Adventures in Ethics and Science

There was one session at ScienceOnline2010 which I did not Tweet as it was going on — the session I led with Sheril Kirshenbaum and Dr. Isis. Here’s how that session was described in the conference program:

Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents – Janet Stemwedel, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Dr.Isis

Description: Janet, Sheril, and Isis regularly write about the role of civility in dialog with the public and other scientists. In this session, we will discuss the definition of civility, its importance in the communication of science, and how the call to civility can be used to derail discourse. Additionally, we will discuss the importance of finding the appropriate balance of civility and tolerance for what gets labeled as incivility in reaching and engaging each other. We reserve the right to use the words “balls,” “muppethugger,” and “wackaloon,” to FWDAOTI liberally, and cannot guarantee that at least one of the moderators will not lose her junk. Discuss here.

The session was … eventful.


Indeed, as we kicked things off, I said something about how we had no illusions that we’d get to anything like the last word on civility in an hour-long conference session. Instead, the hope was to use that hour to bring together the perspectives of the people in the room, then keep thinking about it and talking about it on our blogs until we felt like we had gotten somewhere or were just sick of talking about it.

We did not come to a consensus about online civility. I’m still mulling over how some of the discussion went (including the parts of it where “discussion” is not necessarily the first noun one might choose accurately to describe it).

There’s a part of me that would be thrilled if every person who was in the room were to weigh in with their account of how the session went down — not just what we all said, but what happened between us — giving us a Rashomon-like set of perspectives. It’s not that I think the full set of perspectives would help us sort out how the session really went. Rather, I think the reality of those perspectives — and how radically they can differ about what we take to be a shared experience — is central to the problem of achieving civil engagement worth having, whether online or off.

I’m not going to say too much about that right now, though, because I’m still struggling with what I want to say.

For now, let me share the slides we put together to set up the discussion.

The first batch after the title slide are Sheril’s. The ones that are text on a plain background are mine. The last batch are from Isis.

I’m sure Sheril and Isis will weigh in when they’re ready to, but here’s my synopsis of their main points (and I trust they will correct me where I err on this):

Sheril saw matters of civility online as very connected to whether the audience for her blog (which includes school kids) felt safe or welcome there. Also, uncivil behavior in a public place like a blog could add to the negative perception the public has of scientists. Most members of the public don’t know any scientists in real life; a bunch of shouty, epithet-hurling scientists online might make it so they don’t want to know any scientists, or to make common cause with them, or to take them seriously on issues where scientists think they have information that could help members of the public make better decisions.

Isis made the case that civility is frequently conflated with politeness, and not always in a good way. Demanding polite action or expression and good breeding is, after all, something that folks with the power to make such demands have not infrequently done to avoid having to deal with threats to their tidy social order (be they black folks at their lunch counters or women at their polling places). She offered an alternative definition of incivility: personal attacks, rudeness, aggression, or other behaviors aimed at disrupting a community’s goals that lead to unproductive stress, disorder, and conflict.

I’ve added the bold emphasis there, because it strikes me that these are the crucial elements that separate surface politeness or impoliteness from respect or lack thereof.

And my main point was that I think a civility worth having is all about establishing respect for the people we’re engaging — finding enough common ground and common purpose to function like a community. This does not guarantee pleasant behavior at all times. Communities often have to struggle with deep disagreements. However, glossing over the conflicts can kill a community from the inside.

And this leaves us with the challenge: how to interact with each other in ways that are welcoming enough that people don’t give up before they start, yet honest enough that people can share their thoughts and experiences, where we can all work hard to get smarter together without puking from the adrenaline overdose we’d get from being at constant war with each other.

I don’t think there’s a master equation that captures the optimal balance of forces here. It’s radically context dependent, and we’re all pretty much winging it.

While I work out the next iteration of my thoughts on all this, let me leave you with some brief descriptions of the session from others who attended it.

From the Undergraduate Science Librarian:

The last session of the conference got a little interesting – called “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents”.  Panelists Dr. Isis, Dr. Free Ride and Sheril Kirshenbaum lead a discussion about what “civility” means and how it applies to online environments.  At one point two participants were kind enough to demonstrate one type of online disagreement – the kind where two folks disagree vehemently about something, but it turns out that they were both talking about something slightly different.  I tend to dislike conflict, but the session gave me an opportunity to think about how ‘civility’ can be used as an excuse to prevent some members of a community from participating fully.

From Denim and Tweed:

Science bloggers Janet “Dr. Freeride” Stemwedel, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and the pseudonomous Dr. Isis led discussion about what constitutes civil behavior in an online setting – and the conversation turned into something of an object lesson, as disagreement over the meaning of civility itself turned, well, very nearly un-civil. The panel did, I thought, an admirable job demonstrating in “real life” the skills necessary for online moderation of touchy discussions.

I wouldn’t say there was consensus, but the room did seem to come together around the ideas that communities define their own standards of civility, that those very standards can make it difficult to express minority or dissenting points of view, and that (judicious) incivility can be useful for minorities trying to be heard. Dave Munger made that last point, and I hope my paraphrase does it justice – I think it’s an important one. Certainly it’s the case that sexual minorities have been (and still are – I’m looking at you, Mennonite Church USA) told that merely acknowledging our existence and discussing our perspective is a violation of civility, inasmuch as “civil” is equivalent to “suitable for general audiences.” It was a great discussion, and I’m still processing it – it might be worth a dedicated post in the near future.

From Christina’s LIS Rant, in the comments:

1
This session was full of ironies. Nobody asked, but I’d love to know what, exactly, constitutes a “troll.” Sometimes the answer is clear (what you would expect to be considered “trolling” such as anti-vaccine crowd storming the comments with a bunch of baloney) but sometimes the definition is not so clear. Some blogs deal more with ideas (like Dr. Freeride) and some more with personality/personalities (like Dr. Isis).
Like it or not, none of the blogs tolerate peeing on carpets. The differences lie in what is considered “peeing” and the nature of the “carpet.”

Posted by: anonymous | January 17, 2010 3:55 PM

2
ironic when huge guy calling for civility online got all spittle-y and in the face of another participant who was calmly making a point…

Posted by: El Picador | January 17, 2010 4:26 PM

3
Actually, Zuska was the one to have an emotionally charged response to his point *first* (then he responded in kind). And that was indeed part of the irony. The truth is, both Zuska and Henry had valid points, both have things that they will and will not allow on their respective blogs. There was no argument (at least in the technical sense of the word) just impassioned point-making.

Posted by: anonymous | January 17, 2010 5:30 PM

4
I’m on my iPhone so I’ll keep this brief. Henry and Zuska brought this to the session. The weren’t really arguing the same point, just talking over each other. This is not one-sided.

Posted by: Christina Pikas | January 17, 2010 6:12 PM

I think one of the lessons I’m trying to take from this is that we all bring stuff with us when we engage with others, and we’re engaging with people who bring their own stuff. Taking each other seriously probably means making room for the stuff while simultaneously trying to create a space for new stuff — one hopes better stuff — from our engagement together.

Comments

  1. #1 James Hathaway
    January 20, 2010

    This is an interesting discussion, especially if you put in in the context of the larger social discussions about civility going on out there in the “real” world. What you guys have to say is really much more meaningful than the discussions that are being spawned at the civility presentations the head of the NEH is currently giving around the country. Sorry I missed this.

  2. #2 Susannah
    January 20, 2010

    From your final quotes: “here was no argument (at least in the technical sense of the word) just impassioned point-making.”

    I think some of the disagreement as to what, exactly, is incivility boils down to individual placings of the line between these.

    My extended family indulges itself, during many of our gatherings, in “impassioned point-making”. Come time to say goodnight, we all take our leave with happy hugs and warm smiles. Sometimes our visitors are confounded by this; they see the discussion as an “argument” and wonder why no-one seems to hold a grudge.

    Part, I think, of the distinction comes from a respect that realizes that intelligent, thinking people will necessarily have differences of opinion. Generally well thought through opinion, too.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 20, 2010

    Who the fuck is that fuzzy asshole with my motherfucking jameson!?!?!?!?

  4. #4 Isis the Scientist
    January 20, 2010

    That’s you, Physio!!!

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    January 21, 2010

    Sayeth Undergraduate Science Librarian –

    I tend to dislike conflict, but the session gave me an opportunity to think about how ‘civility’ can be used as an excuse to prevent some members of a community from participating fully.

    In the context of online discussions, I wonder about how incivility acts to prevent some members of a community from participating fully. I wonder if that’s bigger problem.

    Indeed can anyone present an example of someone being excluded (either explicitly or implicitly) from an online forum for being too polite?

  6. #6 thoughtcounts Z
    January 21, 2010

    This discussion is all very fascinating to me, but I have one small question. Can someone please help a non-Twitterer out and tell us what FWDAOTI is? My Google-fu is failing me and I am beginning to think it is some kind of exclusive in-joke.

    Not knowing is like having a song in your head all day but only being able to remember three notes, and no one can help you figure out what song it is. Imagine going up to people saying, “Hey, have you heard this song recently? Ba-dum bumm… you know, that one?”

  7. #7 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 21, 2010

    thoughtcounts Z @6, FWDAOTI = f*cking with dumbasses on the internet.

    I didn’t originate it, nor was I the panelist who put it in our session description, and it’s jargony and obscure enough that I do not use it myself (not even in my head, if you can believe that).

    But I hate to leave anyone with the brain equivalent of an earworm!

  8. #8 S. Rivlin
    January 21, 2010

    “I didn’t originate it, nor was I the panelist who put it in our session description, and it’s jargony and obscure enough that I do not use it myself (not even in my head, if you can believe that).”

    Janet,

    I wish you could elaborate on your above qualification, explaining to yourself and to your readers what it is about that kind of a language (FWDAOTI) that prompt you to make it. I believe that by doing so, some of the issues about online civility could be better illuminated.

  9. #9 thoughtcounts Z
    January 22, 2010

    Thank you Janet!

  10. #10 MyaR
    January 22, 2010

    FWDAOTI I think pretty much defines incivility in the trollish sense for me. If it is the “antonym” of incivility, clearly one of those words doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, or I now know definitively why I have been consistently offput by certain blogs/bloggers. I wish I could’ve been there to know if my interpretation of this slide is actually accurate, but it looks to me like a recipe for excusing one’s own trollish behavior.

    I’ll elaborate if anyone wants a deeper explanation of my thinking.

  11. #11 momkat
    January 23, 2010

    MyaR, I think I’m feeling the same way, so I’d like for you to elaborate. Glad to see someone else understood that slide the way I did.

  12. #12 Kathryn
    January 23, 2010

    Communicating without the visual clues and immediate clarification that physical proximity can bring often leads me to make erroneous assumptions. This is particularly hard for me in relation to smartassitude. I can usually pick up intent when I can see a person, but in print I often process pointless insult. This leads me to lurk and remain unengaged because life is too short to stay in some stage of conflict. There are certain blogs on SB that I avoid because I know that I will probably disagree with some points the author presents. An adult discussion for clarification would be welcomed, but I have to wade through the insults and asshatery of certain commenters to do it. Respectful incivility can be useful. Calling someone stupid [insert denigrating nouns of choice], not so much.

  13. #13 Isis the Scientist
    January 31, 2010

    It’s short-sighted to think that FWDAOTI is merely trolling. It is the action of derailing someone you believe to be harmful to your community’s values. Each time Orac takes on an anti-vaxxer or PZ takes on a creationist, it’s FWDAOTI.

  14. #14 Isabel
    February 1, 2010

    For the record, my words were totally taken out of context in Isis’ slides. She put this up on her blog also.

    “She offered an alternative definition of incivility: personal attacks, rudeness, aggression, or other behaviors aimed at disrupting a community’s goals that lead to unproductive stress, disorder, and conflict.”

    Those words actually describe the person I was addressing with my admittedly over-the-top response. SZ swooped in and started calling me a troll when I was in the middle of a discussion. I was responding to direct questioning from the post author at the time in fact. I was not a troll by any stretch, and was actually a main participant in the thread. SZ was the one being disruptive.

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