This is the question that was raised in the wake of a Science Online 2010 session on civility. I did not attend the session so I am only addressing the issues that were subsequently discussed on blog posts written in the aftermath of a now infamous conversation that appears to have been (by their own admission, I believe) between Henry Gee of Nature and Nature Blogs Network and Zuska the Magnificent of Scienceblogs Dot Com. Much of that discussion is now happening on the Nature Network on a blog post celebrating 5 X 104 comments on that network.
(As an aside, I really think it is shameful that certain bloggers and commenters have taken the opportunity of this celebration to engage in the mutual masturbation they call “incivility” rather than simply being a good blogospheric neighbor and saying “Congratulations.” Or, if this incivility in place of camaraderie is critically important, I want a list of the repressed people who have become unrepressed by this particular act of unmitigated goatfucking asshattery. But I digress.)
To put the question in a less metaphorical way: Is it reasonable that a blogger require commenters be “civil,” or is such a requirement a tool of repression of ideas one does not want to hear or be heard by others? Is this requirement for civility a classic tool of those in power to maintain the status quo? The title of this post emerges from the rumored repartee between Gee and Zuska in which Gee noted that he feels that he can choose, if he wants, to disallow visitors (commenters) to his salon (blog) to piss on his rug (the rug ties it all together, presumably).
I don’t see how it is reasonable for anyone (and by anyone I mean bloggers) to have a carpet on their salon that they are required by some convention to allow visitors to piss on. It is entirely up to the person with the blog, just as what happens in a home is up to the person with a home. Indeed, being required to allow your carpet to be the target for glistening golden streams of liquid in order to obtain or maintain a specific level of feminist or anti-racist cred is beyond the pale astonishingly fucked up.
The public square (the place where the metaphorical soap boxes are kept) is different. No one person using that place should be able to easily tell any one else in that place what to say and not say or how to say it.
One could argue that such proscriptions can be asserted at the social level. The majority of denizens of the public square can decide what kind of pissing is not allowed and when. This is of course the objection that some bloggers are trying (usually not very effectively) to make. If the social proscription exists even for good reason and is worked out with impeccable logic, it will eventually be used by power brokers to silence voices that question the status quo, voices that those in power would rather not hear.
Civility is only one mode of proscription. There are as many modes of proscription as there are methods and styles of communication. Civility is a word meant to cover a lot of ground, but it is imperfect, and as such will only serve to focus the question (of who gets to tell whom to shut up) temporarily until some other method is found.
A reasonable person who blogs in controversial areas has a right to disallow any sort of conversation on one’s blog, but will more likely listen to a wider range of opinions than one might like to hear. This is often a feature that separates right from left politically among US based blogs. Right wing blogs almost never allow dissent. Left wing blogs usually tolerate a fair amount of pissing. Furthermore, a reasonable person who blogs may be fine with the idea of hearing privately from a commenter who has the urge to piss but is not being allowed to piss to find a way to relief. This is control. This is the blogger being in charge of what who can say what and when. But it is perfectly appropriate because it applies only to the person’s blog, not to the public square. A person who really needs to piss and can not find a place to do it can get their own toilet … I mean blog.
I find it interesting that some of the better known bloggers who insist on the preservation of incivility are themselves the least welcoming to anyone who may have a different view on their own blogs. This does not apply to all such bloggers, but among the pro-pissing crowd may also be found the most strident banners of commenters and those with the most ready winged monkey sock puppet brigades (designed to belittle or humiliate select commenters) and those who engage most giddily in sophomoric social network pranks.
This is why the conversation so often resembles a shouting match between middle school bullies and hapless new kids on the block. And, I say with my strongest admonishing white male privileged voice, this is why fewer people listen to them than they would like. Their incivility is not the issue. Their very poor execution of a strategy to help less privileged voices be heard is the problem. In fact, the strategy is in some cases so poorly executed that it is probably setting us back a few years in this area of social evolution.
Probably in most cases, indubitably in a few cases, the pro-incivility bloggers have not thought this through. There is some evidence that they won’t be able to think this through, or if they do, it is too late and they can’t back off from their current approach. In my view, that part of the conversation should be circumscribed and ignored. But just for the fun of it, I’m going to try to say once what I think they would have said had they been smarter or thought longer. And by my words I may repress them (oh, if only it were true):
Social discourse is a negotiated process. The negotiation is dynamic, and involves shifting power and shifting conventions of what is prescribed and proscribed. There are times when a certain set of conventions … like demanding civility when the argument gets heated and one is losing it, or speaking in ever shifting hard to decipher slang so only the in-crowd gets the nuances, or conspiring to cram the Google machine or decontextualize phrases, or selective commenting policies or use of trained sock puppets … emerges for the specific purposes of controlling other people’s voices. Sadly, sometimes such things work. Where we fall into a similar political (or other activist) framework, we should be vigilant and helpful, to facilitate rather than repress conversation, and watch each other’s backs.
That’s what I think. I welcome comments below. Please keep it interesting.