In light of the many negative comments recently left on this newspaper’s website, Paul Fennessy asks whether people who comment on blogs can cause more harm than good
Writers are notoriously sensitive creatures. Ingmar Bergman – the legendary cinematic auteur who wrote and directed over forty films during his lifetime, in addition to countless plays – once described an encounter with a critic who continually harangued his work.
During a candid 1999 interview, Bergman recalled how he eventually lost his patience and punched the said critic. “I saw him sitting there opposite me. By then he’d been hounding me for some years in a quite nasty way. It was a dress rehearsal. I thought if I catch him in the interval and land him one, I’ll be rid of him for the rest of my life. The paper couldn’t possibly let him review my work after that,” said Bergman, before concluding: “I hate that man. May he burn in hell.”
While Bergman’s response was perhaps a little extreme, his immense frustration would undoubtedly resonate with many writers and others who are exposed to the public eye. And with the burgeoning prominence of blog culture, criticism is now more comprehensive than ever.
Recently, some of my colleagues at The University Observer – and in particular on otwo – have been the subject of criticism in relation to articles they have written. Indeed, I myself am no stranger to online vitriol.
One might ask if such criticism is fair. The answer is invariably yes. The internet, at its best, serves as a pertinent forum for a unique manner of debate that a newspaper or television programme could never hope to replicate. Therefore, steps to reduce the democratic nature of blog culture would be an affront to the spirit of democracy itself.
However, democracy – as with all systems – has its defects. Thus, blog culture is not without its flaws. The internet attracts its fair share of people who are prone to imparting stupid, ill-conceived comments. Equally, writers and bloggers are hardly immune from idiocy.
During an interview with fellow columnist Charlie Brooker, Marina Hyde of The Guardian recollected an unusual approach which she adopted to rebuke a detractor whom she found particularly galling: “I had someone who rang me once and I kept him on the phone and got his company name and did that thing, like in Seinfeld, when you ring his place of work and say: ‘I think you’re really shit at your job.’”
Although Hyde’s comments were said partly in jest, they do illustrate the ample level of unnecessary personal abuse that is often spouted by those within the internet community – abuse which merely masquerades as legitimate criticism. Of course, these comments are usually either blocked or swiftly removed from the website in question, but that fact does not excuse their virulence.
The old adage of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” was clearly a pre-Freudian phrase, as it would be difficult to find anyone nowadays who is entirely impervious to heinous personal attacks. This abuse can prove hurtful to the said writers and can also potentially undermine their confidence. With this in mind, I would argue that such verbal abuse is no less reprehensible than physical abuse.
Even someone as renowned and revered as Stephen Fry can suffer from the implications of these callous tirades. Writing on the disconcerting feelings aroused in him from the untoward abuse that the comedian received via his Twitter account, Fry tweeted: “Very low and depressed at the moment and any drop of meanness makes it so much worse.” Many other internet writers would certainly relate to Fry’s dismay. Accordingly, the psychological pain which this type of abuse frequently prompts is a serious issue, yet regrettably, the matter is seldom discussed.
Moreover, football fans are sometimes reprimanded for directing abusive comments towards players, while television and other media personalities are routinely penalised for making inappropriate remarks. Why not impose a similar system to combat those who engage in this disreputable behaviour online?
Admittedly, a scheme whereby offenders were – for example – fined for their abuse, would constitute an extraordinarily complex undertaking. Unless a remark was quite obviously intending to cause offence, it could not be punished. In addition, smaller websites with fewer resources would doubtless find it difficult to implement this proposal.
However, even if small steps were taken, then surely most reasonable-minded people would consider the internet a more harmonious and ultimately better place. If large websites such as The Guardian’s were to initially instigate this measure, then less prestigious ones could follow their lead.
Perhaps some sceptics may argue that this move could also represent a step towards greater levels of internet censorship. I would argue the opposite. Abusive comments only serve to intimidate others and dissuade people from expressing their views. Therefore, as long as common sense is applied by regulators – so that rational, intelligent arguments are not also neglected – then freedom of speech will prevail.