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COLUMN: Embrace Mudita and Ubuntu when commenting on diverse issues

Dan+Hahn+is+a+graduate+student+studying+English+and+can+be+reached+at+217-581-2812.
Dan Hahn
Dan Hahn is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

In a talk I attended some years ago, novelist Dave Eggers referred to the comments section on YouTube as a playground for the insane.

Jaded as I am about people’s conduct in the comments section, a tribute Jon Stewart gave on The Daily Show for his recently deceased dog, Dipper, stands out as a prime example of the wonderful humanity that can be expressed through online comments.

We do not always need to demonstrate sympathy for bad news alone. Mudita is a word from Sanskrit that means the sympathetic joy for others’ good fortune. The western equivalent of this is perhaps “The Golden Rule,” or more simply, treat others how you would like to be treated.

A collective sense of Mudita was badly needed when a minor internet controversy went viral after Julia Roberts shared a picture of her and her niece and internet trolls lashed out, insulting the celebrity’s looks. MSN.com reported that Roberts “admitted to not being prepared for the level of negativity online these days” and remarked that “I’m a 50-year-old woman, and my feelings got hurt.”

We are in an era where the most benign topics become a battlefield for cynics and the aggrieved.

However, not long ago I was looking at the comments for a New York Times article about a shipwreck that mysteriously washed up on the shores of Maine. Some random commenter recommended the National Geographic’s show “Drain The Oceans,” and I have since enjoyed many episodes.

Obviously, internet comments can be a mixed bag. Comments can be useful when we remember there is an audience that is oftentimes genuinely interested in learning something new.

While researching the topic of civility in online comments, I found many guidelines for how brands should engage with their customers’ comments on social media. This is also known as “comment management”.

However, I found only one article for how people should treat each other, and that article could not be accessed without disabling my ad-blocker.

So, all is well with shipwrecks and people’s pets, but reading comments on any divisive issue will reveal that the same rules apply to combat as they do for debating touchy subjects. But, even in war there are rules.

Internet culture has embraced a cycle of provocation and retribution; trolling and reacting; dunking, mocking and eviscerating our opposition.

As an opinion writer, I have mixed feeling about this. On one hand, I am a firm believer that opinions are alive only when they are free to do battle.

However, I also feel that opinions are choices and are therefore dynamic and changing. The most interesting thing about a person’s opinions is how they defend and rationalize them to themselves and to others in good-faith discussions.

Moreover, people who are willing to share their opinions need to be open to conflicting opinions and nuance yet must be willing to have a good faith debate without attacking those whose opinions do not match perfectly.

Ad-hominem arguments are attacks at the speaker and not the substance of an argument. Obviously, it is wise to refrain from hurling insults towards those we wish to persuade.

In other words, let the opinions do the talking; leave the individual out of it. Yet, all too often we see vitriol in the comments rewarded when social media algorithms boost outrage.

This is where the African philosophy of Ubuntu comes in.

Ubuntu was popularized in western culture by Nobel Prize winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Ubuntu emphasizes the interconnectedness and shared humanity of all people. It embodies the belief that one’s well-being and identity are intertwined with the well-being and identity of others.

This philosophy seems divorced from the outdated us-vs-them mentality of our public discourse around divisive issues. More than ever, we need to remember Ubuntu when engaging in particularly divisive discussions.

I do not trust platforms to regulate bad behavior. Yes, they typically monitor posts for nudity, hate speech and threats. But bullying, mockery and meanness are not behaviors these platforms do well at deterring, nor is it beneficial to their business model to do so.

Vulnerability like Jon Stewart and Julia Roberts demonstrated should be universally celebrated. These are cases where sympathy or Mudita should be natural reactions.

Divisive discourse is trickier, but I think we all acknowledge that Ubuntu, or a universal connectedness of everyone, should be everyone’s philosophy before posting on social media. Indeed, in a perfect world, online platforms would encourage these philosophies.

I am not saying everyone needs to agree on everything. I am arguing that we all need to be nicer to each other, especially over benign issues that need not turn us against each other. It is easy to remain civil with the right language and mindset.

Practice Ubuntu and Mudita when the opportunity presents itself. The internet and our collective humanity will be better for it.

 

Dan Hahn can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].

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Dan Hahn, Columnist
Dan Hahn is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 581-2812.

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