I had an interesting experience in the comments section of someone else's post recently. I don't want to link to that post, because I can almost guarantee that doing so would derail the conversation I hope to have here, so I will try to use a metaphor. I'll make it ridiculous, but try to capture the flavor of what happened.
It was a post about how our society stigmatizes people who have elephants for pets, and how even if we are uncomfortable with the idea of having elephants for pets, we should recognize the humanity of the people who have them for pets, and treat them better than we do now.
I had never thought much about the issue of elephants as pets, and I for some reason decided that I would wade into the comments and see if I could learn something. In fact, I thought I might learn enough to actually formulate a somewhat informed opinion on the topic, because this site has a smart, articulate readership, and I figured some of them probably had thought a lot about elephants as pets.
But what actually happened is that I would write a comment, and then someone who actually kept an elephant as pet would write back arguing against something I hadn't said. Or at least something I hadn't thought I had said.
This went on for awhile, and I eventually gave up and went away.
But it occurred to me later that the problem was that the elephant owners and I were there for different reasons.
I was sort of interested in the topic, and thought I might learn something. So, while I didn't set out to write anything mean or inflammatory, I probably didn't take as much care in my comments as I could have.
Meanwhile, the elephant owners were there arguing for their right to choose the pet that they wanted, and came with a lot of history of having this argument with a lot of people- so they thought they knew what I was arguing, because they probably felt like they had heard it all before. And they came with a history that would understandably make them sensitive to comments such as the ones I was writing.
In the ensuing failure to communicate we both lost out. I lost out on the chance to learn something. And the elephant owners lost out on the chance to bring me closer to their way of thinking about the topic.
I felt pretty bad when I realized what had happened, and went back and tried to apologize. But this was actually better than some conversations I've been in. At least in this case, the elephant owners were making reasoned arguments, and not just saying "you're wrong" and calling people who disagreed with them names or writing snarky, condescending comments implying that anyone who disagreed with their opinion must be an idiot. I've actually banned myself from one blog whose main posts I found interesting and thought-provoking because whenever I engaged in the comments section I was likely to be treated in this way, and I decided that the blog, as good as it is, wasn't worth that aggravation. (Incidentally, the blog-writer in question and most of the commenters were academics, which made the experience even more disappointing. I expected academics to be more open to other points of view, and willing to discus things in a reasoned manner.)
All of this got me thinking about the various reasons I have for commenting on controversial posts.
I've been in various positions: sometimes I'm the elephant owner, sometimes I'm someone with a strong, well-thought out opinion against elephant owning, and sometimes I'm the person who has never thought about elephant owning and is trying to learn. I hope I'm never in the position of someone who has never thought about elephant owning and is just spouting off uninformed nonsense- but I can't swear that the elephant owners on the post in question didn't think that of me.
In thinking about it, I think I am less likely to comment when I'm the elephant owner, particularly if other elephant owners are doing a good job of presenting my opinions. I find that role to be a bit emotionally draining and very time consuming, and so will only do it on issues I feel strongly about- or sometimes on other issues, but then I just comment once or twice and go away.
So what about you? Do you comment on controversial threads? And when you do, which role are you playing?