Belfast Telegraph

When it comes to Dawkins some are forum, others not

By Robert McNeil

Nice atheist Richard Dawkins has got himself in a tangle over citizens who leave comments on his internet forum.

At first, it was reported that the traditional vitriol had led to the comments on his site being banned. Then, it seemed the comments were not about the great biologist but about the poor chap moderating the site.

Next, it appeared the comments forum was going to continue after all, and Richard was apologising for going “over the top” in what seemed a reasonable response to all the bile.

This forum business has been a real revelation as regards the bitter vileness of the human race. You can check the forum on, say, the Little Bigton Orchid Appreciation Society and find on the first page that they're all sweetness and light but, by page three, they're at each other's throats over who has the biggest stamen.

In Richard's case, either he or his moderator was referred to as “a suppurating rat’s rectum” and “a slack-jawed turd”. There were threats to ram a fistful of nails down someone's throat.

This was on a website about evolutionary biology. Now, I can't make head nor tail of evolutionary biology, where even heads and tails seem in a state of flux.

Nor can I tell which came first, the creationist or the straitjacket. But I'd have expected the standard of debate on such a website to be higher than this.

Richard raised it slightly, criticising the “over-the-top hostility” and “ludicrously hyperbolic animosity” (occasioned, ironically, by plans to “moderate” the comments), adding: “Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it.”

Now, he has apologised for being “insensitive” in his remarks and said some of the abuse quoted was from other websites. Insensitive? About people like that? Get an afterlife, Richard.

It's the irresponsibly encouraged anonymity that allows the more psychopathic citizen to wire his seething subconscious through his keyboard and into all our lives.

It's a fiesta of irresponsibility, a festival of hostility.

The contrast with a newspaper's printed letters page is striking. Here, you see at least attempts at reason. Here, usually you must supply your full name and address — even if you don't want these published — and often a telephone number.

They may check the name against the phone book or electoral register, and give you a call if they want to change your letter.

All this is designed to stop citizens writing in under false names or other people's names, and |partly also to prevent the ubiquitous Hugh Jarse getting his comical moniker in the letters page again.

Fine. But now they also say: “On the other hand, you might prefer to adopt a nickname, make up a fake email address, and send in bizarre hate mail anonymously to the website.” A colleague of mine said that it was “like writing for an audience wearing Donnie Darko masks”. They're out there, in the darkness.

When one cybernut threatened the children of a professor involved in climate change research (a subject that attracts hyper-loons), the prof tracked him down — and discovered it was another professor.

One computer scientist said: “If you're writing something on a computer and you're not face to face with someone, it's quite a different way of communicating. Someone might be more inclined to be aggressive.”

But it's the cowardice that really offends. It's the dishonesty of not declaring your interest.

A new etiquette is urgently needed, one in which everyone is up-front, civilised and rational. But it ain't gonna happen, is it?

Welcome to the future. Bring a torch.

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