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Meta-ethnic war

May 1, 2011

Vukovar by the Dunav (photo credit: my own)

I normally don’t pay much attention to the comments sections of articles. They are often places of self-promotion, ill-advised claims that rely on the anonymity of the internet to avoid being pressed for detail or clarity and a lot of non-sense. Still, in this time of greater engagement with the media, it’s worth noting how comments sections below articles have become key forums for debating issues. Moreover, many authors do read and respond to their readers’ comments. Those that I will peruse include hockey articles on the Globe (naturally), wherein a cast of established characters parade out tired arguments about Jacobs family management or Coach Julien. I will also look through those sections for particularly salacious or interesting New York Times articles or blog posts, where there is some quasi-democratic sorting and sifting that happens via the “recommend” feature. Still, how much to trust the unknown number of individuals that actually click through all the articles is a serious question. When it comes to the comments sections on places like Huffington Post, I don’t dare venture there–where threads become the wild, wild west in an instant.

But while reading Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), I came across something that struck me: an article written exclusively about comments section. It’s over six weeks old, but Nenad Pejic’s “Balkans–All Talk, No Listening” speaks to the conundrum that is cascading comments jutting in every direction, without much order. Specifically, the author is looking at the comments that erupt in response to his own articles in RFE/RL, with which I confess to not being familiar. An article from a few weeks earlier is what had stirred him. Still, what’s striking (aside from the meta-reaction in the comments section of his own plea for listening and more constructive dialogue that takes issue with the issues and not pre-fabricated arguments) is that with respect to ethnic conflict in the Balkans, these articles do lend themselves to automatic side-taking by participants from all parties. This is not to imply that Serbs will blindly support Milosevic, or that Croats will not acknowledge their own atrocities, or that Bosnians are an entirely innocent group and defend that. There’s a lot of level-headed admissions that come out, some even in these comments sections. But that’s the minority. I suppose I am echoing the author in this instance–that it’s just shocking just how ethnic viewpoints and groups fall into place exactly in these comments sections.

And what’s fascinating about the comments sections in the RFE/RL is the heavy reliance on supposed historical facts and links to other sources. This distances these dialogues from others–because often folks will explain away their ideas without sourcing them or building a structured argument of any kind. Here, there are clear arguments and sources, just not necessarily ones that are reliable, true or free from bias. People stray off-topic and bring up on mildly related issues, as they do elsewhere. Still, there’s an intimacy with the subject matter that’s starkly different from other forums. Commentators bring up Warren Zimmerman as if he’s their best friend, assess pros and cons of UNPROFOR  and analyze tactics of Operation Storm. And tragically, perhaps they are discussing these topics as first-hand witnesses.

This is a different kind of comments section.

Clearly, this is a comments section where people come to duel, and where, from the perspective of one commentator to another, preconceived notions of morality and accuracy when it comes to the disintegration of Yugoslavia serve only to be re-enforced by the seeming idiocy of the others. The vitriol and the thought compacted into each and every posting seems virtually unparalleled to any other comments section I’ve seen.

Which brings me to my next question: is this positive? Is this alarming? The author of the article clearly laments the lack of constructive discourse in the comments section. But is that right? Is there more to this.

I for one think it’s positive–for four reasons. First, most bluntly, raging arguments in the comments section sure beat war and genocide. Second, attempts at substantiating claims are at least attempted, even if attempted poorly. Thirdly, and more abstractly, this demonstrates that Radio Free Europe, and US government-financed project, is alive and well as a source of news and information for people both in the Balkans and in the diaspora. Finally, and most importantly, however chaotic, insensitive or factually incorrect, dialogue is occurring. It may be taking on the order of 15 to 20 years at this point, depending on which conflict and who was involved, but at the very least, the internet and these comments sections is providing safe place in which people can hash out ideas.

I’d like to interview these frequent commentators on Radio Free Europe if I could. Just to see who they are, but also why the comment. What motivates that? Universally, I think it is a love of country, but also the magnitude of the effect of this conflict on the population of the Balkans.

But there’s also truth that in the Balkans, arguing about history is about as much a transnational pastime as drinking slivovica, an appreciation for good cake and coffee and a love of the natural landscape. These comments sections are merely a reflection of that. In everyday life, who you are, what you know and whom you support are all relevant. In the borderlands of these states especially, a sense of tension pervades all aspects of life. Still, this is superior to war, superior to suffering, superior to chaos. People will stick to their guns, stick to their version of history, because to admit you’re wrong, that can be tantamount to admitting your people and your nation has been wrong. The wounds are still fresh enough. Folks in this comments section will still level accusations upon each other of being “pro-Muslim Bosnian nationalists” and they’ll still accuse each other of ignorance on matters of the post-WWII constitution.

Interestingly, still, is the fact that commentators will typically never disclose outright their ethnic affiliation or current nationality. And with names like Bojan, Slava and Anna all in circulation, it’s difficult to know. The clarity of the badges worn by military and militias during the conflict, or the knowledge of exactly who your next-door neighbors were, is gone. But with the cloak of the internet, a melting pot without ethnic anchor, maybe there can be some progress towards charting discussion on the wars of the 1990s, in a way that is more meaningful, more appropriate, and less ethnic.

Perhaps the ideas that serve as currency in these forums can be debunked where incorrect and supported where accurate. And perhaps the vast swath of people who visit these forums, who stretch the global and who watch closely matters of elections, EU accession and the Hague tribunals, can cobble together a common understanding for what is a chaotic, but common, story.

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