Why institute a blog comment policy that prohibits preaching?

| October 3, 2008 | 28 Replies

Here at Dangerous Intersection, I recently instituted a new wrinkle to the commenting policy. The new policy prohibits comments to the extent that they constitute “preaching.”

It goes against my grain to censor. I want conversations at the site to be vigorous and from the heart, even when they get contentious and unwieldy. Equally, however, I want conversations to be substantive. Our recent experience with a commentor named “Erik B” convinced me that allowing preaching is counterproductive to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas. For starters, here’s the new policy with regard to preaching:

Additional note on “preaching“: As used at this site, “preaching” is an attempt to announce what “God” thinks or what “God” wants, as though there is no legitimate alternative viewpoint as to what God “thinks” or “wants.”  At DI, we have no objection to any person expressing what that person believes, himself or herself.  And, admittedly, his or her comments might well be motivated by that person’s religious beliefs; it is no cause for editing that one’s own beliefs are motivated by religious beliefs.  Expressing what one believes is not “preaching.”  Directly indicating what “God” thinks or wants, however, is preaching.   In our experience, preaching invites an endless and unproductive back and forth sharply focused on the authenticity of such claims: entirely predictable debates of whether “God” really thinks or desires “X.”   Presenting one’s own religious views as incontestable facts is preaching. Discussion that is starkly presented as “God’s” opinion, or any quotation to any passages from any religion’s Sacred Literature, to the extent that those passages are intended to be unquestionable on any ground, are subject to pruning pursuant to this commenting guideline regarding “preaching.

What is it about preaching that stifles the free and vigorous exchange of ideas? I tried to capture this problem in the above definition.  When a person makes a claim about what God “wants” or what God “commands,” it is a claim that goes beyond that person’s opinion. I’ll give two illustrations:  I have never had a problem with anyone posting a comment such as this: “I am a believer in God. It is my belief that God requires X. Is my belief that those people who don’t do X will go to hell.”  Now compare that to this version: “God requires X. Any of you who don’t do X will go to hell.”

In the second example, the person posting the comment is claiming to speak for God.  Further, that person is trying to endow himself or herself with infallibility by speaking for God. Anyone contesting what “God” commands is, by definition, incorrect, immoral and delusional. Compare the second example to the first example, where the person writing the comment is clearly stating his or her personal beliefs. The first example is not preaching, whereas the second example is preaching.

Preaching causes great heat and little light.  When a person preaches, it asserts as absolute truth numerous things that are, in reality, highly contested. For instance, is there really a God? Does the God really require X? How is it that this particular person making the comment is an authorized spokesman of this “God”?  Every time I see preaching, I am dismayed because if I don’t answer such a comment, this will imply that I agree with all of these implications. On the other hand, to respond to such a comment fully and properly will require revisiting numerous topics of numerous posts that have examined these issues.  I don’t want to keep doing the same work over and over.

Having a comment policy that prohibits “preaching” makes me feel awkward. I wish it weren’t necessary. On the other hand, I do think that anyone who wants to convey an idea can do it without “preaching.”  I’m sure that Erik doesn’t see it this way. He has clearly expressed that he feels censored and that I ran him off the site.  He feels that if he is prohibited from speaking as God’s infallible agent, he has nothing much to say. He has accused me of censorship, even though I only deleted portions of a few of his comments (though I warned him about 10 times), and I allowed anything that did not constitute “preaching” to be published.

Another thing that became obvious to many of the authors at Dangerous Intersection over the past week or two (I’ve corresponded with several of them via e-mail) is that a fundamentalist who is allowed to get away with preaching gains undue confidence and tends to ignore sincere and basic challenges to their explicit and implicit claims regarding that which God allegedly wills.  I found this aspect of Erik B’s comments to be especially frustrating. Mark Tiedemann spelled out the two conflicting genealogies found in the Gospels, yet Erik refused to acknowledge the obvious conflicts.  I challenged Erik to explain how he could be so certain that a word commonly translated to read as “fear” in the Bible could actually mean something other than “fear.”  Numerous other factual challenges were made to Erik, but he ignored these challenges.  Instead, he changed the topic, usually back to preaching.

I’d be interested in anyone else’s opinion about how to handle this sort of situation.  When I founded this blog, I wanted it to be a place where anyone could feel free to contribute his or her ideas. For that reason, the commenting policy has been extremely liberal. I am the one who approves the comments, and I can tell you that (other than spam comments), I’ve only prohibited a few comments over the past two years (and there have been more than 10,000 comments approved).  The comments I did not approve constituted clear personal attacks.  This discussion comes full circle: it seems to me that preaching constitutes a personal attack. Preaching is a way of saying “I am right because I speak for God and you have no right to challenge what I am saying because I’m God and you are not God. Your choice is to shut up or to violate the will of God.”

That’s how I see it, and that’s why I instituted this policy. If anyone has other ideas about how to handle the situation, let me know.

One last observation. I have to wonder whether the founding fathers had these sorts of problems in mind when they enacted the First Amendment’s Separation Clause (which is one of five basic freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment).  Perhaps they too saw that when preaching was allowed from a person who was supposed to be a mouthpiece of government, that it caused great commotion and distress for the exact reasons that we just saw here at this site. Perhaps the founding fathers also knew that allowing government officials to preach would destroy any chance to have a meaningful dialogue among the citizens and their leaders.

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Category: Censorship, Communication, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (28)

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  1. Erik B. Update:

    Since his disappearance from DI, I have been continuing my conversation with Erik over at his blog. I was able to do this by first promising not to cuss (his requirement) but also by tacitly accepting his paradigm for the sake of the conversation (the bible is the Word of God) in order to get him to open up and learn more about him. I find his absolute certainty intriguing and I had to know more about him.

    We've gone back and forth a bit of there usual stuff and of course he was unyielding in his opinions, as always, though polite throughout and even pleasant. There is no gray for Erik although I must admit I pushed gently. He never admitted to even a fleeting doubt. No "progress" was made as far as I was concerned.

    I did find out one thing that was interesting. It turns out that Erik B is a preacher or pastor of some kind. Many of his blogs mention the sermons that he writes. So it is no surprise to me that he steadfastly refuses to accept any bit of information that cast some doubt as to the authority of his "boss", if you will.

    I hope if he reads this that he doesn't see this post as a betrayal, as if I am coming back to DI and tattling on him! I just felt the need to mention that his BUSINESS is being an employee of God, hence there is an underlying reason for him to accept the bible as true. He'd be out of a job if he didn't!

  2. Ben says:

    Spent several hours reading the comments (of RonM) about (the importance of) trolling

    http://www.wired.com/2014/10/trolls-will-always-win/

    He presents some ideas which I had not considered.

    • Ben says:

      Summary of RonM: There is an important purpose to “online trolling”, when it is directed at ideas and does not threaten individual persons, as it serves as an effective immune system against incorrect or immoral ideas that propagate online. Without it, state agents, or deep pockets, can easily create a situation where criticism of blindly accepted material is heckled and silenced, even when the material is clearly nonsense and the criticism is cogent. Offensive language and over-the-top attacking is the way to overcome this barrier of authority.

      The over the top behavior crossed the line to personal harassment in the cases you cite, harassing you, and epileptics, etc. But in fighting such harassment, one must preserve freedom of speech, most especially speech which is not nice. While it is not ethically right to threaten people, it is a criminal offense, the rude behavior is not of the same character, as rude behavior is the most effective tool of the powerless to effect change. Harassment and stalking are crazy, and have no relation to this behavior. One must clearly and forcefully insist that you separate the two modes of behavior, as they are distinct, and online verbal battery is not at all intended as a personal threat or personal harrassment, but as a method of winnowing out ideas with powerful propaganda.

      The reason is that the internet only works to produce truth when it is free to be as hostile as possible, only bounded by the limits of sanity. This has been clear since the early days of usenet. While there are a few people who use this freedom to prop up existing power structures, by dismissing the concerns of women or ethnic minorities, there is no exclusion of this tool to such folks, and their attacks are ineffectual, because ultimately they cannot go that far. The freedom of speech is most precious when it is used against those power structures, as it is the most effective form of anti-power anti-propaganda.

      For an example of a constructive troll, take a minute to read the feminist classic “The SCUM Manifesto”, which was written well before there was an internet (although in the early 1960s, the independent free press, consisting of self-published pamphlets and magazines served a similar purpose). This document can be read as a prototype for modern-day internet bashing, the rude, foulmouthed, offensive, hate-filled diatribes that threaten one’s sanity, but which serve to recast the world in an alien point of view. You need to protect the aliens, because sometimes the aliens get things right.

      Such propaganda techniques are important because they quickly and powerfully overwhelm the comparatively feeble propaganda techniques you find in old media, television, film, or traditional publishing (with the sole exception perhaps the exceedingly vicious and foul-mouthed race-baiting Nazi tracts). In old media, such crass language and over the top insults cannot get through the most rudimentary censors that block the way. The internet allows such language, and unfortunately such language is absolutely required in order to smash through bad or fraudulent science, to purge discussions of bigotry and xenophobia (using the same language the trolls you don’t like use), and to promote harmony and peace (despite the offense inherent to the language).

      This language can also be used unproductively, of course. But thankfully, the people telling the truth always have the advantage in a rude discussion. A quick correction such as what you wrote above, renders it harmless, and even counterproductive. In many cases where censored mass-media has been lying to the public, such language is needed now more than ever. So I would suggest to you to grin and bear it, and to learn to do it effectively yourself, because, while psychologically difficult, perhaps especially so for women, it is important. It is an essential online sacrament.

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