What I Learned Hate-Reading the Internet

Richard Lawson: Manically scrolling through the comments section on National Review Online and Fox Nation and, occasionally, less one-sided outlets has taken up a lot of my idle (and, yes, some working) time this week. Boy do people have a lot of awful things to say about gay marriage!

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For a particular kind of Internet adventurer, this has been a wild and fruitful week. I'm speaking of the kind of person who takes perverse pleasure in seeking out the worst Internet comments they can find, typically of the political variety. I happen to be just such a person, and manically scrolling through the comments section on National Review Online and Fox Nation and, occasionally, less one-sided outlets has taken up a lot of my idle (and, yes, some working) time this week. Boy do people have a lot of awful things to say about gay marriage!

The seasoned terrible comment-hunter knows that usually the social issues tend to yield more grimly satisfying fruit. Sure a bunch of clowns typing on and on and on about Obummer's fiscal policies can be fun in its way. And there are some grandly xenophobic and jingoistic sentiments to revel in under articles about, say, the Middle East. But domestic social issues really get the good comment juices flowing. I spent hour after shameful hour seeking out the most egregious comments I could find when the whole Sandra Fluke thing was happening, skipping past the trollish claptrap about "slut pills" and whatnot and going straight to the semi-intellectual cases for why birth control should not be considered a fundamental part of health care. It's always the people with a glimmer of intelligence or information that boil the blood the most, because these are presumably fully functioning individuals arguing the worst things. And because social issues are so often about identity, commenters end up taking out whole groups of people with single blustering rhetorical swoops. It's maximum carnage, and can sometimes feel deliciously, maddeningly personal.

Which brings us to this week in gay marriage, a veritable font of infuriating comments. Oftentimes the posts themselves are great sources of wonderful outrage, but the comments are really where the good stuff lies, the unedited stuff, the raw material. I like NRO's comments the best because, as mentioned, they have at least some degree of complex reasoning contained within. They're the Cadillac of anti-gay blog comments, the stately, cardigan-ed bigot sitting in an armchair saying hateful things. (Yes, implying that gay people getting married is going to cause the collapse of American civilization is extremely hateful, sorry.) I've been voraciously reading all week, as I always do when some hot-button political topic flares up and everyone goes nuts. Only this week, it's been a little different. Over the past couple of days I've... I dunno, learned something?

No, no, I've not been converted. Rather, through sifting through comment after comment after comment, reading every argument under the sun about why gay couples should not enjoy the same governmental recognition as straight couples — it's harmful to children, it will ruin marriage as an institution, marriage is for sanctifying procreation only, etc. — I've come to realize two things. One is that I ultimately spend all my time reading this stuff because, yes, it's oddly entertaining, feeling that adrenalin rush of anger is a sad thrill, but also because I am genuinely curious about the other side of the argument. I like discovering its (admittedly rare) nuances and learning its tactics. Thus I've grown to stop seeking out the simple "LEVITICUS!!!" idiot commenters and now look for full sentences, paragraphs even, detailing the opposition. In doing so, my own opinions are clarified. And that's valuable. So while I'm a little bit embarrassed about how much time I've spent listening to Concerned Women for America's podcast over the past couple years, I don't think it's a pointless exercise to spend some time over on NRO or wherever else. It makes my arguments stronger, and deepens and sharpens my convictions.

The second realization is more germane to the political topic at hand. Reading through all those arguments about the children and the institution and this and the that, I gradually built up (in my head) detailed rebuttals to each one. I came up with examples of how marriage is not about procreation, not governmentally anyway. I made a mental list of the various forms the "institution" of marriage has taken over the 2,000-year span so often invoked on those pages. I was answering, silently, each argument on its merits. But then, eventually, I came to this second, crucial realization: These particular talking points ultimately aren't what the argument is about. Oh sure, people may have convinced themselves over the years that, why yes, this really is about how marriage is a procreative institution. But that's not really the root of it, it's not the heart of the matter. No, that's a far simpler, and darker, thing. The seed from which all this passion comes is merely a feeling of superiority, and the chafing at having that feeling challenged.

Simply put, these people have long believed, because who was challenging them really, that their way was the way. How perfect, that they happened to be born into such a traditional life. The straight marrying kind. It's a solid and steady and communally supported lifestyle. And of course in order to feel even more bolstered in their own lives, they needed a contrasting example, a how not to be. The negative shores up the positive. And in this particular instance, the negative was, well, gay people. A strange and curious other, a practicer of repulsing things. (Straight sex ain't lookin' too good from the other side, just fyi guys.) How perfect! And how wonderful that broader society confirmed this for them. All that helpful shunning that, in opposing force, pushed them even further into the warm penguin huddle. Over time that sense of security curdles into entitlement. And so when, finally, that other says, "Hey wait a minute, I'd like to participate in this grand American experiment as fully as you guys," it's an abject challenge to their sense of having owned the world. Which is to say, if gay marriage is allowed, if it is legally if not immediately socially viewed as really no different from straight marriage, then that means that gay people are, gulp, equals. And if that's the case then who are they? It's something of an existential crisis, whether they're conscious of it or not. I've no doubt that as the years progress, society will figure out another other to exploit for these purposes, but for now we are witnessing the raging at the collapse of one of the greatest systems of ostracization ever built. And these people are very mad about it. And, yes, a little scared.

So they can bellow on with their specific sociological reasons, and even their scripture, but the bare fact of their outrage will remain universal. Realizing this has changed the tenor of my, for lack of a less annoying phrase, hate-reading. It's not as fun anymore. I can't feel as prickled awake by these nasty bigots and jerks. No, that's been replaced with a sense of weary despair. Despair over the fact that all along this really didn't have much to do with us. Like so many things, maybe even most things, this was all ultimately about themselves. About the way they see themselves in the world, about the way they have tethered their sense of belonging and purpose to the rocks and roots they trust. They ossified that way, so now that those rocks and roots have started to move, it's painful. I understand that pain, because I've felt it too, in other ways. Changing is hard, adapting too. But we all gotta do it. Or we can break, I guess. But then, well, we're broken.

Anyway, that's what I think I learned on the Internet this week. It may seem simple, but it was important to me. Still, I'll probably forget all about it by the time the first comment is posted.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.