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And then the racists came …

Not long ago I remarked to a colleague that I had not run into much trouble while moderating reader comments on Thought Leader.

Apart from the occasional personal insult or such, readers were mostly contributing well-reasoned and interesting comments, putting forward their views without attacking Thought Leader bloggers or other readers unfairly.

Sadly, in the past two weeks this state of affairs has been turned upside down. I cannot help but agree with Steven Friedman when he says that the election of Jacob Zuma and Eskom’s power failures have brought out the “racial demons buried just beneath the surface of the minds of many white South Africans”.

Especially Eskom’s failure to keep our lights on (and its use of black engineers, dismissal of white experts post-1994 and so forth) seems to have torn open a festering sore of racism among some individuals.

On Friedman’s Eskom post, linked above, Ryland Fisher’s “Eish! Our divided country” and “Call a racist a racist“, and Sandile Memela’s “We have no black thought leaders“, comment moderation has become exceedingly difficult.

The comments that have been allowed on these posts, as readers will know, already show some extreme views regarding race — often severely criticising black expertise, government, leadership, knowledge or skills, and posted by white readers if their names and email addresses are anything to go by.

In comparison, very few extreme comments by black readers on whites have been received.

Our comment guidelines state: “Comments that contain racist, sexist or homophobic remarks — or that may be interpreted as such — won’t make it on to Thought Leader.”

This is a difficult rule to enforce. One person’s racism — or sexism — is another person’s fair comment, obviously. Most comments have been allowed; some had an offending sentence or phrase removed. However, a disconcertingly large number have been plainly too racist to allow on the site. A few even qualified as fully fledged hate speech.

Perhaps these readers don’t bother to read our guidelines; perhaps they just don’t care, as almost all these posts reek of anger and frustration. Perhaps just writing such an offensive comment, even knowing it won’t appear on the website, makes them feel better.

It seems to me that their anger renders these readers unable to argue their point without resorting to tired old racist remarks. There’s little original thought there, frankly. Surely it can’t be that hard to debate or motivate even extreme views without resorting to endless paragraphs full of hate and terrible grammar?

So, it seems to me that Friedman hit the nail on the head. But how does this racist “surge” on Thought Leader relate to real life? Is there any correlation, or has Thought Leader just strolled through the wrong neighbourhood and stared at the wrong crowd? I certainly hope it’s not pervasive.