Comments that sour conversation: free speech versus censorship

| January 24, 2009 | 4 Replies

Most of us seek a mutual exchange of ideas in our conversations, but not all of us.   Most of us are open to the possibility of intellectual change, but not all of us.

We get many comments at this site, most of them thoughtful, many of them really challenging to my pre-conceived beliefs.  I revel in those challenging comments.

In the past few months, though, I have struggled with how much leash to give to several visitors to this blog even though they tried to A) monopolize the conversation, B)  preach, C) impose their favorite two issues upon every post, and D) ignore clearly-stated bona fide points made by others.  In addition to using these ignorant and aggressive tactics, many of these comments clearly have their facts wrong (some claim that Obama is a terrorist; others claim that God Himself inerrantly wrote the Bible in King James English).

When these sorts of people join in-person real-time conversations, almost all of us employ similar strategies.  We extricate ourselves from those conversations so that we can join some other conversation.  We also take steps to avoid spending time in the same room with those sorts of people on future occasions.

A blog is not exactly a conversation, but it is a lot LIKE a conversation.  What, then, should a moderator do when conversation-killers attempt to roost at a blog?   For many months, I’ve struggled with this question.

Our authors often write about gods, religion and politics, but these topics get many people bent out of shape.  On the other hand, these are incredibly important topics.  Therefore, they need to be discussed, but it takes discipline to keep things orderly yet intellectually fruitful.

Ebonmuse is the sole writer for Daylight Atheism. He also writes at DI.   We are good friends; we’ve shared several meaning-of-life conversations in Manhattan.  For those of you who haven’t met him in person, I can assure you that if you know Ebonmuse through his writings, you truly know him; he writes so very much like he talks. In writing and in person he is unwaveringly disciplined in his research, his thinking and his writing.  He loves learning and he has no sharp edge to his agenda.  His agenda is to have meaningful conversations related to making the world a better place, a thoughtful place with minimal amounts of strife, especially religious strife.

I recently noticed that Ebonmuse has been having the same sort of difficulties I have had regarding some of some of the people submitting comments to his site.  You can get a sense of how bad it got by reading his latest “Administrative Note.”   He speaks of a person submitting comments to DA who exhibits

a consistent pattern of antagonizing everyone he comes in contact with, monopolizing threads, derailing discussions with perpetual complaints, quibbles and demands for attention, and generally making arguments that display a lack of good faith and responsiveness. In the past I’ve let it be, but it’s become intolerable. I’m not banning him, but I’m putting in place some restrictions on how often he can comment. Further measures will be taken if they become necessary.

It had become so frustrating for Ebonmuse that he twice updated his comment policy in an effort to keep his discussions fairly wide open yet nonetheless meaningful.   I admire the work of Ebonmuse in coming up with the latest version of his policy.  It includes many things you’d expect to find (no spam, no criminality, no defamation), but also the following:

Preaching. Theist commenters are welcomed on Daylight Atheism, but bear in mind that atheists do not gather here just so that we can be more conveniently proselytized. Attempts to sermonize or recite apologetics at us are frowned upon. A good rule of thumb is that if you want to have a genuine conversation with us, you’re welcome to stay; if you only want to convert us, you can expect to be shown the door.

Soapboxing. Related to both unoriginality and preaching, this occurs when a person has a pet cause which is the only thing they ever want to talk about, regardless of the topic of the thread. If all your comments keep coming back to the same point, you’re soapboxing. Don’t do this.

Imperviousness to reason. I don’t expect that everyone who debates here will change their minds, but I do expect that people who debate here will show at least some responsiveness to arguments raised against their position. If your typical response to a counterargument is to repeat your original argument in unchanged form, your presence will soon grow tiresome. Acknowledge the things that other people say to you and respond accordingly.

Thread derailing. Leave comments that are relevant to the post being commented on. A certain amount of topic drift is inevitable in any long-running discussion, but I reserve the right to close comments if the thread has wandered far afield, and to take action against people who are consistently responsible for thread derailing.

Trolling. The last offense is hardest to define. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. The essence of trolling lies not in any single comment, but in a pattern of behavior: persistently antagonizing other commenters, monopolizing the discussion, commenting just to provoke a response, and generally behaving in a way that produces more heat than light. Trolling is annoying, unproductive, and a drain on other people’s time and energy. Trolls are not welcome here, and I will not hesitate to remove them in order to clear the air for legitimate, good-faith discussion.

I also added a policy against preaching recently, because it had gotten so annoying.   These provisions by Ebonmuse are so well articulated that I’m tempted to simply copy and paste them into DI’s comment policy.  I can personally relate to each of these points, and I can feel his struggle to balance the interests of all those concerned.  As Ebonmuse notes, just because it is easier to intuitively recognize these conversation-killers than to intellectually identify them doesn’t mean that a moderator should simply give up the battle.

Preachers, soapboxers, thread-derailers and trolls aren’t welcome at my house and neither are they welcome at DI.  I’ve been administering this blog for almost three years and I’m getting more aggressive about keeping the conversation focused; I believe that that is what almost all of us want.  There are no absolutes in life.  An individual’s right to free speech is never unfettered.  It must always be balanced against other important objectives, such as the need to share ideas in civilized ways.  It is also relevant to this balancing act that conversation-killers can (and often do) create their own blogs.  They do have other places where they can do their thing, even though they often toil in obscurity.  In blogs, a recent addition to the marketplace of ideas, people vote with their feet. That’s just the way it is, and I make no apology for refusing to give these tactics a wider audience.

As Ebonmuse admits, no matter how specialized the rules get, the real rules for how to write a comment are felt at a gut level:  “Use common sense, argue in good faith, and don’t be a jerk. The purpose of the comments is to facilitate a conversation that will enlighten and benefit all participants.”

Onward!

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Category: Censorship, Communication, Uncategorized, Writing

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.

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  1. Diagramming the inner loop of immovable commenters | Dangerous Intersection | January 25, 2009
  1. Just noticed this string:

    A "fundamentalist policy preaching soapbox troll", funny methinks ;-).

    Anyways, Some level of pest control is inevitable when you have something tasty on offer. The presence of fundamentalist policy preaching soapbox trolls is just an indicator of success. Please continue the good work!

  2. You know, it just occurred to me that you could exercise a sort of "in comment" editorial oversight. Something I saw in a science fiction movie back in the seventies, set on a space station. Something like the internet was displayed and political debates took place live for everyone to watch and then vote on. When someone made an unsubstantiated statement, a computer or monitor or what have you flashed a comment on the screen under the speaker: False or Hypoerbole or would display the actual statistic as opposed to the false one.

    Something like this happens now, off screen, with things like FactCheck dot org and such. But you could do it.

    Place a parenthetical note within the silly person's comment pointing out which parts are false, which are based on obsolete information, and put a link for refutations. I imagine that after a few of those, they'll just go away. Hell, they might even learn something.

    Of course, that would be a lot of work.

    I have noticed, too, that being the one who occasionally punctures the arguments of such people at social events, pointing out the truth can be just as much a conversation killer as preaching. Sometimes people just like their b.s. uncut and unchallenged.

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    A little background, since it may be helpful:

    When I started out with my site's first comment policy, my ideal was that all non-spam comments would always be permitted. That policy served me well for a long time, but gradually I came to see its limitations: namely, that trolls, preachers and other troublemakers who obeyed the letter of the law could nevertheless completely derail legitimate discussion, by turning every post into a series of endless arguments with themselves and refusing to modify their position in the face of contrary arguments. It doesn't take many of these people to suck all the oxygen out of a site and discourage good-faith commenters from participating. It's fun to debate, but I like to have some threads that are devoted to peaceful and productive discussion, not just a series of back-and-forths.

    In the three years I've been writing for Daylight Atheism, I've gradually evolved toward a more proactive moderation policy. My current goal is not just to thwart outright bad behavior like spamming or threatening, but to promote a positive and productive flow of commenting, which means removing the trolls who are only there to provoke people and be contrary. I find that I rarely have to ban such people outright. There are other effective measures that can be taken, like putting their comments on manual moderation, which delays any replies they receive by several hours and usually discourages people who are only seeking attention.

    The way I see it, comments are like a river channel. Trolls are like boulders or dams in the stream, choking off the flow of discussion, creating stagnant ponds centered around themselves. As moderator, I see my role as removing those obstructions, getting the discussion flowing again to more enlightening ends.

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