Who Can Comment?

Occasionally throughout this last year, the definition of publishing has been thrown around the classroom: to make something public. And if something is public, then I believe that others should have a right to interact with it, comment on it, share it, and so forth. If you are producing something for the public to consume, then they should have the right to respond or interact with it in some way. It should not be a one-sided conversation.

If we didn’t allow interaction with text then there would be no criticism, and the counter public would have a much harder time organizing and affecting change. Without discourse, culture would not evolve—it would be the same people in positions of power saying the same things. We need to be able to hold people accountable to their words, and one key way we can do this in a democratic society is by having discussions in public spaces, such as in the comment section online. To stop people from commenting would be to censor people; and would be just another, more obvious way that we decide who has a voice and who doesn’t (the other way being deciding who gets published in the first place).

And while the majority of the time I think audiences should be allowed to socialize and discuss publications, it is also important to recognize that there are times when this can become dangerous. As we know, there is a difference between free speech and hate speech, and the latter has no place in public discourse (or anywhere!).

For example, in 2015, CBC decided to temporarily close comments on stories about Indigenous Peoples due to what they referred to as “uncivil dialogue” taking place in the comment section. Comments are still closed today (although not on the Facebook comment section), and I would argue for good reason. Often, the comments added nothing to the discussion about the story or the issue, but were racist generalizations. In this case, the cost (harm caused to people who read these comments) outweighed the benefit (people being allowed to engage in conversation). People’s well-being should come before everyone else’s two cents.

Similarly, if people abuse their right to comment (such as issuing death threats on Twitter), then I support them losing their ability to contribute to the broader conversation. If we are going to have discussions about texts, then we must do so in a way that does not attack a person or group of people and cause real harm.

One Reply to “Who Can Comment?”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful response to our prompt, Sarah. I absolutely agree with you about conversations in the online space. It is very difficult to moderate people’s interactions with texts online. There are some platforms that allow content creators to use filters for certain words that automatically weed out hateful comments. And that is, sometimes, a good alternative to blocking comments altogether. But it’s tricky. Using algorithms or filters to remove comments might end up removing some constructive feedback – that might contain some of the banned words – as well. And banning comments altogether sends a message to the reader that the writer is against feedback of any kind and considers their opinion to be sacrosanct. I guess the prerogative of who gets to interact with certain texts rests with the author and/or the platform that hosts that content. In an ideal world people would, as you said, know the difference between “free speech” and “hate speech” and no one would have to police people’s online interaction; but since that is not the case, there is no other alternative than to either moderate how people respond to others online or shutdown such interaction altogether.

Leave a Reply