Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Civility and Blogging

As usual, I failed to make it down to the triangle for the Science Online conference that my friend and colleague Bora works so hard every year to put on. Which means that, once again, I missed the opportunity to meet a few of the Sciblings I’ve not yet had the chance to meet. It also means I missed the spectacle described by Dr. Isis during a panel discussion on blogging and civility that she, Janet Stemwedel and Sheril Kirshenbaum were on. I’ll let Isis explain what happened:

To offer a brief recap, we were discussing how one moderates their blog community. One of the participants commented that he believes ground rules are important to a community and derives his from John Wilkins’s. Specifically, John’s policy is:

This is my living room, so don’t piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don’t test it, please. Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don’t do it here.

Now, I would have said pretty much the same thing (though I would change “offensive to all” to “offensive to me”). I do regard this blog as my house and that means my rules apply. And those rules, quite frankly, are quite subjective: Piss me off and I’ll ban you. Does this really help keep the comments civil? Not really. The comments here routinely get far too uncivil, sometimes justified and sometimes not (and sometimes the incivility is led by me – but again, my house and my rules and if you don’t like it, go to someone else’s house. Or stay in your own.).

But this idea prompted quite a reply:

Another participant expressed concern, admittedly in a tone that implied a strong emotional attachment to the words she was speaking, that this general policy could be used to exclude some voices from the discussion – particularly the voices of people who are classically excluded from the dialog in science. I wasn’t prepared for the other discussant – the one who originally said not to piss on his carpet – to then turn around, raise his hiney out of the chair, and yell spittle-laden profanity at the person who had responded to him. And, I mean, raise his voice in a way that frightened me to the point of thinking that things were about to spiral out of control in a horrible, horrible way. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going, but it was nowhere good.

Henry Gee at the Nature Network was apparently there (was he the one who launched the tirade? I can’t tell from these reports) and characterizes the counter-argument this way:

Much to my amazement I am criticized very sharply for expressing what I thought (and still think) to be a perfectly reasonable view. The counter-argument is that the enforcement of ground rules is an act of white male patriarchy and acts to exclude certain subsets of society from taking part. I think this is tosh, actually, but some otherwise intelligent and articulate people seem to believe it. Are such ground rules inherently discriminatory, or are they fair?

If that is indeed the counter argument, it strikes me as rather silly – at least in regard to how it works on this blog. Nearly all of the people I have ever banned from this blog have been of the WASP variety (okay, I don’t actually know that they were white, but it’s a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of them were). Idiot trolls like Mabus, Fafarman and O’Brien hardly constitute an oppressed minority being unfairly excluded from the science community.

I am a passionate defender of free speech, but that means you have the right to say what you want without the government punishing you for it. It doesn’t mean you have a right to say whatever you want here.

Having said all of that, I do wish the comment section on my blog was more civil, at least at times. Unfortunately, I am too busy these days to really police the comments in any thorough way. Especially when a thread gets really long or continues going on and on several days after the original post, I’m highly unlikely to even look at it any longer. I really need an intern (read: unpaid slave) to handle such things for me.