Deleting Comments & Free Expression

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One task that blog moderators face is deciding whether to delete certain comments. In some cases, the decision is easy and obvious. Deleting spam, for example, requires no real thought. This is because spammers have no more more right to expect their spam to remain than the folks who stick flyers on my truck have the right to expect me to drive around with that flyer in place so people can see it. Web droppings (those irrelevant and often vulgar one or two sentence comments like “i lkes boobies”) can also be swept away without thought, just as you would think nothing about washing random “comments” left by passing birds on your windshield.

Where the decision making becomes more challenging is when comments are relevant to the topic (or at least interesting), contain some significant content but also have some serious issues.  Of course, what counts as a serious issue depends a great deal on the nature of the blog and other specifics of the context. To keep the discussion focused, I will confine my attention to blogs (such as this one) that are dedicated to rational, civil discussions. In this context, two main problem areas are tone/style and content. In regards to tone/style, a comment that is hateful, condescending, or insulting in tone is rather problematic. In regards to content, hateful, obscene, racist, sexist or other such material would also potentially be problematic.

There are many practical reasons to delete such comments. To keep the discussion concise, I will just present two.

First, they can easily drive away other readers who are not interested in reading such things. To use an analogy, allowing such comments to remain is like allowing rowdy, violent and hateful customers to remain in a typical store. Even if they are customers, they will tend to drive away well behaved customers who just want to shop. Likewise, allowing such comments can drive away those who are interested in the blog’s topics but not in being insulted or treated with contempt. The basic idea is that any value added by such comments will be outweighed by the value lost when others are driven away.

Second, such comments can be damaging to a blog’s reputation and the experience it offers. To use an analogy, a business that wishes to appear professional works hard to maintain that appearance (and reality). Allowing such comments on a site is a bit like allowing people to urinate on the business floor, harass other customers, and so forth. As such, it seems sensible to delete such comments. This is because any value gained from such comments will be outweighed by the damage done to the blog.

Of course, these are practical reasons. Since this is a philosophy blog it might be expected that more than merely practical concerns should be in play. To be specific, it might be argued that the right to free expression entails that even the “bad” comments should not be deleted.  Naturally, a reasonable person will agree that the comments should have at least some merit in order to be so protected.

While I do accept the idea of right to the freedom of expression, I also accept that deleting comments is consistent with this freedom. Naturally, I need to defend this position.

When people think of a right, they tend to conflate two types of rights: negative and positive. Having a negative right (which many refer to as a freedom) means (in general) that others do not have the right to prevent you from exercising that right. However, they are under no obligation to enable you to be able to act on that right or provide the means. To use a concrete example, the right to higher education in the United States is a negative right. No one has the right to deny a qualified person from attending college. However, the student has to secure entry to a college and must also be able to provide the money needed to stay enrolled. Having a positive right (which many refer to as an entitlement) means that the person is entitled to what the right promises. To use a concrete example, the right to public education at the K-12 level in the United States is a positive right: students are provided with this education for “free” (that is, it is paid for by taxes).

In the case of the right to freedom of expression, it seems that it is a negative right. That is, others do not have (in general) the right to prevent people from expressing their ideas. Obviously enough, there are limits to this (as the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example shows). It is not a positive right because others are not obligated to provide people with the means to express themselves.

To use an analogy, the freedom of expression seems comparable to the freedom to travel. While a free nation allows its citizens to travel about within the nation as they wish (within limits) and I have no right to stop people from such travels (except under certain conditions-such as when they want to “travel” into my house), I have no obligation to give someone a ride just because he wants to go to California. It is up to him to get his way there.

Likewise, while I have no right to try to censor or delete another person’s blog (under normal conditions) I also have no obligation to allow them to use my blog as a vehicle of their communication.  As such, if someone wishes to write things that I (or another moderator) do not wish to have on my site, it is no violation of the other person’s rights to delete it.

As far as me (or a moderator) having the right to delete comments, this seems to be a clear matter of property rights. Just as I have the right to remove and discard (almost) anything that other people stick on my truck or house, I also have the right to delete comments on my blog.

That said, in my own case I am careful in exercising this right. I do not delete comments merely because they are critical or express views I disagree with. On my own personal blog, I even tolerate the (rare) insult-provided that the comment also has relevant and significant content.  When I am posting on a site owned by someone else, my policy is to abide by their rules. If I find their deletions unacceptable, I have the option of not posting there anymore.

Naturally, more should be said about what would justify deleting a comment and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

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48 Comments.

  1. I think what you meant here is the sense of ownership. The sense of ownership gives us the right to take action on anything that is done onto our own property, i.e blog. In the view of ownership, I think it’s perfectly right for the owner to delete any comments which might harm his/her blog, and users should be aware of that sense of ownership too.

  2. The problem I have with this argument is that it is completely unclear to me where the distinction between negative rights ends and positive rights begins.

    Sure, we tend to say that negative rights involve *allowing* a person to do so-and-so, and positive rights involve *giving* people the means to doing so. This distinction tacitly depends on a prior understanding of a person’s capabilities. So we say that a person is capable of talking, just so long as I’m not shouting them down. And (on one naive appraisal) we also say that a person is not capable of talking to a national audience unless we, the owners of Big Media Inc., lend a helping hand.

    But the definition of what a person is capable of doing is going to vary depending on your conception of what the rights are to begin with. The fire example is a perfect demonstration. I am morally capable of making all kinds of sordid political remarks, because that is a protected act; but I morally cannot yell fire in a crowded theatre. I have the right to do one and not the other. The consequences end up being pervasive. If as a citizen of a participatory democracy I have a right to access to all the major public institutions, and media is one of those institutions, then according to this story it must be a negative right that I have the right to an opportunity to speak on the air. And this is just as much a negative right as my right to not have my house burn down.

    So I think we have to bypass the positive/negative distinction altogether and just get right to it. What, roughly, do people have the right to do, and what don’t they?

    It’s not as hard as we might think to get to the point. On first pass, I would offer: you have the right to say whatever you want, so long as you’re not an unreasonable asshole. Translation: you can be a reasonable asshole, and you can be a reasonable delight, and you can be an unreasonable delight. But if you’re prone to knee-jerk hysterics, pretentious scapegoating, and aggressive dogmatism, then you’re unwelcome.

    Of course, then the questions are, “What is an unreasonable person? What makes for an asshole?” I would recommend the flouting of Grice’s cooperative maxims as part of any theory of what it means to be unreasonable. (I blathered on at some length on the topic here: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house/#comments )

    “Assholishness” is up for grabs, but my working definition for the moment is, “displays a) a lack of proportionality between the action and what has stimulated it; b) an awareness of and indifference to the suffering of others”. This is not a complete theory of what it means to be an asshole, though, which is terrain that our finest minds have yet to get to till.

  3. I don’t accept that there is such a thing as a “right to free expression” (which is also irrelevant to the issue of moderation), but I am definitely inclined to retain expressions that are satirical or extremely polemical, as these can teach the academic that his efforts are more than about the presentation of facts and references divorced from the force of life.

  4. Benjamin S. Nelson I like your very well thought out and constructed argument against the negative and positive rights, and if we were to debate the actual purpose that rights serve in our society your post would get us to the heart of the matter. But the positive/negative dichotomy is a superior system for understanding the moral dilemma of deleting posts. While the positive/negative system of viewing rights is very straightforward and black and white so is the issue that the article is addressing; to delete a comment or not. The actual outcome of whatever thought process goes into the authors decision to delete or not is either going to be to delete or not to delete, or to reverse it for the positive to keep the post or to not keep it.
    Again I agree with much of your post but if we are to simply talk about the issue of deleting a post or keeping a post then the “is he being unreasonable or not” Is a much more open ended solution to handling a binary decision process. In order to make a decision on whether to delete or not under the “are they being unreasonable or not” one would have to define an entire set of philosophical rules for social interaction and then personally adapt them for conjunction with operations on the internet, because I think most of us can agree that internet social protocol is much different than that of personal social interaction.
    So I do believe that for this specific example and problem that is a very recent problem, that we should use the negative and positive rights system of approach.
    -Thor. S

  5. Who has the authority to be the Official State Book Burner?

  6. Benjamin S Nelson,

    I do agree that the boundary between positive and negative rights can be rather fuzzy and the concepts are problematic in certain contexts. However, I think this is a clear case in which the distinction is both clear and useful.

    In the context of blogs, the right to free expression (assuming there is such a thing) seems to be a freedom (negative right) rather than an entitlement (positive right). To be specific, when people are posting on their own blogs, then others do not (in general) have the right to delete or prevent such posting. However, a person has no entitlement to the “blog space” of another person’s blog. That is, the blog owner has no obligation to provide a commentator with a vehicle by which to express his views (or just vent his spleen).

    In terms of beginnings and endings, the freedom of blog expression (“blogpression”, anyone?) for a person begins at her blog and ends at the blogs of others. The owners of the other blogs can elect to permit her to express herself, but that is a granted privilege, not a right.

    To use an analogy, the freedom of blog expression is like a freedom to kiss. You have a right to kiss yourself, but this does not require others to let you kiss them.

  7. Mike,
    If you have the right to decide what isn’t allowed on these pages there doesn’t seem much of a problem except for the wish to act ethically and fairly. How’s about giving people, through a menu option, the ability to view comments which for one reason or another were deemed inappropriate to appear in the main body of responses?

  8. Ralph,

    That is an interesting idea. It reminds be a bit of the way “adult” sections of video and book stores were back in the day. Through this curtain for the “special” comments…

  9. I’ll address most of this to Thor, but I think that it serves equally well to Mike.

    On positive and negative rights, I may have exaggerated. The distinction is useful in a general sense, because it would be hyperbole to say that the distinction between doing and allowing is *completely* relative to our ethical system. And assuming that doing/allowing really does make a difference to the positive/negative distinction in some straightforward way, then I’d have to agree that the distinction is not vacuous.

    However, the point that I’m pressing here is that the distinction between positive/negative rights is still highly sensitive to our prior conception of what a person’s claims or entitlements actually are. So that means we have to carefully lay out the claims and the context, touching on some of the concrete themes Thor alluded to. Without working through those social details, the positive and negative distinction does not necessarily do any work.

    As a place to begin, let’s consider MNX’s point about blog ownership. MNX’s post expresses a prior sense that the blog owners have a legitimate sense of entitlement over what goes on. And that’s surely true; no matter how irrational a blog owner is, they can do whatever they want without fear of there being dangerous social consequences to life and limb.

    But then we’re not necessarily interested in whether or not the Internet Police are going to break down Mike’s door for deleting a post that he shouldn’t have. We’re also interested in the sense of moral grounds upon which a person can be legitimately criticized for impeding rational discourse and trivializing debate. That is, if we’re talking about entitlements, then we want to know what claims can be legitimately made of the blog owners themselves — what their duties are, as decided by the spirit of the community. In this case, the spirit of the community is, roughly, “to talk philosophy”.

    So you have two kinds of claims. First, there are the claims that involve the political rights of blog ownership. Second, you have the rational rights of community membership. Relative to each set of claims, you can define what rights count as positive or negative. Relative to the political rights of blog ownership, the claims of community participation are (at best) positive rights, and (at worst) not even a right at all, but just a privilege. But relative to the rational members of the community, the rights are negative.

    In order for Mike’s claim to follow through, we would have to say that the community membership rights are not rights at all. That’s correct, if we are using a non-naturalistic sense of rights (contrary, say, to Margaret Gilbert’s description of group action). But even so, these quasi-rights of community membership are surely still claims, and we are still left with the mystery of when it is that claims have enough weight to make the blog owner condemnable. So you have to engage with the details in a principled way: you have to say, this over here is philosophy, while that over there is just being an asshole on the internet.

  10. sanil malikapurath neelakandan

    Being deleted is nothing but being not deleted.The moment one articulate that s/he is deleted,s/he want to assert that they do not want to get deleted.The question is that who has the competence to justify their deletion? whether every deletion will be accepted as deleted ? or the moment of deletion reuires any attention those who are not deleted/privileged or deleted/not privileged ?

  11. sanil malikapurath neelakandan

    Being deleted is nothing but being not deleted.The moment one articulate that s/he is deleted,s/he want to assert that they do not want to get deleted.The question is that who has the competence to justify their deletion? whether every deletion will be accepted as deletion ? or the moment of deletion requires any attention those who are not deleted/privileged or deleted/not privileged ?

  12. We have the competence together. We set the expectations that measure competence together just by virtue of the fact that we’re part of an organized group.

    Once you’re part of an organized community, all members within it have the responsibility to articulate what kinds of standards they want to hold ourselves to, relative to the recognized purpose of the community.

  13. Mike,

    Hope you won’t mind answering a couple of questions:

    Is each moderator on this site free to ban anyone, posting on any article, that he/she chooses?

    Are all the people who put up the main posts moderators?

    Would it be a good idea if people up for banning, who are not obvious spammers, were be banned for a only limited period of time – at first – in order that each moderator could vote on whether or not that person should be banned? Such a method might prevent occassional objections and disputes by other commentors. Also, it might be more…oh, what shall I say…democratic, perhaps?

    Is it fair to prevent those blocked from even looking at the site again? They might still be interested in reading articles.

  14. Sorry, I realise that Ben’s last comment might have anwered a bit of that. I wouldn’t mind a little more clarity though.

  15. Also, it might be more…oh, what shall I say…democratic, perhaps?

    This is not a democracy. Talking Philosophy is the blog of The Philosophers’ Magazine, which I founded with Julian Baggini, and which I own jointly with him and one other.

    I have corporate, legal and financial responsibility for the blog. Ultimately I make *all* the decisions (and I’m then responsible to the company board).

    I’m happy for other bloggers here to moderate their own posts. Indeed, I’d trust them to intervene on posts that are not their own if they thought that necessary (and this has happened in the past). But if there is a dispute between what I want and what another blogger here wants, and it can’t be resolved, then in the end what I want to happen will happen (unless I get removed from my post by the company board).

    That’s just the way it is. It would actually require an executive meeting of the TPM board to make it any different.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that a blogger here might be uncomfortable with this situation, or might not like the way I run the board. If that happens, they might choose not to participate here any longer. That would be unfortunate, of course, because all the bloggers here are valued. But it’s happened in the past, and probably it’ll happen again – it just goes with the territory.

  16. Thank you for that clarification Jeremy.

    Free speech as a virtually untrammelled right seems to be the one thing that all shades of opinion in the U.S. respect. In British common law actions liable to lead to a breach of the peace can be nipped in the bud i.e. koran burning, Orange marching through Catholic neighbourhoods etc.

    And now we move from NIMBY to NOMB (not on my blog). That’s somehow different even though I can offer the streets to hate speech. Parity of reasoning anyone.

  17. I’m pretty much with Mike on the free speech thing. I think it’s a negative right (though I also accept that it’s complicated partly for the reasons that Benjamin articulates).

    But there is a more general point here. It’s all very well suggesting that a blog should be pretty relaxed about its comments section, or even that a particular community should determine what sorts of policies it wants to be governed by, but it doesn’t follow that either scenarios will lead to a situation where more rather than less people feel they want to participate.

    Part of the reason I’m fairly strict about bad manners, etc., is because a comments section full of people behaving like arseholes, even if they’re reasonable arseholes, is going to discourage many, many people from participating (i.e., those whose taste is not for the sorts of rough and tumble one finds at Myers’s blog or at Harry’s Place, for example).

  18. Harry’s Place – care in the community is not working. Still they have a right to their opinions and by virtue of blunt assertion drive off other voices which is a pity. Nobody is prepared to be unhelpful to Harry’s masterplan if you are going to be insulted by ignorant gobshites.

  19. But there is another side of the coin, which is that a lack of frankness creates a chilly climate. That trivializes debate just as much as the obnoxiousness of the Pharyngulites. And since the difference between “frankness” and “being an asshole” is hard for a person to make when they have a stake in a dispute, it seems most prudent to approach every conversation with a comfortable (though principled) understanding of the margin of error.

  20. Sure, but it’s entirely possible to be frank without being an asshole, whatever your stake in the conversation. It’s also entirely possible that the extent to which people keep this in mind will be related to the likelihood they’ll be called on it if they don’t.

    Also the point about obnoxiousness isn’t just that it trivialises debate (though it does). It’s that it constitutes a barrier to entry – especially for women, as it happens. There’s a lot of sociological research on how this plays out in mixed-sexed schools, for example, where the testosterone fueled hijinks of male pupils tends to silence female pupils, etc.

    There’s also a moral issue: boorish behaviour, rudeness, swamping (such as happened to Jean Kazez at Coyne’s place), etc., are all morally suspect. Respectfulness, even if it becomes mannered, doesn’t carry this burden (though it might carry other burdens).

    Of course, this is not to argue that there should be no leeway, and especially it isn’t to argue that I’m never guilty of bad behaviour, but it is to argue that there are at least reasons to think that neither a libertarian attitude towards blogging commentary, nor community policing, are necessarily going to be the best way to secure the conditions for proper philosophical discussion.

    (I realise your position is more nuanced that this, of course, since you’re taking it that the spirit of the community is at least partly defined by the imperative to “talk philosophy”.)

  21. By definition, one is always an asshole when being frank. Any other assesment of it is free-rein-capitalism. As in, “I’m the one being frank”, so where’s my due?

    Let there be no “lee-way”. Which “way” is that? – the “we’ll let you off? For now”?

    And let this rest on the tray of consideration: Philosophy makes no leeway. Philosophy tears like a vulture at everything we write.
    It has no program but to dine, and dine well.

  22. True, I do think there’s a difference, in the sense that we can usefully acknowledge a difference between “unreasonable” and “asshole” if we try to build one up. But in the absence of that, the distinction is up for grabs. In order to feel secure in the place they’re at, people have be ready to go through a process of legitimizing the relevant norms. (And this process of legitimation will surely include, as you put it, “calling people out”). Until then, people will not understand how the distinction tracks some concepts that are capable of making a difference to their behavior.

    There’s a blurriness between the two concepts when we’re in a social vacuum, and this is related to the idea of a chilly climate. What I mean by a “chilly climate” in this context is something like this: a society where members lack an interest in doing the legitimation thing. In a chilly climate, the distinction between being considered an asshole and being considered an unreasonable person is impossible to navigate. In rigidly pretentious societies — perhaps most of the societies in an advanced industrial world — there simply is no difference. If you’ll tolerate a bumbling attempt to co-opt Durkheim’s terms, I would say that this is alienating in the sense of anomie, while the prep school cases are a bizarre and anarchic form of fatalism.

    Both desperately require our attention. No doubt there’s a moral dimension to the discussion. We try to redress these quandries in different ways, leading to the libertarian view and the authoritarian view. Authoritarians have been my target, precisely because they trivialize debate, create chilly climates, and produce anomie. Given your concerns, the libertarians make a plausible target as well. But before anyone can go on to talk about that, the distinction must be settled.

    On the one hand, you provided a decent case where we can say that philosophers are acting like assholes — swamping. There are probably others. On the other hand, I’m being a touch boorish just by virtue of the fact that I’m using the rude and clumsy word, “asshole”. And the word “rudeness” is completely opaque, because I use it to describe assholes (e.g., giving someone the once-over with their eyes, then light-up, point, and guffaw) as much as I can use it to describe unreasonable people (e.g., interrupting others in conversation without cause).

    Of course, it would be a fruitless task to create the exhaustive list of thises and thats for the purpose of this particular thread. And in most cases, a person is obviously one or the other or both, so it’s not necessary to get out the slide rule and measuring tape so we can turn Miss Manners’s vocation into a science. But more content can be pumped out of this distinction than from the positive/negative rights one, I think.

  23. The internet is a tribal place and therefore dissent from the concensus is the salt which gives savour to the discussion as long as that dissent is supported by reasoning rather than assertion. The Harriers, the Pharangs, the Coynes etc give the impression of hobbledehoys who have yet to discover the part nostrils play in oxygenatation. Here of course all is Hellenic ‘sweetness and light’. For my own part I miss Uncle Jed, the master of Hasbara.

  24. Ben – I didn’t understand big chunks of that (sorry), but I don’t buy the idea that authoritarianism necessarily creates either chilly climates or anomie.

    I can see that an arbitrary authoritarianism might do so – because the arbitrariness would tend to lead to normlessness – but a consistently applied authoritarianism could quite easily avoid this difficulty.

    And no, I don’t think you are being “boorish” just because you use the word “asshole”. If you called some particular person an “asshole”, then you’d probably cross the line into boorishness (but even then, maybe not).

    And I don’t agree that the term “rude” is “completely opaque”. It might be a little opaque, but there are plenty of instances where we’d both agree that it the term was being used reasonably (as, for example, in the instances you describe).

    Anyway, as you say, we don’t need a detailed explication of all these terms, because we’re in the happy situation of having me here playing the role of a (not so) benign dictator! :)

  25. Michael, I think the stuff that went on at Coyne’s blog is a decent case study to help make my point. For every asshole that made assertions about the “TJ” situation, there are many others who provided legitimate reasons for their concerns and beliefs. But it’s very easy to dismiss them all as assholes. It takes a lot of effort to work through it.

    J, sorry for being unclear. Yes, to be clear, normless authoritarianism is what I had in mind. When you get right down to it, my only take-home message is that you have to engage with people and make your standards explicit, because the difference between being an asshole and being an unreasonable asshole isn’t always obvious. But once you do that, you are in a stronger position to defend editorial decisions.

  26. By the fact that we’re discussing this and that there’s been a post put up on the subject, it seems to me that it would be a good idea to have more people contributing to moderating decisions. More people moderating would mean that everyone would be more comfortable with decisions. Keeping to your standards to keep people visiting the site is all well and good, but surely people disagreeing with those standards will be lead them away also, and they won’t all be arseholes. So the authoritarian fixed standards approach is a bit double sided.
    A larger group making decisions, though it would be hard to organise, could well reduce dissatisfaction with the fixed standards of the site ( either that they’re too flexible or too rigid)by making collective decisions relative to the context of the situation.I’m assuming that none of the resident philosophers are moral absolutists, by the way.

    If the site has more visitors, everybody’s happy.

    The site that Uncle Jed directed me to did have a female commenter – it seems he’s not so abhorrent after all. (I thought I’d just mention it because he can’t exactly have a go at defending himself; and I do acknowledge that the one female commenter might be an acceptional case)

    Also, just wondering if anyone cares to answer: why do you Americans prefer ‘asshole’ to ‘arsehole’?

  27. I think it pays to be able to talk about these things as long as it’s done with some consistency. If it turns out that people are all casuists, and not willing to think things through to their implications, then the discussion will just turn into worthless nonsense fast.

    Also — I’m Canadian! Harrumph! But to my ear, “asshole” sounds naughtier than “arsehole”. Like saying “frak”.

  28. Benjamin – Right, but don’t forget I don’t necessarily want reasonable assholes here; and I *definitely* don’t want to be in the business of defending editorial decisions. This thread is an exception.

    Of course presumably you’d respond that your point is that editorial decisions are defensible or not in terms of the established norms and values of the community (even if I don’t actually want to defend them), and part of what makes them defensible is that people are better able to contract in to certain ways of behaving – and indeed to behave in those ways – if things are made explicit.

    Well maybe, but I’m not convinced. TPM used to have a discussion board. It had a long list of rules specifying exactly what sort of behaviour was required. But these discussions still took place (ironically, actually, since one of the rules was no meta-discussions about policy!)

    :)

  29. Sleuth

    1. There is absolutely no reason to think that more people collaborating with moderating decisions would lead to happier punters. It could just as easily be the other way around.

    2. More visitors is not the important thing here. I’d rather shut down this blog than have it become like Myers’s place (I would shut it down if it became like Myers’s place, actually).

    3. While I’m happy to discuss these issues in abstract – on this thread only – I’m not interested in discussing the Uncle Jed case. That’s finished. Please do not bring it up again.

  30. Sorry to have gone back to UD, I should have recalled your previous wish.

    In response to your no 1: more people in government/ moderating government/ checking government/ making laws etc. seems to be what the people in the West are after. I know the moderation of this site isn’t exactly strongly related to government and politics, but there are at least similarities.

    In response to your no 2: why would having a group of philosophers making decisions result in this site becoming like Myers’s place? (by the way, which Myers’s place is this? for I am unfamiliar with such things) More visitors might not be the most important thing, but it does help to add colour to debates.

  31. Sorry, UJ, not UD.

    And Benjamin, sorry about labelling you as an American and not Canadian.I’ve always liked Canada, mainly because I like history and because Canada has been thought of as a good friend to Britain, but I like it all the same!

  32. As a participant in this blog and in others, I like a well-policed and polite blog. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I have stopped posting in blogs because I felt insulted, especially when what I considered to be insults came from the blog owner.

    I have participated in blogs and groups (not the ones usually associated with people who also participate in the TPM blog) where
    one or two online bullies, seemingly with no other daily activity except to post ironic put-downs from an ultra rapid internet connection, simply took over the forum, driving away all others, except for a few fans of the bullies.

    There is one of the those economic laws: bad money drives out the good. I forget the name of the law, but there also seems to be a law of online interaction that the bullying posters drive out the
    others, except for a circle of admirers who cheer his or her bullying on.

  33. Sleuth

    1. I really do not think that people in the West want more people in government!

    2. Well it either will or won’t make it more like Myers’s place. My point is simply that there is no reason to think that group moderation will be any better at achieving some end x, than single person moderation. Indeed, there are reasons to think that it will be worse (because it’d be unwieldy and inefficient).

    3. But all this is redundant. The main reason there can’t be group moderation here is because it would be a charade. If the group of moderators came to some decision of which I disapproved, then assuming my disapproval was strong enough, I’d simply overrule them. And I’d be right to do so because I have corporate, legal and financial responsibilities that they do not have. In other words, my neck is on the line here in a way that theirs is not (and not just legally, also in terms of how TPM is seen in the wider world, etc).

    Myers’s place is Pharyngula:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

  34. Amos: “As a participant in this blog and in others, I like a well-policed and polite blog. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I have stopped posting in blogs because I felt insulted, especially when what I considered to be insults came from the blog owner.”

    I agree with Amos, although I don’t consider myself ‘overly sensitive’. I, too, quit some other blogs for reasons similar to those he articulates. In my experience on those blogs, being ‘frank’ was simply an excuse for being rude and insulting when the individual either couldn’t be bothered, or didn’t know how, to engage with actual arguments.

    I am quite comfortable with Jeremy’s (mostly) benign dictatorship of this blog.

  35. Thanks guys.

    Partly this is just a moral argument. I don’t tend to think that TPM should provide a forum for people to engage in the sorts of behaviour one finds at Pharyngula, for example, because that behaviour is (frequently) morally wrong.

    Of course, one should not be too pious about this, and one should always recognise one’s own fallibility, but nevertheless rudeness, boorishness, bullying, all that sort of thing, isn’t okay. We wouldn’t tend to tolerate it in the non-virtual world, so there’s no reason to tolerate it here (with the caveat that one must allow a certain amount of leeway because passions will invariably become inflamed on occasion).

  36. People in the West tend to support democracy, do they not? Government by the people for the people and so more power for more people.
    Few people might vote etc. etc. but we still have democracy in place and not dictatorship or anything else. (and yes this subject is rather debateable)

    If you are ultimately responsible, fair enough.

    I would suggest a discussion board for general contributions from all, but you’ve already informed me that it wouldn’t do much good.

    Morals really depend on the individual, surely?

    As to online bullies:

    Stand up to them, or if there’s no point – yes, leave.

  37. Yes, but we have representative government – well in the UK at least – and I strongly suspect that if you asked people whether they’d want more or fewer people in government (i.e., fewer MPs, etc), then they’d go for fewer. This is actually analogous to the situation here, unless you’re arguing that literally everybody should have a say in moderation.

    I would suggest a discussion board for general contributions from all, but you’ve already informed me that it wouldn’t do much good.

    I don’t know what you mean here. Do you mean you want somewhere to discuss board policy? Well no, partly because I have very little interest in discussing meta issues on an on-going basis. But also for the same reason as before: it would be a charade. If I disagreed strongly with what the majority wanted, then I’d simply overrule them. This would be the case even if everybody except me wanted some x to occur. For the same reason: I have responsibilities here that other people do not (and that’s not even getting into the issue of what rights come with ownership, etc).

    Morals really depend on the individual, surely?

    Well no, not unless you’re some sort of extreme moral relativist.

    Stand up to them

    Sure, but that won’t work as a general policy. Partly because allowing the community to police bullying will just result in endless flame-wars; and partly because – as we have seen so often with the new atheist bloggers/commentators – the community itself often functions as the bully.

  38. In the case I know, standing up to the bullies just stimulated them to become more abusive, and since they seemingly had unlimited time to post in the internet group, whatever one said to them, they would answer immediately, always with irony, always trying to put the one down. Thus, one either was forced to spend all day defending oneself from their allegations, generally of a psychological nature or to give them the last word, which became the wiser alternative.

    In one internet group both bullies were finally banned, and another group simply was shut down by its owner, as the chaos escalated.

  39. Sleuth: “As to online bullies: Stand up to them, or if there’s no point – yes, leave.”

    First, as Amos indicates, the ‘stand up to them’ tactic often doesn’t work; sometimes, as Jeremy says, because a large part of the group may be the bully.

    Second, why should I have to leave, because other people are being obnoxious? Why not just ban the badly behaved.

    It really is simple. If you want to have the privilege of posting here, follow the rules.

  40. In British government, as an example: there is a large number of M.P.s (elected); the Cabinet (made up of M.P.s); the Prime Minister (more or less elected + M.P.); and judges. On this site, there is Jeremy Stangroom and Jeremy Stangroom is not elected by the people using the site (to the best of my knowledge). He is not representative of site users because they have not elected him.

    My stating this: ‘but you’ve already informed me that it wouldn’t do much good.’
    Referred to this: ‘Well no, partly because I have very little interest in discussing meta issues on an on-going basis. But also for the same reason as before: it would be a charade. If I disagreed strongly with what the majority wanted, then I’d simply overrule them. This would be the case even if everybody except me wanted some x to occur. For the same reason: I have responsibilities here that other people do not (and that’s not even getting into the issue of what rights come with ownership, etc).’

    I’m not a complete moral relativist. I do however believe that what is morally correct depends a fair bit on context. At this stage, people will have different views, hence: ‘morals really depend on the individual, surely?’

    ‘ “Stand up to them”

    ‘Sure, but that won’t work as a general policy. Partly because allowing the community to police bullying will just result in endless flame-wars; and partly because – as we have seen so often with the new atheist bloggers/commentators – the community itself often functions as the bully.’

    That’s why I said if there’s no point – yes, leave.

    Keith,

    ‘Why not just ban the badly behaved.’

    I included this under ‘stand up to them’, sorry if I was being a bit broad with my definition. Also, you’d need a moderator to ban them (though I assume this is what you meant) and Jeremy himself said that ‘the community itself often functions as the bully’. I.e. probably best just to leave.

    ‘It really is simple. If you want to have the privilege of posting here, follow the rules.’ Sorry, I didn’t realise there was a particular part of the site indicating ‘rules’. I would be glad to see it, if you could direct me to it. Or are these rules uncodified? (forgive the possible political/legal metaphor)

    Amos, I hope you’re satisfied by something in all that too.

    I think that’s everything.

  41. Sleuth

    Jeremy Stangroom is not elected by the people using the site (to the best of my knowledge). He is not representative of site users because they have not elected him.

    Yes, but the claim I was responding to wasn’t about whether people at Talking Philosophy would rather have more say in it being governed. It was this claim:

    more people in government/ moderating government/ checking government/ making laws etc. seems to be what the people in the West are after.

    And as I’ve said twice now, I think that’s a highly suspect claim.

    Or are these rules uncodified?

    The rules are uncodified. But, generally speaking, if people treat each other with respect, if they employ a principle of charity when dealing with their interlocutors, if they are polite, and if they avoid racism, sexism, etc, then it’s pretty unlikely I’m going to pull them up for anything.

  42. Sleuth: ‘more people in government/ moderating government/ checking government/ making laws etc. seems to be what the people in the West are after.’

    Jeremy: ‘And as I’ve said twice now, I think that’s a highly suspect claim.’

    I think Jeremy is correct. Many people in the West appear to want effective government but for this to be done with the fewest people actually in the government as possible.

    Sleuth: ‘Or are these rules uncodified?’

    Rules, or conventions, do not need to be codified to be understood and followed.

    But Jeremy actually stated some of them in the thread that started this discussion:

    ‘Be nice, be respectful, be charitable.’

  43. Hey Jeremy/Mike, Just peaked at a new blog recommended by Brian Leiter, and the comment policy there (which he also praised) sounds perfect to me–

    “Comments policy

    Commenters are guests in our space. You are welcome to share in the discussion, but you do not have any strong right to do so. We are not a government and deleting or banning you is not a violation of your right to free speech. The Internet is a big place, and if you find yourself banned from here, you can always start your own blog!

    That said, we won’t be arbitrary in deleting and banning if you abide by standard customs for intellectual debate: no irrelevant ad hominems, no hate speech, no deliberate derailing of the discussion, no excessive cursing, and so on. We’re not prudish or timid, but in the end it’s our call whether your comment is allowed to stay. It’s our place, and we don’t have any obligation to provide you a forum if we think you’ve violated the spirit of the place.

    We encourage the use of real names, but we realize that some people have a legitimate need for pseudonymity. But we won’t tolerate sockpuppets (using multiple IDs to give the impression that more than one person is commenting).”

    I think that’s pretty much what y’all have been saying too. It’s here–

    http://www.newappsblog.com/#tp

  44. Jean – Yes, that’s a good summary of pretty much the view I have about this stuff.

    I guess I’d want to include something about a principle of charity: that people should address themselves to the best version of their interlocutor’s argument, not the worst version. I think at least some of the bad feeling and trouble one finds on blogs and discussion forums comes from a desire to “kill” one’s opponent, rather than trying to see where there are areas of agreement and disagreement, etc (and, of course, I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as anybody).

    So I think I’m in favour of a general presumption that people ought to be charitable. But, at the same time, I realise this is very difficult in the middle of a heated debate, so there has to be a good deal of flexibility in terms of how one handles violations, etc.

  45. OK, not quite 100% perfect. You do want people to read each other charitably, because if they don’t you wind up with endless misrepresentations, and endless time and energy wasted correcting misrepresentations. But I like the notion of “guests in our space”–I think that’s exactly right.

  46. Just want to clarify: by ‘more people in government/ moderating government/ checking government/ making laws etc. seems to be what the people in the West are after.’
    I basically mean not a dictatorship. At least, that’s far closer to what I was going for.

    However, you’ve made your position clear as being responsible for the happenings within the site and I accept that you should accordingly be able to act as you wish. ‘guests in our space’ – like ‘guests in our house’ or ‘on our property’. The owner of the property has a bit of an advantage over the visitor…

    Keith,

    “But Jeremy actually stated some of them in the thread that started this discussion:

    ‘Be nice, be respectful, be charitable.’ ”

    So…yes it’s uncodified. I do realise he has mentioned several ‘rules’ to me during our discussion and I did know that the rules were uncodified before I asked the question. I am merely exploring the field around the ‘Uncle Jed Case’ so as to perhaps put in a good word for a friend that might give him another chance.

  47. I am merely exploring the field around the ‘Uncle Jed Case’ so as to perhaps put in a good word for a friend that might give him another chance.

    Sleuth, I’ll let it slide that you mentioned the Uncle Jed case again. But just so things are absolutely clear: I gave him more than one chance when he was posting under his previous pseudonym. I spelt out exactly what was required from him if he wished to continue to post here. He didn’t take any notice. And I say again, the fact that he then began posting under a different pseudonym is in and of itself enough reason for a ban (so, for example, see the comments policy that Jean has linked to).

    In a way, it’s admirable that you’re sticking up for a friend. But, you know, it’s possible you’re not actually seeing the whole picture here.

  48. This is a private space where Jeremy rules O.K. Opposed to this is the communal space where competing viewpoints of what is acceptable strive for a hearing. All very simple, all very symmetrical, all very ‘binary’, whatever that is. Like most simplisms and articles of liberal piety it bears no close examination. Bellwether Jones in his private garden proposes a bonfire of his personally owned copy of the Koran and even the President has to recognise his right to do so while pleading with him to reconsider. Is this moral solipsism? May not the practices and principles of the Commonwealth of Jeremy be applicable here? The idea of a private gathering virtual or actual is no longer sustainable. The walls have ears and loose lips sink ships as the WW2 poster had it. Pope Benedict XVI makes a tactless remark at a gathering of theologians in Ravensburg. Up till recently this meeting would have been as occult as that of Madam Blavatsky’s mahatmas in Tibet. Now it is round the world in a trice and papal flags would have been burned if they could have got them. In the global village the common law of a community with regard to actions liable to lead to a breach of the peace needs to be extended. Failing that the President could apply his powers of rendition and torture. Rapture could come early for Jones.

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