Making My Comments Rules Explicit: “Don’t Bully People With Insulting Names” and “Make Personal Charges Against Others Only In Egregious Cases”

First of all, let me thank you readers of the last three years for so many productive comments and vigorous debates. Your Thoughts have enriched this blog in more ways than I could chronicle. And unlike other blogs, there is, to my view, relatively little trolling that ever happens here. I caught a sock puppet once. I also banned an infamous troll who spams numerous blogs and e-mail accounts with minor variations of the same worthless repetitive rant over and over again. I blocked someone else who had a long history of trolling Ed Brayton and just wanted to use my blog to do that some more.

Beyond that, I haven’t banned anyone. The only severe trolling issues I have had came when Eric Steinhart was guest posting and there were commenters regularly haranguing and insulting him. They would routinely not let him move on to new topics without demanding he address their comments from previous posts. They would comment quickly on each new post to grind their axe against the entire project Eric was interested in exploring. They set themselves up as guard dogs and howled and howled to warn others away. They made posting here really unpleasant for my guest and they discouraged readers who were benefitting from Eric’s writing from commenting, in order to avoid the hostile environment that the commenters were creating. Some of them would write Eric or me directly instead.

I shouldn’t have let a few bullying commenters run roughshod over the blog in that way such that they effectively determined who felt comfortable speaking and who did not. They did not want to simply register their counter-arguments and be done with it but instead wanted to dictate to Eric what he had to blog about or how he had to answer them to their satisfaction. They insulted and harassed him for daring to explore the subject he wanted to in the way that he wanted to.

By being neutral as a moderator and not curbing their trolling behavior, I did not foster constructive, far reaching dialogue and philosophical debate but passively let a few bullies smother discussions by intimidating others into silence and make posting here too unpleasant for Eric ever to want to try to do again.

So, having learned from this experience and having thought for a couple years now about what the standards of constructive civil discourse require, here are two simple rules (in addition to rules that should be obvious like “don’t use sock puppets”, “don’t reveal people’s identifying personal information online without their express and verifiable permission”, “don’t make threats against other commenters”, etc):

1. No insulting people. This means not calling them abusive names or making insulting insinuations about them which according to my judgment unnecessarily demean them as a person or which I take to be intended to demean them as a person. You may charge that people’s ideas are false, harmful, irrationally derived, etc. You may substantiate charges that someone’s personal behavior deserves moral disrepute where that’s relevant. You may critique an individual’s standards of evidence or question their commitment to reason over faith. But when you do things like this, stick to substantiatable charges. Use words which clearly specify what specific thing makes a person or institution’s ideas, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, etc. worthy of criticism. Abusive names (like “stupid”, “moron”, “asshole”, “jerk”, “douchebag”, “idiot”, “motherfucker”, “dick”, “cunt”, “nigger”, “Feminazi”, “shitbag”, “mental midget”, “twat”, “fuckwad”, “retard”, “homo”, “fag”, “tranny”, “bitch”, “nutcase”, “crazy”, etc.) are emotional expressions meant solely to hurt other people. They are social equivalents of physical assaults.

Words like these use emotional violence to coerce people with the aim of driving them into submission. These words aim to do that by demeaning them so that they feel worthless and hated. These words aim to irrationally gain leverage in an argument by making someone feel intellectually insecure and interpersonally rejected if they do not concede the other person’s debating point. These words try to drive people away with hostility. And, finally, these words try to coerce moral agreement by making the implicit threat of stigmatization and ostracism of any who differ. Some of these words threaten whole groups of people. Some of these words unfairly turn innocent groups of people into the standard of badness itself.

These words do not clarify any philosophical points and they make agreement between disputants less likely rather than more. They force people to tense up and become defensive, rather than loosen up and think more freely and courageously. Censoring words like these does not stop valuable expression. It makes it more likely. Everything philosophically true can be said without abusing people. Harsh truths can be said in ways that respect people, even when those very people are worthily being excoriated for morally condemnable behavior. We can criticize people honestly without crossing the line into expressing merely our hatreds and dehumanizing them.

That will be the standard I will explicitly hold you to on this blog. With fellow commenters and even when discussing public figures, let’s denounce in ways that are substantiated, subject to proof using evidence, and which at their core are respectful of other people’s basic humanity and their right to disagree without being insulted.

We may criticize public figures and each other with a whole host of harsh words if necessary. We can charge each other with severe moral failings like racism, misogyny, homophobia, if need be. Any charge which relates to a specific set of behaviors or attitudes that people can theoretically defend themselves against with evidence is fair game, as long as it is made sincerely. I cannot substantiate that you are an “asshole”. “Asshole” is just a word to say that based on your behavior I hate you. But if I can substantiate a charge that you are belligerent, passive aggressive, manipulative, self-serving, bullshitting, trolling, saying untrue things, etc. then those are all valid ways to accuse you. They are potentially informative and true. You may defend yourself against those charges. They can be critically analyzed. They can be leveled at you with respect for you as a person. To leap from disapproval with those or related behaviors to calling you an “asshole” (or any other strictly abusive term) is to cross the line from making a potentially valid moral charge to expressing my hatred for you. And that is the move that corrodes good will and civility unnecessarily.

2. Do not personally attack fellow commenters wherever avoidable. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they argue sincerely. Do not create an environment where dissenters and skeptics feel like they will be treated in a hostile manner simply for posing uncomfortable questions or for deviating from the general political and philosophical atmosphere of the blog and its comments sections. Charitably assume the best of fellow commenters and interpret their arguments in the most plausible and humane light wherever possible. This is a philosophy blog. Neither the commenters nor I should give the impression that it is a dogmatic place. There should be a relatively loose leash for speculation here. People should be able to honestly hash out difficult issues respectfully and sincerely without having their motives or their characters questioned simply if they raise unpleasant lines of inquiry.

There are some people who argue in bad faith. Some of them online use numerous pseudonyms to troll blogs that they designate as enemies. I have had unfriended a handful of Facebook friends who I spent a lot of time trying to reason with before I realized that no matter how philosophically charitable I was going to be, they were still going to utterly strawman me and treat me disrespectfully. So, yes, Virginia, trolls do exist. And sometimes what looks to a newcomer like a fresh faced new commenter asking sincere questions is a disingenuous partisan with an axe to grind, with no interest in listening to replies in good faith, but rather every intention to wage a propaganda war against his or her objects of hatred.

But, even granted the existence of trolls, and even while acknowledging your right to charge people with intellectual dishonesty when you feel like it is making progress in discussing ideas impossible, I request that you give others the benefit of the doubt as ignorant or confused and rather than malicious until proven otherwise. Optimally, it would be best if you directed your concerns to me if you think someone’s behavior crosses the line into trolling and harassing.

Consequences for Breaking these Rules:

Anyone who uses abusive names towards other commenters or starts making disputes about ideas and current events into occasions for other sorts of personal attacks and haranguing will be warned and have all their comments sent to moderation for an indefinite period of time. If the pattern keeps up, they will be banned. Anyone trying to circumvent moderation through use of sock puppets will be immediately banned. As a warning, putting each of a particular commenter’s remarks in moderation may also lead to comments addressing that commenter going into moderation as well. Additionally, other red flags (some of them which may prove innocuous) may send an innocent person to moderation, so do not take it personally if you wind up there even if you have not violated these policies.

Your Thoughts?

For further explanations and justifications of my philosophy of moderation for those who are uneasy with it, please read the following posts:

On Dealing With Trolling, Banning, and Uncomfortable Disagreements

I Am Not Against Emotions. I Am Against Insulting Epithets.

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Stop Calling People Stupid.

“But Aren’t Some People Actually Stupid?”

I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them.

Do Marginalized People Need To Be Insulting To Be Empowered

Avoiding The Abuser’s Dialectic (Or “My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Indignation”)

My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Entail

We Need Both Safe Spaces AND Philosophically Open Ones

Debate is Not Pointless

The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth–But With No Name-Calling

Who Are You Calling Stupid

I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist

How Atheist Reddit Doesn’t Get It

Don’t Call Religious Believers Stupid.

Don’t Demonize Religious People’s Motives, Focus On Their Objective Harms.

Love Religious People.

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religiosity?

My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

“How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?”

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.