My friend Henry Gee at Nature Network wrote a few thoughts about how issues of race, gender and communication were discussed at the recent ScienceOnline2010 conference (#scio10 for the Twitter inclined). In his post he raises what he felt were unfair criticisms to his comments about laying ground rules to enforce civil conversation in science blog posts:
I make the point that civility can be encouraged by laying out ground rules – as John Wilkins says on his admirable blog, Evolving Thoughts – and I hope he won’t mind my quoting it in extenso:
‘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.’
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?
And in the comments he wrote:
The fact that I was wearing a suit and spoke in what sounds (to them) like an English Milord accent makes them think I’m a representative of the White Male Patriarchy. It’s funny, though, how all these people stick up for every minority you can name – except Jews. I pointed this out to a particularly patronizing member of the audience. I didn’t hang around for a response. I thought Jew-hatred was a pathology of the militant Left in UK academia but it turns out it’s rife in the U. S. and A., too. After the session I was accosted by a Jewish scientist, who applauded me for raising the issue … which he didn’t dare to do.
I wasn’t at the session, so I can’t comment on the context. I think it’s fair to say though that most bloggers are white males and tend to form an old boys club. This isn’t intentional, merely an emergent phenomenon, and has been breaking down over the last twenty years for white women. Issues of gender and race (and anti-Semitism / anti-Arabism — though Arabs are actually Semites) are ones that often arouse heated emotions. In my experience it tends to be those with privilege who take offense to statements that criticize their (mostly) unconscious attitudes denigrating those without.
But I think the point of Henry’s comment during the session is quite reasonable. There needs to be ground rules, and those that don’t follow them shouldn’t be allowed to comment any longer. Many blogs on issues of race and gender have these strict ground rules precisely because of the insensitive and discriminatory comments that are written by trolls. One blog that I would often follow, Oh No a WoC PhD (and to which I awarded an Intellectual Blogger Award a few years ago), is now behind a password shield precisely because of how often trolls distracted from the discussions on her posts. However, I don’t think calling someone “sexist” should count as a discriminatory comment. Neither should saying that certain views are racist. Chances are, if you’re white or male (or both) you have learned to internalize sexism and racism. The very fact that any such comments are unintentional is often what is most concerning to people. They represent societal values that you’re uncritically perpetuating. But it’s a very weak position to scream at someone at the top of your fingertips and resort to ad hominem attacks when it’s quite likely that the writer isn’t aware that they’re expressing racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc. (but many times they are, and need to be called out). The bottom line is, if it’s your hope to inform and educate, the best approach is to engage the writer in conversation and use persuasion rather than personal attacks. Civility isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s the strength to challenge someone’s position with the power of your words.
From many of the other discussions at the conference I know that a large part of the concern is that there are so few nonwhite science bloggers and that many women continue to feel excluded and/or marginalized. Science succeeds through multiple voices exchanging ideas and information. How do we change our communication so we don’t exclude the very diversity we’re trying to attract? Sounds like a lot more discussion is needed (preferably with civility).