My post, “Big, ugly spaceship-looking building or beautiful ‘sacred place?’” has garnered far more than the usual number of comments than Crazy in Suburbia is accustomed to.
Lots of strong feelings and opinions are surfacing about the appropriateness of erecting this 66,000-square-foot religious sanctuary project in the residential Saranap neighborhood between Walnut Creek and Lafayette. Most notably, many have expressed strong feelings—pro and con—about its builders, Sufism Reoriented, as well as Save our Saranap, the group raising questions about the project’s size and design.
One commenter, calling herself 21stCenturyMom, was concerned about people being able to leave anonymous comments on this blog. She thought that allowing people to comment without having to sign their names denigrated the level of discourse. She was especially disturbed by the hyperbole used by some commenters, specifically language one commenter employed to liken people on one side of the issue to a gang of rapists.
I agree that this imagery is pretty over the top. Depending on your point of view, this imagery will confirm your perception that these people have evil intentions—or will make this “gang of rapists” writer sound like a reactionary and melodramatic idiot.
But I’m not going to stop people from making these kinds of comments. To me, this particular comment, with and without its interesting word choice, expressed something deep and real about this sanctuary debate: how this proposal has unleashed anger, bitterness and fear on both sides.
Requiring people to sign their names would certainly stop the melodrama, but I’m certain that it would also stop the comments, or the majority of them.
I like the comments, and not just because it gives the impression that people are reading what some think is my stupid blog. I also like the comments because I read a dialogue going on about a subject that’s important to people in this neighborhood. To me, the debate going on among commenters, even anonymous ones, is an exercise in free speech.
I love Internet message boards for that reason. Whether I’m reading a message board about restaurants, celebrity gossip, or President Obama’s handling of the economy, I feel like I’m reading what people really think. These comments are unedited and uncensored—both by the publication and by the writers themselves—unlike signed and usually carefully crafted letters to the editor in a traditional newspaper.
I still like reading signed letters to the editor in traditional publications. They offer one way to get information and to acquaint myself with different people's viewpoints.
Now we have Internet message boards, which give the public yet another forum for expressing their personal viewpoints and disseminating information. I’m not saying one is better than the other. They are just different, and I like having the choice.
Publications moving to the web have for years wrestled with the question, legally and ethically, of how to set up their Internet message boards. They want to uphold ideals of free speech and allow people to comment freely, but they want to keep comments respectful, and they don’t want to provide forums for personal attacks or obscene or libelous speech. (I’ll remove comments that I judge obscene, offensive or libelous.) Some websites require registration; some require pre-approval of comments. Some don’t allow comments, while others do, but in weird, hard-to-navigate ways. Some don’t allow anonymous comments. Others do.
As you can see, I belong to the laissez-faire camp of message board hosters, including when it comes to anonymous comments.
This in part comes from my experience as a reporter.
It’s human nature that most people want to keep difficult thoughts and feelings to themselves. They worry about being judged or shunned. They worry about that revealing certain things could hurt their families or cost them their jobs. Sometimes they just don’t want to deal with even the small hassle of being the public face of a situation that is in the least bit uncomfortable or controversial.
I’ve worked for publications that only allow information and quotes that are “on the record.” That is, from a source—public record, public official—that is “authoritative,” including from a source willing to be named. I respect the principle behind this standard. At the same time, most stories involving only “on the record” information and comments tend to skate on the surface of what’s really going on, whether it’s a debate over a civic issue or a crime. You could say the on-the-record accounts are accurate, and might give all the basic facts many of us need to know.
But as a reporter, I usually knew more than I could report, and the things I knew often were what I thought the story was really about.
With regard to this Sufism sanctuary debate taking place on my blog, the anonymous comments offer a window into what might be going on in this neighborhood. With the ability to post instantly and with the cloak of anonymity, people are likely to be posting what’s really on their minds. Not all the things that people are thinking and then writing are pretty, or socially correct. Some comments have been labeled “offensive” and or as “hate speech.”
It seems that these boards are revealing a neighborhood that houses people, on both sides, who are angry, fearful, frustrated, and fed up. If that’s what is really going on, then that is a situation that the different groups involved--Sufism Reoriented, Save Our Saranap, the Saranap Homeowners Organization, and the Saranap Community Association—are having to deal with.
I expect that people reading or participating in the comments are technologically and culturally sophisticated enough to approach these boards with healthy skepticism, both with regard to the information presented and to the identity of the commenters.
One commenter, him/herself anonymous, suggested I was posting all the pro-Save Our Saranap-related comments. Who knows? Then again, I don't really have the time to be on the computer all day, posting comments on my own blog.
Another anonymous commenter asked whether the people identifying themselves as friends of Sufis were really just friends or were, in fact, members of Sufism Reoriented, deviously trying to sway public opinion. Once again, we’ll never know.
I’ve been mostly impressed with the dialogue going on about this project. The comments from different perspectives have been informative and given me new ways to think about it. Some have offered important details about the project and the legal and development issues involved. Others reveal the history of discord over the project, while others contain heart-felt expressions of feelings both for and against.
To me, this is free speech in action. Bring it on.