A few random thoughts regarding civility and blog moderation

Over at Family Scholars Blog, the powers-that-be are planning to modify their moderation policy, and they’ve asked bloggers there to throw in some thoughts about civility over the next month. So this is a post I wrote for FSB, in response to that request.

* * *

On any discussion forum, rules about civility – including a decision to have no rules about civility – cut some people from the discussion.

In a forum with no rules, people who can’t function well in an environment filled with anger and vitriol will be effectively shut out of the discussion. In a forum with strict civility rules, those who are too passionate and open to express themselves without anger will wind up banned from the discussion.

Either way, some of the folks cut out from the forum’s discussion will be good people, with good reasons for how they are. Maybe Lucy is justifiably angry because she’s been treated with injustice her whole life. Maybe Sally grew up in an emotionally abusive household where her parents yelled all the time, and now can’t abide yelling (not even the online version).

We shouldn’t ask “how can this forum be open to everyone?” No one forum can serve all people’s needs. Fortunately, the internet has thousands of forums to choose from.

A better question to ask is, what kind of discussions do we hope to have on this forum?

* * *

But what about privilege?

It is sometimes easier for people with privilege to calmly discuss issues like single motherhood or same-sex marriage, because they don’t have any skin in the game.

Furthermore, class privilege – and in particular, a college education — goes a long way towards training people to effectively use a detached, faux-objective mode of discussion.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t get over-deterministic when considering how privilege effects civility. Today, the angriest people in American politics are wealthy straight white men (four examples: Michael Savage, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews). These are men who have literally everything the world’s richest society has to offer, but who still explode with contempt every time they’re in a disagreement. For some people, privilege facilitates expressing anger and disdain, since a person who is privileged enough doesn’t have to worry about hurting other people’s feelings.

At the working-class, commuter college I attended, I was on the debate team, and met a ton of people who weren’t from privileged backgrounds (in terms of class, wealth, race, disability, and sexual orientation), and who thrived under civility rules that were far stricter than any I’ve seen on any internet discussion forum. Rules can be inhibiting, but they can also be a way for people from wildly disparate backgrounds to face each other on level ground.

Civility, at its best, is not about shutting people up, or forbidding passionate engagement. It’s about keeping in mind that everyone matters, even the people we disagree with. It’s about treating a debate not just as a disagreement, but also as a collaboration.

Sometimes, that comes easier for people who haven’t been as privileged their whole lives, who are less likely to have fallen for the illusion that we are all isolated individuals, and more likely to be aware of how interdependent everyone is. But sometimes that’s much harder for people without privilege, because they’re the ones whose lives and families are directly at stake.

* * *

I have a lot more to say about civility and blog moderation, but maybe I’ll hold off until a future post. :-)

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18 Responses to A few random thoughts regarding civility and blog moderation

  1. 1
    marmalade says:

    I don’t know exactly how you do it here, Amp, but I likes.

    I think your moderation practices have the lion’s share of the blame for how wonderful this blog is compared with other, similar. It’s kept me coming back for years. The overall tone is progressive, sure, but it’s not just an echo box. I appreciate that Alas! gets high level of discourse from several viewpoints, and that lots of people feel safe to argue here. Bravo.

  2. 2
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    +1. Plus several, if possible.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:


    Thank you both very much.

  4. 4
    nm says:

    Civility, at its best, is …. about treating a debate not just as a disagreement, but also as a collaboration.

    That is a wonderful way of talking about it, which I intend to steal.

  5. 6
    Susan says:

    My experience is that some people, for reasons unknown, are born angry. And others, also for no reason that we can figure out, are given a more easy-going temperament.

    Life experience can modify these stances, sometimes a great deal, but we still see people born almost literally with a golden spoon in their mouths who are always savagely angry with nearly everyone and everything (some of these people are named above) and on the other hand almost all of us have met people who have relatively little either materially or socially who are able to forgive wrongs and live in emotional peace.

    It is luck of the draw, but that doesn’t mean we’re all stuck with it like Fate. Perpetually angry people are not only usually unhappy, they have shorter life expectancies, often falling victim to various stress-related ailments from heart disease to automobile accidents and everything in between. It is possible, although difficult, for an individual to have some success in moderating this response in him or herself. We’ve all met people like that too. They get more credit in my book than those simply born easy-going, because it’s so much harder for them to achieve civility.

    All of that said, neither Amp nor any moderator has any control over how other people live their lives. (Most of us are doing very well if we can control our own behavior.) People who cannot restrain their expressions of anger (whether or not there is any “good” reason for being angry) cannot coexist with people who cannot function well in such an environment. So, every forum must to some extent choose.

    Ampersand’s talent has been, very consistently, to allow a lot of passionate expressions of anger and frustration without allowing that to poison the atmosphere here. It’s a neat trick, and one that I wish were more common.

    So, yet another hat tip to Amp.

  6. 7
    Copyleft says:

    The most successful moderation policies I’ve seen say they censor only tone, and never content. Example: Open dismissal of a commonly-accepted viewpoint or agenda is always permitted–personal attacks and vulgarity are not.

    Acceptable: “The Earth is flat, and everyone who thinks it’s round is wrong is deluded.”
    Unacceptable: “Creationists should eat shit and die.”

  7. 8
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    6 Susan

    I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being born timid, but there are people who aren’t even-tempered and who don’t like being around conflict.

    They *might* give one little eep before they leave a venue they aren’t comfortable in, but probably not.

  8. 9
    mythago says:

    FSB keeps trying to come up with new moderation and comment policies, and it never works because they haven’t dealt with the real problem: in a multi-person blog where the moderators comment heavily, moderators are very hesitant to call each other on violations of the comment policy, particularly when they are in philosophical agreement. (You may remember that the previous incarnation of NSWATM had the same issue.) I’ve seen rather too many situations at FSB where a particularly inexperienced or foamy moderator engages in personal attacks, or threats to sanction a commenter they disagree with, and the reaction of the other moderators is “Hey, that cloud up there looks like a bunny!”

    Limiting the number of comments in a thread or making more explicit conduct rules only work if everybody agrees to abide by them and to enforce them, even if that means telling your fellow traveler “sorry, you can’t do that.”

  9. 10
    nobody.really says:

    On Sept. 21, the 112th Congress set a record – the shortest pre-election legislative session in the past 50 years – capping off a record as the least productive Congress ever. Within this context, it can be hard to focus on the opposite problem: Imagine if, instead of being impotent, US civil society was infinitely powerful. What limits would we place on ourselves?

    For example, Romney disparages the 47% that pay no federal income taxes and presumably regard themselves as “entitled to health care, to food, to housing….” If we had the power to grant such entitlements, should we? I vote yes.

    And not just housing, but GOOD housing. The feds establish minimum structural standards for “manufactured housing” (mobile homes). No, it’s not the Taj Mahal; but it’s a minimum standard. I’d vote to make everyone entitled to housing that met that standard – and to raise taxes as necessary to make that possible.

    Not just food, but GOOD food. The Food and Drug Administration promulgates rules establishing minimum qualities for food. Admittedly, these standards do not eliminate impurities from the food supply – yes, they candidly acknowledge that some level of rodent feces and urine will remain in grain products, for example – but it’s a minimum standard. I’d vote to make everyone entitled to food that met that standard – and to raise taxes as necessary to make that possible.

    Not just health care, but GOOD health care. Yet here I pause.

    Yesterday, All Things Considered did a story about progeria, that rare disease that causes kids to age prematurely and die in their teens. (Robin Williams starred in Jack, a movie about it.) Researchers have now discovered what causes it – yea! Researchers have learned how to treat it – yea! Researchers may now have discovered how to stop aging – yea?

    If we really could become immortal, should we? Do we really want humanity to come to resemble the social structure of vampires?

    Admittedly, it seems a little prissy to object now. History has been an ever-advancing march against the power of death. We’ve tampered with disease, the water supply, the food supply, even the genetics of plants and animals, all with the effect of extending life expectancy. Is immortality really such a big step?

    Somehow, I think so. I’ve sometimes denied that I’m pro-life. But now I really mean it. I’m coming out of the closet: I’m pro-death. Mark me down as a vote against granting everyone access to health care sufficient to render them immortal.

    And I don’t reserve such treatment only for my enemies. I want everyone to enjoy a long, healthy life – and a nice, healthy death. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, theists and atheists, skeptics and fundamentalists, whatever.

    So let them eat cake (even with a modicum of impurities). Let them live in four solid walls. And let them have SOME health care, but not so much as to render them immortal. In sum, I think creationists should eat shit and die. But I mean that in the most civil way possible.

  10. 11
    StraightGrandmother says:

    The WORST comments are on the Alana S articles. The whole group over there makins slandering comments all the time, if anybody on the pro-gay side would make those same types of comments in the gay centered articles they would be banned in a heartbeat.

    Actually I do not think they are looking for “Civil conversation over at Family Scholars they are looking for “Elitists” That is what they really want. And they call each other that frequently (LOL), the love to think of themselves as “The intellectual Elites”. Where I come from being elitist is something we look down on not up to. We look up to Leaders, to Scholars but not to “Elitists.”

    They simply wish to remain in their walled garden and protected from the great unwashed masses. They wish to preserve their privileged class and the way they do that is to deny entry to their walled garden.

  11. 12
    StraightGrandmother says:

    After my last comment I went over to Family Scholars and read Elizabeth Marquardts latest post. I rest my case, LOL!

    …Also, while we have invited our bloggers to write on the topic of civility, let me be clear this is not an invitation for commenters to attack the blog or the bloggers or to whine or to waste our time trying to make fine grained decisions on whether their comment on a blog post on civility is acceptable or must be deleted. Our comment moderators have full time jobs. We will make quick decisions on the acceptability of comments. If yours gets deleted, no whining. If you don’t like it, start your own blog. If you keep whining, you’ll be banned. We are allowing some discussion of our civility policy lately (which we don’t usually do), but because time is short and our project lists are long, we are doing it quick, like speed dating. Join in or sit this one out.

    Barry do you not find it ironic that Elizabeth’s article on Civility is most uncivil? This is what I was referring to above, about the Elitism over there. This is one of the most patronizing and snotty articles I have read in a while. Elizabeth “the rules don’t apply to me” Marquardt.

  12. 13
    StraightGrandmother says:

    Barry read these comments

    Elizabeth Marquardt says:
    09.27.2012 at 12:15 PM

    Straight Grandmother (which, by the way, I doubt is your real name), enough.

    Totally unnecessary comment, and again “I’m the boss/parent you shut up” The way they treat people there is so disgustingly Elitist.

    They could very easily be “Admin #1 Admin #2, Admin #3” If Elizabeth wants to enter as Admin and not Elizabeth Marquardt she can be Admin #3. No Problem, I think that would be a good way to do it. It is odd to me to see comments from admin but knowing it is not the same person. What they are saying is that they are the Elite an are not accountable, we do not deserve to be able to identify one from the other. It rather reminds me of the Great Wizard behind he curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

    If they numbered themselves as Admin #1, Admin #2, Admin #3 we would be able to see patterns and this is what they want to hide. Admin #2 may bubble up as overly strict and the public would be able to notice that.

    Also it is quite humerous when Elizabeth Marquardt mentions that she does not think StraightGrandmother is my real name. But at least on one Topic I am not Joe and the on another topic Barbara, I am consistent across forums. That is all I am asking them to do, be consistent and sign Admin #2 or Admin #3. I am not asking them to do anything that I do not myself do or for that matter, we all do. I am really disinclined to comment there. I do from time to time but it is not very enjoyable.

  13. 14
    Myca says:

    Hi, StraightGrandmother!

    As much as I agree with your posts in general (and I do), and hoping that I’m not overstepping my bounds here, Ampersand, I think it would probably be for the best if we didn’t spend too much time on this blog discussing the commenting policies of another blog.

    It’s not that I think you’re wrong, just that I think having the conversation in this context might not be awesome.


  14. 15
    StraightGrandmother says:

    Myca I was done anyway. And actually up until today I had been banned over there so as it happens Amps blog was my only opportunity to vent. Oh and I was banned for one time saying Hell. I got immediately put on moderation without being told. When I went to enter a new comment and was on moderation I asked “Why am I on moderation” and for that I was banned. I never ever attacked anyone personally and always argued ideas. I was actually quite surprised today when I could enter a comment.
    a member of the great unwashed….

  15. 16
    Ampersand says:

    Barry read these comments

    I read them, and I left a response. (My response overlaps with what you posted here somewhat, but I wrote it before I read your comment here).

    I do agree with Myca that I don’t want “Alas” to become a forum for criticizing the moderation on Family Scholars Blog. However, of course you’re generally welcome to comment here whenever you want, SG. And you can even use the word “hell.” :-p

  16. 17
    Ms. Sunlight says:

    I think the single most important thing about comment moderation policies is that they be clearly stated and consistently enforced. That is all. The few times I’ve had unpleasant interactions over comments I’ve made, I’ve been genuinely baffled by the behaviour of the blogger or moderator in question because I really did not see how I broke the guidelines. If this is happening, you have a problem, either of poor moderation or poor policy-framing

    On one occasion, I lost considerable respect for the blogger in question as I felt their spiteful comments in private email did not match their public persona. Now, maybe I don’t matter, but it was still a hurtful interaction.

    I’m not encouraging people to write their policies in legalese, nor am I saying they should indulge in argument with every barrack-room lawyer who wants to whine about “but your policy says…” What I am saying is, readers and potential commenters should not be confused. It almost doesn’t matter what the policy is from the user’s point of view, as long as it’s overt and consistent. 4chan serves a purpose as much as the most tightly-moderated safe space.

    (But for what it’s worth, I love the Geek Feminism policy because it’s one of the longer policies out there but it’s very, very clear and specific. I especially love is their clearly stated time limit for commenting stated on the bottom of each page.)

  17. 18
    KellyK says:

    I think the single most important thing about comment moderation policies is that they be clearly stated and consistently enforced. That is all.

    I think that’s a good point. Where exactly you draw the boundaries isn’t necessarily as important as drawing them clearly and making sure commenters know where they are.

    Another thing that’s helpful is keeping the comments policy short enough that you can post it next to or above the comment window, rather than on its own page.