Comment Of The Day On Civility And Blog Moderation Ethics, By Ampersand

civility sign

It doesn’t really matter what post generated this Comment of the Day (it was the one about Melissa Harris-Perry’s second try at apologizing for inciting her guests to treat Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild as the human equivalent of spinach on a fashion model’s front teeth—further ethics developments: Mitt Romney was as gracious as one can be yesterday while accepting Harris-Perry’s mea culpa, and the clueless Alex Baldwin griped that she kept her MSNBC job by playing the weepy girl card, while he was sacked after his umpteenth public meltdown over a paparazzi), because it is off-topic. Ampersand, a.k.a. Barry Deutsch, and I have been fencing about the proper level of invective that should be permitted on blogs like Ethics Alarms and his blog, Alas!.

I take the topic very seriously, as does Barry, because we are both trying to build and maintain an enlightened and diverse community of serious readers and participants in ongoing discussion of serious topics. Barry’s blog is an ideological one; Ethics Alarms, despite being alternatively called on the carpet for being tilting either conservative or liberal, is not. Beyond question, from Barry’s own position on the ideological spectrum, this blog is well to his right. This particular exchange was prompted by complaints by some commenters that my moderation is too loose, that I should censor particular words or eject commenters here who engage in harsh personal denigration. I remain in flux on this problem.

It is true that I have moderated my moderation in recent months, though not as much as some people think. I still bar some commenters, and frequently refuse to accept comments that are nothing but name-calling, as well as those which are objectively moronic. But it is true that regular contributors here who have demonstrated serious intent and valid commentary acquire the privilege of going off the rails, civilly speaking, from time to time. I wish they wouldn’t do it, but despite my belief that civility is critical to societal harmony and professional conduct, I am persuaded that routinely filtering out the passion expressed by vulgarity (and worse) may go too far. I have also been influenced by the recent escalation of political correctness, especially in the media, epitomized when a CNN host announce that the verb “target” was no longer considered appropriate on TV—a threat, don’t you know.

Another factor in my thinking was Popular Science’s decision in September to ban online comments to its articles, rooted in its conclusion that research had proven that aggressively worded contrary opinions could be psychologically persuasive, and were thus “bad for science.” I don’t like the looks of that slippery slope at all.

  I explained my evolving thoughts on the issue in the earlier replies to Barry  and Beth, a commenter here and a personal friend, who has been the target of some of the least civil attacks.  I wrote in part…

“…it’s an ethics conflict. [ NOTE: An ethics conflict is when two valid ethical principles dictate conflicting results, as opposed to an ethical dilemma, in which an ethical principle clashes with powerful non-ethical considerations, like financial well-being or fear of retribution] Civility is one ethics goal; free expression is another. Both are currently endangered in the US—if I have to choose between free expression and civility, it’s an easy choice…There are plenty of blogs but only one Ethics Alarms, and I don’t want it to become an echo chamber, which is, alas, what your definition of civility has made Alas. Once someone has proven that their interest in the topic is sincere, and that they have the brains, integrity and skill to enlighten others (and me, as you do, Barry, though I say so too seldom), I’ll grant, as a matter of trust, impassioned and forceful discourse in all its forms, and let the intemperate participant deal with the consequences of his (or her, given Elizabeth I’s tendency to call everyone a moron) incivility. The privilege, like all privileges, can be abused, and I will act accordingly…I still haven’t mastered moderation, and I’m still working through it. But I favor intelligence and passion over conformity, and about that, I have no doubt that I have made the ethical choice. You have earned the right, as you know, to call me a liar, which is far, far more hurtful than being called a fuckhead or cunt, or should be. Yes, vulgarity and invective degrades discourse, but censorship undermines truth.”

The subtext of this was that my treatment on Barry’s own blog, when I engaged his regulars over the George Zimmerman verdict, helped push me toward a more permissive stance as a moderator. Barry had sent me a warning that I had not been sufficiently respectful to his readers, who had been devising rationalizations for why it was proper to charge and try George Zimmerman despite adequate evidence that he was guilty of murder, much less racially motivated murder, and that I had to moderate my approach or he would kick me to the curb. He also left my objectionable post up, but scarred with strike-throughs, the equivalent of a Scarlet Letter. I went to the curb on my own volition (and have not been back), convinced that Barry’s version of “respect” meant that any non-leftist on his blog would be required to do combat with one metaphorical hand tied behind his back. I made my maligned comment the subject of an Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, asking readers whether I had crossed any reasonable lines. Here was what I had written, in response to one commenter but as a general comment about the entire tenor of the discussion I was reading:

“Fascinating, isn’t it? So many compassionate, fair, intelligent people tying their brains into knots because they have staked everything on a badly cast George Zimmerman being the epitome of a murderous, conservative, vigilante racist. Oops! He’s not white! Oops! His prom date was black! Oops! He voted for Obama! Oops! He never used a racial slur! Oops! He was jumped by the victim! Oops! He really was injured! Oops! The evidence and all the witnesses support his account! Never mind…you just KNOW he did it.

“This is the real lesson of this endless mess–how confirmation bias makes good people into bigots and persecutors.

“There is another piece of evidence: when police, while interrogating Zimmerman, told him that the entire altercation was caught on a security camera—a lie, to check his reaction–his instant response, according to witnesses, was “Thank God!” Clever guy, that George. Quick thinking!

“But this has never been about evidence. It was about making Obama’s base fear for their lives just in time for the 2012 elections, and increasing racial divisiveness for cynical political gain. At least I hope that was what it was about, because if there wasn’t some tangible reason for it, it is the stupidest self-inflicted wound on society that I can remember.”

I stand by that comment by the way, and I do not believe it crosses any lines at all. Was I mocking the rationalizations and bias I was reading? Absolutely. Did it show a lack of respect for those opinions? Of course…because some opinions aren’t respectable, and treating them as such gives them more weight that they deserve.

Well, more from me later, in the comments to the Comment of the Day, by Ampersand, on the topic of civility, respect, and blog moderation:

“There are plenty of blogs but only one Ethics Alarms, and I don’t want it to become an echo chamber, which is, alas, what your definition of civility has made Alas.”

“Alas” is not an echo chamber in the way that matters, which is that we disagree on policy constantly; there are many regular writers who are on the right (voted for McCain, defend the Tea Party, anti-gun-control, anti-Obamacare, etc etc).

I suppose that it is an echo chamber in that no one who can’t or won’t master treating others respectfully a great deal of the time is welcome.

“Once someone has proven that their interest in the topic is sincere, and that they have the brains, integrity and skill to enlighten others (and me, as you do, Barry, though I say so too seldom), I’ll grant, as a matter of trust, impassioned and forceful discourse in all its forms, and let the intemperate participant deal with the consequences of his (or her, given Elizabeth I’s tendency to call everyone a moron) incivility.”

Sincere thanks for the compliment, Jack. Obviously, I find a lot to admire in you, as well, or I wouldn’t have stuck around for so long.

But I still must disagree with you. It’s not the intemperate who suffer the consequences. It’s those who want intelligent, respectful, fact-based discourse who suffer the consequences (at least on this forum). The intemperate get exactly what they want, which is a forum where they’re free to sneer and insult and give no quarter to the humanity of those they disagree with.

Left on their own, “the intemperate” take over the entire internet. It is because of the intemperate that Youtube comments are unreadable, or the contents of virtually any unmoderated news website. It is only through the work of moderators that there are any spaces where conversation regularly rises above the “go fuck yourself, moron” level.

“But I favor intelligence and passion over conformity, and about that, I have no doubt that I have made the ethical choice.”

I deny that there is such a thing as “the” ethical choice, as if only one style of moderation is correct and all others are unethical. (And I reject the implication that the comment-writers on “Alas” lack either passion or intelligence compared to the folks here.)

Imagine a world with two classes of people, the soft-voiced and the constant screamers. If we say that no moderation is allowed, then all conversation will belong to the constant screamers. It is only by creating different kinds of space – moderated, and unmoderated – that both the soft-voiced and the constant screamers will have an opportunity to speak.

How can a system in which only the constant screamers get to speak be more ethical than one in which everyone gets to speak? Which pragmatically serves free expression better: a system in which only one class gets to speak, or a system in which everyone gets to speak?

“You have earned the right, as you know, to call me a liar, which is far, far more hurtful than being called a fuckhead or cunt, or should be. Yes, vulgarity and invective degrades discourse, but censorship undermines truth.

I’m sorry that you’ve been hurt, Jack. Really. But if civility means letting falsehoods pass without objecting, then I couldn’t sign up for civility.

But I don’t think that is what civility requires. In real dialog about important topics, sometimes people’s feelings do get hurt (and you’ve hurt mine, too). But hurting each other’s feelings, even though it’s unavoidable, should never be our goal.

Civility doesn’t require that we not speak up when we think someone has done something wrong. Rather, civility requires that even when I passionately and furiously disagree with you, I do so in a way that shows that I’m remembering you’re a human being, and worthy of respect. I can’t say that I always succeed in that. I apologize to you that I don’t always succeed in that. But I promise you, I always try.


Graphic: Patheos

100 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day On Civility And Blog Moderation Ethics, By Ampersand

  1. I better not comment, as a blog post of mine from 2009 has resulted in a defamation action, at least partly due to comments on it from 3rd parties that blogger passed through without notifying me.

    Yes, I have a good defence. But I’ll be many thousands or tens of thousands out of pocket if I win. The plaintiff is a serial and enthusiastic litigant, and has been ever since he got $2000 for having an empty pizza box thrown in his general direction. His private criminal prosecution of the thrower failed (no two bites of the cherry, and the judge ruled it Extremely Silly), but that hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm.

    Defamation law is different here – and has extra-territorial jurisdiction. Anything published anywhere on the web, but read in Australia, is actionable.

    This will be something of a test case, unless settled beforehand.

    Anyway – be aware that what you say can be used against you. And the way you say it can lead to a claim for aggravated damages. Not just against you, but against the blogger whose post you comment on.

    Whether that will succeed or not is another matter. But it will cost.

    • Good lord, what madness. I am achingly grateful for US law saying (at least for now) that you’re not responsible for comments that are left on your blog, as long as they aren’t by you. Of course that wouldn’t stop someone from BRINGING suit, but it’s a pretty effective smackdown to drop on said suit.

      Also the US seems pretty disinterested in allowing extrajudicial suits against its citizens- I can say what I like about some Australian on the web and he or she has a legal basis for bringing suit, if I read you correctly… good luck getting me into court.

      • Of course that wouldn’t stop someone from BRINGING suit, but it’s a pretty effective smackdown to drop on said suit.

        The equivalent here is section 32 if the NSW Defamation Act 2005.

        As I said, I have a good defence. But it still costs to defend.

        • From what I have heard about Australia, it is also a valid legal argument to throw a box of deadly hobo spiders at your opponent. Have you considered this? (Just kidding. I’d love to visit one day, assuming I can get a license to import enough Raid spray along with me…)

  2. ” it was proper to charge and try George Zimmerman despite adequate evidence that he was guilty of murder”

    I thought the jury ruled the evidence INadequate !

  3. And again, unless it wasn’t discussed months ago in your post: if your comment was “disrespectful”, then Ampersand’s trigger point for moderating ‘civility’ is extremely low (at least for differing view points). So low that it would stifle differing opinions, safely enough so that any opposing opinions would likely have to be so worded as to be ‘subservient’ to the moderator’s opinions — a rhetorical kowtowing, if you will.

    I’ve skimmed “Alas” before, not in super depth, so this generalization may be inaccurate but: other than the energetic and persistent “Conrad”, it does appear to generally be an echo chamber, with the occasional off conservative or rightie there, appropriately compliant enough to be mostly foils for the leftist ‘straight men’ to carry their points.

    • Conrad actually isn’t all that frequent a comment-writer, although the Zimmerman case inspired him to write more frequently. Ron F has written literally thousands of comments, and he’d describe himself as a tea party supporter and a religious man. Robert is another.solid conservative in most ways (exception: He’s changed his mind on same-sex marriage), also religious, but his views are more libertarian right in many ways.Again, thousands and thousands of comments. JutGory seems very conservative and extremely skeptical of all things feminist. Tamen appears to be an anti-feminist and MRA (men’s rights advocate), although I don’t know if he self-applies those terms. I could go on….

      Then there are people who either are middle-of-the-road politically, such as G&W (a conservative democrat, but very skeptical on feminist issues and well to my right) and Hector (whose politics are not definable on a simple-left-right spectrum) and Ballgame (who is generally left, but who is a constant critic of feminism – I’d say anti-feminist, but he objects to the term – and mainly comments about feminist criticism). These folks aren’t solid conservatives, but they do disagree with me passionately and frequently.

      I could name many more.

      So yes, your generalization is extremely inaccurate.

  4. As someone who has never moderated a blog and doesn’t intend to, I understand moderating to be as thankless a task as umpiring a baseball game: no credit for the right calls, just grief for the blown and close calls.
    That said, I’m not convinced of a true dichotomy between civility and free expression, at least as it pertains to a blog such as Ethics Alarms that demands of its readers a higher-than-average level of comprehension and reasoning.
    My layman’s impression of our court system, for instance, is of a venue where civility is strictly moderated yet where both sides are able to advocate forcefully, passionately, and (most importantly) EFFECTIVELY for their respective positions.
    To me, advocating a position with civility is akin to a comedian entertaining an audience with a “clean” act: both are harder to do, but both come with the personal satisfaction of not stooping to the easy “cheap shot.” After all, any nine-year-old can tell a fart joke.

    • “To me, advocating a position with civility is akin to a comedian entertaining an audience with a “clean” act: both are harder to do, but both come with the personal satisfaction of not stooping to the easy “cheap shot.” After all, any nine-year-old can tell a fart joke.”

      Off topic, but since you mentioned it, I’d submit Brian Regan for the category of most effective comic with a clean act. That guy has me rolling every time.

      Great guy. He had a show at the Winstar Casino just north of the Red River that a large (although not majority) component of the audience was from the Fort Worth/Dallas metroplex. I-35 going to the Casino was backed up for up to an hour or so and he found out and delayed the main portion of his show for people stuck in traffic to arrive. He did so with casual impromptu jokes and such so that people who’d already paid and were stuck in traffic would get to see the main show.

      • I respectfully contend that Jim Gaffigan takes that prize. Some of his early stuff wasn’t clean, but he has since decided to go fully clean. All of his really well-known bits are from his ongoing clean era. John Mulaney isn’t 100% swear-free but if you don’t mind SOME swearing, just get tired of the constant stream of it, he’s absolutely hilarious.

        Then again, as George Carlin says, there’s no bad words. Bad thoughts- bad intentions- and then, just words.

    • I make an argument in favor of civil discourse, throw in an analogy to clean comedy, and end up sparking an entire off-topic thread.

      • Yes, too bad we had a few comments talking about something to add smiles and laughter to our lives. Sigh away, you world-weary fellow!

  5. This was a great post by both you and Ampersand. Well done. One point, in my mind this is not (and has never been) about protecting other people on your blog. We can all take care of ourselves — especially in a virtual world, and if we can’t then we have bigger problems! It is just that name calling and offensive slurs rarely lead to a productive discussion — and that conversation becomes even more challenging (and a bit ironic frankly) if the topic is Ethics.

    I do wonder how many more readers would you have if the conversation was more civil. And I don’t mean ideas being censored, just respect for other people. You can tear apart a person’s comment without calling them a whore or an idiot.

    • Valid points until the end.

      When someone has proven they are incapable of amending their views after being solidly shown the most valid premises, an unassailable path of logic and the final *correct* conclusion, then it is completely fair to label them an “idiot”.

        • Arguer A: 2 + 2 =4

          Arguer B: No it doesn’t.

          Arguer A: I can draw you a picture and show you on my fingers that 2 + 2 = 4.

          Arguer B: No you can’t.

          Arguer A: You’re an idiot.

          I think it’s valid.

          • I once was in an advanced calculus class where the instructor was able to show that 0 didn’t equal 0. I think I dropped the class the next day — it was too much for my simple mind to handle.

            • Yes, usually these little games are done by substituting two variable letters for each other, then at some point in the proof, there is a “divide by 0” but you don’t see it because it’s hidden by the two variables. Divides-by-0 invalidate proofs.

              Fun, but trickery.

              Or did the prof play with expressions that “approach 0”?

            • You stay right the hell away from this topic or we’re going to end up all in an argument about whether 0.[999…] actually equals 1, and that’s the last thing we need.

                • It’s a classic math problem- the question is whether 0.999 with the 9’s repeating infinitely actually equals 1. There’s proofs both ways, it’s really more of an excuse for numbers nerds to argue about (much like the Monty Hall problem).

                  • Oh, I know. It’s a fun argument. Although I think the proof that repeating 9’s don’t round up is flawed.

                    I’m in the repeating 9’s do round up party.

                    The other guys are racist homophobes.

                  • There are no valid proofs that they aren’t equal. It can be amusing to debate, but ultimately it only reveals some sort of confusion in the minds of people making the argument for inequality which needs to be corrected.

                    • I misspoke- not proofs, but there is the obvious argument that .9 repeating is the representation of an asymptote approaching but never reaching 1, which has some valuable purpose in calculus that I haven’t bothered to remember since I took that course freshman year and haven’t used calc since.

          • I think it is invalid to try and compare a math equation with an argument about ethics. Who is to judge when someone has proven sufficiently that their views are incapable of change? The defendant isn’t called a bunch of expletives by the prosecutor I order to persuade a jury.

            • Calling someone an idiot isn’t about persuasion. It usually occurs after one gives up trying convince– after due diligence is given tryin to convince.

              The math example was simplistic. But like all arguments, even ethical ones, they are based on first principles established as premises, carried through logically to conclusions. The rightness/wrongness of the premises or the rightness/wrongness of the logic all matter for determining the conclusion.

              Analogies are supposed to simplify.

              If people disagree on ethics and both conclusions follow logically (and the logic is sound), from different premises, then that compels the discussion to focus then on the premises themselves to determine if they are valid or if they are being weighted appropriately.

              • People who say idiotic things should be disabused of the belief that they are not. People who act like idiots should be called on it. It is not a designation that should be used recklessly or just to hurt; it is like any other uncomplimentary designation, like sexist or racist or statist or hypocrite—it has meaning, it conveys information, but the designation should be accurate.

  6. I am not interested in reading a blog where one grown man hand slaps another grown man by putting up his post with lines through it because it lacks civility (in his opinion).
    That sort of action would be better suited to The Barney Board.
    If posters can’t comment in a passionate way when they feel passionate about a subject, then they are being censored.
    The Left is particularly fond of this ploy when they disagree with an opinion.
    It is obvious and it sucks.
    I see it on a blog, I never come back.
    I also lose all respect for the person who is “moderating”.

    Jack, if you think vulgarity is costing you readers, then replace the offending word with stars.
    Such as:

    “Beth, you ****, your stupid Liberal ***** is making me sick, why don’t you *** and **** and crawl in a hole and ***.”

    Or make a rule that certain extra bad words are banned because they lack decorum.
    Challenge your regulars to find new words.
    The users of the worst profanity here are also capable of shredding someone’s stupidity without swearing.

    • Elsewhere on Ethics Alarms, I pronounce the various ways of saying unpleasant words in code deceitful and silly, which I really think it is. If the point to a story is that someone said “fuck” or “nigger,” then print the word. If the substitute or euphemism used is obvious, then it is the same as the word in real terms….so use the d*** word. If the substitute is NOT clear, then it’s bad communication.

    • It’s not just about the offending words (but a few ones like “cunt” should never be used), it’s about the discourse. Your hypothetical comment above would not contribute to a constructive discussion — especially when we are talking about beliefs and opinions. Imagine if all conversations in business and government happened that way if people didn’t agree? There would be no positive result — ever.

      • What makes some words absolutely taboo? I mean shades of George Carlin’s “7 bad words” here, but in all seriousness, how can you assign some specific word so much baggage it’s absolutely unusable?

        • How? By soaking it in blood.

          America’s most taboo ethnic slur has as one meaning “someone I’m entitled to drag behind my pickup truck for three miles”.

          Any symbol can be wrecked for centuries or forever by connecting it to violence. Until the 1930s, bent-armed crosses were neutral or even holy symbols. They are unusable today for their previous purposes.

          • As the United States 45th Infantry Division painfully had to accept when it changed it’s divisional insignia shoulder patch in 1939 to it’s current tribute to Native Americans — the thunderbird. Hint: the old symbol was also a tribute to Native Americans, given that the 45th was a National Guard unit that was manned from Southwestern States and therefore had a larger than average contingent of Native Americans.

        • Well, there’s the old “fighting words” idea in First Amendment law. That idea has been steadily dying, which is good because when it was a living legal concept it granted an implicit veto over speech to anyone who’d start a fight over it.

          What’s funny is that words go in and out of favor. There’s a book called “The Erotic Tongue” which lists thousands of demotic terms for sexual organs and acts, and some have recovered from obscenity to become accepted while others have become unspeakable.

      • Uh, what?!

        “It’s not just about the offending words (but a few ones like “cunt” should never be used)…”

        I’m sorry, Beth, but I don’t understand your reasoning. Why should “cunt” never be used? What about “dick”? Wouldn’t “dick” be as demeaning to men as “cunt” is to women?

        “Hey, he’s a real dick!”
        “Whoa, she’s a real cunt!”

        My personal favorite, which I use quite a lot on Facebook, is this one…

  7. Moderation is an art. Except in extreme cases you can’t tell whether you’re doing it right.

    Civility is only a little easier to evaluate, but some things are clear. The following three formulations of a thought are clearly distinct:
    “That’s completely wrong, and you should have known better. It was debunked completely by ____ and by the natural experiment at ___”
    That’s vigorous debate, requiring a thick skin from the participants. Civil, though not diplomatic.
    “That’s bullshit! You’re an idiot!”
    That’s noise, making it harder to hear the discussion.
    “You’re a liar!”
    This used to result in pistols at dawn and almost certainly ends productive discussion.

    “I believe the honorable gentleman will discover his facts are in error” is probably too decorous for any place but the UK Parliament, which is where I heard it.

    An analog to Gresham’s Law applies. Bad people drive out good people. The good people may not tell you it’s happening

    • Then they’re unethical.
      The point of an Ethics blog is, in part, to remind good people that they have an obligation not to let bad people win. Of course, there are plenty of civil people with bad motives. I don’t think incivility means someone is “bad.” A central point of disagreement between Barry and I is how much respect unethical or badly argued views warrant on a blog forum, and when a commenter is trying to use dishonesty to warp policy and opinion. I think THAT is bad. I don’t respect that. I felt, and feel, that the “George Zimmerman is sort of white so he must be presumed to be a racist because the kid he killed was black” is a toxic, damaging, divisive point of view that depending on the motive for it, is either proof of brain rot or evil. And after making a good faith effort to see if the one who advancessuch swill will listen to reason, I’m going to tell him so. What does “respect” mean in such a context?

      This was part of the nonsense in the wake of the clear proof that Obama’s assurances that people could keep their plans “if they liked them” was premeditated lie. Those who called it a lie were admonished—can’t call the President a liar! This, in turn, led journalists to justify spin, like the Times’ infamous “incorrect promise’ (a promise you know in “incorrect” when you make it is called a lie). That was “civility” getting in the way of public information and truth. That wasn’t just a lie, but a damn lie, and a leader who intentionally manipulates the public with damn lies is called….???

      • “Then they’re unethical.
        The point of an Ethics blog is, in part, to remind good people that they have an obligation not to let bad people win.”

        Jack, I keep coming back because you keep posting fascinating thoughts.

        “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, but does that apply to walking away from stupidity? When is it an ethical obligation to defend a space, and when is it a case of Frederick the Great’s observation “He who defends everything defends nothing”? Time and attention are finite, and remember what was said about casting pearls before swine.

        Which brings another thought to mind, which is that the audience in a forum is much wider than just the swine. Zoe Brain routinely continues arguments with people long after they’ve proven themselves unreachable, not from abstract stubbornness but to educate and sway the silent listeners. Many quiet people have had the chance to walk away with pearls as a result.

        Are our intuitions from meatspace misleading? You should ideally defend your neighborhood bar against being taken over by bikers, but online you can create as many new bars as you could possibly want.

        No, I do not have a coherent point here. It was simply too interesting an idea not to explore then lines of though that stem from it.

        • Don’t conflate stupid people with bad people or intelligent people with good people, that should answer several of your lines of thought.

          Frederick the Great was discussing war, in which case, spreading your Army out to defend everything, leaves you weak everywhere and invites piecemeal destruction of your Army. Internet forums? I suppose you could engage yourself in too many arguments and thus dilute the attention you give each, allowing opposing arguers the ability to make you appear to have lost. But it isn’t war, where the better shooters and tacticians win… if you arguments are right, they are right EVEN IF THEY APPEAR TO LOSE.

          Don’t spread your pearls before swine is a direct admonition against wasting time arguing with people who clearly are not there to have good faith discussions, as your serious discussions will only give credence to their intentionally obtuse or intentionally trollish or intentionally foolish arguments.

  8. Jack,
    I’m glad you mentioned “badly argued” views, an aspect which I hadn’t considered and which makes irrelevant my earlier “court system” analogy. I can see that a posting policy which favors composition skills over demonstrated viewpoints makes as much sense as… oh, I don’t know… an election process which favors speech and debate skills over demonstrated ability.

    I think I understand your “strike zone” better now:
    –Badly argued or crudely expressed viewpoints are (generally) OK;
    –Empty invective without serious value is not OK.

    Basically, it’s a Miller test. I can’t say that’s unreasonable.

    • The strike zone is a great analogy, except that the strike zone is defined in black and white, and umpires have no business adjusting it to their personal tastes. Drives me crazy. This is more like the umpires trying to decide on what a fair zone should be, so the hitters know what to expect.

      Another aspect of this is the seniority factor, which is also present in baseball, and also wrong in that context. I give established commenters hear extra leeway, and comments that might get a first time commenter dinged will be allowed from a regular. I think that’s fair. I don’t think, in baseball, veteran pitchers should get a wider zone to pitch to than rookies, but it happens.

      • I think its signature significance.

        IF your first post is swear words and insults and no substance, odds are that’s how you operate.

      • If you think of it as moderating posts rather than people, then the question of what to do with established commenters becomes easier to think about.

        The case against your policy is that a regular should know better. Another argument is that small quick corrections are better than letting someone drift further and further from usefulness.

        • I think of it as moderating discussions among people whom I grant the privilege of participating. A comment that says, “You’re nuts” from a regular is very different from one that says that from a first time visitor. I know the context of the first; a whole hisory accompanies it. The second is a guest entering my house with an insult.

  9. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the amount of moderation you’ve been employing. I think your instincts are on par and I do put value on people posting frequent idiotic things because it informs me that the person is a frequent idiotic commenter. If you removed all of their idiocy but left the one gem they produced, they’ll look rather intelligent.

    Hmm… I think those people should PAY you to moderate their posts.

  10. I consider Jack’s sarcastic comment about the Zimmerman issue to be accurate and incisive, and in my past I would have posted similar comments, but I have found in my experience that such discussion habits lead to animosity, not understanding. To get to rationality, pretty much everybody has to go through ego first. Presenting a ridicule of their current viewpoint makes it so that them failing to defend it would mean accepting the ridicule of themselves. The instinct to defend one’s ego from ridicule causes people with anything but the utmost ingrained sense of intellectual honesty to reflexively defend any position they hold, right or wrong, and weight evidence more heavily if it agrees with them (confirmation bias).

    Ridicule might be “deserved” but in my experience it is a counterproductive discussion tactic. In this respect I agree with Ampersand. “Civility” might mean censorship, but respect most certainly does not. I may have disdain for the character and intellectual honesty of the average human, but I not only respect the abstract concept of a person, but choose to show this respect to all people I actually interact with. I respect people enough to tell them when I think they are wrong about something important, and I respect them enough to ask them to show me if I’m the one who is wrong. This approach makes it easier for both of us to approach an less wrong answer, no matter which of us started out more wrong. As such, it’s far more useful than sarcasm. It also requires more effort and diverse thought processes, so I find it’s more challenging and rewarding. I’d be intellectually dishonest if I refused to listen to someone who has substantial but rude arguments (I’ll still point out that their statements are unwarranted), but I have an ethical obligation to show respect to disagreeing viewpoints even as I point out that a viewpoint is self-contradictory.

    I’ve been ignored, dismissed, and criticized countless times for how I have presented arguments, because some presentations of an argument have a tendency to inhibit another person’s ability to think critically about whether I am right, whether or not I actually am. For me, being right has been virtually useless compared to discussing disagreements diplomatically (partially because if the discussion succeeds it doesn’t matter who was right to begin with, so long as we’re all right now). That’s why I now avoid labeling, name-calling, and sarcasm; they distract people from what I’m saying or asking. I see the possible truths that make sense to me while being the most charitable towards the people with whom I disagree, and present those possibilities to them. I don’t accuse them of conscious deception, because if they’re actively lying then the discussion is pointless anyway (unless we discuss why lying about it would be a bad idea). Truth be told, I have a very low opinion of the character and critical thinking skills of the average generic American, based on the state of the nation. However, I banish ideas like that from my mind when I’m talking with someone I want to understand, because no matter who they actually are, unless they are superlatively more mature than the average human, they probably will only take me seriously and talk and act as a rational and respectful person to the degree that I treat them as one. I don’t treat people I actually talk with as generic.

    A rule of thumb that I use is that whenever I am about to say or write something that I think will cleverly shock them into realizing that they’re wrong, I remind myself that that never (so far as I can tell) actually works. Asking questions about why a person thinks he or she is right (even if you’re sure it is you who is right) is a good way to be taken seriously and learn how better to address the person’s concerns about the issue, which are the reasons he or she is reluctant to accept the possibility of you being right. You really can’t go wrong with asking your opponent to elaborate on their position.

    One problem I still run into is that people sometimes think I’m insincere despite me presenting my perspective on a matter with candor, inquiring respectfully as to how their perspective works and whether it addresses my concerns, and if possible presenting ways in which I think the two perspectives can be reconciled. All I can really do is reiterate how I operate, show respect and good will, apologize for stating things ambiguously, and never write people off or treat them as if they have non-self-assigned labels during a discussion (even if I may think of them with labels outside of a discussion, for efficiency reasons).

    • The missing ingredient in your excellent analysis (which would be another Comment of the Day on merit, but this topic is awfully “inside baseball’ in nature, and I fear will drive even more readers away than flying F-bombs) is the intended audience. Here, and on Barry’s blog as well (when I was welcome,) I am writing to the larger group following the debate. I don’t care whether I convince the specific commenter or not, in most cases. If I offend him or her but undermine what I feel is a misleading and confounding opinion, that’s an excellent trade.

      Which is not to say I wouldn’t mock Conrad to his face. This may have something to do with why my sister barely spoke to me for about 10 years.

    • “inquiring respectfully as to how their perspective works and whether it addresses my concerns, and if possible presenting ways in which I think the two perspectives can be reconciled”

      When that doesn’t work it’s a reliable sign that you’re dealing with someone who wants to control the conversation instead of continuing it.

  11. Someone reading your post, Jack, may get the mistaken impression that I’ve been telling you how to moderate your blog. I have not. I think you should run your blog in the way that produces results that please you. And I think that’s what you’ve done.

    I just deny that there is any ethical reason to think that all blogs, or my blog in particular, must be run according to your preferences. Rather, I think the best result is to have different blogs run according to different ethos, so that all kinds of speech – and all kinds of speakers – can find places that suit them.

  12. Here’s a letter I sent Jack, a few days before he put up this post, which gives my perspective on the events at my blog. I’ve deleted one line that refers to an email that Jack sent me, since that email is not public.

    Hi, Jack.

    I want to start out by pointing out that some of how you remember the event is clearly, blatantly untrue. Here’s what you wrote on your blog this week:

    Last years Commenter of the Year, Ampersand, returned the favor by kicking me off his blog for daring to talk frankly to the knee-jerk left-wingers who cluster there when they kept coming up with ethically-inert rationalization why George Zimmerman should have been convicted of racially-motivated murder despite the lack of credible evidence of either racial animus or murder in the trial or out of it.

    Some of that is demonstrably not true.

    1) I didn’t kick you off my blog. Period.

    I moderated a comment and gave you a warning. I made it very clear in my warning that I was NOT banning you, and after you left, I posted again saying I hope you’d return. There is no conceivable way that any fair reader could have understood what I did as “kicking [you] off” my blog, and for you to spread that lie to your readers is hurtful, unethical, and indefensible. You owe me a retraction and an apology.

    2) The other people on that thread were NOT saying that Zimmerman should have been convicted of murder. Most of the people you were arguing with – like me, and Jake Squid – explicitly said that we thought the “not guilty” verdict was fair. The argument was mainly over whether “there should not have been a charge or a trial.” not over the verdict.

    3) Far from a liberal echo chamber, about half of the people who posted on that thread are self-identified conservatives. Even if I look only at the most frequent posters on that thread, there are still many conservatives (Conrad, Robert, RonF) as well as middle-of-the-road types like G&W. Yet none of them were banned from the thread. Some of them got mod warnings, but so did some liberals, including Jake Squid, who you were arguing with. The difference is that they didn’t get mad and stomp off the board because they got a mod warning (as nearly everyone does on my blog, sooner or later).

    4) You blatantly ignored multiple specific warnings from me before I moderated a single comment of yours and gave you a stronger warning, after which you flounced off and posted a long note condemning me on your blog. You overreacted. I shrugged it off, left a comment that you’d still be welcome to post on my blog, and kept on posting comments on your blog. But you’re not letting it drop – indeed, you brought it up just this week (and lied about what happened).

    5) In comment #278, in response to you saying “You, Al and the rest believe this because you want to, because it suits an agenda and calculated narrative, and if it gets innocent “white Hispanics” beaten up, George Zimmerman killed, and ratchets up race tensions, well, it’s all worth it,” I gave you this warning:

    Please note that I have haven’t accused you or anyone else posting in this thread of racism, of holding your view because you want Martin and other kids like him killed, etc. This is civility 101 stuff – don’t accuse the people you’re arguing with of having evil motives. Like the evil motives you just accused Jake of having.

    Please don’t do that again. Argue against other people’s arguments, not against what you assume their motives to be.

    I also warned you to stop name-calling after you called Jake a “race-baiter.”

    Your next comment had your usual over-the-top rhetoric (accusing me of having no integrity – something I had just told Jake not to do, when he accused you of having no integrity), but I let it pass. Then, in your very next comment (#320), you did the exact thing I asked you not to do – you accused the people you were arguing with of hiding evil motivations:

    This has never been about evidence. It was about making Obama’s base fear for their lives just in time for the 2012 elections, and increasing racial divisiveness for cynical political gain.

    Your tone was also full of undisguised and harsh contempt for everyone who disagreed with you about the Martin/Zimmerman case, which goes against the goal of “Debates are conducted in a manner that shows respect even for folks we disagree with.”

    At that point, I felt I had no option but to moderate you. I felt you were displaying contempt for the norms of my blog, by continuing to accuse people of having secret evil motivations almost immediately after I had specifically warned you not to do that, and by treating people with contempt. (And if you can’t see how your tone was full of angry contempt, then you’re not in control of your tone, frankly.) So I gave you a stern warning, but I also made it clear that I hoped you’d stick around: “If you don’t find it possible to disagree with people while treating them with respect, then I’ll ask you to stop leaving comments here. Where would make me unhappy, so I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

    You then called me despicable and haven’t posted on the blog since. I responded at the time by saying “Sorry you’re disappointed, Jack, and I hope you’ll come back.” The idea that I kicked you off my blog is a ludicrous lie.

    * * *

    In sum, carefully rereading your every interaction with me on my blog, I stand by my moderation. You were flagrantly in violation of the expectations for comment-writers on my blog, and you specifically did something I’d just recently asked you to stop doing.

    None of which I’d ever bring up again. When you posted an attack on me on your blog, I ignored it (although I kept the pingback that you sent to my blog up, so my readers could see it and read what you had to say); I figured you were pissed, but in time you’d get over it. But time has passed, and you’re STILL attacking me on your blog over having had one single comment moderated.

    You’re being unreasonable. A moderation warning is not a good reason to hold a grudge for months and months.

    So that’s my view on what happened.

    Best wishes, Barry

    Jack, how was what you wrote anything but assuming that the people who disagreed with you had evil motives?

    • I considered just striking through this spin, and leaving it like that. But that would be, in effect, kicking you off the blog.

      Your claim that your “warning,” accompanied by trashing the words I wrote, which were not out of line but only properly diagnosed the absurd dishonesty and political bias of your commenters, was not an ejection is ludicrous. I was mistreated and insulted, and no one but a pathetic worm would crawl back after such abuse. I guess you owe me an apology for regarding me as a pathetic worm.

      The motives I ascribe to the Zimmerman-lynching are 100% accurate, whether those having them admit or acknowledge them, or not. Objectively biased interpretations of reality have reasons. When you and your gang line up shoulder to shoulder with Sharpton, Lee, Holder, the New Black Panthers, MSNBC and Florida’s unethical special prosecutor, you cannot deny that you share their agenda, or at least share responsibility for advancing it. And race-baiting is part of that agenda.

      The attitudes expressed on your blog ARE responsible for endangering a man’s life, and it is important for that unpleasant fact to be waved for all to see, which I did. The campaign to manufacture a race-based murder out of the chance Martin-Zimmerman encounter was divisive, dishonest, politically motivated and terribly damaging to the nation, and I hold every single person, including the President, and YOU, who enabled and participated in it responsible and accountable. I don’t ever assume that those who disagree with me have evil motives. I assume that those who decide to pin a race murder on a man before learning the facts, and who then refuse to change their assumptions when facts are known that make their previous assumptions untenable are reckless, hateful and perpetrating evil whether that’s their intent or not. And I am right.

      Yes, I have “harsh contempt” for people who want to start a race war to win elections, and those who follow their lead, ignorantly, lazily, naively or irresponsibly. They deserve contempt. In isolating them from that, you perpetuate the harm.

      This statement is idiotic and dishonest: “The other people on that thread were NOT saying that Zimmerman should have been convicted of murder. Most of the people you were arguing with – like me, and Jake Squid – explicitly said that we thought the “not guilty” verdict was fair. The argument was mainly over whether “there should not have been a charge or a trial.” not over the verdict.” Really? They were arguing that innocent people should be tried anyway, and risk conviction? Baloney. If they argued that Zimmerman should be tried, then they think he was guilty, and if they think he was guilty, then they think the verdict was wrong. But your characterization is typical of the thread—hypocritical and dishonest. But of course, for me to properly designate it as such is “disrespectful.” Suuuure, it’s not an echo chamber.

      As I have said here before, I reject the proposition that there are always multiple ethical ways to look at issues. Holocaust deniers are wrong. White supremacists are wrong. Communists are wrong, Truthers are wrong. And the entire Zimmerman-Martin media/Democrat/civil rights-huckster frame job was wrong in multiple ways, one of the lowest points in cynical Left politics in my lifetime. My mistake was in assuming that a large group of intelligent progressives had the integrity and independence of thought to see that. They didn’t, and I was punished for pointing it out. You launched the discussion, recall, by saying that my assessment of the verdict was “biased.” My assessment of the verdict was, rather, based on my training as a criminal lawyer, my experience as a prosecutor, and the fact that I watched almost the whole trial with my jaw hanging at teh astounding lack of any incriminating evidence the State had to back its 2nd degree murder charge. Yes, the moderator who attacked my integrity at the outset told ME that I was being disrespectful.

      The “he should have been tried anyway” position was a rationalization for the whole train wreck, which never should have happened. My comment that you crossed out speaks for itself, and my characterization of what you did was accurate. I linked to the thread; I wasn’t hiding anything. I did not lie.

      You said, in a private e-mail, you wanted a personal e-mail exchange on this topic. I agreed, and sent my position, off site, as what I understood was an invitation to a frank, personal, private discussion. Then, before I even had a chance to read your response and respond myself, you unilaterally decided to make it public, accusing me of lying in the process. Nice, Barry. Got me. I took the bait. Congrats.

      I stand by my characterization of the blog comments I was responding to, and the censorious and biased handling of it by you, and also my characterization of anyone who thinks holding show trials to mollify the race-grievance industry is doing anything but aiding and abetting the worst of America’s race-haters and dividers.

      Hold a grudge? Yes, I hold grudges when I trust someone to treat me as a colleague and they exploit my trust by grandstanding and using me as a prop in their ideological warfare while insulting me as well. The fact that it was in defense of the most cynical intentional race-baiting conspiracy within memory tends to harden my resentment. I’m funny that way.

  13. Jack, thanks for all the enjoyable times I’ve had posting comments on your blog; however, I’m going to choose to spend my time elsewhere. I leave you with my sincere wish that you stay well and happy.

    • 1. Presumably, then, now you do understand what constructive ejection by a moderator is. I thought you would.
      2. I appreciate the civility. I would have appreciated honesty and fairness more.
      3. Your commentary will be missed.
      4. Stay warm in the echo chamber.
      5. Bye.

      • Jack, that is a saddening rift between apparent friends. I will continue to trust your moderation, and will continue not to trust Barry’s. That may be my unwitting way of self-inflicting a “tragedy of conservatism” on my part. I don’t know, and can’t know, how differently my trust would fare if I had, say, been a reader at Barry’s blog before I started reading yours.

        But, after reading the dialogue here, I am reminded of a Melville line, about how “nothing exists without its opposite.” It is easier for me to trust a moderator who admits to not moderating, or who admits to being in a state of flux about moderating, and then makes those admissions clear by the presence of obviously un-moderated comments. It is more difficult for me to trust a moderator who admits to moderating with an aim of enhancing civility, but who clearly moderates rigidly according to an apparent personal standard for civility (and lack of civility) which seems to reject how the presence of “uncivil” comments actually can serve to strengthen the value of civility in the “more civil” comments. I look forward to continued name-calling and guilt-by-association-with-deduced-motives-and-attitudes. I need the incivility for the sake of strengthening my own civility.

        • Thoughtful and wise reflection, E. Thanks.
          By the way, leaving a comment alone is still moderation. Most of what is moderation here passes unnoticed, like the posts that never make it into the threads. Or the approximately 5000 comment-spam items I individually review every day to make sure that a legitimate comment calling me biased, a liar or an idiot gets onto the blog rather than being thrown out with the bathwater.

  14. Final thoughts on Barry’s farewell.

    1. He contributed a great deal here, and will be missed, When he defaced my legitimate comment on his blog, I seriously considered banning him here. I decided then that that would have been petulant and vindictive, but I am not sure that it also would have been fair, Reciprocity is an ethical value, and when someone mistreats me in their home, I should not be ethically obligated to invite them into mine.I am still thinking about whether banning me from a commenter’s blog should trigger the reciprocal action here. Tit for Tat, or a reasonable response?

    2. One reason Barry will be missed is that he is virtually a perfect model of the intelligent, Kool Aid addicted American progressive. He would cite endless statistics showing that the ACA would never cost more than the Democrats promised, though every inch of common sense and history says it has to, and he would be unmovable in his certitude. I don’t know how people, really good and smart people, get that way. Indoctrination? Faith? Hope? Whatever the reason, it’s a tragedy, and does immeasurable harm to the nation.

    3. The truth is not uncivil. Hurtful and insulting words designed to wound rather than communicate valid arguments are uncivil.

    4. To some extent, I took out my rising anger over the entire Martin-Zimmerman debacle on Barry and his blog, and I realize that. Nonetheless, I have come to believe that it really was an atrocity of cynical race-baiting that was indefensible and every way, and I make no apologies for having contempt for everyone who pushed it forward, with the exception of Martin’s parents, who a) can be excused their biases and b) were manipulated. The rest—who jumped to a presumption that because a man with lighter skin killed one with darker, it was automatically race-motivated and “profiling,” and who kept banging that drum long after it was obvious that the facts didn’t fit the narrative—owe the nation, the culture and future generations an apology, because what they helped perpetrate will haunt us for decades. Barry keeps saying that I was accusing his commenters of evil motives. No, I’m saying that their attitudes and conduct had evil results that should have been obvious to them…and perhaps were. They just didn’t recognize them as evil. See #2, above..

    5. Any time I put lines through anyone’s full comment, making it impossible to read and implicitly pronouncing it as taboo, that commenter is fully justified in believing that they are no longer welcome. Of course I, unlike Barry, would never do that..

    • One thing I have to disagree with you about: strikethroughs do not make anything the least bit unreadable for me. I like it as a method of partially moderating a comment after it’s been responded to, and I wish I could easily edit my own comments with it on various blogs for any corrections I made. Given it’s status as a minor difficulty, I do NOT consider it evidence that a commenter is unwelcome, only that the comment in question was unwelcome. It’s a significant improvement over just deleting a comment thread or disemvoweling.

      On the greater issue, I may be a bit biased because I first came here from Alas (I think from that thread in fact), and was used to their approach to moderation even though I prefer your blog in general (libertarians are barely tolerated there, which is STILL a step up from how places like LGF and KOS treats them). Your assignment of poor motives to the left in general and to some of the other commentors, while I think it’s accurate, seems to be at odds with your description of Barry as a perfect example of a Kool Aid drinking progressive. You seem to be more willing to tolerate a bit of poor thinking on your own blog without asserting evil motives to the person displaying it than you were willing to tolerate there. Most likely, your item 4 is the explanation, and I can sympathize after arguing with friends on Facebook about it.

      I don’t think it’s good for people to be well meaning fools, and I am constantly aware of the CS Lewis quote about robber barons, but that’s how I would categorize most people on the left. It’s too bad most of them refuse to take me at my word about my motives as well.

      • Builiding on my first point: I wonder how much of the current dispute could be because the effect of a strikethrough on readability is significantly greater for you than it is for Barry. It’s entirely plausible to me that one person would have to laborously wade through text that’s been struck through while another can do with no effort, especially given different levels of exposure to comments that have been struck.

      • Good comment, all round.

        I HATEHATEHATE strike-thru’s. They are often used disingenuously, or like hashtags, allowing a blogger to write something nasty and leave it up while pretending to disown it with a strike through. As for the distinction you endorse—not me. If a moderator can’t be trusted not to leave my post as I wrote it, or, in the alternative, give me a coherent warming beforehand about what will be so-treated, I’m out of there.

        Yes, Item #4 is a big part of it, and an exception to my general rule. Truthers as well. There are not too many other positions that condemn this way.

        Without liberals, conservatives would make the world a Hobbesian nightmare, and they should be cherished. But I see self-righteousness and extreme utilitarianism, as in utter ruthlessness, corrupting them, and it is a bad development for us all.

    • With regards to the tit-for-tat question: No, I don’t think you should ban someone from commenting here, just because they ban you (either explicitly or implicitly) from commenting at their site. If they provide valuable conversation here, that is their value to your site. If they are not willing to let you provide value to their site, that’s their site’s loss. As long as their comments here don’t suffer to reflect their problems with you, then banning them here would be letting a personal snit affect your judgment.

        • There’s also an asymmetry in that different blogs have different purposes and rules in private spaces can be arbitrary and capricious.

          A hypothetical would be if you posted something confrontationally conservative on Daily Kos. You’d have people clicking the button to hide your post. If one of those people posted here and met your rules, what’s the problem? Daily Kos is private property devoted to “electing more and better Democrats”. Ethicsalarms is private property devoted to discussing ethics.

          I argue that “reciprocity” in situations like this involves evaluating who is meeting the site’s expectations, be that formal rules or moderator discretion.

          If a moderator acts unethically on a different site, well, do you have a rule of banning commenters because they did something unethical elsewhere? I’d support your right to do so but you’d wind up with a very quiet blog.

  15. I just remembered that there was another blog I was jettisoned from, also constructively, after the moderator berated me, again, for being right. That was the Red Sox fan blog “The Joy of Sox,” which developed an unhealthy worship of Manny Ramirez. Manny, as he has pretty much proven to everybody now, was a cheat, a liar, a sociopath and a generally irresponsible and reprehensible player with a smile and an effective harmless idiot act. I saw through it, early—I told the fans on the blog that they were encouraging bad conduct that would eventually hurt the team with the “Let Manny be Manny” (“Let this one idiot play by his own warped rules because he’s such a great hitter, it’s worth destroying the team’s integrity”)and that they were foolish to trust a player like that. I was called everything from an old fart to a moralist to a racist (the site is run by Truthers and US citizens who fled to Canada because Bush was the Anti-Christ).

    All blogs have a tendency to become echo chambers, even the good ones. Popehat, which I admire, has hundreds of commenters on every post, it seems, yet not one picked up on the distortions in Clark’s attack on the relapsing judge. Losing a guy like Barry troubles me mostly because I don’t want to run off dissenters—and Barry only checked in to dissent. It’s why I mess tgt, whatever has become of him. But doesn’t seem to be much territory between the trolls, who just write comments to be annoying, and those who are attracted to a blog or blogger because its views seem to be comforting. The trick is to be rigorous, unpredictable and challenging without being scary.

    Working on it….

      • I could start trying to be a leftist devil’s advocate.

        I tried it before elsewhere, but I found it exceedingly difficult to arbitrarily free myself from logical constraints and valid premises.

    • Jack,

      You’re acting on a difference between being-constructively-banned versus letting bad people win by abandoning the fight.

      Can you articulate what makes the difference?

      • I don’t understand the question. Constructively banned is banned, and one fights against “bad people,” whatever you mean by that, by changing their minds, or changing the minds of others who might be inclined to imitate them. If I am unfairly handicapped in my efforts to do that, then that’s how they “win.”

            • OK, I should have re-established context.

              Earlier, when I had talked about bad people driving out good people in a poorly-moderated environment, you said the good people were unethical to leave.

              That made me stop and think, since more than once I’ve dropped participation in places that turned out to be Lord of the Flies re-enactments. That would make me one of the unethical ones. As usual, I can’t simply shrug off your argument without analyzing it carefully.

              The idea of a duty to defend shared spaces makes perfect sense, as does a duty not to leave error and fallacy unchallenged.

              What are the limits of that duty?

  16. Some thoughts on curtailing freedom of expression:
    A strikethrough is the equivalent of a teacher’s “correction” to a paper/essay; now, now, you silly child, I have to show you how to write this so that you are saying what I want you to say, not what you mean … and particularly not what you feel.

    Its aural equivalent is the same kind of overbearing parent-to-child admonition, the conversation-stopper, the gag that chokes off thought as well as sound: I WILL NOT LISTEN TO YOU IF YOU RAISE YOUR VOICE.

    These are the words you may not use at your age, in this house, this school, this workplace, this newspaper, this country, this century. Oh, later? elsewhere? Yeah, well, no matter: not here and not now. My mother, born in ought-five, decided one day in her early 90s to say “shit,” a word she’d never said (aloud) before. Shit, shit, shit, she said, first as exclamation, then as noun and adjective (abandoning the adverb quickly, though). After a couple of days she told one of her younger sisters that she wasn’t going to say it again. That’s good, said my aunt. Now you realize how stupid it is. No, says the elder, it was depressing me to think of all the times it would have been just what I needed to say.

    A few years ago, I spent most of a year developing a manual for training crisis line volunteers in dealing with callers on a dedicated national HIV hotline. I was told that a manual wasn’t necessary, they just needed some Q&A samples for role play — could I prepare some scenarios and present them to the class. I did so, and set up dialogs for typical callers: gay men, straight men guilty about having had a lap-dance, long-term AIDS survivors, black women whose husbands had been on the down-low or in prison, IVDU needle-sharers, students and office workers and church-going residents of small Southern towns who had to hide their status even from the families they lived with, and on and on. Callers who were anxious, frightened, ignorant of basic biology (never mind viruses), . . .

    The problems arose in the first three-hour class: The volunteers, including those experienced in handling suicide prevention calls, could not (1) handle the common vocabulary of sex and intimate sex acts, (2) recognize or understand the stigma that attached to HIV outside their own demographic group, or (3) adjust to answering the myriad of emotional and practical needs. They hardly spoke. I was better prepared for the second class, using material from the manual that spoke to these issues and demanded that the volunteers explore their own fears, blind spots, ignorance. And prejudices. They started expressing themselves, using the words and, more important, the inflections they were hearing and learning to interpret from their callers. The third group were much better prepared than the previous ones with pre-class readings — the biggest obstacle was to get across the idea that they were not only not expected to “get over” their prejudices but to accept the fact that we all have them, we live in a, for-instance, basically racist, sexist, homophobic society [do I hear hackles rise??] and we “learned” these before we were conscious or critical of such thoughts … That denying a thought just makes it stronger, but we can learn to recognize their ugly heads and deal with them, more easily with more practice. Once there was a breakthrough, then the “simple Q & A role plays” began to work.

    I worked with two more groups before the administration noticed how much easier the volunteers were on the hotline and, via feedback, how much more effective their emotional and practical support was for the callers. Several of the bigwigs dropped in on the next group, taped some role plays …. I was called in to the director’s office, told my “language” was inappropriate regardless of the caller’s needs, how dare I “accuse” anyone of being prejudiced, and that I was an incompetent instructor because my class was overexcited. None of them ever read the manual, stayed for more than 15 minutes or would discuss the course. If I wished to stay, I was welcome to take calls on that line, so long as I did not offer any information or instruction to anyone else.

    I chose to stay, but on an overnight shift when the call room is loose and the staff offices are closed. I think often of resigning. Then I get an HIV update that needs to be passed along … and if I leave it in a certain place, it turns up in a day or two on the volunteers’ facebook page.

    And I follow Ethics Alarms — not because I agree with much of the politics, or some of the settings of the beautifully constructed arguments (especially not the ballpark), or choice of alarms (television programs – one of my best friends invented a gadget called TV-B-Gone), but because Jack Marshall teaches me — sometimes just because of the dialogs he encourages (and here I add my plea for tgt’s return) — to understand and fight prejudices I haven’t recognized before. If he shouts or permits others to shout out of anger or frustration or enthusiasm or because the situation calls for raising one’s voice when speaking to the ethically hard-of-hearing, I listen much more closely than to those who murmur sweet rational-sounding nothings with narrow labels and strangling limits attached. If moderation is necessary, and I do understand that it is though not necessarily where, how or how much, then fuck it, do it. or as my mother would have said, s***.

  17. I’ve only just come across this blog, and have enjoyed reading some of the past issues.
    This particular post actually intersects with a discussion I have been having with a friend about how to debate with (apparently) irrational people.
    Here is a link to a video he sent me.

    This video, entitled “Don’t be a dick” essentially lays out some ground rules for debating the irrational, for example UFOs (and God – yes this is an overtly atheist presentation).

    The fundamental message is that while ranting, shouting or mocking someone about their beliefs may make you feel better (or give you points with the echo chamber) it won’t actually sway someone’s opinion (did anyone ever change their opinion because they’ve been called a moron?).

    One of the points I brought up in discussion however is that there are two things implicit in that message. The first is that only reason to refrain from mocking someone because it won’t change their mind. The second is that the reason for the debate is to sway someone’s opinion.

    I have a numbers of problems with these assumptions (especially in the context of a blog “debate”). To refrain from mocking someone purely to convince someone of their irrationality is at the very least superficial (and perhaps unethical – or at least disingenuous?). A far more ethical (?) approach is from a position of respect (of them as a person, if not their beliefs), and to understand the basic worldview, assumptions and psychology that led them to those sets of beliefs. To cast a set of beliefs as stemming from being dumb and ignorant (or prejudice or whatever), is to ignore the fact that everyone who takes the time to post (semi-rationally anyway), has a concrete set or reasons for their position, and anyone who seeks to refute their position needs to seek out the reasons for their basic assumptions, and have some sort of basic respect for their ‘opponent’, even as they seek to challenge those assumptions.

    As to the second implied point (the fundamental reason for posting on a blog), that is something less import in the context of the video (atheism in general), but is very important in the context of posting on blogs. I would ask everyone here to consider what their REAL reasons are for posting. Is it to communicate on a topic you find compelling (presumably the reason for a blog in the first place, not just the comments!), is it to show others how clever you are, is it to stir up debate (which may or may not be trolling), or is it to sway someone to your point of view (and if so, why is this important to you on a fairly anonymous platform). In terms of ethics particularly, I think that the fundamental reason (stimulus?) behind posting is extremely important. For myself, while I would like to think my views may be a worthwhile contribution, I have a somewhat more selfish reason, in that I want to ensure that my own thoughts can stand up to external scrutiny, and be challenged on my thinking.

    So Jack, when moderating how do you think about intent of the poster (it seems to me that your self described style IS all about intent), and perhaps more importantly (considering the rather aggressive feedback I’ve seen in these comments), what was your intent when posting on Alas about the Martin case (and, did you try and get inside the other posters’ heads or merely write of their comments as biased without further thought as to fundamentals)?

    I hope the last paragraph wasn’t too challenging from a first time poster – I definitely agree with your position that “old hands” should get something of a free pass now and again. For all my own stated positions above I have been known to throw up my hands in disbelief and call someone a fuckwit.

    • No, this is a fine comment, and I am grateful for it.

      All the motivations you cite may be good ones, depending on the situation, and your last— “I have a somewhat more selfish reason, in that I want to ensure that my own thoughts can stand up to external scrutiny, and be challenged on my thinking” may be the best of all. I certainly is one of my constant motivations.

      I was called out to Alas, remember—a post referenced my discussion of the Zimmerman verdict and pronounced me “biased.” I am biased on some topics, but not that one, and I decided to charge what I believed (correctly) was a nest of those who were determined to not to let any facts or principles of justice pry their prior assumptions, divisive, false and harmful though they were, from their cold, dead hands. Motives?

      1. To defend my integrity, which Barry impugned (behind my back, by the way)

      2. To argue the truth cogently, if not to convince the most virulent race-baiters and Zimmerman-bashers on the site, then to try to promote some free thinking by those who might visit there.

      3. To tell some race-muddled, knee-jerk progressives that their arguments would only work in their echo chamber, and to disabuse them of the delusion that they were being responsible, coherent or fair.

      Welcome. Please keep a thick skin, don’t take anything personally, and stick around.

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