Beyond Civility

Beyond Civility March 15, 2015

A comment section dispute between individuals who will go unnamed turned extremely ugly this weekend. As my regular readers know, I have a comment policy for my blog. This is not a public space where anything goes. This is my personal blog and I set the rules. I feel the need to take a moment to go over my comment policy again, because I think some of you need a reminder.

While my policy states that sexism, homophobia, etc., are prohibited, this is mainly because I reserve the right to ban egregious offenders. I do not generally ban people for simple disagreement. I would rather someone who comes to my blog arguing that submission makes life easier for women receive pushback than a ban hammer. I do, however, ban people for personal attacks or arguing in bad faith.

Why did I make the decision to ban people for personal attacks and arguing in bad faith but not necessarily for holding sexist or homophobic positions? Well for one thing, I didn’t want my blog’s comment section to be an echo chamber. I wanted it to be a space where disagreement could occur and discussions could take place. But at the same time, I didn’t want it to be a place made ugly by that disagreement.

I believe the positions I hold—including things like feminism, support for gay rights, and a progressive belief in a social safety net—are both logically and factually sound. As such, I believe they hold up under scrutiny. In contrast, I feel very strongly that both arguing in bad faith and personal attacks cause real harm, exacerbating tensions between groups and reinforcing (rather than challenging) people’s existing beliefs.

I understand that personal attacks can be made using ostensibly “civil” language. I understand that someone can argue in bad faith while smiling sweetly. I understand that people can get angry, and justifiably so, and that certain topics are personal and close for some groups but detached and removed for others. I’m not saying it’s not okay to be angry. I try very hard to set a standard different from simple civility.

Let me talk about arguing in good faith for a moment. I’ve had people ask what I mean by it. Put simply, I mean that commenters should listen to each other’s arguments, try to understand them, and then respond to them. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people talk past each other, contending with mere caricatures of each other’s arguments. This is unhelpful. As an evangelical, there were times when I would read an atheist denouncing evangelicals for believing X, only to laugh, because we did not actually believe X, what we believed was a bit different.

In the heated exchange this weekend, this exact problem cropped up—several commenters spent so much time arguing with caricatures of another commenter’s position that they failed to effectively rebut her actual position. And the irony was that I disagreed with her position and would have liked to have seen it rebutted!

Contending with strawmen is like tilting at windmills. There’s utterly no point in it. One of the first steps in an argument ought to be to clarify your opponent’s position. After all, if you don’t understand their position, you can’t effectively rebut it. I suspect that at least some strawmanning is deliberate (and here I’m speaking more generally than the incident this weekend). There are times when it appears as though one party deliberately misconstrues the other’s argument to make it sound like they believe something worse than they actually do. The main function appears to be reinforcing tribalism. I can’t get on board with this.

Several weeks ago on facebook I watched a dispute between mutual internet friends turn so ugly I was shocked. The dispute escalated to the point where one party told another to “go fuck yourself with a cactus.” And this was a dispute between individuals who labeled themselves feminists and survivors of spiritual abuse! I find this sort of rhetorical violence repugnant and want no part of it on my blog.

If you are a commenter on my blog, it is not your place to tell someone else to “get lost” or “got fuck themselves” or “get the fuck out.” And yet the number of times I have seem commenters do just that is boggling! Such rhetoric shuts down conversation, entrenches existing beliefs, and reinforces the in-group/out-group divide. I don’t want any of this on my blog.

There different kinds of safe spaces. One kind of safe space only includes individuals who agree on a certain issue or hold a certain characteristic in common. An example would be an LGBT facebook group limited to LGBT individuals, or to LGBT individuals and allies. In this type of safe space, disagreement can be grounds for removal, and rightfully so. If a person holds an anti-trans position, they should be removed from a group for LGBT individuals and allies.

I strive to make my blog a different kind of safe space. I do not require commenters to be feminists, or atheists, or supporters of LGBT rights. However, that does not mean my comment section is a free-for-all. I work to make my blog to be a place where argument must be made in good faith and where personal attacks and name calling are out of bounds. I want it to be a place where strawmanning gains censure and tribalism is less important than understanding and exchange.

I do draw lines. I would not allow an transphobic commenter to dehumanize a trans commenter. I require those who disagree with me on religion or gender to listen to other commenters’ arguments, try to understand them, and respond in good faith (just as I require from those who agree with me). If someone is clearly here just to preach, I put the lid on that. If a commenter treats others in a sexist manner, I give a warning and then ban them.

In the end, I suspect we often turn to expletives, personal attacks, and strawmen as a sort of shorthand when finding more accurate language seems like too much effort. I would argue that that taking the time to compose that more accurate language is both useful and effective. We can do better than the cesspools at the corners of the internet. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Note: I am very busy, and while I try to keep tabs on things I do not have time to read every comment left on my blog. Several of my regular comments serve as mods, but this is a volunteer position and they cannot be everywhere at once either. If you are concerned about the direction an individual commenter or a comment thread in general is taking, please drop me an email at lovejoyfeminism@gmail.com.

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