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.