How I Friend, Unfriend, Block, and Enforce Civility on Facebook

How I Friend, Unfriend, Block, and Enforce Civility on Facebook August 24, 2013

Sorry for a navel gazing post. I am just writing this so I have something to link to as a reference when Facebook friends of mine don’t understand my thinking in how I deal with removing their comments (or not) or blocking people (or not). So, it’s sort of a housekeeping thing for my own Facebook wall, only tangentially relevant to the blog or anything important in the immense universe beyond my Facebook wall.

I’m not going to lie, Facebook is a big big part of my life. Three years ago April, through Facebook, I started reaching out to atheists I didn’t know and found an incredible community that I have fallen in love with. I have interacted with thousands of atheists, made a number of great friendships, met a couple of romantic interests, made seriously important connections in the atheist community, and found both an audience for Camels With Hammers and the opportunity to join my first major blog network, all through Facebook.

If you like my blog and want to get to know me and didn’t realize this yet, you’re welcome to send me a friend request at Facebook and I’ll most likely accept (here’s my personal page. Or you can just like the Camels With Hammers page to follow the blog at least). I am especially pleased when I am someone’s first stranger atheist they friend who helps hook them up with the tremendous support network that’s available there.

But I run into a couple of conundrums. As is well known I am ethically against people insulting each other or personally attacking each other. I usually apply the same basic procedures I’ve laid out on my blog for clamping down on such things. But on Facebook I am friends with a small handful of people who don’t share my values on this and sometimes they cross the line more egregiously than I would tolerate someone on my blog doing. I often delete their comments or otherwise rein them in. But sometimes there’s a longer leash before banning them because they’re my personal friends. As friends, I give them more latitude to screw up than I would give people just wandering through who I don’t know very well because I don’t want to sever our personal relationship. I also sometimes allow people a little latitude to be uncivil in minor ways because I don’t want to be overbearing or stifle otherwise good discussions (but will usually act if others get upset).

On the other side there are people who chafe against my civility standards altogether and just constantly goad and troll me over them. They express resentment and contempt for me over these standards. Now, it’s one thing to argue in good faith against my views on civility. But it’s another thing to implicitly convey you hate my guts. When I block you for that, it’s not because I don’t like a good argument, it’s because I don’t like you. Genuine friends can take someone saying to them, “hey, don’t call anyone in my private space abusive names or personally attack them” without feeling horribly imposed upon.

I get accused of silencing opinions and of being an authoritarian moralist because of the civility standards I enforce on my blog and on Facebook. But quite the opposite is true. I never silence people for their opinions, I silence them for attacking other people or being broadly abusive to whole groups of people. Just about any but the vilest controversial opinions about politics, philosophy, natural science, social science, etc. can be put forward civilly. There is no need to abuse other individuals or groups in doing that. And while I’m a typical human who sometimes gets irritated to be disagreed with, I genuinely love a substantive argument I can learn from. I engage in them professionally all the time, usually very happily and excitedly and only rarely with agitation.

And, crucially, as I explained in my civility pledge and in my post on why free speech increases with standards for respecting one another, protecting people from interpersonal abuse creates an atmosphere where people can take controversial positions without being bullied into silence. It opens up a space where people feel safe to talk. I am far less the judgmental moralist than many other people in that I don’t give license to people to verbally abuse those whose views they find to be morally bad. I don’t give license for my friends to cast all Christians or all Republicans as “idiots” or “Republitards” or anything else abusive. Which means my Christian and Republican friends might actually speak up in a way they wouldn’t were the atmosphere filled with poisonous hateful language about them. Moralists allow themselves the right to Other and silence all who disagree with their values because such people are seen as inherently damaging and corrupting influences. The moral standards I argue for and enforce in my little spheres of power are the ones that allow people the right of moral conscience to disagree. I only clamp down on the kind of bullying that would silence such disagreement were it given free rein and made routine.

The only thing people should feel unsafe to do on my wall or on my blog is pop off and verbally abuse others or troll them or otherwise create a personally hostile atmosphere for them. And that’s a good thing. People should already be conscientious about that without me having to impose a rule about it. If someone finds that rule overbearing, that’s their challenge to grow or their time to leave my wall. But it’s not my problem. My rules make it so that people can argue for a wide range of moral views. The morality I impose is one of freeing everyone to form their own moral conscience without bullying. That’s not being a moral bully. It’s the exact opposite. Because without the kind of rules I impose, self-righteous people would have free rein to denigrate and intimidate into silence those who disagree with them. I actually want disagreement and debate. Civility allows that by stopping moral vigilanteism and hostile environments generally. It’s the least restrictive morally responsible option and the most genuinely inclusive one, on the long haul. I run philosophical discussions professionally. I know how to get the most people to speak up and it’s by making them feel personally safe.

Now, occasionally, I block someone because I just don’t like them or don’t think they like me. While some people may only think of me as a public personage, and while I certainly use Facebook as part of my general social media presence as a sort of appendage to the blog, it is still at the end of the day a personal page where I should feel free to relax and be with people I like and trust, rather than be forced to deal with people I don’t like.

Over time I probably have blocked a few more people than the average person probably has, but the reason I go so far as to block rather than merely unfriend people is that I keep the vast majority of my posts on Facebook public (at least for a week or two–then I often close off the old ones) so that new people can constantly traffic through and get to know me, and so that others can follow lots of public posts without having to friend me and expose their personal information. So that means that the only way I can make someone truly go away is to block them, not just unfriend them. So, I’ll block a few dozen people so that hundreds of millions can come by and see my recent posts if they like. That’s not nearly as censorious as setting most posts so that only the few hundred or few thousand people on your friends list can see them and interact with them, while automatically excluding hundreds of millions. So you people not exposing all your stuff to the public are the real extreme blockers, not me! 🙂

And since I am regularly approaching Facebook’s 5,000 friends limit, I routinely go through and unfriend people who don’t interact with me much or who rarely use Facebook because I need the space. If you’ve been unfriended but not blocked and you notice this, don’t feel personally slighted, it was in all likelihood a space issue. And you can still see and comment on my public posts since Facebook makes it so you are still subscribed by default. And if you want you can still message me and everything.

Finally, a lot of people annoyingly think that being civil means being a pushover and they try to test me by being directly obnoxious to me either because they want me to break and do something hypocritical or it just rankles them to feel like someone is telling them what to do. As the civility pledge actually makes clear, I feel myself under no obligation to deal with hostile people. Sometimes I might because I’m interested in having a philosophical argument with them and can overlook their hostility. Sometimes, I will flatly and firmly insist on being treated with respect if the conversation is to continue, and readily break it off if they refuse. Sometimes I will block straight away. Sometimes I will, without any personal attacks or verbal abuse, launch some curt, aggressive philosophical arguments.

But I don’t typically engage for very long with people who try to push me around or who I can tell are emotionally rebelling against my civility standards and trying to test my limits. I have been a professor for over 10 years and before that I worked as a camp counselor with children and teenagers for several years. I know exactly the behavior of people who are feeling around to figure out where someone’s limits are and I know how to make them clear. I’m not easily manipulated. I don’t feel bad about saying no to people who I sense are trying to game my rules or abuse my sense of fairness. Either deal with me in good faith or don’t be surprised when I just cut you out. If you have important ideas, I’ll just have to learn them from someone else who can treat me with respect.

For many arguments about civility and links explaining how this blog is moderated, see the blog’s page on moderation.

Your Thoughts?

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