This week the CBC took an unprecedented step to close its online comments section after a story about a First Nations issue generated an incredible amount of racist vitriol, the most vitriol, in fact, of any subject the nation’s broadcaster tackles. I wish I had taken a screen shot of the comments before they were taken down. They were appalling. When I weighed in with my comment that First Nations issues—the facts and their historical context—need to be included in grade school programs across the land, lest another generation of ignorant bullies gets their information from older ignorant bullies, my comment provoked a reply from an anonymous racist who spewed ALL CAPS INVECTIVE in my direction. It was pleasant.
When a nation hides/ignores/avoids its ugly history it leaves gaps in the collective identity, gaps too often spiked with venom or what James Baldwin called “the vindictiveness of the guilty”. Canada has built a cherished myth around the successful, tolerant, multi-cultural mosaic and while the myth is true to some degree, it’s hardly the full story. As I’ve written previously, there’s an elephant in the room and if this country is to fully mature, it will have to accept and humble itself before the truth of the near-genocide of First Nations people.
But back to the CBC shutting down its online comments section. Hatred is to commentary what coughing is to flu season—it doesn’t take long before everybody is sick with it, and sick of it.
Interestingly, some racist commenters actually had names, but the majority were anonymous. I get that anonymity is becoming important, especially given data dragnetting, surveillance, and many flavours of oppression. And I get that anonymity has its appeal. I used to lurk on 4chan’s /b/ board where anonymity is the rule and providing you have a strong stomach for all the garbage talk and lack of accountability, it was exhilarating to witness a hive mind with substantial cyber power.
But what happened on the CBC online forum, and is happening more and more often elsewhere, is that good journalism was hijacked. Public discussion was disrupted by an anonymous flash mob drunk on its ability to degrade and spew. This has to stop. Each of us gets to decide how much we want to reveal about ourselves online. Choose anonymity or choose to name yourself, but when it’s a public forum, commenters need to play nice.
There’s no hiding behind free speech, unless you stay in the dark and twisty worlds where total anonymity is the rule. Out in the real world where concerned people—such as journalists—are trying to make a tangible difference in the lives of the people they serve, free speech has a price. You’re allowed to debate, dissent, and be passionate. But pretend you’ve entered somebody’s home—be cordial, be dignified and be careful—or you’ll be asked to leave.