I think that comments systems are worth having on weblogs, and that the technology is sufficiently advanced to weed out the cranks, the spambots, the know-nothings, etc. And all hail e-mail. But Theodore Dalrymple, it must be admitted, makes a compelling case for not allowing comments at all, and for the general proposition that the ease of communication in the Internet age carries with it a number of serious deficiencies. His words are worth quoting at length:
For example, I received unpleasant abuse for articles I wrote about Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. I am the first to admit that what I wrote was not emollient, indeed it strongly attacked both these figures to whom some people are strongly attached. But while I might have been mistaken in what I wrote, I do not think I am being partial in my own defence when I say that it was at least rational in the sense that it was based upon evidence culled from what they wrote. I quoted them at some length precisely to avoid the accusation of quotation out of context.
It is not necessary to repeat here what I said about them, but I shall give just one example. I pointed out that George Bernard Shaw never believed in the germ theory of disease (possibly the greatest advance in medical science ever made), regarded it as a delusion, and called Pasteur and Lister – two of the greatest benefactors of mankind, if one is prepared to admit that there can be such – impostors and frauds who had no idea of scientific method, unlike George Bernard Shaw, presumably. This was a preposterous, but not untypical, misjudgement of his, and one which he never recognised as such. Indeed, he went on re-publishing his libels on their memory until quite late in his life.
I suspect that he had that contrarian mindset that supposes that the truth must be the opposite of what everyone thinks, instead of the judicious mindset that supposes that the truth might be the opposite of what everyone thinks.
From the quality of the replies that I received, you might have supposed that I had animadverted on the moral qualities of the mothers of Latin American sons. No one ever wrote a reply (on these subjects, at any rate) claiming that I had misquoted them, quoted them out of context, misrepresented the totality of their work, overlooked their good qualities etc. I do not think I did these things, but still such replies would have been reasonable. No; I just received abuse, some of it unprintable and quite a lot of it vile.
The insults and abuse did not come from uneducated people. This is not surprising, really, because uneducated people are unlikely to care very much what George Bernard Shaw thought of the germ theory of disease; most of them have other, more practical things to think about. You have to have read Bernard Shaw to care, and these days at least, I think only university types are likely to do that.
Indeed, much of the abuse, even the vilest, came from university professors. Almost to a man (or woman), they said that what I had written was so outrageous, so ill-considered and ill-motivated, that it was not worth the trouble of refutation. On the other hand, they thought its author was worth insulting, if their practice was anything to go by. I didn’t know whether I – a mere scribbler – should feel flattered that I was deemed worthy of the scatological venom of professors (not all of them from minor institutions, and some of them quite eminent).
What struck me most about these missives is the sheer amount of hatred that they contained. It was not disdain or even contempt, but hatred.
[. . .]
The question now arises as to whether it is a good thing that people should be able now so easily to express their rage, irritation, frustration and hatred. Here, I think, we come to a disagreement between those of classical, and those of romantic, disposition.
According to the latter, self-expression is a good in itself, irrespective of what is expressed. Indeed, such people are likely to believe that any sentiment that does not find its outward expression will turn inward and poison the person who has not been able to express it. Better to strangle a new-born babe and all that.
The person of more classical disposition does not believe this. On the contrary, he believes that there are some things that are much better not expressed at all. He counterbalances his belief in the value of freedom of opinion with that in the value of freedom from opinion. He believes that rage will not decrease with its habitual expression, but rather increase with it.