On Dealing With Trolling, Banning, and Uncomfortable Disagreements

On Dealing With Trolling, Banning, and Uncomfortable Disagreements August 3, 2012

There have been many objections to both the wisdom of my comments policy and my general stand against the use of epithets and incivility and what I see as hasty personal attacks that derail philosophical discussions. I am writing 8 posts to address 8 major objections. I have already written my own summaries of all the objections I am planning to address. This is my reply to the first objection.

Objection 1: My policy against the use of epithets is legalistic. It censors words when the real problem is not particular words but dishonest arguments. Dishonest trolls will be able to game the rules by not using insult words but nonetheless goading sincere debaters into lashing out harshly such that they unfairly get banned.

Reply 1: The post spelling out my new moderation rules was framed with two discussions of trolling. The post did not actually begin (or end) with a discussion of insults. Derailing, haranguing, and silencing behavior was what I explicitly described as making me realize the need for enforcing strict posting rules and the second rule targeted personalizing behavior that contributes to trolling.

So while I can understand that strangers who have little experience with me enforcing rules on them are not immediately trusting me, the post should make clear that I am aware of, and specifically motivated to stop, trolling behavior. Moderating insulting language is entirely consistent with, and I think in many ways essential to, meeting that goal.

Because of my second rule, trolls will not get away with goading people by personalizing debates and belittling them over irrelevant factors. Since they also will not be able to use insulting language or implications, they will also be monitored from using forms of marginalization that involve both direct insults and malicious insinuations.

I will say more about this specific point later on, but let me stress that I am aware (and will listen to explanations where I am not) of the ways that certain kinds of language or discussion undercuts marginalized groups in subtle ways that make them quite rightly more likely subject to certain kinds of abuse. I will ask people to be appropriately sensitive as I did when I  scolded atheist Reddit for its laissez-faire allowance of a hostile environment for women and as I did when I sternly criticized an American Atheists’ group for its insensitive use of shorthand argument on a billboard about slavery in the Bible.

I know that hostile environments can be created without just insult words. The background to the moderation policy post was one I wrote a month earlier that spun off into its own post out of initially being part of the first draft of my moderation policy which makes clear that I am not talking about a totally unregulated free speech environment in which people’s feelings don’t matter.

My problem is not indifference or obtuseness about how hostile environments work. I just think that the prevention of hostile environments is an inclusive and civil speech environment, not epithets and personal attacks that just make everything acrimonious and encourage the worst in people. Commenters who do not respond to being politely alerted about the reasonable ways they need to rephrase things or to generally treat other commenters as people in order to be more sensitive to them, will set off red alarms with me that they are not interested in treating other people as people. When you make a point of showing how much you disregard other people’s feelings, you flag yourself as unconducive to constructive dialogue. But, in my mind, not only marginalized groups deserve to always have their feelings respected. Marginalized groups just have certain abuses they suffer which requires certain sensitivities to stopping particular abusive behaviors related to them.

I should also stress that the policy does not call for immediate bans in the case of every insult but talks about a “moderation first” kind of approach.
Sometimes someone may arrive in the comments section right away indicating that they are at my blog to personally attack and demean me or other individuals or groups and I will swiftly ban them. But all that a garden variety insult or personalization will initially merit is an explanation from me about why what they are doing will be moderated and why they will be banned if they do not stop.

Now, let me assure people who are subject to an unprovoked attack that I understand that when someone else personalizes a dispute, the first reaction for most of us is to lash back personally as well. I request you not do so, but that you respond as I try to when someone attacks me emotionally and personally rather than with arguments, whether in person or online. I request that you calmly tell them that you refuse to be treated with incivility, that you have more dignity than to let yourself be treated like that. If you think what they are doing is creating a hostile environment, then explain that to them as rationally and clearly as possible so that they will have no excuse for escalating their behavior or being ignorant of how it is affecting you. This also alerts me, so that I can consider your complaints and know how you are feeling.

And if you want a specific person who has personally attacked you or created a hostile environment to stop engaging you out of respect for your boundaries, say that and I will back up that insistence even in cases where I might not agree that what the other person did was so bad. They may have one chance to reply to any charges you made for themselves that they would like to dispute but after that they should leave you alone.

Or if you would like to give them another shot, tell them that you will continue to debate them when they return to making substantive arguments and stop trying to make things personal. If you do either of these things or if you are silent to them and just contact me with a complaint, I will take note (if I have not already) and step in to adjudicate the dispute.

If you lose your cool and just tell the person off, then I will look to see if you have been provoked (if I had not noticed already). If I see clearly that you have been goaded, I will make a point to acknowledge the justification for your anger and request that you try to express it civilly and that you please return your focus to debating the points under contention. If your interlocutor’s provocation was egregious, your interlocutor will either be moderated for an indefinite period of time or banned for everyone’s sake, depending on how severe what they said or did was.

If you charge that someone has made things personal or insulted you and I am not convinced you are right, then you and I can dialogue about that and see if we can come to some common ground about what is or is not fair play in arguments. Maybe I will learn something, maybe we will respectfully disagree. And for the time being, I will request that you and the poster upsetting you stay away from each other and not derail the overall thread.

I will not be shy about banishment. I am going to pretty rigorously enforce civility. It is no longer important to me that as many people as possible participate on my blog. It is now more specifically important to me that participating on my blog are as many as possible civil, honest people with something constructive to add to general understanding. I have come to the begrudging conclusion that these are sometimes incompatible aims.

There will be some latitude before banning for people who lose their tempers only due to goading–especially if they are new and unfamiliar with the rules, or if they have established credibility as typically a civil person who normally controls their temper. And if people are having a long, constructive, and civil debate that just starts to really frustrate the participants such that their decorum begins slipping, I will be relatively gentle in reminding them to keep their eye on the prize of truth and off their irritation at being disagreed with. I will be satisfied if they take these warnings graciously. If not, they may be banned.

Basically, if a constructive debate will be less likely to happen because of whatever you are doing, I will not feel much compunction in banning you. That is my ultimate criterion. This may mean that some people on the side of the righteous may be banned because they do not want to have debates but rather only to vent their anger at other commenters rather than at the general injustices they have every right to be angry about. This is necessary not because I want the marginalization of their viewpoints or their feelings. It is simply my judgment that their perspective will be more effectively and constructively represented by people likeminded to them who also are interested in treating people they debate with civilly and convincing them with reasons and not with attempts to personalize disputes and bully opponents with the wrong kind of emotional leverage.

In future posts, I will explain the numerous just accommodations for emotions and for marginalized groups that will be present to minimize anyone feeling the need to lash out in frustration as much as possible, consistent with running an open debate forum hospitable to severe disagreements about fundamental values.

Also, let me remind you that you may level personal, substantiatable moral charges against each other in those cases where attempts to give them the benefit of the doubt have failed. You can use much harsher words than the epithets I am disallowing. You can level as serious and damaging charges as bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, ableism, etc. (And that’s a major part of why I am at a loss to think anyone is deprived for not being able to use merely abusive words like “douchebag” or “stupid”, etc.–but more about that in follow up posts.)

I do request though that before you impute to people whole philosophical positions they may not hold—especially poisonous ones—or attribute to them nasty character traits, that you first patiently ask for clarifications. Please say things like the following:

“When you say ‘x’, that has connotations of ‘y’ and ‘z’ that I (or a lot of appropriately sensitized people) are going to hear, and are going to think are bigoted in the following respects. Do you mean to stand by those implications? If not, how might you like to revise what you said to avoid implying such things unnecessarily?”

Or you might say,

“I am going to assume for charity’s sake that you are not a person of ill-will, but what you just said is something that manifests and perpetuates a cultural attitude that harms people in the following ways. Do you see why I think you should reconsider that idea or that phrasing of ideas?”

If in this sort of way you address what you see as the apparent ignorance of your interlocutors first, it is far more charitable and honest than if you launch into potentially false, counter-productive, stifling, and potentially damaging attacks on their entire philosophy or their entire character based on hasty assumptions about who they are and what they mean.

Treat people as individuals and give them space to make non-malicious mistakes. Charitably assume the best of them and you can help bring out the best in them and in yourself. Explicitly give people the opportunity to retract or qualify their statements before meting out social penalties and you may find that they are more willing to moderate their positions than if you had personalized things and triggered them to dig in their heels out of their natural reflex of self-defense.

I know that the above discussion does not address every complaint or challenge others want to make against my pro-civility/anti-epithet stance. I have already acknowledged other objections that people have and that I will be addressing.

In the meantime, in the comments section of this post, let’s please address the main topics of this post, which are (a) how I will moderate specific disputes to prevent trolling and (b) what kinds of strategies for conflict resolution I am requesting commenters adopt in order to have the most constructive disputations possible.

If there are other issues you would like to take up in the meantime, I refer you to my original policy post to read and comment there. I have already written many replies on a range of topics and you will see a range of criticisms of my positions there too.

Your Thoughts?

Below are numerous posts on the ethics and practice of civility, many of which address common objections to my views like those in this post.

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

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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