A Comment About Comments
We’ve recently had a number of issues arise concerning our commenting culture and what standards govern it. I’d like to share a few thoughts on that subject, because this is a very important part of the Ordinary Times community. In a very real sense, we wouldn’t be doing what we do if we did not have the remarkable and thriving commenting community which we enjoy here.
The commenting policy is intended to aim readers at our aspirational norm as much as it is to delimit the points at which those norms are transgressed. The norm is articulated in the policy:
We believe that intelligent conversations are more likely to occur in an environment where people can disagree but are also still encouraged to respect one another.
Now, there are times that this norm gets stressed. On the one hand, this norm incorporates the idea of robust, open, and vigorous discussion. We might shorthand that concept as “free speech,” and while it’s in the ballpark of what I’m referring to, I actually don’t think the phrase is precisely accurate, as described below in some detail.
Also in play is the idea of “mutual respect,” which is every bit as fuzzy a concept as “robust, open, and vigorous discussion.” We maintain the element of mutual respect in our norm because it encourages inclusiveness and participation from people who do not feel they have the ability to speak without being condemned or criticized or attacked on a personal level, based on their identity.
There is value in hearing what others, different from oneself, have to say. So what we really don’t want is something so awful being said in our forum that it drives others to disengage or, worse yet, to never engage in the first place. This is why we have a policy at all, and not just an open, uncurated forum. Take a look at a YouTube comments page if you want to see what that turns into. We don’t want that here.
Which means that if you read this website, the articles in it, and the comments to those articles, you can and should expect to encounter ideas from people that are not the same as your own. You can and should expect to encounter ideas with which you disagree. We discuss politics a lot around here, and as Eliezer Yudkowsky observed a decade ago, “People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional [lives] can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue.” So, from time to time it’s inevitable that the norms we strive to attain will get stressed. While we realize disagreement is probably inevitable, we nevertheless strive to disagree respectfully.
The Zone Of Intolerability
Not every comment is going to achieve our aspiration of friendly disagreement. For some people, it is easy to cross the line from criticizing an opposing viewpoint to criticizing the person who maintains that viewpoint. People have emotions and tempers and frustrations. There are times and ways in which it is appropriate to vent those.
So certainly there is that which we aspire to, which is actually the very large majority of comments. There is also a middle area in which we say, “That wasn’t great, but we can tolerate it.” We give commenters the benefit of the doubt, to tolerate much more than we discipline—not because we like everything we read, but because tolerating much of what one finds unpleasant is necessary to seek out diverse viewpoints and a multiplicity of perspectives.
But there are also a very small number of comments which we do find intolerable, which fall below even the standards of what is minimally acceptable. What does “intolerable disrespect” look like? How is it defined? Sort of like pornography, you know it when you see it. But here’s a couple of concepts and guidelines to consider.
- “Hostile Environment” Harassment as defined by Title VII. Liability can be triggered by expression of remarks and concepts which are (a) focused on a particular characteristic such as race, sex, national origin, LGBTQ status, religion, age, or physical ability, which (b) a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive, particularly when such remarks are severe or pervasive. Severity and pervasiveness are separate axes that work in tandem to evaluate the weight of the questionable statements; a sufficiently severe remark on its own can trigger a violation, but an accumulation of less-severe remarks over time, any one of which on their own might not be considered particularly severe, could trigger a violation as well.
- Eschew personal attacks on community members. Disparaging remarks which are reasonably interpreted as directed at another member of this community, again particularly focusing on personal characteristics as opposed to opinions expressed or the quality of arguments, will be viewed with particular askance.
- Avoid slurs and epithets. These are particularly (but not exclusively) words and phrases that have would be deemed vulgar and pejorative by a reasonable person. Such words and phrases ought to be used, if at all, as objects of discussion rather than actual epithets.
Thus, one might discuss (as illustrative but not exhaustive examples) the Blood Libel as a historical phenomenon, the use of the “n-word” in reference to people of dark skin color, or the past association of homosexuality with mental illnesses. But actually endorsing the Blood Libel, actually calling someone the “n-word,” or actually stating that homosexuals are by definition mentally ill, are all very likely to be considered intolerably disrespectful. Again, these are illustrative examples and are in no way intended to exhaust or limit what will be deemed intolerably disrespectful; this post is also intended to be a restatement of the commenting policy, and not a revision of it.
Frankly, we’re not anxious to describe this with a definition purporting to offer a high degree of precision, because that sort of thing lends itself to a lot of litigation and more effort invested into figuring out how to be disrespectful while cleverly staying within the prescribed rules. There are people who find that sort of thing pleasurable. There are places on the internet where they can have that sort of fun; we don’t want Ordinary Times to become one of them.
So what happens in those rare, uncomfortable instances when someone really goes over the line? We can edit or re-write or spoiler out the comment. We aren’t happy about doing that: the offending remarks are still right there to be seen by anyone, and who isn’t going to want to see what was so bad it got censored? We can delete the comment. We don’t like doing that: better to respond to bad speech with more speech. We can issue a warning, put a commenter on probation, suspend their commenting privileges, or ultimately we can ban the commenter completely.
While there are some who might express skepticism about this notion, there is not a single member of the editorial board that enjoys the idea of doing any of this. None of us derive any pleasure from it. None of us like it when we see people approaching the stress point of the commenting policy and writing things that set our ideals of mutual respect and open discussion at odds with one another. None of us enjoy calling people out for violating it, and we really don’t enjoy disciplining commenters.
We editors all have other things that we do with our time that aren’t reviewing and policing comments. We have jobs. We have families. We have obligations in the real world. We can’t stay on top of everything all the time. We try to review everything and we try to form some consensus amongst ourselves before acting, but this just isn’t always possible. For several reasons, including that it’s really unpleasant, and including that we can’t know in advance how bad something might be, we haven’t created a formal, structured system of progressive discipline. It’s sort of like a workplace anti-harassment policy: some things might be so bad we go directly to banning a commenter completely; some situations we hope to make better; each problem has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. There’s really no other way to do it.
One school of thought is that as a result of this, we don’t police the comments enough, and we too often let people get away with saying and doing things that are contrary to our norms. Another school of thought is that what winds up happening — whether intentionally or inadvertently — is that we police the comments in a way that is not evenhanded or fair.
Neither of those are what we want.
A New Site Function
Managing Editor Will Truman has done yeoman’s work searching for and implementing a new feature that we hope will help address these issues. Starting in the very near future — hopefully by the time you have this post it will already be in place — every comment will have a function called “Report Comment.” 1 If you come across a comment that you believe violates the commenting policy, click on “Report” in the lower right-hand corner of the questionable comment’s box. You must be logged in to use the feature.
When a certain number of these reports are received the comment will go into moderation and be reviewed by the editors. We will then deliberate about it and decide whether it’s above or below the line of what we can tolerate. Again, remember “what we can tolerate” is far short of “what we aspire to be,” and remember that as a general rule, our ethic is to err on the side of tolerance. Once it is approved out of moderation, it cannot thereafter be placed back in moderation.
With that said, we’ve noticed that things are getting a bit heated around here. Yes, it’s an unusually contentious time in U.S. politics, but that doesn’t mean we have to sink to the lowest level along with everyone else. So while our ethic is to err on the side of tolerance, we’re also going to be a bit more willing to call out questionable statements than we have been recently. And if something is very bad and warrants editorial response, we will respond accordingly.
Now, as with anything else, this “report comment” function is potentially subject to abuse, too. Here’s what we ask of you when you use it.
- If you see a comment you think is a problem, flag it once and move on. Please don’t try to flag the same comment multiple times.
- Do not flag a comment for review because you disagree with the argument made in the comment. This is not to become a tool by which members of Team Blue gang up to drive members of Team Red out of the comments pages (or vice versa).
- I suggest that after flagging a questionable comment, you do not thereafter otherwise respond to or engage with that portion of the comment which you found questionable. Everyone knows the wisdom of not feeding trolls. This is a suggestion, not an instruction.
- Remember that we editors are human, and that we may not respond to your report immediately or in the way you might have hoped.
This is an experiment with a new tool. If we like how it works out, we’re going to stick with it. We’re going to be feeling our way as we go. We might wind up scrapping it if it doesn’t help things. We might wind up changing how we use this tool based on experience as it accumulates.
You may certainly expect that comments which are at least questionable will be identified as such more for a period of time as we move through this trial.
I ask of each and every member of our community to use the tool in good faith, and that you trust that we are going to figure out how to use it best in good faith.
- It’s been in place for a while at Blinded Trials II, although for technical reasons it was easier to implement there than here.