Hitting the Reset Button

Hitting the Reset Button January 20, 2016

I did not begin blogging expecting to create a community. When I first started writing on blogspot five years ago, I never expected to even have regular commenters. Over the years, however, my commentariat has grown, and I’ve learned that running a popular blog comes with its own responsibilities, many of which I am ill prepared for. I’ve tried, very hard, to create a space that facilitates discussion, but I haven’t always been successful.

I’ve written numerous posts about my comment policy over the years, including this one (Sept. 2012), this one (Jan. 2013), this one (Feb. 2013), this one (May 2014), this one (Sept. 2014), this one (Jan. 2015), this one (March 2015), this one (March 2015), and this one (Sept. 2015). Almost exactly a year ago, I banned two longterm regular commenters for abusive behavior, an action that made waves throughout my commentariat and which regular commenters still talk about today.

Over the past several months, a number of individuals have contacted me saying they no longer feel comfortable commenting on my blog. As a rule, they’ve told me that they love my writing and agree with 95% of it. A number of individuals, some of them longtime regular commenters, have expressed similar feelings in the comment sections of various posts. These aren’t trolls or bigots. This has left me thinking about the term “safe space.” Geek Feminism defines the term as:

a term for an area or forum where either a marginalised group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space.

Neither type of safe space outlined in this definition addresses a common problem I see in my own comment sections—progressive commenters treating other progressive commenters in abusive, unkind, dismissive, petty, and ungenerous ways. I see small differences of opinion being used as a litmus test for determining who is a Good Person. For me personally, a space does not feel “safe” if people are not able to express differences of opinions. After all, there are some issues on which reasonable people should be able to disagree.

Allowing disagreement in social justice spaces is important. Working through differences of opinion can help lead to new and better strategies, rhetorics, or policy proposals. Beyond this, requiring lockstep adherence would create a profoundly uncomfortable space for many, especially those of us who, like me, come from authoritarian backgrounds where dissent was not allowed. We have to be able to accept disagreement on some points while sharing certain common goals or ideals.

Further, while most of my commenters share a commitment to core social justice ideals, this space is not and never has been one that is reserved solely for these individuals. I have always wanted this space to be one where individuals from a variety of backgrounds can come together to disagree, discuss, and learn from each other. To offer a more concrete example, I’ve wanted it to be a space where I could have come and learned something as a conservative teen. And for some time now, I’ve felt that it’s not.

As I’ve taken in feedback over the past few months, I’ve been unsure of what in particular I could do to improve the climate in my blog’s comment section. At one point several months ago I sat down with a woman working on her Ph.D. in gender studies and writing her dissertation on Reddit. I laid out my qualms for her and asked for her advice. “Moderate the shit out of it,” she told me. Given that I’m also working on my Ph.D. and raising two children, in addition to running this blog, that didn’t sound exactly tenable to me. I do have a mod team, but they have lives too and it can sometimes be challenging to get everyone on the same page.

Then, last week, one of my moderators contacted me voicing concern about the current situation and asking for advice and thoughts. I brought the issue to the rest of my mod team and found that they, too, had been harboring similar concerns for some time. It seemed to be one of those things that everyone had been feeling but nobody had voiced. And so we began to talk. Please know that the new policy guidelines we are unveiling, listed below, are not my sole creation, but rather the product of extremely productive discussion and negotiation by the mod team over the past week.

The new policy we’re rolling out this week moves the focus away from “do not” and toward “do.” It emphasizes treating others with kindness, listening as well as speaking, finding common starting points (not to be confused with “common ground”), and accepting that there are some things on which reasonable people disagree. In addition, the mod team and I have worked together to create moderating guidelines that include instructions on how to deal with bigotry or abusive behavior, to ensure that we are all on the same page. Finally, we have created new structures that will allow us to work together better as a team and improve communication both between mods and between commenters and moderators.

Please understand, though, that there are only so many of us and that we do have day jobs and responsibilities. Please do not contact the moderators or myself before trying to work a situation out yourself first, and please understand that we might not be able to respond right away even in a situation that merits it. Remember, too, that we may not always agree with your assessment of a situation. We are trying to avoid legalism or heavy handedness in moderation. For this reason, we have moved away from the terminology of comment policy “rules” and toward the terminology of comment policy “guidelines.” Please focus more on making sure that you adhere to the new guidelines than on making sure that others adhere to the new guidelines.

I understand that there is often concern about bigoted individuals “politely” expressing bigoted opinions and that it is unfair to require marginalized communities to “be polite” or “watch your tone” in the face of “politely” expressed hatred or bigotry. I am hoping that a focus on kindness rather than politeness will help solve part of this problem. Additionally, my mod team has created internal guidelines for responding to bigoted commenters. Rest assured that it is not our plan to let bigoted opinions go unanswered or to allow abusive commenters to remain in this space.

There may be some individuals who are not comfortable in spaces where bigoted commenters are not banned immediately. This is understandable. Different spaces have different purposes and different people will prefer different sorts of spaces. It is my hope that you will be able to accept my goals for my space even if you disagree with them, and that you will be able to find other spaces in which you are more comfortable if you don’t find these changes to your liking. No one space will work for everyone.

And so, without further ado, I give you our new guidelines:

Revised LJF Comment Guidelines

What began as a personal blog has become an active online community. I have created the following guidelines in an effort to facilitate positive discussion.

1. No personal insults. Focus on arguments rather than on the people making them. Do not make provocative or inflammatory comments to get a rise out of other commenters.

2. No dog piling. If someone has already responded critically to a comment, only add your own thoughts if you have something new or different to contribute.

3. Listen before speaking. Make an effort to understand others and their arguments. Set out to learn what you can from other commenters.

4. Disagreement is welcome. (a) It is not possible to have discussion if differing viewpoints are not allowed. (b) While most of the commenters in this space share common social justice values, there are issues on which reasonable people can disagree. Discussions of disagreements do not have to end in one person seeing the error of their ways and conceding the other person’s rightness. 

5. Find common starting points. In some cases disagreement happens between commenters who agree on 90% of issues overall. Locating common starting points may help commenters in these situations identify why and where they disagree. Try not to let minor disagreements become a Litmus Test for Being a Good Person. 

6. Treat others with kindness. Assume the best of other commenters and ask for clarification where necessary. Avoid “gotcha” politics or excessive nitpicking. Avoid slurs and abusive language.

7. No doxxing. Respect the anonymity or pseudonymity of other commenters and blog authors. 

If another commenter is not following these guidelines, you are welcome to point them to this page. However, make sure you are not using the comment guidelines as a weapon. Try to focus on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter of the law.

If a situation gets out of hand, you may contact the mods or myself.

Mods: ljfmoderatorteam@gmail.com

Myself: lovejoyfeminism@gmail.com

Please try to work out situations yourself before initiating such contact, and bear in mind that the moderators and I have other jobs and responsibilities and may not be able to get back to you immediately. Remember, too, that the moderators may disagree with your assessment of the situation. Sometimes taking a short break from a difficult discussion may help provide clarity or perspective.

Happy commenting!

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