A Comment on Comments

As a writer, one of my my favorite byproducts of an article is discourse. Good writing should make people think and prompt intelligent debate. But in the age of anonymous commenters, this seems like an unattainable goal.

For whatever reason, the majority of commenters say things that would never be heard in face-to-face conversations between adults. I’ve come to a few conclusions as to why this is so:

  1. Most people are actually irrational, callous, and incapable of empathy.
  2. The vast majority of commenters are in middle school.
  3. Normally sane, level-headed people let the crazy out when they comment behind a virtual wall of secrecy.

I really hope the last one is correct. Because if No. 1 is true, then we’re all a bunch of phonies, masquerading by day as caring doctors, kind teachers, discriminating scientists, and the like. But when we get in the comfort of our own homes, our true selves come out.

If No. 2 is true, we are vastly under-utilizing the Internet.

We’re left with the somewhat less disturbing reality that when no one’s watching, we say things we’d likely never admit to anyone.

This reminds me of the old pop psychology quiz where you ask someone what they would do if they were invisible. Normal people say they’d hop on a plane for free, or go to the roped-off parts of a museum, or something equally as harmless. Psychopaths say they’d commit crimes ranging from theft to burglary to even murder.

Obviously, I can’t speak as a psychologist, but as a human being I would venture to say that what we do when we perceive no one’s watching is actually more important than what we do under close scrutiny.

For the past two months, I’ve covered a family’s civil lawsuit against the Episcopal School of Dallas related to a teacher’s sexual relationship with a student. Obviously, kind and caring people could make an intelligent case for either the school or the family. But what has struck me is how the school’s defenders have leaned so heavily on smearing the 16-year-old girl, who is by legal definition a victim of sexual assault.

Say the school didn’t know, OK.

Say the only guilty party is history teacher Nathan Campbell, 34, who cheated on his wife with a child. I’d see your logic.

But don’t say that the girl, who was 15 when Campbell first started flirting with her, is a whore.

Would you, as an adult with full mental capacity, ever walk up to a teenager and call them vulgar names for any reason? How much more wouldn’t you do it if they’d been through some sort of trauma, even if you believed it to be self-inflicted?

Practically anyone can resist mocking a victim of a crime when they’re looking right at them, but somehow when looking at a computer screen, people call names without remorse.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.