Giles Fraser: Poisoning the wells of open debate

01 February 2007

I can spot them the moment they fall through the letterbox: the capital letters, the spidery handwriting, the multiple 5p stamps on the envelope, the pages and pages of tightly written prose, all suitably referenced and underlined in triplicate.

To begin with, I found the hate mail unsettling. My way of dealing with it has been to think of it as a badge of pride. But it still gets to you. This year, I even got a hate Christmas card — anonymous, of course.

The themes are familiar: I am both a Jew-lover (the latest one of those was very nasty) and an anti-Semite (I’m always hurt by those because my family changed its name from Friedeberg to hide from anti-Semitism). There are many on the gay issue, of course (though I have no idea how one writer from Cornwall has come to know that I am a sodomite. It was news to me.)

Of course, when I consider it rationally, I know that many originate from that complex place where religion and mental illness meet. Nobody admits to sending hate mail or faeces through the post. Actually, that’s not true: Sharon Osbourne from The X Factor has confessed as much. I rest my case.

Yet, despite the social unacceptability of sending hate mail, those who post comments on websites — also known as bloggers — are able to get away with the most disgusting bile, wrapped in the clothing of anonymity. “Comment is free” is what The Guardian calls its blog site. Comment is cheap, more like. Sadly, nasty and insulting comment drives away all the interesting stuff. Who wants to get involved in a serious discussion only to end up trading abuse?

What is doubly preposterous is that many such bloggers regard themselves as the vanguard of the open society, doing the morally commendable job of protecting free expression. Thus they pretend that saying the most unpleasant things is some sort of moral virtue. In this way, the new hate mail gets to provide itself with moral cover.

All this would change if something like the same criteria for publishing a letter in a newspaper (with name and address open to view) applied to bloggers. They would then have to take responsibility for their opinions.

In reality, intemperate bloggers are poisoning the wells of open debate, not enhancing it. Many of those outside the blogsphere are put off by the sheer unpleasantness of internet debate. So it is abandoned to people with thick skins and short tempers. And that is hardly the open forum that many bloggers claim they are protecting.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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