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