I Believe in a Silent Rational Majority

Today I read a Facebook update from a history professor, who is dealing with the fallout over a recent essay on Antietam that he published in the Wall Street Journal. Like everything else he writes, it was a thoughtful essay, but it should come as no surprise to those of you familiar with sites with unmoderated comments that the article received a great deal of negative and abusive feedback. Unfortunately, this professor chose to correspond with one particular commenter, who has over the years also leveled his attacks on me for my supposedly anti-Confederate/South views. Like many of my most vocal critics, the individual in question does not live in the South. In this case he lives in Long Island, New York. The correspondence eventually made its way to the office of the president of the professor’s college.

I certainly understand the frustration and that sense of futility when reading comment after comment of such vitriol and having to deal with nasty personal emails. I’ve got a file of hundreds of such emails. While teaching in Virginia I had to deal with regular telephone calls and emails sent to the school headmaster. Just this past week I was called a Nazi on another website and recently I complained about the quality of feedback that followed one of my recent essays at the Atlantic. It’s an unfortunate part of the online world.

I could offer a few words of reassurance and advice to this professor. First, don’t correspond with these people. It accomplishes nothing and what you write will likely make its way to the Internet as was the case here. It is important to keep in mind that the comments section of most sites is likely to be populated by people who feel the most defensive. The vitriol and name calling is a reflection of their ignorance and inability to engage in an intelligent discussion. The only resort is to shut down any and all discussion. I do my best to remember that the vast majority of people who read what I write will never leave a comment on the blog or communicate with me personally. They may not agree, but hopefully they will consider what I’ve written and pass it along through one of the many social media channels. I believe in a silent rational majority.

Maintaining a blog or other social media platform is not for everyone and I certainly understand that, but it is hard to sympathize with people who dabble in the web 2.0 world. It is safe to say that this professor’s job has not been threatened one bit by this correspondence. In the future he can refrain from publishing articles on sites that allow for unmoderated commenting or he can refrain from publishing online entirely.

Informing your community that there are ignorant and hate-filled people out there is not news. What I want to know is how we can respond in a constructive way to this environment. What responsibilities do we as teachers [k-12 and beyond] have to prepare our students to engage one another in online communities? The maintenance of a vibrant online world has become essential to our democracy. Where else but the classroom can we learn to be civil to one another?

Most people who experience the nastiness of online discussion throw up their hands and abandon the idea completely. It takes a lot of work to maintain an online space that nurtures passionate and thoughtful exchanges. Just ask Ta-Nahesi Coates.

My response to all of this is Civil War Memory.  What is yours?

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18 comments… add one
  • Bummer Oct 9, 2012 @ 6:40

    Your site inspired me to create my Civil War Bummer….foraging food for thought blog page. As your time permits please visit and share your opinion. Thank you in advance.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2012 @ 6:42

      Best of luck with your new site.

  • Jimmy Dick Oct 1, 2012 @ 15:28

    I saw that there was a study done that examined people who refused to accept proven facts over their personal beliefs. http://bodyodd.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/09/28/14142490-why-some-of-us-refuse-to-face-facts-yes-birthers-that-includes-you?lite is the site.
    To put it bluntly, the study shows that people that find it too hard to process the factual information will instead stick with their accepted beliefs.
    I wonder if that study should be sent to the Southern Heritage Groups? Their reaction would be interesting.

  • Allen C. Guelzo Oct 1, 2012 @ 11:30

    I think there are two problems here. One is civility; because others are losing their heads and blaming it on you is not a blank check to fire broadsides back, and to the extent that I have let myself do this in this instance, then by all means blame me. But the other issue is bullying: these people are bullies, and the more they are allowed to spout their hatreds without contradiction, the more converts they attract, and the more the victim winds up getting blamed for hitting back. It was a shrewd comment which said that these people publish exchanges like this because it gives them ‘street cred’ with their peers. That is a pleasure I am disinclined to allow them. Some thoughts on this from other commentators would be helpful.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Oct 1, 2012 @ 8:41

    I think you’re absolutely right in your encouragement to the professor that arguing with these people is a waste of time. Like you said, no one ever changes their minds in these discussions. The best I’ve ever been able to do was one time when I got into it with some neo-Confederates who tried to defend slavery by saying many slaves loved their masters and were treated well. In my response, I asked, “Maybe they were treated well, that’s fine. But they were treated like children; actually, even worse than children. Young people are taught to read and write and how to handle money in preparation for adulthood. Most slaves weren’t taught any of this. ‘ I’se been treated right fair by Ole Massa, sho’ nuff’ is a sad testimony to “treated well.” Would you want your children to talk like that?” Eleven years later, I’m still waiting for an answer from those people.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 1, 2012 @ 8:46

      Hi Bryan,

      It’s not so much that communicating with some of these people is a waste of time, but that it could be done in a more productive way. Most people know by now that I am talking about Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College. He has published numerous articles in online newspapers and other websites. I would love to see him collect this material on a site of his own where he can interact at his own pace with his audience. I have no doubt that he would effectively handle some of his more vocal critics.

  • Doug didier Sep 30, 2012 @ 1:47

    In the posts ( facebook, comments to articles, amazon book reviews, etc) , There is all sorts of information ( networks, regional opinions, etc) for future historians.. In this case differential civil war or historical memory …

    What if this were archived in the antebellum period? Thoughts by class vs time and region.. Perhaps saving the union wasn’t the key northern issue..

    Keep up the good work …

  • Lyle Smith Sep 29, 2012 @ 10:59

    Let me say that I think you moderate you’re comments much better than Ta-Nehesi Coates. He is much less open to criticism and opposing views than you are. He wants to have a civil discussion, but only from a certain perspective, mainly his. Ideas and discussion are therefore limited in his comment section. Not in yours though. I commend you for it and I personally appreciate it.

    I think Crossroads and Dead Confederates do this well too.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2012 @ 3:15

      I appreciate the kind words, Lyle. I would love to see what doesn’t make it into Coates’s comments section. He is dealing with much larger volume, which no doubt involves different challenges.

  • Edward J. Blum Sep 29, 2012 @ 6:16

    In short, I try to see it as a teachable moment for everyone involved.

    • Andy Hall Sep 29, 2012 @ 7:26

      Except that I’ve seen several similar exchanges, and the original communication addressed to the academic usually starts out by accusing that person of telling Yankee lies, being a Lincoln idolater, being a danger to impressionable young minds, and so on. One started out like this:

      Sadly, you have bought into the Lincoln myth hook, line and sinker.

      That’s after misspelling the historian’s name in the salutation.

      I agree with you entirely on the value of a “teachable moment.” But that’s not what the original correspondent wanted in the first place. It’s posturing, showing off in front of fellow True Southrons that they can “take to school” a bunch of self-important academics with their high-falutin’ degrees and tenured titles. And when, after several similar exchanges back-and-forth, they eventually get the short, blunt answer they’ve earned by their own belligerent tone and rudeness, then they have an excuse to whine to the university administration that they’ve been mistreated by that mean, mean professor. It’s a childish game and it needs to be recognized for what it is.

  • Edward J. Blum Sep 29, 2012 @ 6:08

    Nice post. I respond kindly to any and all who email me. (I don’t worry about comments unless the person seems to be engaging the topic in a thoughtful manner). To emails, I respond first by thanking the person for taking the time to read the piece, to consider it, and to write to me. I then try to respond conversationally to her or his idea. (“I like the way you thought about …” or “I had not considered …”). I then respond if I have anything to say. And then I invite further responses with a question or two. (“so what did you think about …?” “do you know of any instances where…?”)

    I have had some amazing interchanges – sometimes with people who lived through the events and have another side of the story to tell.

    Now, to the people who just write purely hurtful things or make threats. The former I disregard, the latter I refer to the appropriate professional or governmental body.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2012 @ 6:23

      It’s an effective way of defusing such an individual. I do my best to respond in a thoughtful way, not always successfully. It’s helpful to keep in mind that some readers have never experienced a mature online conversation.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2012 @ 7:52

        I agree with you entirely on the value of a “teachable moment.” But that’s not what the original correspondent wanted in the first place.

        I agree, Andy. At the same time I constantly need to remind myself that the group of people who are unreachable is extremely small.

  • Kejia Sep 29, 2012 @ 5:15

    I’m one of the Silent Rational Majority, checking in from North Carolina. Keep up with the good work, sir.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2012 @ 5:18

      Nice to hear from you. 🙂

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