The Primate Diaries

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).

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    January 21, 2010

    and that many women continue to feel excluded and/or marginalized

    I’m curious about this – do they feel marginalized in the scientific blogosphere? My impression, as a white male, is that we’re pretty egalitarian.

  2. #2 cromercrox
    January 21, 2010

    Here is the nub of the matter. I said that to have ground rules was perfectly fair and reasonable. It’s my salon, don’t piss on the carpet. To which the breathtakingly weird response is ‘what if my only response is to be able to piss on the carpet?’. The only answer to that is – learn some manners and respect for others. That’s what.

  3. #3 Isis the Scientist
    January 21, 2010

    No one told Henry that it wasn’t acceptable to have ground rules. One commenter brought up, in a way that reflected hurt she had experienced, and how a general “don’t piss on my carpet” attitude has the potential to exclude voices from the conversation. Maybe you want to do that. Maybe you don’t. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask people to ponder the consequences.

    Still, I think that if you weren’t at the session, it’s fair to ask Henry how he responded before you accept his calculated post at face value. All I know is that my carpet is full of urine and is going to smell for a very long time. Way to keep it classy, dude.

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 21, 2010

    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.

    Absolutely. Unfortunately, the typical d00dly d00d shit is when someone says “your actions have the effect of reinforcing X, Y, or Z privilge” they hear “you are a horrible, evil, person and totally suck in every possible way known to mankind”.

  5. #5 Zuska
    January 21, 2010

    Maybe you will want to ask your good friend Henry Gee how wearing a suit and speaking in an “English Milord accent” (whatever that is) meshes with the following as a means of making your point about civility and not pissing on carpets and such: standing over someone who is seated and can’t get away from you, sticking you face up in theirs, yelling, and using the f-word, then stalking away in high dudgeon so as to disallow opportunity for any reply, let alone dialogue. Because of course the point is not dialogue, civil or uncivil – the point is to silence the source of irritation and get the last word.

    I didn’t hear a lot of dulcet tones coming out of Henry’s mouth during that session, his disingenuous post over at NN to the contrary. Though I was treated to the close up sight of spittle flying, a sight I shall never forget.

  6. #6 cromercrox
    January 21, 2010

    What made me angry, Zuska – as it probably should not have done – was that in answer to my point about ground rules, you addressed me in a self-righteous and patronizing way as if I were somehow personally responsible for the exclusion of all minorities. This strikes a chord with me, a member of a very oppressed minority myself – and one which people on the Left affect to spurn. At least two people have responded to me to say that they’d have liked to have said what I did, but didn’t dare.

    It’s not just you who feels the ‘hurt’, as Isis puts it. Other people do too.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    January 21, 2010

    I’m of the opinion that if I own it, you follow my rules. If you want to ride in my car, you will fasten your seat belt. Otherwise you will open the door and get out. Yes, the plan is to exclude a certain class of people.

    I’m all for being civil. I don’t think being uncivil is a very effective teaching or negotiating tool.

  8. #8 frog
    January 21, 2010

    Rules of “civility” are cultural rules. Therefore, obviously, they differ by culture. They are going to obviously exclude some — that’s their very purpose!

    I see nothing wrong with that, in general. It’s always going to be in the specifics — who are you excluding and why?

    You’d have to be blind to not recognize that the “rules of civility” in small town Michigan are different from Miami Beach or LA. That a midwesterner will take offense at a NY Jewish style, and visa-versa… It’s always a tension, and very rarely recognized by people.

    That’s life. You gotta deal.

    The problem, though, is when one style predominates to the extent that there’s no room for anyone elses. It sucks to always have to watch your tongue lest you offend the “gentiles” (where gentiles means other people outside your ethnic group), while the majority group never have to watch their tongues, and don’t even recognize that you’re making an effort at meeting them 90% of the way.

  9. #9 Kerrick
    January 21, 2010

    Speaking as a white guy, what the above sounds like to me is “male anger is acceptable; female anger is not.” Perhaps Zuska was angry about what she understands as exclusion, and her anger sounded to Henry Gee like self-righteousness; perhaps Henry Gee was angry about what sounded to him like self-righteousness, and his anger sounded to Zuska like aggression. These are pretty common characterizations of women’s anger and men’s anger, and they’re shaped by ways that women and men are taught to show anger. More difficulty arises because they shape the way anger is allowed to be shown, and who gets to give expression to the range of their thoughts and feelings.

    Fixating on the feelings and the way we express them serves to obscure a very important issue–a great way to preserve imbalances of power is to define everyone who attempts to point them out as “uncivil.” At a certain point, the only voices that would be allowed to discuss the imbalances of power are those denying their existence and those that are so meek they might as well be silent. A great example is the intelligent design fiasco–if civility and respect for the religious beliefs of others are to overwhelm the valid criticism of the way a powerful minority is attempting to control the course of science education, we might as well round up all the nation’s science textbooks and hand-deliver them to Pat Robertson for redlining. By all means call for civility in discussing racism and sexism, but let’s make sure by “civility” we don’t mean “only people who won’t challenge me.”

    Also, as a white American Jew: People calling my actions, words, or beliefs prejudiced in some manner is not anti-Semitism, and I hope my friends never stop challenging me when I’m going off the rails in that direction.

  10. #10 bikemonkey
    January 21, 2010

    ahh, the Oppression Olympics. One of my favorite themes. I’ll spot you a gay and a Bible thumper card against your lack of dangly bits and deficient skin reflectance…oooh, the next player throws down a religio-ethnic-pogrom triple word score….and the hunt is now truly engaged. What sport!

    Gee, old chap, look here. The key lies not only in your *perception* of what was being said but how you went about expressing that frustration. Zuska was expressing the exact same sodding thing that you just did here. Except, without the spittle and dudgeon which was not quite cricket now, wot, wot? You would have come off considerably less of the ass if you’d simply matched Zuska’s tone and determination. (That and civilly waited your turn; but then I found that hilariously undercutting of your main point so good on you for that)

    Now perhaps there is one thing that you are unawares of when it comes to the Oppression Olympics around the Sb and that has to do with the number of those who are ethnic affiliating or even (gasp) religiously practicing Jews in the blogotariat. Higher than the US general public rate by some margin. Of course to BE unawares of this you would have to not read very much of the SB stable but then your apparent equation of SB with Pharyngula tells us all we need to know about that I suppose. So there are plenty of players to throw down should Jews be dissed around these parts. guess what? It never comes up. so this notion that the oppression status of Jews is dismissed? Pure fabrication, especially when it comes to the blogosphere. now if you were a redneck you might have a point…

  11. #11 EMJ
    January 21, 2010

    Henry,

    Perhaps you would like to expand a little more on what sent you off? The description you gave of the events appear to be at odds with what other people witnessed. As you know I’m a great admirer of yours (you were virtually at my son’s birth for crying out loud and it was a thrill to have finally talked with you face-to-face), but if it is the case that you were indignant and laid an F-bomb during a discussion on civility (and then framed the issue as other people being uncivil against you) it suggests there are other factors at play.

    Also, you write that:

    This strikes a chord with me, a member of a very oppressed minority myself – and one which people on the Left affect to spurn.

    What minority is that? I don’t mean this to be insensitive, so please hear me out. The problem in making a statement like that is, for all intents and purposes, you pass as a white, heterosexual male and, even if you’re not a member of the current global superpower, you’re a close second. Are you ever followed in convenience stores? Are your political, social or scientific views often questioned because of your gender? Are you regularly pulled out of line by airport security and submitted to additional measures? Are there services denied to you because of a disability or civil rights because of your sexuality?

    If any of that applies then absolutely I agree with you (and there are other examples that I could add to this list). But if not you need to understand how such a statement comes off as insensitive at best and denigrating at worst. It implies that “very oppressed minorities” don’t have anything to complain about because, as an oppressed minority yourself, there is nothing to discuss. Even if you don’t choose to respond to this I hope you’ll at least think about these issues and consider your own role in creating the hostile atmosphere that emerged.

    I’ve cross posted this comment on your blog as well.

    Your friend,

    Eric

  12. #12 Zuska
    January 21, 2010

    You know, I was speaking to everyone in the whole room at the civility session, and trying to share my understanding and perspective in response to a point that Henry raised. Henry – if that is cromercrox above – seems to think I was speaking to him personally. Henry says he heard self-righteousness and patronization, which was not my intent. But maybe it came across that way to him. What was Mr. Civility’s response? Yelling, shouting me and other people down, to the point where one of the session moderators had to step in and gently redirect the session. Not satisfied, Mr. Civility bid his time till the session was over, and then turned on me to yell some more and curse at me. It was as lovely a defense of civil discourse as you might hope to see.

    Now, see, Mr. Civility’s excuse for his poor behavior, is that [in his mind], I addressed him [and him only] in a self-righteous and patronizing manner. I did not comport myself in a manner that he deemed appropriate [and he was the sole arbiter of appropriate behavior in a session he was not running]. And this I find interesting. This suggests, to me, the following rules for civility:

    1. Civil discourse is demanded at all times by those who are attempting to assert power and domination.
    2. Those asserting power and domination are free to dispense with civil discourse if they feel someone has been insufficiently civil in their supplication.
    3. When this is pointed out to those asserting power and domination, they will generally protest that it is about civility, not power, and they aren’t that powerful anyway, and they even have a gay friend.
    4. There will also be some attempt to rewrite history, perhaps with “I yelled and shouted down people and cursed” becoming “I made a modest point about civility and a ravening antisemitic mob of Ugly American ScienceBloggers descended upon me.”
    5. Civility – or the ability to command/demand it – may be a luxury one purchases with a currency that some of us will just never earn, no matter how hard we work.

    This is not a complete set of civility rules, just a starter kit. Feel free to add your own.

  13. #13 cromercrox
    January 21, 2010

    @Eric – I am a Jew. I don’t want to make too much of this , but it gives one a certain outlook on life. Here in the UK, especially since 9/11, being a Jew in academia does tend to make one look over one’s shoulder. I was tangentially involved in setting up Engage, an online resource – set up by largely left-wing Jews in academia – for tracking antisemitism in the academic Left, here in the UK (perhaps the issue isn’t as acute in the US, I don’t know).

    http://www.engageonline.org.uk/home/

    So, when I am preached at about the exclusion of minorities, especially when it is intimated that this is somehow my fault, I kick off. Sorry, but it’s a hot-button issue.

    What makes it worse is the hypocrisy of the Left. The Left hates Jews while proclaiming inclusion. Rednecks hate Jews too, but at least they are honest about it.

    Now, there are those who seem to espouse the view (as I understand it) that anything goes, and people can piss on their carpet all they like, because they might not have any other means of expressing themselves. But they seem to object when anyone actually does this on their blogs – who have views that are different from theirs.

    So, no, I haven’t been followed in convenience stores, but I have been vilified as a Jew in the _Guardian_, when a very senior member of the UK academic establishment chose to air my private correspondence with him in public without my consent

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/dec/12/highereducation.uk

    (the Guardian had to print an apology, by the way).

    Zuska, I apologise that I responded uncivilly, which I accept. I shouldn’t have been so aggressive. I hope that one day we can continue this discussion in a more tranquil manner. Perhaps at Scio11.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    January 21, 2010

    I am not overwhelmed with confidence that anyone is providing a valid or useful description of “civility” or whatever we are supposed to call the opposite. Some (but not all) of the proponents of the “civility is the end of discussion” position have demonstrated a strong orientation to shutting other people up when it suits them. I can count the times that I’ve been summarily shut up as an adult on one or two hands (this rarely happens to privileged white males such as myself), and one of those instances happened at this conference by none other than one of the panelists of the session in question (though not in that session). I have a bruise on the bottom of my jaw from where it fell off, and several cuts and scrapes where my jaw continued to bounce around the room in a state of conniption caused by the absurd of the specific statement used to shut me up (not to be discussed here, it is off topic). I had all I could do to not laugh, and was a bit disappointed that a potentially interesting line of discussion regarding how to relate to students behaving badly on the internet was terminated for no good reason.

    I do strongly agree with Zuska’s points (which she ironically calls rules) and I recommend Pascale Hammond Lane’s blog post pointed to above in the OP. Henry, I love you man, but they are right in the main. (But see below.)

    This does not mean that everybody can do everything on every blog any time they want. A blog can have it’s reason for existence and its own tenor, determined by the blogger. And bloggers can do what they want regarding their own comment threads. For example, Janet Stemwedel moderates comments on her blog (mine are never allowed). Isis has a “no comment list” to which commenters are compared, and if there is a match thinly disguised sock puppets fall apon the commenter like hungry goats on fresh grass. Sheril blogs at a site notorious for ignoring commenters and deleting dissent. So no, you can’t just go piss on the rug at any of those three locations. No pissing on the rug in the salons of the D&L Goddess, Adventures in Ethics, or The Intersession. But Zuska appears to not mind that. Angry English Henry must open his carpet to … to whom? To approved pissers? Any pissers?

    So yes, there is a point to the incivility thing and this is a real issue. The issue is mostly being handled by people with very poorly formed ideas and is served up with a big whopping stinking pile of hypocrisy. Sorry if that makes anyone’s feet wet.

    I should mention that I do not refer to the Science Online session in question. I was not at that session so I have no comment on it. Strangely I was ridiculed (via a tweet) by a sock puppet (and somehow everyone apparently knows of who) for not going to the session … silly me for thinking there was choice in that matter … but I didn’t go so I won’t claim anything about what did or did not happen there.

    I am not sure that I like the word civility, it may be a poor choice of terms. But proscribed and prescribed behavior is of course the front line tool of the status quo to maintain itself, in any social context, always. Duh. Seems obvious. Is there really someone who did not know this? How can that be? The fact that the point is usually ignored is astonishing and that is why it is worthy of discussion. I would just like to see the discussion taken above the high school social studies class level (as, to repeat, Zuska and several other bloggers have done on numerous occasions.) “Incivility” per se can be a way to subvert repressive behavioral rules, or it can be little more than an earmark of group membership.

    I apologize if anyone has taken offense to anything I’ve said.

    Well, actually, I don’t. If you don’t like me losing my junk then, well, stop existing or something…

  15. #15 John McKay
    January 22, 2010

    Henry, I was practically in the crossfire between you and Zuska and I don’t think I missed a word that either of you said. While I can see that some white males might have had their buttons pushed by Zuska’s social critique, I cannot for the life of me see where in that exchange you found Jew-hatred rife among the academic left in the “U. S. and A.” Among many strata in US society, intellectual and Jew are almost synonymous. What did she say that brought anti-Semitism into the discussion?

  16. #16 EMJ
    January 22, 2010

    Henry,

    Thank you for that. I can understand how feeling always on guard about your identity could make you extra sensitive and result in you reacting strongly when issues related to identity politics are invoked. Anti-Semitism didn’t even need to be expressed by anyone in the room (I don’t believe it was, but perhaps I’m wrong). Since you feel it around you all the time I can easily see why it came up as an issue. My partner, Erin, has done a lot of work in the area of identity so I’ve seen many of the conflicts that people experience. Chances are that Zuska is also very sensitive to it (though I’ll let her speak for herself) and you two may have conflicted more because of your similarities than your differences. But enough Dr. Phil.

    I couldn’t agree more that exposing anti-Semitism (whether on the Right or the Left) is important work. During my undergraduate years I worked with the campus branch of Hillel in setting up a dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian-born students. A major difficulty in bridging the divide is overcoming the desire to scapegoat and stereotype. This occurs not only among Israelis and Palestinians, but among those Americans who feel strongly that one side of the conflict is fully at fault. This is a very difficult issue, but is one that I believe will define 21st century geopolitics.

    I strongly disagree, however, with your statement that “The Left hates Jews while proclaiming inclusion.” Some on the Left may indeed hate Jews. They should be shunned the same way anyone should be for ignorantly condemning an entire cultural, ethnic, or racial group. Individuals need to be judged based on their actions, not their ancestry. I also dislike the word “rednecks.” They were my best (albeit only) friends while I was growing up in rural California.

    Having known people more recently who are involved with Israeli divestment campaigns (as well as those who’ve travelled to the occupied territories to volunteer as medics or witnesses for peace) I’ve seen how carefully people work to emphasize that they are opposed to Israeli policies, not Jewish heritage. It’s a very challenging line to walk (as the Roses emphasized in the Guardian article you linked to). The trouble is that many people identify Israel and Jewishness as synonymous. They are not. Individual Jews participate in the policies that Israel carries out, but criticizing the policies is not the same as criticizing the individuals.

    I believe that it is crucial to acknowledge that a critique of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic, any more than critiquing any other government in the Middle East is. But the potential for anti-Semitism is always increased when such heated political topics get ratcheted up. Furthermore, the focus on the Jewish homeland (and, in the case of academic boycotts, individual Israelis) will only make Jews around the world feel personally persecuted even if that is not the intention.

    My personal position on the tactics of divestment, boycott, etc. are nuanced and aren’t relevant to this larger discussion. I’ve broached this topic at length in order to emphasize that heated political issues can and should be discussed in a civil fashion. People can and should disagree with each other. People can and should get angry when they do. But if your overall interest is to reach the other person because you care enough to communicate your ideas in a way that they’ll be listened to, it’s the only option.

    I remain, Sir, yr most obedient and humble svt.

    Eric

  17. #17 EMJ
    January 22, 2010

    Greg, I agree. I don’t think Zuska’s five points were very helpful.

  18. #18 cromercrox
    January 22, 2010

    @John McK: The point I wanted to make was that although I might look like the typical white male patriarchal oppressor, and might have looked as such to Zuska, I am a member of a minority group which – in the UK at least – is the subject of a certain amount of opprobrium from the intellectual Left, which seems to have been the ground position of those moderating the session. Appearances can be deceptive. UK Jewry is, historically, not nearly as intellectually dynamic as US Jewry, so one can’t always equate ‘Jewishness’ with ‘Intellectual’ in the UK as one can in the US.

    @EMJ – the rise in antisemitism in the UK has been marked since 9/11, and is of course conflated with the whole Israel-Palestine issue. It is perfectly possible, legitimate and indeed necessary to criticize Israeli policies and it is meet that such comment comes from Jews (I despair, for example, at the continued building of settlements on the west Bank). However, it is evident that many on the Left use criticism of Israel as a mask for antisemitism. The University and Colleges Union, the Labor Union which represents academics in the UK, has been obsessed with boycotting Israel for several years now, practically to the exclusion of all other issues, including (for example) abuses against academics in many countries I could name. This suggests that the agenda is more than just criticizing Israel, but is motivated by Jew-hatred.

  19. #19 cromercrox
    January 22, 2010

    …. having said all that, I accept that I shouldn’t have behaved as I did, and should have counted very slowly to ten before opening my mouth. I apologise.

    I think that what took my breath away was the very idea that the suggestion of rules might be interpreted in terms of gender or racial politics. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this since my student days. My belief is that in most fora in the UK such attitudes are not taken very seriously, even by feminists. I might be wrong, of course.

  20. #20 Barn Owl
    January 22, 2010

    Greg @ #14

    Strangely I was ridiculed (via a tweet) by a sock puppet (and somehow everyone apparently knows of who) for not going to the session … silly me for thinking there was choice in that matter

    Wow. Sounds like junior high school (though that might be insulting to some pre-teens), without the hope of soccer or volleyball in PE, even. Damned if you do, ridiculed if you don’t.

    Though maybe Science Online is OK for participants who are true outsiders, blissfully oblivious to such crap.

  21. #21 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 22, 2010

    (1) Anybody wants to let it all hang out is welcome at my blog. We have essentially no rules other than if you whine like a fucking whiny-ass titty-baby you will be summarily banned, and frankly way-over-the-line misogynist, racist, or other -ist comments will be deleted. Otherwise, feel free to whip out your fucking schlong and piss all over the fucking place. Our floor is mosaic tile, not carpet.

    (2) “you addressed me in a self-righteous and patronizing way as if I were somehow personally responsible for the exclusion of all minorities”

    As I said upthread, when someone says “your actions have the effect of reinforcing X, Y, or Z privilge” you d00dly d00ds hear “you are a horrible, evil, person and totally suck in every possible way known to mankind”. Grow the fuck up.

  22. #22 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 22, 2010

    Oh, and BTW, all this “pissing on the carpet” shit is just cover for some serious unresolved masculinity issues. These “don’t piss on my carpet” douchebags are the same ones who get in fights in bars because some other d00d looked at them funny or accidentally bumped into them on the way to the fucking men’s room. They’re just insecure little boys playing at being big, tough, men-in-charge.

  23. #23 Bob O'H
    January 22, 2010

    Why can’t we all just be friends?

    CPP – I’m a white male, but I’m not responsible for the evils done to minorities, so I don’t see why I should be blamed for them. The argument that politeness is a way of enforcing white male power is, quite frankly, ridiculous – especially in the online science community. Why? Well, first, there are plenty of people who aren’t white and male who are active in the online science community – the last two editors of OpenLab were both women, for example. Second, it seems insulting to imply that women and minorities can’t be polite. There are rules of behaviour in whatever forum we enter, and I don’t think the rules of online politeness are that difficult to obey.

  24. #24 Jeremy
    January 22, 2010

    1. Civil discourse is demanded at all times by those who are attempting to assert power and domination.

    2. Those asserting power and domination are free to dispense with civil discourse if they feel someone has been insufficiently civil in their supplication.

    I agree with these two points in particular. Bloggers should have a healthy concern with sockpuppetry and trolling (unless the troll is entertaining or its efforts backfire, of course), but in general it’s pretty easy to spot those. If people are really removing comments because of their vitriol or because someone said fuckityfuckpoop for the sake of some murky civility principle, I think that raises a flag for most of us.

    That said, people can do what they want on their own blogs. Establishing criteria for the way people communicate cross-blog works both ways. It seems to work itself out in most cases.

    Strangely I was ridiculed (via a tweet) by a sock puppet (and somehow everyone apparently knows of who) for not going to the session … silly me for thinking there was choice in that matter

    Surely you jest, Greg. There are no trolls or sockpuppets in the noble occupation of science blogging.

  25. #25 Bob O'H
    January 22, 2010

    If people are really removing comments because of their vitriol or because someone said fuckityfuckpoop for the sake of some murky civility principle, I think that raises a flag for most of us.

    What’s so murky and bad about trying to get along with people? I’m honestly having difficulty with seeing the problem. I guess it’s because I’m British. :-)

    That said, people can do what they want on their own blogs. Establishing criteria for the way people communicate cross-blog works both ways. It seems to work itself out in most cases.

    Indeed – I think this should be the bottom line.

  26. #26 becca
    January 22, 2010

    Notes on context- I was at the session in question and talked to Henry afterward.

    “At least two people have responded to me to say that they’d have liked to have said what I did, but didn’t dare.”
    Perhaps we could analyze how concerns about civility might squelch those who are not yet in the spittle-spraying stage of agitation, and how civility derived from a genuine respect for others can facilitate difficult dialogs.

    “So, when I am preached at about the exclusion of minorities, especially when it is intimated that this is somehow my fault, I kick off.”
    This. This is what I want to respond to. Ok, let’s go with ‘exclusion of minorities is completely, 100%, not Henry’s fault’… now what. Are you now completely not part of a society with problems with prejudices and discrimination? Can you not act to solve some of that?

    “(That and civilly waited your turn; but then I found that hilariously undercutting of your main point so good on you for that)”
    See now, that’s bullshit. bikemonkey, normally I’m not big on the Jew card, but in case you didn’t realize typical NY style Jewish language is with lots of voices at once- it sounds terribly chaotic to some, I think. I don’t know if the linguistic data support this is true of other groups of Jews, but from my anecdata it is.
    (semi-aside- It’s also not how Zuska speaks. I had to learn to give extra conversational space with her, and even then I don’t do terribly well.)
    In other words, this is a fine example of how a Cultural Difference gets read as incivility. Or possibly I’m just reacting to my own personal issues surrounding being told to Wait My Turn. *shudder*
    Now, as for the standing and looming and spittle, I don’t think you can blame that on Jewishness. Though who knows. It might explain my family…

    “What makes it worse is the hypocrisy of the Left. The Left hates Jews while proclaiming inclusion. Rednecks hate Jews too, but at least they are honest about it.”
    Go to the drugmonkey blog. Look up the last “A musical interlude” post (bottom of the first page, for now). Have a laugh.
    As an unofficial Representative of the American Left, I don’t think I’m anti-Jewish. I mean, my Dad’s side of the family is totes crazy and spittle flinging, but they is good people deep down. I love them, in fact.
    Is maybe the Left in the UK a bit different? Or maybe it’s a cultural difference in our respective subcultures (e.g. your definition of the Left is not the same as mine). I’m rather glad Eric helped illuminate that the Israeli political issues may be impacting your view.
    On another note, I don’t think it’s fair for Zuska to single you out as personally responsible for the marginalized status of women in science (not that I think she was intending to do that; but you obviously took it, on an emotional level if not a logical one, as such). Likewise, I don’t think it’s fair for you to single out Zuska as a member of the UK academic antisemitic Left. Particularly since she’s a lot of things, but definitely not any of those (to the best of my knowledge, anyway. Since I think your Left is not our left).

    joking
    “a sock puppet (and somehow everyone apparently knows of who) for not going to the session “
    What do you mean sockpuppet? Pervy Wanker was totes @ Scio10. He even made lewd suggestions about Ducks during the banquet.
    /joking

    Eric- thank you for an object lesson in attempting civility, as well as hosting this discussion. Which I, for one, am glad can occur on somewhat neutral ground (maybe we’re all more worried about pissing on *your* carpet than anyone else at this point. Or maybe just me).

  27. #27 Bob O'H
    January 22, 2010

    Is maybe the Left in the UK a bit different? Or maybe it’s a cultural difference in our respective subcultures (e.g. your definition of the Left is not the same as mine). I’m rather glad Eric helped illuminate that the Israeli political issues may be impacting your view.

    There’s a back story to this – some left-wing academics tried to get a boycott of Israeli academics, because of the Palestine situation. I’m not sure it got a lot of traction (it started in a journal for translation studies – one of the editorial board pointed out that translators were meant to be breaking down barriers), but I can see that it creates an unpleasant atmosphere.

  28. #28 Cath@VWXYNot?
    January 22, 2010

    So have we agreed that ground rules exclude some commenters, while a complete lack of ground rules excludes others?

    Are “the people who are usually excluded from everything” necessarily in the former group? Are none of them in the latter group, preferring not to venture into heated and anarchic discussions?

    Might it come down to personality more than anything?

    Great comment thread… shades of grey and cultural differences being acknowledged and everything! Kudos, Eric!

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    Henry/EMJ: I was under the distinct impression that antisemitism was not only different in the UK and the US but also VERY different in the US academic elite than the UK academic elite. But most of what I know about UK academic elitism antisemitism is filtered through my BFF Mischa Penn, who attempted many years ago to do a year’s fellowship an institution of higher learning in UK and fond it intolerable. It would be interesting to talk more about this some time. If you are saying things are worse since 9/11 in UK then things must be very bad indeed.

    Barn Owl [20]: Though maybe Science Online is OK for participants who are true outsiders, blissfully oblivious to such crap.

    Science Online is wonderful for all participants. I do hope people don’t get the impression that it is not.

    CPP[21]: As I said upthread, when someone says “your actions have the effect of reinforcing X, Y, or Z privilge” you d00dly d00ds hear “you are a horrible, evil, person and totally suck in every possible way known to mankind”. Grow the fuck up.

    I think most people get this point and it is somewhat valid, but the person/idea distinction is not entirely true especially in a world where we associated ourselves with ideas and the idea of having ideas as an important part of our identities, the “I didn’t call YOU a misogynist racist pig … I just implied that you act like a misogynist racist pig” is a weak or even dichotomy, and people are people who are understandably sensitive. Yes, people can get less sensitive, CPP, but that is you (and some others) saying that this particular way of negotiating critique and understanding is the one we shall use despite the fact that people are often stylistically and culturally different from each other.

    In other words the clear functional (in conversation) distinction between “your actions have the effect of reinforcing X, Y, or Z privilge” you d00dly d00ds hear “you are a horrible, evil, person and totally suck in every possible way known to mankind” arises from a particular set of pre- and pro-scribed behaviors that not everyone shares.

    And then, after the conversation has progressed for a while, and people are starting to get it, some fuckwad breaks the dichtomoy between particular acts on one hand an a person’s underlying essence and personality on the other with a statement like
    ” … all this pissing on the carpet shit is just cover for some serious unresolved masculinity issues. These “don’t piss on my carpet” douchebags are the same ones who get in fights in bars because some other d00d looked at them funny or accidentally bumped into them on the way to the fucking men’s room. They’re just insecure little boys playing at being big, tough, men-in-charge.”

    There is no way in hell that is not an ad hominem post-Jameson statement.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    Bob [23]: How about this formulation instead: The in-power status quo has the ability (because it is in power) and desire (because it is the status quo) to control some conversations. Historically, one way this has been done is to set the rules in a self serving way for who has standing in a conversation … who has the right to speak at all. Then, it sets the rules for how that conversation happens in such a way that it excludes people who can’t meet those requirements. In many societies (mostly non-extant) there is even a specific separate language (not dialect … a different language) spoken only by the elite. And so on.

    What these folks are trying to say is that a demand for “civility” is one such tool. The civility bit is part of a larger strategy and I’m sure it is often not even a strategy at all. We can address the civility issue and eventually we’ll find that it is no longer a factor because the status quo also has the ability to shift what strategy it uses.

    Jeremy [24]: Surely you jest, Greg. There are no trolls or sockpuppets in the noble occupation of science blogging.

    Let’s just say that if you counted the number of socks that arrived in the Research Triangle on Thursday or Friday, and you counted the number of socks that left the Research Triangle on Sunday, they would not be the same number. I’m just sayin’

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    Becca [26]: Perhaps we could analyze how concerns about civility might squelch those who are not yet in the spittle-spraying stage of agitation, and how civility derived from a genuine respect for others can facilitate difficult dialogs.

    And two more things. a) We can analyze how actual spittlers are eventually forced to apologize and the value of their initial points perhaps lost (see comment above by Henry … it would be interesting to check for spittle and post spittle apology rates among various bloggers! Hey, it’s all on “paper” so this could be done.) and b) I’d add an assay for this: Is the “stop telling me to be civil” argument ever used for purposes that are just social and political and not progressive/supportive of admitted participants in the Repression Olympics? The answer of course is no. This is used for personal petty reasons at least as often as for real progressive helpful reasons, it seems.

    … a Cultural Difference gets read as incivility

    Insert the word “selectively” before the word “read”

    Cath [28]: So have we agreed that ground rules exclude some commenters, while a complete lack of ground rules excludes others?

    Nicely said. Who is excluded exactly under these differing conditions must vary a lot from blog to blog.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    Oh, and people may wish to refer to this regarding rules and stuff:

    http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2009/05/on-rules-part-47th.html

  33. #33 robinottawa
    January 22, 2010

    This all makes me think that the problem is the mixing of politics with religion. Of course I know they always will go together, but isn’t it possible to set up a framework for discussion based on the idea, as is done in other western countries?

  34. #34 Bob O'H
    January 22, 2010

    Thanks for the explanation, Greg. I accept that in some cultures language and behaviour are used to judge where people are in the hierarchy. But to claim that that’s why politeness was developed is surely daft to the point of paranoia. Sometimes how one follows rules of etiquette can be used to judge people, but surely that’s not why most of them evolved. This must be particularly true in open communities, like the science and online communities.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    Yes, but if we define our community as “open” (i.e., not sexist or racist) then it will stop becoming open because we will stop assuming that it might not be fully open.

  36. #36 becca
    January 22, 2010

    “Science Online is wonderful for all participants.”
    bullshit
    but I didn’t wanna get all whiny about it

    “a) We can analyze how actual spittlers are eventually forced to apologize and the value of their initial points perhaps lost “
    See, that’s the interesting thing. In your panel, when I asked what *enhanced* trust, you blew off the question and PZ talked about being clear. Note: PZ actually had a rather good answer, but it was starkly different from the other answers. Each of the other panelists discussed admitting when they were wrong.
    Admitting you are wrong and/or apologizing decreases your credibility when credibility is derived from appearing powerful. But to me, it nearly always increases credibility (because I assign credibility partially based on being able to understand complexities of issues). I’m considerably more comfortable with Henry post-apology than I was pre-apology. Mind, I might not agree with him, but he’s clearly not a totally incorrigible ogre.

    “This is used for personal petty reasons at least as often as for real progressive helpful reasons, it seems.”
    You say that like respecting each other and protecting people’s feelings are not legitimate progressive helpful goals. /carebears tea party

    “Sometimes how one follows rules of etiquette can be used to judge people, but surely that’s not why most of them evolved.”
    Perhaps not. However, I’d argue that they are closely related. I think rules of etiquette *and* social hierarchies both evolved to simplify social interactions to cut down on the enormous amount of energy they can require (it’s amazing how of all the words I learned in a foreign language, the ones that will stick with me best are ‘please’ ‘thank you’ and a respectful term for ‘teacher’).

  37. #37 Greg Laden
    January 22, 2010

    I don’t recall blowing off your question. I do recall being a bit perplexed by it. The down side of a panel discussion like this is that it is almost impossible to pause for the one on one back and forth that is sometimes needed to clarify a point.

    Regarding your last point, I am very suspicious of this sort of simplistic explanation for cultural conventions. If certain cultural conventions “evolved” to decrease the unnecessary expenditure of energy, then why are almost all cultural conventions energetically expensive. I prefer the Zahavian explanation for that reason, if one must have a functional or evolutionary model.

  38. #38 frog
    January 22, 2010

    Bob: I accept that in some cultures language and behaviour are used to judge where people are in the hierarchy. But to claim that that’s why politeness was developed is surely daft to the point of paranoia.

    It’s not daft — it’s just incomplete. “Politeness” is a way to structure our conversations so that we don’t use violence against each other.

    When there’s inequality, politeness avoids violence by reinforcing that inequality. When there’s equality, it reinforces that — it reinforces whatever the facts on the ground are.

    So, you get T-V distinctions in hierarchical societies, as evolved in vulgar latin with the rise of feudalism; on the other hand, if you go to a non-agricultural society, anything that makes one person look more “important” than other ones is “impolite”. If a group get together — no one stands on a podium, not if they don’t want to piss everyone off.

    It’s not paranoid — it’s just self-aware. Go to a conservative club and then an anarchist meeting and look at the rules of civility. It’s just not the WHOLE story, since the facts on the ground aren’t JUST about inequality.

    Let’s take a real example — Blacks in the US. Many are very nervous about saying what they think among Whites — whites respond to many of the features of “Black civility” as uncivil, as a violent threat. Some of it is just cultural misunderstanding — what volume is considered normal, how you can use your body in a conversation, how much space you put between people. Some of it is using civility as a tool to keep the outsiders down — by not adapting “white” rules to include “black” rules, your demanding a greater burden on those raised by the latter rules — they have to make more of an effort (“white privilege”). Some of it is just plain old racism — some whites will just insist on interpreting everything by blacks as “uncivil” as an excuse to exclude.

    It appears paranoid when you’ve never experienced it. It leads to paranoia as well — if you experience it a few times, you may tend to make the error of seeing it when it’s not there, particularly because whenever it is obviously there, the dominants continue to claim that it’s not there at all (you tend to get a little crazy when everyone is calling you crazy all the time).

    It’s an insoluble problem — but it can be ameliorated to some extent by self and other-awareness. That’s tough for the dominants — no one can force them to become aware.

  39. #39 EMJ
    January 22, 2010

    @Cath@VWXYNot? (28): So have we agreed that ground rules exclude some commenters, while a complete lack of ground rules excludes others?

    Are “the people who are usually excluded from everything” necessarily in the former group? Are none of them in the latter group, preferring not to venture into heated and anarchic discussions?

    Might it come down to personality more than anything?

    To quote Carl Zimmer from when he visited Vancouver, “I’m a media anarchist.” I don’t have any ground rules on how or what you post, but if you are a spammer I will delete your link and any product placement in the comment. Other than that it’s entirely open. If I have a serious issue with trolls in the future I will adapt by first engaging with the troller to ask them to contribute to the discussion rather than blasting inanities, then I’ll ask people not to engage with said troller and, if they continue, will begin deleting and or banning them from commenting. Fair warning, I say.

    @becca (26): Eric- thank you for an object lesson in attempting civility, as well as hosting this discussion. Which I, for one, am glad can occur on somewhat neutral ground (maybe we’re all more worried about pissing on *your* carpet than anyone else at this point. Or maybe just me).

    I would say the single best approach to laying ground rules on civility is to lead by example. A statement of how people should behave is meaningless unless it’s backed up by consistent behavior (see: religion).

    @cromercrox: I think misunderstandings, our own personal issues, and an excess of glucocorticoids and androgens are what’s behind 90% of the world’s problems (the other 10% is probably Stephen Fry’s fault). Still friends?

  40. #40 Zuska
    January 22, 2010

    Henry: just want to echo what Becca said above RE your apology. Many more thoughts I might share, but would rather mull them over a bit first – and some elder care duties are calling right now.

  41. #41 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    January 22, 2010

    Why can’t we all just be friends?

    CPP – I’m a white male, but I’m not responsible for the evils done to minorities, so I don’t see why I should be blamed for them. The argument that politeness is a way of enforcing white male power is, quite frankly, ridiculous – especially in the online science community. Why? Well, first, there are plenty of people who aren’t white and male who are active in the online science community – the last two editors of OpenLab were both women, for example. Second, it seems insulting to imply that women and minorities can’t be polite. There are rules of behaviour in whatever forum we enter, and I don’t think the rules of online politeness are that difficult to obey.

    Bob:

    The issue isn’t that anyone thinks that you, personally, are responsible for anything.

    The problem is that historically, the way that people have defined civility has often involved setting up the situation so that some people are forced to be silent in the name of civility. It has been used as a weapon against people.

    Let me give you a specific example from my own life.

    I spent four years living in a small town in Ohio. Every year the public elementary school put on an elaborate christmas pageant. One year, a teacher decided that since the town now had a Jewish family (mine), that they should do something for hanukah during it. After the show, a large swath of the town was *horrified*. So they called a meeting to discuss it, *in a church*. And they insisted that it was inappropriate for anyone who wasn’t a christian to get up and speak in the church.

    That’s particularly blatant, but also quite real. My parents had the choice of either being “civil”, or being rude and defending their children. What was the appropriate action?

    The same kind of thing happens in all sorts of situations, in both blatant and subtle ways. I’ve been in lots of business meetings where women’s suggestions or comments are completely ignored until they’re repeated by a man. Most definitions of appropriate civil behavior in a business meeting do not include interrupting to force people to acknowledge that you’ve spoken; but for a woman in those meetings, the only way to be heard is to interrupt in what will be seen as a rude and obnoxious way.

    Or just consider what apparently happened at the SciOnline: Henry said something about what he considered to be “civil” behavior. A woman pointed out something wrong with that. Henry threw a gigantic fit, got up out of his chair, shouted and cursed. Why? Why the extreme reaction? Apparently certain ideas were sufficiently unacceptable to
    Henry that those ideas being expressed, even in a civil and respectful way, were enough justification for him to fly off the handle, shout, curse, and behave in a threatening way, getting out of his chair to stand above the person who’d upset him.

  42. #42 DrugMonkey
    January 22, 2010

    I’m not responsible for the evils done to minorities, so I don’t see why I should be blamed for them.

    Why do you think you are being “blamed”? Why did Gee think he was being “blamed”?

    More to the point, why do you hear this when what is being said is that there are still evils being done to someone based on characteristics which you do not share? Or, gasp, when it is intimated that you benefit simply by *not* being subjected to an evil?

    as they say, your dangly bits are not going to fall off just because you acknowledge that the person next to you has a shittier deal than you do. Even if you are ankle deep in the stuff yourself (Gee) this does not mean you are just as oppressed as the person up to their waist.

  43. #43 daedalus2u
    January 22, 2010

    I have recently come across the African philosophy known as Ubuntu. I am still getting up to speed on it, but it seems to me that it provides a way out, a way to resolve these conflicts.

    The problem with the Abrahamic tradition is that it is “eye-for-an-eye”. As Gandhi noticed, that philosophy leads to the whole world being blind. My new and perhaps naïve understanding of Ubuntu perhaps shows a way out. When Apartheid came to an end in South Africa, there was no blood-bath. Christians believe that the only thing that allows them to be “forgiven” by God is the blood-sacrifice of Jesus. The brutal torture and death of the innocent Jesus in some way “balances” the sins and transgressions of others. That “crimes” need to be “punished” so that the balance of good and evil is restored.

    I think this is the problem with the trying to resolve these things. Henry doesn’t feel like he needs to be punished because he is not the source of the discrimination against women that Zuska and the rest of us need to have “fixed”. With the Abrahamic model of conflict resolution via blood sacrifice, a victim has to be found to punish so that the discrimination can be stopped and the world made right again.

    Those who advocate the “punishment” of those who transgress, claim that it is to deter the transgressions (in spite of considerable evidence that this is not the case).

    I think that the function of a punishment-style of conflict resolution is actually to invoke “the other”, that is the individuals who are punished are cast out, are shunned, are put in a separate category and are in some ways “free game” to be exploited, enslaved, raped. Treating criminals harshly has no rehabilitative value, research has shown this.

    I think this is the fundamental flaw in the Western Abrahamic conceptualization of “justice”. In order to rectify a wrong, there must be a sacrifice, a punishment, even of an innocent person. That leads to another wrong, another punishment and the cycle of violence is complete and ready for another turn.

  44. #44 Bob O'H
    January 23, 2010

    frog – I think you mis-understood what I found silly: the claim that politeness is designed to be exclusionary. I know it can be, but I don’t think that was the intention.

    MarkCC – I’m not sure your example undermines my point. I’m not arguing that rules of politeness and civility can’t be used to exclude people: I’m specifically arguing that politeness wasn’t intentionally designed to be exclusionary. As far as I can tell, the rule of civility at play was “respect other people’s wishes”, which is a rule much older than you or I.

    Drugmonkey –

    Why do you think you are being “blamed”?

    I try to be polite, because I believe that that’s the way to behave in order to get along with other people. So I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and give them the chance to have their say etc. Now I’m being told that this behaviour is a tool for cultural despotism, and that by not calling everyone a fucking tosspot I’m maintaining an evil status quo. Because I try to be polite, I do feel I’m being blamed (well me and my culture) for perpetuating sexism, racism and other exclusionary activities as part of the ruling elite. This is absurd – I’m not part of that elite (my parents were both working class, and I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge): I’m comfortably middle class but nothing more.

  45. #45 Bob O'H
    January 23, 2010

    BTW, I love the graphic Eric used to illustrate the post.

  46. #46 J. J. Ramsey
    January 23, 2010

    One problem is that “incivility” is used as a catch-all term for very different kinds of behaviors. Speaking out of turn is uncivil, but it is more a violation of a bookkeeping rule to keep discussions orderly than a moral matter. Stereotyping and other forms of misrepresentation are also uncivil, but they are also immoral behavior that no one, whether oppressor or oppressed, has any business doing.

    Trouble is, the distinction can be blurred both by the oppressed and the oppressor. Some, especially those who think that civility is for “douchebags,” can slide into the truly bad incivilities and end up saying idiotic nonsense like this:

    The issue is that religion indoctrinates people into a mode of magical fantasy-based thinking that deludes people into thinking that reality shit in general simply isn’t important. Thus, the religiously indoctrinated pay no attention to any of it.

    On the flipside, the oppressors can focus on the incivilities in “bookkeeping” and act as if they were a serious moral error.

  47. #47 stripey_cat
    January 23, 2010

    In an extreme case of civility=oppression, I was smacked once and told to be quiet by a (very conservatively-minded) co-worker during a meeting (that I happened to be chairing) for contradicting a man. She struck me because, in her opinion, I was being rude. Basically, it was a combination of “children should be seen and not heard” (I was about 30 years younger than her) with her horror that I had dared to oppose a senior male. Of course, this had the desired effect of shutting me up for the rest of the meeting as I was too shaken to open my mouth.

    In my experience of working with young children, too, people have different civility expectations of boys and girls, that tend to reinforce differences in behaviour between genders. In general, girls are expected to be more deferential and submissive to others opinions and wants (from things as trivial as form of address to a teacher and not shouting out, to long-term negotiations of rights and goals).

    I’m certain that no-one plans to do this (heck, I know my mother didn’t with me), but it happens because of deeply ingrained social prejudices that mostly stem from our own early childhood training. So while civility is not itself a bad thing, the enforcement of civility, especially by the privileged, can be seen as frightening and oppressive by the less-privileged; even when there is no intent to oppress. (In fact, unconscious oppression may be harder to deal with because you have to get people to admit it first!)