Henry Blodget raised the eyebrows of Jew and Gentile alike yesterday with an article published in Business Insider, originally titled "Why Do People Hate Jews?" This was quickly changed to "Why Do Some People Hate Jews," and then to "Why Are the Sources of Anti-Semitism," and finally to "What Are the Sources of Anti-Semitism?" (Presumably the third title was a mistake.)
In his article, Blodget invited readers to join him in thinking upon why so many people profess to hate Jews. "Why? What is the source of this animosity? Why does it perpetuate itself? Where did this prejudice come from?" Lest we think that these questions were asked in jest, he immediately clarified that he was "asking this question seriously." He was "genuinely mystified and curious." He was "really looking forward to reading (y)our responses."
Really? Really looking forward? As Alexandra Petri pointed out in reaction,
"The only possible excuse for this sort of post would be if its author had never visited the Internet before and thought that Internet commenters were mythical creatures famed for their temperance, deep research and carefully modulated speech."
I would argue that sometimes comments on blog posts and articles do serve to elevate the conversation, but, as Petri notes,
"You want a serious conversation, ask a serious question."
And Blodget's was not a serious question. Which is not to say that it should not ever be asked. Treated with nuance, this and other questions of its ilk can force us to confront hate and prejudice in uncomfortable, but ultimately productive ways. But asking anonymous readers to weigh in on why Hitler may have been compelled -- by hatred, mind you, and not by the myriad pathologies and psychoses that drive someone to literally seek global domination -- to kill six million Jews is not the way to pose this question.
In many ways, Blodget got it right. Provocative headline that poses a question? Check. Bite-size, digestible sentences? Check. Photo of a sultry starlet? Check check. Asking readers to weigh in? Triple check, that was the point of the post. If clicks and page-views are the currency of the web, this template is online media's bread and butter. And maybe Blodget really did think that this was a way to foster discussion. He quickly issued an apology (which serves as an introduction to his original post), and says that he "now regrets writing [the post]" while still noting that he "was praised for starting a discussion on a topic that a lot of people won't talk about." I'm sure he was. And maybe one reader took the time to read the 100+ comments that this post generated and, upon reaching the end, finally understood why some people hate Jews and could at last sleep easy. Maybe, but probably not.
This post and others like it don't encourage dialogue. They appeal to our baser instincts, and they bank on readers' visceral reactions. They assume a fundamental lack of insight, and that readers will buy into the notion that the quantity of reactions outweighs their quality, and that any forum is the right one for any type of discussion. Blodget assumes that we can no longer tell the difference between a thoughtful provocation and a thoughtless one. On this point, I think he got it wrong.