Alan Jacobs has an interesting reflection on the problematic public square represented by the comments sections of online articles. He has an extraordinary story about the Cambridge don Mary Beard, and the misogynistic abuse to which she was subject to from a male commenter. You have to read Alan’s post to discover the extraordinary grace with which she handled it. In any event, Alan says that the way women are routinely treated in online forums where their attackers get to be anonymous puts the lie to the idea that we have permanently put sexism behind us. Or, I would say, any other kind of ism.
Here’s a part of Alan’s blog that especially interests me: his remarks on the puzzling habit many online commenters have of insisting that the person they’re criticizing is arguing in bad faith, or holds positions that they don’t actually hold:
The Erickson case is instructive in this regard: Erickson is telling people that certain positions they would like to hold together may not be perfectly compatible with one another. It is difficult to overstate how passionately many people hate being told that, because if it is true, then they may have to make very difficult choices. So when you present them with such complexities, they not only become agitated but determine to believe that you hold positions you don’t hold — simplistic positions that they can (or feel they can) easily refute.
So, for example, take the comments on this post of Rod’s about what he calls the Benedict Option, and Rod’s responses to them. You see person after person insisting that the Benedict Option involves a frightened and complete withdrawal from society into a tiny isolated community of the same-minded — no matter how many times Rod says that that’s not what he’s talking about, and not what the communities is invokes do. Again and again (not just in this post but in many he has written on the subject) he saysThat’s not what I wrote — and again and again they persist in attributing to him simplistic and extreme claims. Why? Because those are the claims they can (or think they can) refute.
Just through linking to the post on Twitter I got the same kinds of comments: people attributing to Rod views he has never held. I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it. So agitators have to be portrayed as extremists who hold bizarre and evidently indefensible views.
Read the entire post. Alan says that this kind of thing is even more frustrating than a straightforwardly malicious post, because you can ignore the nasties. What’s more difficult to deal with are people who insist, no matter how many times you explain it, that you believe something that you do not in fact believe, or have argued for. It’s like the old joke about the man who looks for his lost car keys under the streetlight. A passerby asks him why he’s searching there, when he might have lost them anywhere on the block. Says the man, “Because this is where the light is.”