Much Ado About Comments

by | December 12, 2015

If you have something to say regarding news stories about indigenous people, the CBC doesn’t want to hear it until next year. Canada’s public broadcaster has taken what “Acting director of digital news” Brodie Fenlon acknowledges, in a commendably calm, articulate and thoughtful explanatory post, is the “unusual step” of closing comments on indigenous stories. This is intended to be a strictly temporary measure:

We hope to reopen them in mid-January after we’ve had some time to review how these comments are moderated and to provide more detailed guidance to our moderators.

So, Fenlon, why is this overhaul of moderation practices needed?

We’ve noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines. Some of the violations are obvious, some not so obvious; some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e., racist sentiments expressed in benign language).

The guidelines, incidentally, are here. It’s worth noting that they don’t actually say anything about vitriol or ignorance, which is one suspects is fortunate for many commenters. As with most such guidelines, they could be used to justify either a fairly relaxed approach to moderation or a much more constraining, safe-spacey one, depending on how words like “vulgarity”, “insults”, “harassment”, “respectful” and “hatred” were interpreted. Examples of comments that have been deemed to fall on the wrong side of the line are usually more illuminating than the policies themselves, and it’s to the CBC’s credit that they’ve provided some – being read aloud in a tongue-and-cheek style by indigenous staff members, no less. Despite the warning that it might “be a bit difficult” to listen to the comments, however, I thought they were rather humdrum, and not at all the kind of thing that a solidly established national broadcasting corporation (whether public or private) with a certain social responsibility to facilitate the open circulation of opinion should even consider censoring. One assumes, then, that whatever moderation scheme is introduced in mid-January will be pretty damn heavy-handed. Fenlon says that he doesn’t want “violations of [the] guidelines by a small minority” to “alienate” the CBC’s audience, but putting an unduly tight muzzle on commenters might do precisely that.

As Fenlon recognizes, the CBC’s decisions about comments are taking place against the backdrop of a wider controversy about the merits and drawbacks of online commenting in general. To hear some people talk, you’d think the average comment thread on a major news website anywhere in the English-speaking world was a witch’s cauldron of hatred, loathing, ignorance and paranoia. Colin Horgan, in Maclean’s, provides a fair example of this perspective:

Media outlets, and reporters specifically, quickly learned to never look below the line, and to rarely engage with commenters or tweeters, as they are, for the most part, the lunatic fringe. The crazies are easily dismissed, but over time, cumulatively, social media and comment threads, while changing coverage of events, have also altered our interpretation of that coverage. They have worked to undermine the validity of the news media’s voice, ironically all while those very outlets hosted and, by extension, validated them in turn.

The lunatic fringe? Really? That hasn’t been my experience of comment threads at all, and I do peer into that dreaded territory “below the line” on a fairly regular basis. Granted, I don’t see whatever blobs of caustic invective the doubtlessly overworked moderation gnomes may be silently intercepting before they’re allowed to ooze forth into the daylight, but it sounds like Horgan is referring more to comments that actually make it through. Sure, there are plenty of uninteresting comments, and some that are vicious, unhinged, or simply unintelligible, but it’s easy to scroll past those and just read the substantive and interesting ones that contribute information and ideas not mentioned in the hallowed ground “above the line”. Comments in that category are not at all uncommon, from what I’ve seen, and in some cases the comment thread is more illuminating than the article itself – perhaps buttressing or refining the writer’s arguments, perhaps challenging them. Every so often I’ll get to the bottom of an article and find myself wanting to scream at the writer about a glaring flaw or omission, only to find that my exact point has been made in pithy fashion by some astute commenter.

I wouldn’t be surprised if discomfort with being challenged, especially with regard to the zealous and rather dogmatic egalitarianism that is evidently de rigueur among the chattering classes, lies at the heart of the antipathy to online comments exhibited by Horgan and his more strident fellow travellers such as Tauriq Moosa (“like an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol”) and Jessica Valenti (“comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage”). Perhaps journalists and pundits really are, by and large, a professional clique who have retreated so far into their own subcultural norms and attitudes that a substantial proportion of those of us who exist outside the bubble strike them as a “lunatic fringe” just because we disagree with some of their articles of faith.

Brodie Fenlon, to his credit, hasn’t sunk that far into right-thinking authoritarianism, even noting that “it’s important to provide the public with a democratic space where they can freely engage and debate the issues of the day”. However, he also seems to believe that the space in question mustn’t be allowed to get too democratic if indigenous issues are under discussion. The logical consequence is that some part of the conversation will simply move elsewhere, and it will be largely the CBC’s loss. In that spirit, here are a few recent articles on indigenous issues from the CBC website.

Enquête investigation into Val d’Or now available in English

Cree Nisga’a Clothing offers a modern take on traditional footwear

Nunavut hunters harvest 230 narwhal trapped in ice near Pond Inlet

MMIW inquiry: ‘This is not an indigenous problem, this is a Canadian problem’

Sure enough, comments appear not to be welcome on any of them. But if you have thoughts on these stories, on commenting arrangements at the CBC, or on commenting in general, please feel free and indeed positively encouraged to post them here – in, y’know, the comments.

Random thought having nothing to do with the rest of the post: There should be a constellation called the Skinny Dipper.

11 thoughts on “Much Ado About Comments

  1. Veronica Abbass

    Thank you for your perspective on this. When I read Brodie Fenlon’s post I wasn’t too bothered by CBC’s decision. So many times I’ve been told that a writers/blog owners have “every right” to manage or over manage comments on their sites.
    Your post tells me why I don’t agree with that.

    Sometimes comments are the best part of an article or a post and when a proprietary voice intrudes itself in the discussion to admonish or control, I’m embarrassed for the proprietary voice.

    As for “a constellation called the Skinny Dipper,” no comment or at least no comment that would get past the censor. 🙂

    1. Corwin Post author

      So many times I’ve been told that a writers/blog owners have “every right” to manage or over manage comments on their sites.

      I’d say they do have every right to moderate comments as strictly and prudishly as they see fit – just as the rest of us have the right to criticise their decisions, to say what we like about their content in other venues, and to set up our own venues with more relaxed and liberal standards, something we seem to have accomplished fairly successfully on this blog.

      …no comment or at least no comment that would get past the censor.

      What censor? That’s the whole point, after all. The official name of the Skinny Dipper, by the way, could be Ursa Nuda.

  2. Tim Underwood

    Our governments have always micro-managed the indigenous file and the CBC, even at its arm’s length, has to be wary. Control over the original Canadians is abetted by the selection and sponsorship of individuals with the “right” religious and political sensibilities in everything from school counselors to media contributors.

    The British Monarchy and the Roman Pope have their own conduits of influence. Praise for the indigenous archaic past is orchestrated and presented continuously by religious sponsorship and historical documentary.

    So what is wrong with any of this?

    The indigenous people should be more integrated into the leadership of Canada, their only ancestral home in the past twelve thousand years.

    The idea that they are not Christen enough, or not blue-blood enough, or not Eurocentric enough to play on the international or national stage is a Canadian mindset.

    If you ignore the fact that more indigenous people have fully integrated into the Canadian mainstream, than those who remain within the reserve system, you might conclude that nothing can be done to correct our historic exclusion indigenous peoples.

    The fact that the CBC is moderating comments on this extremely sensitive national subject highlights the deep dark corner Canada has painted itself into.

    1. Corwin Post author

      The fact that the CBC is moderating comments on this extremely sensitive national subject highlights the deep dark corner Canada has painted itself into.

      Or perhaps it just highlights the CBC’s squeamishness? I don’t think we’re in a particularly deep and dark corner, myself. There are clearly tensions and inequalities in the relationships between indigenous groups and other Canadians – but show me a polity without such tensions and inequalities and I’ll show you, well, Luxembourg. Or maybe Liechtenstein. Even leaving that aside, I don’t see how trying to forestall open discussion will do anything in the long run other than deepen whatever estrangement already exists.

  3. Randy

    With their recent action, they cemented my opposition to continued public funding.

    I’m sick of their “our way or the highway” viewpoints.

    CBC ought to be a platform where Canadians can air our views, whatever they may be. Instead, it’s a platform where CBC judges Canadians.

    Pull the plug.

    As to aboriginal people, someone once said that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”. One does not hold “nation to nation” talks within a nation. This issue must be resolved urgently. Either these are Canadians to be treated like any other, or they are foreigners to be treated as such. Once that issue is resolved, we can work on other things. There can be no special Canadians.

    Presumably this is the sort of talk that CBC wants to suppress, because it’s too popular with the public.

    1. Tim Underwood

      Diefenbaker said something like “no hyphenated Canadians” and then promptly lost the government.

      As we watch the Syrian families integrate into our society, albeit into various religious multicultural ghettoes, we can reflect on the fact that these strong family units will probably thrive.

      Aboriginal families are equally successful within our society. The problem is there are many adult aboriginal individuals who are on their own. Also, there are many aboriginal individuals inside our prisons, also on their own. There are many individual aboriginals within gangs within our towns and out on their reserves.

      The legacy of imposed Christianity dominated education has been the destruction on aboriginal family units to a very high degree. This is the situation we face today.

      It is ironic that Catholic sponsors of Syrian families last night and this morning will feel proud of their personal generosity and they will also feel confident of the Syrian family’s prospects. They have long ago given up on the lone aboriginal people within their own community. It isn’t their problem.

      Native women on their own face a bleak future. Young native men on their own, if anything, face a bleaker future. Unless these young men become able to support a family of their own, the loneliness and the criminality will continue grow.

      For a minority of aboriginal individuals who happen on to ‘The Canadian Atheist’ some level of rational thinking may be learned and put to good use.

    2. Corwin Post author

      With their recent action, they cemented my opposition to continued public funding.

      That seems like an overreaction to me, but maybe I’m being sentimental about the CBC’s long track record as a national institution. I have to admit that the case for continued public funding gets harder to make when the CBC does things like this.

      As to aboriginal people, someone once said that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”. One does not hold “nation to nation” talks within a nation.

      Maybe “nation” is an overly grandiose word, but there’s nothing particularly odd about a country’s population being divided into subunits that sometimes hold talks with each other. We already have provinces and territories, after all. I don’t have a problem in principle with indigenous groups having their own highly autonomous fiefdoms, whether they’re called reservations or something else, but you’d think that would imply a tradeoff – the more autonomy a fiefdom had, the less responsibility other levels of government would need to assume for its well-being. The extreme option, but still only one option on a continuum of possible arrangements, would be for a fiefdom to become a fully independent country whose citizens would need passports to enter the Canadian territory surrounding them on all sides.

      1. Tim Underwood

        I think you will agree that cities grow up around various economic activities, even if they were founded on other premises. Go and stand in the center of many of the reserves and try to imagine what sort of economic activity is going on there. The thought that this would be a good place for year round picnicking may come to mind. I am aware of exceptions to this observation. The reserves that I drive through and see the sparsely spaced homes and read the signs cautioning about pedestrian traffic, always make me ask the same question.

        Canada is a small country with only two major languages. This should be a place quite easy to organize for our mutual benefit, compared to any other major country. Our former Prime Minister, (who can remember?) expressed fear of the social science of sociology. He couldn’t trust anything that wasn’t passed down to him from the international oligarchies, or some similar intellectual disorder.

        1. Corwin Post author

          Go and stand in the center of many of the reserves and try to imagine what sort of economic activity is going on there.

          I take your point, and I’m not saying a high level of autonomy (with all its reasonable implications) would work out well for every indigenous group. Some, if nothing else, are probably simply too small to get by without being embedded in a much larger sovereign entity. But as you acknowledge, there are exceptions, and I don’t see any reason why different groups couldn’t have different levels of autonomy. I just think there should, in principle, be a trade-off: more autonomy should mean less external support.

  4. Rob

    It’s not actually helpful to point out that the government is basically racist in its policies for Canada’s aboriginals. But that said, the government is basically racist in its policies for Canada’s aboriginals.

    IANAL but IMO the government needs to find a way to get rid of the rampant nepotism that occurs in the band councils of many reserves, and make all those councils accountable to their bands by direct force of law. TL;DR – serious funding-spending oversight.

    I believe that the nepotism and corruption of band council members is the major problem when it comes to the general interests of aboriginals in Canada. I find it insulting to be talking about multiculturalism and taking in refugees while turning a blind eye to our internal human rights issues.


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