Several months ago, the Huffington Post added a “Divorce” section to its website. They’ve linked to a couple of essays I’ve written here, and I click over and read what they publish from time to time. The articles themselves are usually pretty anodyne–I may have missed something, but so far I haven’t seen any piece that takes an outrageous or scandalous or even deliberately contrary view of divorce. To me, what’s most striking about the HuffPo divorce page isn’t the articles themselves. It’s the comments that follow the articles.
The commenters on just about any given piece are–how to put this? An interesting bunch. According to about half of them, anyone who gets divorced for any reason is selfish, insensitive, disloyal, pathetically irresponsible, wretchedly inadequate as a parent, and an utter failure as a human being. If my own example is any guide, we marriage-breakers don’t need THEM to tell us how awful we are: I’ve certainly felt I was all the above and more, sometimes all at once, sometimes to the point of despair. But I have always taken some solace from the idea that divorce is common in the era and culture I inhabit–that my despair, though vivid, is ordinary and, to a certain extent, shared. The very existence of a HuffPo Divorce page confirms this: at one point, I toyed with the idea of asking their editors for an assignment. Forget it. Even if the Huffington Post paid its writers (which it famously does not), having an essay met with blunt and hackneyed criticism from anonymous strangers would be a dealbreaker.
What is the deal with angry commenters on the web? Here are a few excerpts from responses to a recent article in which the author expresses sadness and regret at her divorce, blames no one but herself, and worries about the effect her split may have on her children:
“Would you advocate for a woman who chooses to beat her child? That’s essentially what you are doing here, as divorce has just as many harmful, long-term implications.”
“I have a problem with people who initiate divorces blurting out, “Divorce is hard.” Please. It’s hard for the other parties involved who didn’t want it and had no control over it. You don’t like hearing, “But you have kids!”? You should have thought of that before you inflicted divorce on them. Divorce might be a less sucky option for you, but it’s more sucky for them. You should be spending the rest of your days figuring out how to make it up to them for the trouble you’ve caused them without their consent. “
“All I can say is, if you’re not in it for the long haul, don’t have children. Unless there is some abuse, addiction or adultery, suck it up and work it out.”
“So, you are on the child support train now how nice for you. I wonder if women weren’t favored by the courts during divorce if more families would still be intact? You gave up, you took the easy way out because you knew that your ex would be required to cough up child support. In my opinion if you marry then you marry for life. No one held a gun to your head to force you to get married or to get pregnant so you made the decision you have to stick with it.
“This is what’s wrong with our society; there is no accountability for behavior. No matter what we do there is an excuse; some rationalization that exonerates us from our own responsibilities.”
Good grief. It’s a good thing the author obviously has no soul (if she did, she would never have gotten divorced, the hussy), or else these comments might, you know, hurt a little bit.
Once upon a time, I wrote an article for a (print) magazine on a mildly controversial topic. The article was tongue-in-cheek; still, I managed to offend someone who had a blog (back then, there were precious few blogs). A blog post calling my article obnoxious, sexist and so forth was published. I wrote to the blogger and apologized, and tried to explain myself. Graciously, the blogger published part of my response, even while standing behind the original assessment of the article.
The same article was syndicated online several years later. By then the internet had changed; blogs were everywhere, and print magazines were re-publishing articles on their websites. Same article, same tongue firmly in same cheek, and oh, the comments that poured in.
Some of the commenters seemed not to have read the article at all. Instead, they were responding to the topic, and they spouted forth every feeling they’d had on the subject (many of which were wildly tangential to my article). Many missed my stabs at humor, for which I suppose I can only blame myself. But what shocked me most were the vicious (and numerous) ad hominem attacks. I was a terrible wife, a terrible mother. Not a terrible writer, or even a mediocre writer of a terrible article. A terrible person.
A friend of mine from high school published this article last year. Go on, take a minute to look it over. Then read the comments. I dare you.
What is it about internet writing that brings out such viciousness? There have always been cranks, of course. In the old days, they would write letters to the editor. This takes effort, and a walk to the mailbox, and a stamp, and requires one to put one’s real name on the return address, and field questions from a factchecker if the letter is selected for publication. I like to think that process narrowed the field a bit. (The first time I published an article, my editor was kind enough to forward–in a manila envelope, no less–the typed and handwritten and carefully mailed letters my piece had inspired.) Nowadays, of course, you simply type and submit. You need not reveal your name, or where you live, or even your gender.
I realize this is rich, coming from someone who writes anonymously online. I also know that I have happily accepted compliments from anonymous internet readers (“Oh, look! Trixibelle5006 says I’m a brilliant writer! She–or he–must be a discerning genius!”) I know that there will always be dissenters, and perhaps it’s naive to think that anyone should be spared. And a request that all who use the internet do so under their real names would mean that both of my websites would disappear in puffs of smoke.
Still, I wonder. The Huffington Post and Salon are not blogs. I’d never advocate vicious anonymous comments on blogs, of course, but vicious anonymous comments on articles published by online magazines are, it seems to me, a different matter. It is difficult to get an article published at a magazine. One submits a proposal, adheres to the standards of the magazine, bows to editorial suggestions, and meets (or not, if one is me) a deadline. One must, except in special circumstances, use one’s real name, and one is expected to produce back-up for quotes, facts, and anecdotes. One is never permitted to rant and rave indiscriminately. Why, then, should the comments that follow a carefully researched, thoughtfully articulated essay or article not be held to similar standards?