The bubbling, toxic cauldron of malice known as cyberspace

David Bullard courageously delves into the Politicsweb comments section

I have a terrible confession. I generally don't bother to read the comments you all so generously make beneath my weekly column. I'm sure you put a lot of thought and energy into these comments and, having gone back and read a few of them, I now realise that many are addressed directly to me but, quite frankly, I am a bit of a lazy sod and usually can't be bothered to read them.

I take the simplistic view that once the send button is pressed on the column to my esteemed editor then my work is done. Obviously I go on to the Politicsweb website on thursday morning to make sure the column is up and I revisit during the day to check whether  it's the best read column (or at least ahead of Gordin's weekly offering)  but other than that I take very little further  interest .

OK I lie. I do check out the number of comments but that's about it. While I'm occasionally curious as to the content of the comments I generally find that something more pressing claims my time....things like cutting my toenails. But I do take some comfort from the fact that 900 words of my sparkling prose every week can generate a debate (to give it a rather grandiose label) leading to over 100 comments. Poor old Ray Hartley of the Sunday Times would get a hard-on if some of his columnists got that response.

In fact, it wasn't until I was alerted on Twitter last week that I bothered to check the comments section. I received a tweet from a hitherto unknown source suggesting I check the comments  following my piece on Politicsweb on whether we were heading for failed nation status. Clearly here was someone who thought he had something important to say.

So I ventured gingerly onto the comments and found that "Robert of Sydney" had imparted his version of great wisdom suggesting that, now I was sixty, I would end my days in a council sponsored B&B in a seaside town in England and have nothing to look forward to. All this apparently because I mentioned last week that I have a beautifully embossed passport that allows me to live in Europe.

Now I don't know this Robert fellow from a bar of soap and it's quite possible that my mischievous  rock musician brother is playing one of his idiot pranks but just in case Robert is genuinely concerned let me put him right on this matter. Firstly, I don't think the UK is in any financial position to sponsor B&B's for pensioners but even if they were it wouldn't really suit my plans.

My idea is more along the lines of a small Florence apartment overlooking the River Arno for a couple of months during the summer.  Venice, Prague and Valencia also appeal and I'm sorely tempted to spend three months living in New York if at all possible. Whatever happens though it will only be a temporary sojourn from South Africa (for tax reasons) and won't involve a British seaside resort.

Robert of Sydney's intervention encouraged me to go back and look at other comments from past articles. I am embarrassed to say that the quality of rational debate is sadly lacking in many of the contributions, some of which stoop to the lowest levels of personal insult.

I thought long and hard about the sort of person who would feel the need to anonymously post such comments and came to the gracious conclusion that websites like Politicsweb perform a valuable social service by allowing complete whack jobs to vent their spleen every week without actually doing physical damage to anybody. If it weren't for columns and websites like this I am convinced we would have far more people being gunned down in shopping malls.

A quick check of the comments section on the UK newspapers makes it clear that cyberspace lives up to its reputation as a bubbling toxic cauldron of malice. Those of us who write for websites need to grow thick skins and get used to the fact the people we have never met hold strong opinions about us.

For example the regular crackpot who comments on this page telling me to go back to my native Scotland is either very bad at UK geography or is confusing me with a genuine Scotsman, maybe Eusebius McKaiser?

However, I wouldn't have it any other way. Suggestions that the more banal comments should be censored are completely out of line because that would be to stifle public debate. The whole point of freedom of speech is that the idiots should be given as much voice as the intellectuals. Then the public must decide what they want to believe. 

Besides, it's easy to forget when you have been submitting columns to a variety of publications for the past 18 years that most people don't have the luxury of foisting their prejudices on the public every week. Which is why a free and unrestricted comments section is essential.

One of the most basic tenets of democracy is that every man (woman) is free to make a complete ass of himself (herself) in public. Which is why I will be paying special attention to the comments section this week.

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