The XX Factor

Defending the Trolls

Maureen Dowd excoriated the execrable Sunday, with a column denouncing the ugly comments that have surrounded Lara Logan’s assault in Cairo and Scott Brown’s revealing his childhood sexual assault. It goes without saying by now that with almost any piece of news, there will be nastiness, there will be idiocy, there will be thoughtless shooting from the hip by people who have not yet had their second cup of coffee. It’s hard to defend either “She got what she deserved” or “Okay, Scott, you get your free pity pills.”

But Dowd goes on to quote Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic , on why the Book, TNR’s online book review, forbids comments: “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually?”

The Book is a fantastic online review, but it’s awfully quiet there. You can hear the crickets chirping as you read. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it allows us to occupy ourselves with the reviewer’s thoughts without planning our response. But how much more might “Is Our Ability to Believe in God a Side-Effect of Our Love of Gossip,”  Damon Linker’s review of The Belief Instinct , have to offer if it was open to a dialogue like the one that follows a TNR article on ” What’s Really Going On in Wisconsin” ? Both are popular on the Web site, but only one provoked a debate that looks both civil and engaged. Dowd’s piece, too, provoked some 300 comments and a discussion of everything from why civility decreases with anonymity to free speech.

One of the strengths of online journalism, commentary and even Twitter, et al., is the ability they give us to engage with people we would never engage with actually. There’s nothing really new in the reaction of Nir Rosen to the Lara Logan assault, or in the idea that some people would dislike a politician so much that even a tragedy would inspire them to nothing more than pettiness. What’s new is that it’s all out there for us to confront head on, and that it’s part of, rather than an ugly undertone to, the national conversation. Wieseltier asks, “Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?” But technology doesn’t exonerate it. We do-or, more often, we don’t. We condemn it, and it’s technology that gives us our best ability to do that, too.