A Terrible Way To Teach

OK, I was wrong. But did you have to be so nasty about it?

A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of engaging in a comments-section discussion in the Guardian online.  The topic was the world’s overpopulation and I threw in my, under-informed, two cents worth. I had forgotten that the online comments community can be really mean. I had also forgotten that Guardian readers can be a bit smug and condescending sometimes.  It’s a common characteristic among people who are quite sure they are right.

Overpopulation in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from Wikipedia

As a former teacher, I prefer to take the teacherly approach to information. I usually assume that people will draw wiser conclusions when they have more knowledge, and I like it when people treat me the same way. Unfortunately, online comments sections don’t lend themselves to this kind of courtesy. Instead, they rapidly devolve to ad hominem insults and name-calling.

In this particular discussion I was called stupid, ignorant, and a troll.  I don’t think I am any of those things, but on this topic I was coming from a very different viewpoint than many of the other commenters who expressed dismay and disgust at my perceptions. The topic of population clearly takes on a very different hue for those living in an English city than it does for those of us living in the prairies of North America.

Population Density 2017 from Wikipedia

I had, naively, tried to point out that when I drive through Canada and the United States, I can travel many hundreds of miles without seeing many buildings or people. I posited the notion that there is enough land for everyone and that, with appropriate production and distribution processes, we could feed everyone. What I failed to include in my comment was my awareness that we, in developed countries, are collectively over-consuming and polluting. I think that’s what caused the blowback.

It wasn’t what I said so much as what I didn’t say that caused me to be vilified. Even so, someone made a comment about overprivileged Americans viewing the world from a train, which is a big leap from what I actually wrote. When a reader ascribes to me words that I didn’t write, and commenters presume an ignorance that I don’t possess, then the hoard just piles on. One or two people kindly gave me the benefit of the doubt, but they were in the minority.

Family Planning Placard in Ethiopia from Wikipedia

Overpopulation is, indeed, a growing concern. Principally, we should worry about climate change and limited supplies of water, and I hope that education and new technologies can help to address those issues. I also hope that teaching people about overpopulation, as well as about family planning and birth control, can mitigate the problem in countries where population growth is most problematic.

All of the proposed solutions, however, require access to information, the education of women, and the empowerment of women. Perhaps we should begin by explaining that to Guardian commenters. Mocking and insulting people whom you believe to be wrong is a terrible way to teach.


  1. It says much more about them than it does about you. How “intelligent” is blasting and name calling? To me the Highest intellect is shown by discussing, asking questions and exploring all of the possibilities. Sharing the thought: “yes, I considered that too, but then I learned this or that.” To which you could reply: “Indeed, I’ve heard of that too, but had you considered this….or that?”

    Who’s to say with a deep and considerate conversation with someone who disagrees with us that we’ll learn a few things. for instance, in the end, both sides want the same thing and we, together, might come up with a real solution.

    What you experienced is such a microcosm of something that is scaring the hell out of me and it’s the “If you don’t agree with me you must not be in my space, I must un-friend you, I must insult/belittle you, you are like a poison to my brain and I must be rid of you and surround myself with ONLY the people who think exactly like I do.” Perhaps you’re “uninformed” but more likely, you have a very good idea and we DO have enough resources to feed everyone, while at the same time, women around the world DO need to be empowered and educated.

    I have a facebook friend in the Congo who was shocked that Lee didn’t leave me for not “giving him any children”. His village is so poor they’re literally eating dirt yet insist on procreating. This is a multifaceted issue with more than one valid idea and thought. YOUR’S is as valid and Informed as the name-calling-mean-spirited-belittling-so-called-intellectuals. And by “informed” I mean to say ain’t nobody knows Everything….

    Love you!

    • Wow! Thank you so much for that, Sally! I admit I had been stung by the insults and they made me recoil from further discussion. Your words help enormously.

      Discussion boards online are nasty places and I should know better than to expect civil conversation. Even so, I was surprised at how offended I felt.

      It has just occurred to me that Senator John McCain was one of the few public figures who tried very hard to create dialogue with people even when (perhaps especially when) they disagreed on some issues. He will be missed for that very reason.

  2. I just re-read and see lots of typos…Ha! How’s that for an opinion on intellect? Oh well…happily I know you don’t judge. 🙂

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