Every morning I wake up and I have a little ritual going. First I am met by the generally cheerful dog and cats. Then I pee. Then I get a cup of coffee and sit in front of my computer. I scan my inboxes (yes plural, as a long term mail user I have ten or so, each for a different purpose and some barely in use anymore but still added to my mail client). I then check if anything came up on my Twitter stream and I almost immediately follow up by clicking refresh on the comments of this very site. I know I am going to be the first one of our editorial team to do so for the day, mostly because of time differences (being in Europe I get to be up earlier than my US counterparts). This little routine I have going is not always followed to the T as there are days I need to get ready for meetings or what have you and I skip some steps or just grab a cup of coffee and run. In general, you can say that 5 out of 7 days I’ll be doing all of the above.
For the past two or three weeks every morning, my rather inconsequential routine is greeted with a series of comments left by the same dude. This dude, let’s call him “MatrixMansplainer” as he likes to identify himself with oh so witty and original Matrix references visits this site every day to let us know how wrong we are. He seems to have a preference for Sady’s posts and particularly, he seems keen on rehashing arguments about certain books that Sady disliked. One would expect that this MatrixMansplainer would have realized, after so many weeks, that his comments are not welcome since I have systematically trashed them. However, just like his choice of monikers denotes a serious lack of originality (really? Who self identifies with Matrix references at this point?!), I would say that this Chicago dweller also lacks in self awareness as anyone with an ounce of it would have taken a clue and, you know, discontinued their behavior.
However, MatrixMansplainer is not alone. We got a whole bunch of them on the Black Pete post. People who would accuse me of racism against Dutch people; those who would inform me that I should fuck off to whichever hellhole I came from; those who would write 800+ word comments explaining the many ways I was wrong; privilege deniers; garden variety White supremacists; rape threatening dudes. You know, people who believed that their words would be uncritically published because this is what they are accustomed to. At the core of it, lays the fact that MatrixMansplainer is the dude that visits every site and has an opinion on every topic. He is your everyday commenter, the internet observer and contributor who believes that he is owed a space to have his opinions heard. He is also the “Angry commenter” that Katie Roiphe (herself a MatrixMansplainer with a bigger platform) has just discovered (incidentally, Jill is right, it’s 2005 all over again). We used to refer to MatrixMainsplainer as a “troll”. That’s what he would have been called back in the early 2000s. Someone who would leave an inflammatory comment or remark with the sole purpose of provocation, to stir arguments. Oh how naive we were back then. We believed that these people didn’t mean what they were saying. We used to think that they were just toying with us that nobody would be so purposefully obtuse. We still held onto the belief that people on the internet had compassion and empathy, that they were being inflammatory to either stir the pot in forums or to fend off boredom.
I have bad news for all of us: Fox News killed the internet trolls. All of them. Or, you know, Fox News gave jobs to a few of them and legitimized the rest creating what I like to call “The Foxnewsification of mainstream media”. These days, MatrixMansplainers really mean what they are saying. Their sexism, racism, hatred, bigotry, their anger are not just argumentative tactics, they are legitimate drivers for policy making. MatrixMansplainers actually drive our politics and our public discourse. If you are in the US, you will find MatrixMansplainers repeating right wing Tea Party talking points. If you are in Europe, they will spell out their allegiance to figures like Geert Wilders or the British BNP. You can see MatrixMansplainers express their racist outrage in public spaces. You can see them “debating” anti reproductive rights legislation with zealotry. These people have carved a legitimate political force and because of this Foxnewsification of mainstream media, these people believe that every space should allow them to express their opinions unchallenged.
I would venture that the internet troll took the first deathly blow in 2001 when hateful anti Islamic rhetoric became acceptable in most media. What was once brushed off as “trolling” became the standard. We saw the incendiary language get worse every day, certain slurs that were usually reserved for the back rooms of hateful sites repeated on news hours, commenting sections of news sites, blogs, etc. Any challenge to this bigotry used to be met with a chorus of “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!” utterances. As if every form of speech deserved a platform everywhere, as if it was the obligation of site moderators to allow any content without critical thinking. As if all content was equal. I contend that laziness played a big role here. Moderating comments is hard work. Establishing an editorial standard on comments requires actively challenging one’s beliefs. Mainstream media, news sites, major blogs, in a run for page views and visibility would allow these comments because they would create “polemic”, they would drive readership figures up. The controversy was good for business. Even self professed progressive or leftist sites adhered to these principles, catering to an increasingly confrontational audience. In turn, this has created the entitlement in the MatrixMansplainers. They can no longer distinguish legitimate editorializing from true censorship. They have been led to believe that their opinions matter and that they deserve to be heard in every site at all times.
Meanwhile, we retreated. We created “safe spaces” with varying degrees of editorial control. However, I have to wonder why are not all news sites and major blogs made “safe”? If in any other environment, people felt systematically unsafe, we would demand immediate change and measures of protection. If a club, a venue, a public space allowed people to be subjected to violence without actually taking counter measures, such places would most likely be shut down due to public outcry. However, this is what our media does. It allows all of us to be exposed to rhetoric violence from our commenting peers and it does nothing to protect us. Because measures of protection would be bad for business. Because an active moderation policy would cost money in the form of salaries for moderators and less page views from the bigots that would no longer feel welcome. And we have somehow accepted this. We are no longer holding our media accountable for this violence. We have carved our niches where we keep each other safe. But I insist, if certain groups of people were confined to their homes because public spaces weren’t safe, we would demand better. Instead, we patiently deal with our own MatrixMansplainers, shake our heads when they attempt to leave an insulting comment and move on.
The problem with this attitude is that when MatrixMansplainers venture outside the confines of their unprotected spaces they believe everyone plays by those rules. They believe that what was just a business decision to drive up page views is, in fact, an inalienable right: the right to express themselves, not unlike the way a young dog feels she can take a shit in the middle of the living room without consequences. Any moderation is met with cries of censorship. Because here’s another thing mainstream media has obscured: the fact that editorial policies are not censorship. The fact that treating oppressive language as undesirable is an editorial decision and not an attack on free speech. MatrixMansplainers are still free to express their bigotry elsewhere, they are just not free to express it in places that take commenting seriously. To quote Juan Cole, author of one of my favorite commenting policies on the internet:
The comment section does not seek any sort of artificial two-sides-of-a-story “balance” at all, and no critiques of lack of such “balance” on these pages will be entertained. This sort of “balance” would require that the allegation that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer be offset with a denial of this simple and well-established fact. This pernicious game is not played here. A variety of points of view is all to the good, but a mere opinion not backed up by facts, reasoning or analysis is unlikely to get through. Moreover, not all points of view are valuable.
“Not all points of view are valuable”. This needs to be repeated. Any point of view that actively seeks to alienate, oppress or bully someone does not deserve to be exposed. This is not a matter of mere disagreement, this is a matter of actively causing harm by leaving those opinions in the open. It is not the job of other commenters to challenge the bigotry. It is the job of editors to decide what kind of vision is exposed. I doubt we will make a dent on this Foxnewsification but I certainly believe we have an obligation to care for our readers. Trolls might have died at the beginning of this century but their ideas have survived and spread like a never ending meme.