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Sunday, October 07, 2007

An analogy...

I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I wrote this on the train today:

Look, Mark, you have young daughters. Imagine that one day, one of your daughters comes home from school diminished. Someone told her that she couldn’t play. Someone told her best friend that girls couldn’t do math and she overheard. This time, for whatever reason, it hit home. So your beautiful sparkly daughter comes home and she’s dragging. And the rest of the evening you do work. You cheer her and remind her she is perfect. You find the cause and find a way to recast it, so that she has another way to think of what she heard. You do math with her, to remind her that she is solid kick-ass at math. The whole night, you and your wife love her and worry. That is work. It is work you wouldn’t have to do if she hadn’t heard that crap; it would have been a normal evening of homework and wrestling and dessert if they ask nicely.

Now imagine that there is a teacher. The teacher was watching, saw whatever bullying happened. But she didn’t intervene. She was sitting, drinking her coffee, and she spends so much time grading papers and she didn’t want to go sort out another squabble. There will just be another one later. When you ask her, ‘why the hell did you just sit by when that kid said my daughter was too slow to play’, she says, ‘your daughter needs to get over it.’ That teacher just pushed her work onto you.

See, here’s the thing. There is work or there is hurt. Either that teacher does the work of walking over and preventing the hurt, or you and your wife do the work of restoring your daughter, or your daughter is just a little chipped*. Those are the choices.

Given that the work will be done, or the hurt will be done, the next question is, who should take care of that work? First choice is that punk kids keep their mouths shut when they want to start in on your daughter. Here on the internet, we seem to have written off that option, although I have not forgotten it. Second choice is the teacher. He has the ability and he can stop the hurt before it happens, which is a multiplier. Last choice, the only choice that is obviously unjust, is that the hurt kid should do that work. The only innocent in the story, who neither did hurt nor has a responsibility, is the one who must bear the hurt and the work? But that is the choice of anyone who thinks an unmoderated comment section is fine***. I can’t respect that choice.














*We do not grow strong** from being damaged and repaired. We get deformed and brittle from being damaged and repaired. We grow strong from being loved so completely that we can try things and succeed and fail.

**Defensive, sharp and dismissive is not strong. Stable, willing and open is strong.

***And you cannot but think that they haven’t been on the receiving end much, which is probably a result of their race and gender. It is either un-empathetic or self-serving, and I don’t understand either when the stakes are so high for the rest of us.


Perhaps the least persuasive argument in all of this is “That’s just how it is.” Bloggers have as much control over their own comments sections as they have over anything in the world. If they allow bullshit in their comments, it is by choice. They have every tool they need: the stature, the moral cause behind civility, the ability to engage and redirect, the power to delete. It may be hard to singlehandedly force civility on a public meeting of real people, but if there is anywhere in the world where a person could choose a standard and get people to comply, it is in her own comments section. All it requires is a decision to shoulder that work.

23 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

I totally agree with your entire line of reasoning here, except for the very base of the analogy. I'm not being snarky when I say that. I agree with you 100% except for this:

Going to an internet forum is not at all like going to a school. It is like sending my daughter to a crack house and then being SHOCKED that she saw something offensive.

Because going to an internet forum is INHERENTLY something that will cause people to see things that offend them. I do not expect decorum from most internet boards, nor should I. It's design shapes the expected output.

I stopped consuming news of any form because I believe it is INHERENTLY a form of communication that does me net ill. I consider the obligation to reside with me to not consume such things.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

But the crackhouse comes to us and the crackhouse is everywhere and people link to me, dragging me through the crackhouse doors. I would have to leave the internet to avoid being offended.

I keep saying this - you moderate comments to ensure full participation - if you don't value participation by anyone who gets hurt when women and minorities get slammed, then it is fine to let your comments degenerate. You are trading whatever I (or other members of targeted groups) might come up with next for the convenience of the host blogger.

The design does not have to shape the output, if someone puts work into guiding it to civility. I want bloggers to face up to that responsibility. (Well, I really want commenters to stop doing that shit, but that comes later.)

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

You're going back and forth talking about two different things, without drawing the distinctions brightly enough. It's one thing to be proud of your choice to moderate your own comments section; it's something entirely different to tell everyone else that they need to moderate their comment sections with criteria that you approve of.

---

To torture the analogy further, there are (in theory) technological walls you can build to keep the crackhouse from coming at you so incessantly. Blogger does not implement all of those options, but they do exist and they would keep you from having to see some of the things you would prefer not to.

Those things are infinitely more effective than moral suasion, especially on the internet. The internet may or may not be immutable--one day, after the whole world consists of people that have grown up online, then the culture shock (yours and theirs) that precipitated this whole thread may be less intense that it is today. But on time scales of a few years, you can consider the internet to be immutable.

One of the very hard lessons from the early days of mass commercialization of the internet was that the world has a supply of idiots and assholes that you may as well assume to be infinite. Meatspace human communities have some hope of socializing newbies, but your instincts that developed to deal with physical communities are misleading you in the online world. Here, there is no hope of achieving what you seem to be advocating. Please, for the sake of your sanity, choose a battle that you might conceivably make some progress with.

Also, hopefully I'm not repeating myself to the point of obnoxiousness, but community moderation systems do spare the forum owner the brunt of the really evil crap. That kind of thing obviously isn't very widely implemented (notably, not in Blogger), but it would really help in lots of places.

11:58 PM  
Blogger jens said...

In your analogy, the teacher is presumably being paid to provide a nurturing environment for the child. The teacher is falling down on the job for not providing that.

Bloggers are not necessarily trying to be nurturing. Some bloggers might want to set up a nursery school. Some bloggers might choose to set up a gladiator school or an arena.

The other place where I feel the analogy falls down is that you are not a child. In a world where words are our swords and shields - I've read many of your words, Megan, and you are an armored division when it comes to that. Should you choose to dignify some of those verbal assaults (and I agree with your choice not to stoop) by ripping the assailant a new one, that new one would be ripped wide and it would be ripped deep.

Suppose your odd crusade to force moderation on every blog were - against all odds - a success? People who want to say something mean can still write their OWN blogs, can't they? Maybe THAT should be banned? It just seems to me that your line of attack is either meaningless, or must result in your controlling the entire internet. Neither sounds really good to me.

5:41 AM  
Blogger jens said...

By the way, don't get the impression that I prefer the arenas. I adore the civility in most of your discussions, and have no interest in getting into battles with people I don't know unless I'm trying to push some actual idea.

I think there is a place for the arenas, and I love that they exist, but it's usually a place for people other than myself.

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, you've got a libertarian audience and you decide to crusade for some standard of behavior. Even if every libertarian reading the forum agreed with you whole heartedly, they are honor bound to argue against it. You simply cannot argue that we restrict anyone's behavior. What were you thinking?

I think that it is wonderful that you police your comment sections as you do. Your blog and others where moderation prevails will be the good neighborhoods of the Internet and those who crave civility will reside there. There is little that can be done for many of the places with the arena mentality. Those that prefer civility simply won't go there. I don't.

Cheers,
Tim.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

Given that the work will be done, or the hurt will be done, the next question is, who should take care of that work?

This seems to be the core of the question. My answer: the work should be done by the person causing the hurt. Unfortunately, those people don't agree that there's any harm, and more importantly, they have no power to heal. Likewise with the uncaring teacher. If he could help, he would have already done so. Moral responsibility is irrelevant here - it's silly to say someone is required to do something they cannot.

My real answer is the work CAN only be done by "everyone who is in a position to help and cares about the victim, either individually or in the abstract".

An interesting question beyond this is: "does this kind of attack justify a violent response?" This is what a lot of us hear when you talk about words as analogous to physical attacks. Is that what you're trying to say? Hateful speech is a violation that should be criminalized? In my heart, I'd agree. Sadly, practical considerations intervene here too - it's the type of thing that instantly corrupts any enforcement organization, so I can't think of anyone (including myself) capable of reacting correctly with violence to hurtful words.

To pick another analogy, if this kind of blog comment were a porn shop opening in your neighborhood, it would be subject to the opprobrium and violence (one step removed: picketing and zoning laws, but both backed up by men with guns) from neighbors.

On the intertubes, zoning laws and harassing of unpopular businesses isn't possible. However, community dislike and shunning is. I highly recommend you avoid sites that offend you. I even recommend naming them so we can avoid them with you.

As to unintended interaction with such sites, I'd imagine that if you request no linking or quoting from sites that don't moderate their comments, the majority will honor that.

I am the privileged white guy that your *** describes. But it's far too simplistic to say I think unmoderated comments are OK. I don't read comment sections of most sites, this being one major exception. Because of the comment policy. I STRONGLY prefer moderation, I just don't see a way to force people to provide it.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Dewb said...

"***And you cannot but think that they haven’t been on the receiving end much, which is probably a result of their race and gender."

Megan, I'm on your side, but I think you're going a little far here. If you meant this in the context of your elementary school analogy, I can assure you that white boys are perfectly capable of saying nasty, diminishing things about each other. (Just as girls can be mean to girls, etc.) If someone claims they never got their feelings hurt, they either went to an exceptionally well-mannered school, or they have a selective memory.

More likely is that when it happened no one came to their aid, or they were told to buck up and deal with it themselves. Which is why they now expect everyone else to do the same.

10:37 AM  
Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

Just as a wonder... why does this bother you so? You lead by example, you advocate, without being queen for a day, you cannot make people change. Even if you were to force a change, it wouldn't be those people making a change from inside, but being forced to one from without.

What you do is ask them to change. You've painted a good picture of why it would be good, the advantages and so on...

Why is this not enough good? It isn't something you can force people to be, so let the market take care of it. If a forum is terribly nasty, people won't read it, and it's insular crowd will eventually eat themselves. You have done all that you can to provide an alternative.

All you really have to say is it's not the way I run my place, and I think many would be better off if forums or comments were run in this other way.

I know that the reaction is to argue passionately about a wrong. This we all do, I am doing it right now. But I can't make you listen, any more than you can make other people listen. All I can do is try and persuade, and then let it go. When the situation calls for it, I may and try to persuade again, especially if I care about you, or the target. There is a point in time when you are beating your head against a concrete pillar. Eventually you can break through... but why tear yourself up?

Or another way: you don't have to break down the door, people will build a stronger one. Just pick the lock.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous freight train said...

The line of thought in many of these comments seems to be:

(1) Megan's basically right in her values; but,
(2) You can't really change the vibe of the whole internet; so
(3) Tighten down your world and keep it tight, and don't let yourself get driven crazy by everyone. So -

(4) Why worry about it so much?

I think the answer to (4) is that (1) and (2) aren't consistent. "Lovingkindness," as Megan calls it (or call it consciousness, or call it whatever) isn't a precept to be nice to people when you see them. It is a radical belief that only active love can change the world; and that it can change the world only when each of us takes active love into his or her heart; and that only extending active love to those who don't feel it is radical enough to break through to those people. And to save the world we've got to break through to those people! This isn't supposed to be easy, and this isn't about being nice to people.

This is to say, if Megan's right in her values, we can change the internet. By being active and doing the hard work of kindness and love - and some of that work involves, perhaps, moderating comments. The purpose of that work, again, isn't to be nice; it's to show people that only active love and kindness are acceptable. The premise of these values is that you can get this work done, one person at a time, and that's what love in action is.

So you can't have (1) and not-(2).

4:41 PM  
Anonymous freight train said...

Shit - the last sentence should be "You can't have both (1) and (2)."

4:47 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

You rock, Freight Train.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Whatever, Rainbow Brite.

If you choose to pursue something that's impossible, then it's a bit rich to complain about how discouraging it is. And it's silly to scold anyone else for refusing to follow you into Sisyphus-land.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The part that requires work to recover from is the nasty comments. Those do the damage and require work on my part to repair.

I don't count scolding my peers as work; that's like recreation for me.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The people who should follow me into Sisyphus-land are the ones who take equality seriously. This is what is required to ensure equal access and full participation by everyone. If you don't want to do this, don't. But then admit to yourself that you don't care if groups of people are shut out.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Scott Calvert said...

I dunno Megan, I really like your principles on this issue and won't attempt to argue them down on their merits because I would fail. I do appreciate Freight Train for his interpretation, it left me with a much clearer take on your position.

Still, I can't help but conclude that you're being self serving here. Here are the facts as I see them: 1) The World is full of a lot of bad nastiness, often rising to the level of a mortal threat for any given person/community/belief system that stands in nastiness's way. 2) The scale of nastiness is obvious to any socialized adult, therefore failing to deal with it is either an act of foolishness or wanton self destructiveness. 3) Nastiness, by nature, does not want to change, so any effort to change it will likely evoke its ire. 4) 2 and 3 imply that any person seriously attempting to change the nastiness must either a) be ready to defend themselves, b) accept they are being foolish, or c) accept that they are being self destructive.

Your frustration seems to me to be directed at people who are not willing to pay the price of option a yet reject b and c. Sometimes failing to fight for the good cause is a form of evil all on its own, but not always. In my view, the standard for arguing "join the fight I choose even though you may be hurt in it" is very high. I agree that people owe each other civility. I don't agree that we a priori owe each other assistance in defense or offense against the evils of the world at large. It's a harsh cold world and we all ultimately are individually responsible for our own place in it.

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

Thank you, Freight Train, for clarifying this a bit. I'm still missing something though.

"We can make the Internet better" or even "You can make your blog tolerable" by disallowing stupid, mean comments is something I completely agree with. That seems like plenty to bite off.

In this case, however, trying to assign blame to those who choose not to moderate works against the change. It's the type of argument that leads to defensiveness rather than change.

Someone hosting unmoderated forums now has the choice of changing his policy based on your hurt, to protect you, which is implying that he accepts responsibility for your hurt. Which he doesn't (and shouldn't, but that's sidetracking again). Or to NOT change, even if he thinks it would be a good thing for his blog, just so you don't control him and he doesn't accept your blame.

I don't really have a horse in this race, except as a proxy for the privileged happy people who just don't understand - I don't host nor often visit unmoderated forums.

However, I worry that you're taking on more pain than you need to on this topic, by failing to avoid the hurt and by concentrating too much on it. Don't do that - it hurts people who like you to see you suffer, and does not help anyone.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

The people who should follow me into Sisyphus-land are the ones who take equality seriously. This is what is required to ensure equal access and full participation by everyone. If you don't want to do this, don't. But then admit to yourself that you don't care if groups of people are shut out.

Fair enough. However, there must be some middle ground here. I really do think that your goals of completely equal access and full participation for everyone (including the thin-skinned) are impossible. So what are the first steps we could take in that direction?

One option is to kill yourself trying to absorb an arbitrarily large amount of evil. Something like community moderation is another option.

If I could come up with some way of excluding the assholes and no one else, I'd be pretty satisfied. Even something weaker like having a strong correlation between the excluded and the assholes wouldn't be so bad in my opinion.

Would I care that some people were excluded? Yes. Would I care very much? No. There are other battles that I'd rather spend effort on.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

3) Nastiness, by nature, does not want to change, so any effort to change it will likely evoke its ire. 4) 2 and 3 imply that any person seriously attempting to change the nastiness must either a) be ready to defend themselves, b) accept they are being foolish, or c) accept that they are being self destructive.

I'm not working with the nasty people yet (except on the days when they directly come to me). I'll try that when I am more enlightened. For now, I am still talking to people like us. I'm talking to men who do believe that we are all equal and need some help seeing the connection between their actions and the burden it places on us. (Marginal Revolution, Crooked Timber, Ezra, Matt, Lawyers, Guns and Money, on my daily rounds.) I don't have to defend myself against them. They're way more likely to ignore me.

My goal is way more radical than the options you gave me in 4. I want to engage them and get them to make a conscious choice.


It's a harsh cold world and we all ultimately are individually responsible for our own place in it.

That's not how I see the world at all.


In this case, however, trying to assign blame to those who choose not to moderate works against the change. It's the type of argument that leads to defensiveness rather than change.

That's funny; just yesterday I re-read MLK's speech on sympathetic voices who told him to wait.

Someone hosting unmoderated forums now has the choice of changing his policy based on your hurt, to protect you, which is implying that he accepts responsibility for your hurt.

It isn't specifically my hurt that I worry about, although that's the example I give here. I myself get way more concerned about Dizzy or Ms. McArdle or JMPP or the way Ms. LeBlanc got attacked at Yglesias' the other day. And then you realize that it can happen to any woman all the time and the hurt becomes a very strong priority. This also follows race, as the people at Sepia Mutiny well know, but I am not as alert to that.

That is only one reason though. There is another reason, which would be just as important if the targets never once read blogs and experienced that hurt. I am equally worried about the souls of the men who host those blogs, and co-commenters. If you do believe in equality and you do love people in the targeted groups, in the long run it damages your soul to host a mean forum, one at odds with your core beliefs. The exposure to nastiness hurts them too. They don't want to pick up the work of moderating, but they absorb the shame of collaborating in sexism and racism. If they mean their beliefs, in time that dissonance and shame will hurt them too.




Would I care that some people were excluded? Yes. Would I care very much? No. There are other battles that I'd rather spend effort on.

This might change if you were one of the excluded ones.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

This might change if you were one of the excluded ones.

?

I'm talking about mechanisms for excluding the same people that you've been excluding. You've been doing it by manual moderation; I think there are better ways to do it. But I can't believe that you'd disagree with the goal, since you've already done the exact same thing.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm sorry, Mitch, I read your comment backward. I thought you were saying that you didn't mind excluding people who are the targets of attacks and edged off the internet.

I don't address your comments about community moderation much, but I am down with the concept, nd love the idea of mutual socialization between commenters.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

NOT ONE OF YOU TOLD ME I SPELLED ANALOGY WRONG? You let me leave it up there for a couple days? That is SO embarrassing.

4:27 PM  
Blogger jens said...

> And then you realize that it can
> happen to any woman all the time

How about "any person"? Every time you say something like that, I hear "But men don't matter."

I realize that you perceive women are more savagely attacked. My perceptions are different, perhaps because of my own bias. It seems when a woman is attacked, there is always somebody ready to jump to her defense (most likely to improve his chance of getting laid). When a man is attacked, he usually stands or falls alone.

There are differences, of course. Rape references, for example, are usually much more personal directed for a woman. But all those references as to what might happen to me during a brief jail stay are made openly, with very little publc protest, and generally met with universal merriment.

It's been tried, and I don't think it is all that funny.

2:30 AM  

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