I rarely expect heated responses to my column. Topics like programming, statistics and internet slang don’t exactly pull at the heartstrings.
A month ago, though, the comment section on one of many columns turned into an argument about the possible fabrication of the Holocaust.
The link between that column and the Holocaust was weak at best, so I chalked the incident up to a fluke. That’s why I was surprised when yet another Holocaust-related comment surfaced under my column last week.
I’m all for asking uncomfortable questions, but I wonder if these comments would’ve been made with more tact if the commenters knew that I’m Jewish.
The Internet exposes the best and worst in us all. It’s anonymous, so people express themselves with uninhibited creativity.
The products of that creativity range from funny to bizarre to downright beautiful.
But anonymity has a flip side. When you’re sitting behind a screen, you don’t have to see the real-time impact of what you say.
It’s easy to avoid accountability for your statements. It’s easy to forget you’re communicating with other human beings.
In that sense, the Internet is a magnifying glass for people’s underlying bigotry. When they’re online, people take views they would suppress in day-to-day life and supersize them.
For a live demonstration of this phenomenon, post a video on YouTube involving one of the following topics: race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Make sure the video really spreads. Then, sit back and watch the comments roll in.
Hundreds of examples are readily available. About one month ago, a gay soldier named Randy Phillips came out to his father and uploaded the video on YouTube.
Outright homophobia is becoming less and less acceptable throughout the United States; not surprisingly, most traditional media outlets praised Phillips or otherwise showed restraint. But Phillips’ actual videos are filled with comments like, “You need to be locked up for molesting children.” That’s one of the more tame ones.
If you see a viewpoint that makes you angry, write a blog post and respectfully advocate the opposite view. Put a song on MySpace. Make a video. Make a Facebook status, even.
It’s not as though YouTube moderators don’t track Phillips’ channel. Plenty of comments have been removed. In fact, the site has an entire page devoted to reporting hateful comments.
But there are too many YouTube videos — and too many commenters — for moderating to be effective.
For the most part, outrageous Internet bigotry doesn’t translate to offline action. Social norms and potential repercussions hold many people back. Bigots often turn to the Internet precisely because they lack support in real life.
Unfortunately, the discrepancy between online and offline bigotry is merely cold comfort.
We have to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do to discourage the haters.
All legal and moral arguments aside, using internet censorship to curb hate is impractical. More than two billion people use to the Internet.
Even if websites like YouTube were successful at moderating content — and they’re not — people could simply create their own blogs, networks and forums.
Responding to comments isn’t helpful, either. If someone’s anonymous statement didn’t change your mind, why should he or she care about yours?
The most productive way to curb bigotry is to continue to put out positive content.
Phillips delivered his message with great success: Beyond spurring a national conversation on homosexuality, he made gay rights a campaign issue. Presidential candidates who disrespected him were called out for failing to recognize his sacrifices as a soldier.
Don’t be anonymous: Show that you’re willing to stand up for your values once you leave the Internet.
To be clear, I’m not discouraging controversial viewpoints. If you want to respectfully oppose various social issues or examine the history of the Holocaust, be my guest. Just say your name and maintain some tact.
Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “From Behind the Screen” runs Thursdays.