that originally appeared on Reflections on Teaching

I love getting and reading the Sacramento Bee, and love being able to read it online. The comments however are a real mix of the bitter and the sweet. I hate how the limited space in the print version constricts representations of different points of view. If that is the problem in the print paper, the online version is like a polar opposite. To be frank, it’s embarrassing. Many commenters think nothing of making racist comments, ad hominum attacks, or weaving entire backgrounds for stories that have little to do with reality.

A recent Sacramento News and Review (our independent weekly) had this to say:

“If you are someone who leaves comments below news stories on the Sac Bee’s web site, chances are your politics are reactionary and inhumane and your heart flinty and cold.
Under a story about a child who drowned in the river, you might write, ‘Kids drown all the time. Why is this news? And Rodriguez? Was the kid even here legally?

Like a piece in the Onion it is funny and sad, because you could literally find comments that read almost exactly like that in the comments section in any given week. It’s like all the happiness and joy has been sucked out of the comments section. Instead of the milk of human kindness, they’ve reverted to the poison of reptilian bitterness.

My husband follows transportation articles as part of his job, and shares the story about a woman who was forced off the road by a driver enraged truck driver who felt she had taken too long in a drive-through line where he had been stuck behind her. The commenters all came up with reasons why this must have occurred: texting, using a cell phone, putting on makeup, including elaborate descriptions of what she was doing. All of this with no facts to back up any of their suppositions, but it obviously filled their preconceptions.

The comments on recent story on burn victims from the daycare fire in Mexico coming up to Shriners International Hospital here in Sacramento was the most recent example of this combination of ignorance and meanness. Commenters were angry that we were taking care of non-Americans showing their ignorance that other commenters were fortunately quick to address; services are not paid for by taxpayers by the international efforts of Shriners and the hospital is part of a network which includes a hospital in Mexico. The response? One commenter vowed not to contribute any longer to Shriners because he only wanted to help American kids. Local columnist, Marcos Breton, has weighed in on the ugly nativism that paints all folks from South of the U.S. who have a Spanish speaking ancestor as illegal (and squares off on the reality of “illegals” as well).

My maternal grandfather was a proud Shriner for years who collected his own spare change and stood in front of grocery stores raising money. It was to help sick children. Period. I could resort to terms like, ignorant, racist, etc. but the one that really fits is small. We Americans like to think of ourselves as generous people, and we are, those comments were not from that America.

There is another more general concern that I have about the online comments. I teach in Sac City in an elementary, but one of my colleagues is Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches at Luther Burbank. We both have large immigrant populations from Mexico and SE Asia. Our problem is that we rely on using links to stories to help teach our students about their culture and how it intersects with mainstream society, which can expose them to the comments section.

A few months ago Larry pointed out a story on traditional conflict resolution methods in the Hmong community in light of the recent murder that had it’s roots in an extra-marital affair. The comments were the usually blend of sanctimony and bigoted opinions that have marked the online comments.

I wondered, what will students make of this? Most of the commenters probably don’t consider the students important enough to worry about it, but they should. Proposition 13 passed around the time I was 13 years old. In the flurry of threatened closures of libraries and other services Howard Jarvis opined that it didn’t matter if libraries closed because none of these ignorant kids read anyway. That was my political crucible and I have never and will never find anything that Howard Jarvis or his taxpayers association has to say to be credible.

I have to think that some of Larry’s students might be coming to the same conclusion about folks in the Bee comment section that I once came to about Howard Jarvis and his ilk. I once was 13 and powerless, but now I am 44, vote in every election in an electorate where my views are shared by a majority. Someday many of Larry’s and my students may be too, demographics is on their side. Meanwhile, those commenters will still be trolls.

Photo Credit: Dirty Troll Revue on Flickr

8 Responses to “Have you no shame?”

  1. Hadass says:

    You go, girl! Alice, you totally rock. Great post!

  2. mrlane says:

    Beautifully said…

  3. Donelle says:

    Just read this blogpost. The picture is perfect! Very well articulated, my friend! “See” you tomorrow night! Hoping I won’t forget. ;)

  4. Cary says:

    Very well said, and I agree with your sentiments. The interesting paradox of an article like this, however, is that you are having to make presuppositions and assumptions about the commenters and their lives in order to draw the conclusions you draw as well. Small people are generally less well educated (though not always) and are more likely to have less “power” and therefore feel threatened by other groups (please note I’m speaking about the followers, not the leaders – there are always leaders who feed off of the powerless and fan the flames of their fears for personal gain). That doesn’t excuse their smallness or make it any less disheartening, but it does make it dicey to have a debate about topics like this. We can’t simply paint them with a broad brush or we end up doing exactly the same thing you accused them of doing with their comments (even though you weren’t being mean, racist, nativist, etc.). But it could be argued that you are being classist. Anytime we look “down” at someone and their actions we lose any “high” ground we might have.

    So the bigger question for me is, how do we have this debate and bring these things in the open without being just as “bigoted” as the bigots?

    Just a thought.

  5. alicemercer says:

    That is a false equivalency. I don’t have to know the commenter to know an adult resident of one of our areas more affluent areas has more power that a sixth grader from a refugee family. Even if they both lived in the same neighborhood, a child has less power than an adult. I appreciate you trying to be “fair” but it becomes an excuse for bullying, especially in the case of the racists comments which have clearly been made. I would not say all people who have an issue with immigration, or illegal immigrants are in this bunch even though they make me mad and I disagree with them. Also, people who make ignorant statements and hand pick their facts when given sympathy can imply a license for demagoguery.

  6. Cary says:

    It isn’t really a false equivalency. I was comparing your statements about the commenters, not Mr. Jarvis and I was comparing what you were saying about them now, not what you felt at 13. You are no longer powerless and you do not know the life situation of the people who are leaving comments on the Sacramento Bee’s website. I don’t think any of us should see ourselves better than anyone else, so in the full scheme of things, my beliefs are closer to yours than to the nativists and other prejudicial people. But my point was that you are making assumptions and presuppositions about the anonymous posters and that is not wholly unlike what they are doing to the immigrants themselves. You are free to disagree with me. I find that most people (myself included) don’t like to be challenged. But before pushing my comments aside because you didn’t like the thesis, please make sure you read and understand what I said.

  7. alicemercer says:

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. Barbara says:

    fyi – but if the children in your classrooms are using the same computer, Firefox has an extension where you can block certain areas of websites you go to frequently. Adblock Plus Element Hider will allow you to hide/remove areas of text. I do this to remove the “Gmail” header from printed email and it works wonderfully.

    I suspect you can use this to delete comments.

    There are other such browser extensions that will hide comments on youtube, etc.

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