Keeping a Civil Tongue

A couple comment threads have gotten a little nasty/unproductive lately, so I want to jump in and try to reestablish some expectations of productive dialogue.  Before I do, I want to give two bits of information up front.

I don’t censor comments and that’s not changing.  I only delete comments that are spam unrelated to the site.  Google’s overenthusiastic spam filter may delay your comment for a few hours, but I will always let it through once I get back to Blogger.  That means you’re free to ignore anything that follows in this post and it won’t impact your commenting abilities, but I hope you don’t.  The problem isn’t that bad commenters victimize me or readers, it’s that when you get nasty, you usually end up delegitimizing your argument and discouraging people from engaging with you (there’s a reason that this post is tagged ‘handing weapons to your enemies‘).

I’m not trying to single out any particular commenter here.  The problem has bothered me more of late, so I’m going to talk about a recent thread in this post.  That’s not to say that the thread I’m using as an example is the nadir of conversation here or I have a general problem with some of the people participating in it.  It was just ready at hand.

Ok.  Those warnings out of the way, let’s talk about what’s going on in “Call him Voldemort!” (the thread on HPV vaccination) and the problems that surfaced.

Don’t slam the kids/Keep ad hominem to a minimum.

When a discussion about parenting comes up, it’s reasonable to talk about how choices affect the well being of children, but don’t go overboard.  It’s fine to talk about general trends and statistics for certain upbringing styles, but I sure didn’t like seeing speculation about the future sexual activities of Kaczor’s children.  Still worse was the glee or self-satisfaction that seemed to tinge some predictions of their ruin.

That kind of talk is unnecessary and unkind.  If you have data or a clear chain of logic, let that speak for you, but don’t write anything that would make you ashamed if the target or his children stumbled across your post.

It’s ridiculous to imagine you’ve got a clear insight into someone’s character and worth from one 1000 word essay.  The only person with personal knowledge of Kaczor or his kids in that thread was K.L., and she was right to try to quash the unpleasantness.

It’s fine to be anonymous.

I don’t mind when anyone comments on this blog anonymously (there’s a reason I configured the blog to allow it) and I don’t assign a credibility hit to any commenter based on the choice to use a pseudonym, a private Blogger profile, etc.  Religion can be a fraught topic and it’s completely reasonable (and non-suspicious) to try to keep a boss or any casual Googler from getting their first impression of you based on some comments you made in a long running thread on a controversial issue.  (P.S. I am screwed w/r/t that last one.)


If you want to say something inflammatory, take to time to explain yourself.

During the thread, Anonymous claimed misleading a child about the purpose of a vaccine was analogous to rape.  And man did things go downhill from there.

I, like many commenters, was flabbergasted by the comparison, so it took me a while to understand the logic behind the comparison.  In fact, I’m probably mostly in agreement with Anonymous about the terrible consequences of misleading people to subvert their bodily autonomy, especially when this abuse is justified by the limited understanding of the victim.

Perhaps the point would have registered better if the analogy stayed in the same genre as its target (think the Tuskegee study, or just the way doctors used to defer to a woman’s husband or father when making medical decisions).  But, one way or another, the galvanizing comparison led both sides to think of each other as totally unreasonable, and then the cusswords and personal insults started flying and the germane point was lost.

All of these problems distract people from the substance of your argument and give them an excuse to stop listening to you.  If you want to convince them, you’re doing it wrong.  If you just want to troll/torment them, take a look back at yesterday’s post on vengeance.

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  • JSA

    FWIW, I don't think anyone had a problem with the anonymous commenting. Anonymity can play a very important role in public discourse. I was simply pointing out that someone who understands the value of anonymity should be the last person to confuse disclosure and consent.The Tuskeegee experiments are a perfect example of the distinction between disclosure and consent. The government withheld disclosure, because they knew that the injection would harm people, and people would not voluntarily participate. So it is fair to say that non-disclosure led to lack of consent. However, if the government had disclosed the true nature of the injection and then held a gun to people's heads to make them take it, it wouldn't be any more consensual. In other words, simply disclosing something doesn't necessarily make it more consensual. In the case of Kaczor, he is vaccinating his children regardless of disclosure, so the discussion about consent is moot. Since it's not consensual anyway, it seems to be a judgment call about what behavioral economists call "risk compensation". Disclosing that someone may have been exposed to syphilis tends to make that person reduce risky behavior, so it is a good idea to disclose. Disclosing that someone has extra protection against unprotected sex has been shown to increase risky behavior, so it's more questionable.