Among many of my colleagues and an increasing number of readers, an article of faith has emerged regarding online interactions:
Don’t read the comments.
That popular defense mechanism extends to the swirling stream of invective that can be found on Twitter, where ugly attitudes often manifest themselves in 140-character dispatches from the dark side of human nature.
I have often taken this approach myself, preferring to downplay the ubiquitous negativity of Internet culture as a pesky side-effect of the medium rather than a meaningful sign of deeper trouble.
But painful as it might be, there may be a good reason to read and process the vile comments and tweets we’d rather dismiss: They remind us that we have work to do.
Last week, in a story titled “The Most Prejudiced Places in America,” the Daily Beast highlighted the results of a study that mined millions of tweets in an effort to chart the geographic prevalence of racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes.
The results were dismal for Buffalo, which had the most homophobic tweets of an American city and came in eighth place for anti-black tweets. (A 2015 study based on Google searches also pegged Western New York as a region where people search for a certain racial epithet “much more than average.”)
To be sure, such an approach comes with built-in flaws, among them the possibility that certain derogatory keywords might occasionally be used by members of the very group they were originally intended to malign. However, because of its huge sample size and straightforward methodology relative to more-dubious top 10 lists on which Buffalo appears, the results of the study should not simply be dismissed out of hand.
But it should hardly be shocking, for instance, that a city consistently ranked as one of the most racially segregated in America should have the eighth-highest number of anti-black tweets. Or that some elements of its conservative culture should have produced lingering homophobic attitudes.
Amid our renaissance narrative, this information is certainly inconvenient. Indeed, in the very same comment sections where racist and homophobic attitudes frequently appear, many have tried to dismiss it as a useless study that says little about the place we live.
But what if we’ve only been pretending that the place we live has progressed meaningfully beyond ancient attitudes? What if the polite language and civil discourse that characterized the era between the civil rights movement and the advent of the Internet was only a thin coat of whitewash?
While one Twitter study isn’t going to prove this one way or the other, the possibility is worth considering.
The philosopher Michel Foucault, in a 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky, put it this way:
“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”
That’s a long way of saying: Racism, homophobia and sexism have disguised themselves in apparently polite forms and need to be hunted down and exposed. And what we are witnessing on Twitter and in the comments sections of local and national media outlets, though not exactly as Foucault envisioned it, is a great and necessary unmasking.
And the face under the mask is not pretty.
It’s a harsh reminder that toxic attitudes did not disappear with the rise of politically correct language or the formation of comfy progressive cocoons, nor are they likely to do so without real, structural change.
The problems don’t belong only to other communities, like Ferguson or Flint. They’re here whether we like it or not.
To dismiss such racist, misogynist, homophobic or otherwise vile remarks as the ravings of a few basement-dwelling trolls is to vastly underestimate the task at hand.
By giving voice to the dark id of the new American commentariat and broadcasting conversations previously whispered in backrooms and bars, Twitter has identified the target for us. Now we just have to fight.