To censor or not to censor

There are two major arenas where censorship happens: publicly and privately. When it occurs publicly, it is generally illegal (in fact, by “publicly”, I only mean in instances where the question is a legal one). That is, a person who is prevented from engaging in public speech is a person who has had his First Amendment rights trampled. Of course there are all the caveats – threatening speech and gag orders and yelling fire in a crowded theater and things like that – but I’m not talking about those and they aren’t important for this post. What’s important here is when censorship occurs privately. Specifically, I want to talk about online censorship as wrought by people in administration positions, whether it be on a message board or a Facebook page or, especially, a blog.

Ken of Popehat (and that other little thing) recently wrote about his displeasure at the fact that one of his fellow bloggers had to close a thread due to the lack of civility in the comments. In response, a reader wrote to that other blogger, Patrick, and asked him how he felt about an individual’s role in moderating privately run forums and the like. Here is part of Patrick’s response:

I view Popehat as property: my property, held in common with three friends. For me, the inquiry stops there.

I choose to invest my time into Popehat for one reason, and one reason alone. I enjoy what results from it. I believe that Popehat is a great website, and I gain personal satisfaction from knowing that I have done my part to make it so…

But if I were forced, by compulsion or out of assumed moral obligation, to allow others to use Popehat for purposes I find repellent, the joy that I gain from this site would turn to ashes in my mouth. I would no longer be the master of this house: I would become a slave, working for no reward…

I wouldn’t work on a website that makes me angry, unless I am being paid obscene amounts of money. Since that will never happen, I will not allow Popehat to make me angry.

If it’s a choice between you and me, you will go. So that I can stay.

I’ve pasted his response together in pieces, but I think I’ve captured the gist of it.

I feel entirely different about censorship of this nature. Sure, if someone wants to censor what others write in a privately run space, I’m going to deem it stupid if the censored individual runs to a judge and jury, but I have no issue with the criticism that the censorious individual gets. In fact, I would like to join in: I generally view censorship as cowardly regardless of any legal questions that may exist.

I also find people who are willing to censor to be very untrustworthy. When I visit a new blog and leave a comment, I often have my first comment kept in moderation. That’s fine if the person is looking to filter out all the spam possible (or just too lazy to fix his settings), but if I leave a second comment and that is also kept in moderation, I am unlikely to continue with my posting. I do not spam and I do not troll, thus there is no reason to prevent my (or most other people’s) comments from immediately posting – except for the purpose of making a censor-based decision.

I want to mention another blogger for whom I lost nearly all respect when he not only proved himself inept at his profession, in my opinion, but also a FOX News-like liar regarding a particular issue. After we had a falling out – we aren’t even Facebook pals anymore :( – I continued to comment on a few of his posts, despite the reasonable risk that he might censor my comments. I don’t mean that as a personal jab but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that we are two individuals who do not like each other and I wasn’t allowing his comment sections to go as swimmingly as he might like. As it turns out, though, he has not censored me in the least. He hasn’t even threatened to do so. That I respect. That is how a blog administrator should behave. That is how I run my site.

Shifty gears slightly, one common theme to issues like this is for people to compare their blog or forum to their living room. “Why,” they say, “I would never allow someone to speak rudely to me or my other guests from my couch, so why should I allow it here?” I think that analogy fails. It only works insofar as one’s living room and one’s blog are both private. But my front yard is private property, just as my bedroom is. Does that mean it would be okay to walk about naked whenever I pleased? Of course not. Having one characteristic in common does not make two things equal (Nate‘s mother and bovine specimens excepted). The difference in this cases lies in the fact that a blog is essentially an open-invite to the public. Whenever I make a post, including this one, I am asking anyone and everyone to come into ‘my living room’ and tell me what they think. I would never do that with my real living room.

I want to be sure, though, that I’m not polarizing this issue. Like with most things, it isn’t all black and white. I have banned one non-bot person from FTSOS. He was spamming and trolling and had no interest in any sort of discussion. He was clogging up my Recent Comments widget to the point where he killed at least two discussions that were happening elsewhere. (People had no idea their comments had received a response and the posts only existed several pages deep, so the ability to see recent comments – the only lifeline for the comment sections – was severed.) His comments were also stupid, but that isn’t why I banned him. I banned him because he made my website logistically incoherent.

And there are other instances where I can understand someone censoring a post. If someone posts a link to lemonparty.org (consider context to be your warning), I would probably edit it. Not always, but probably. Or, let’s say, a blogger loses his spouse to cancer. If a person starts talking about the deceased as some evil person and other personalized vulgarities, I don’t think I would consider the blogger a coward for utilizing his “Move to Trash” feature.

All that said, I am against censorship on private forums – forums that are inherently designed as open-invites to the public. That means I have no respect for the closing of threads or banning of commenters at places like FTSOS or Popehat or any blog in 99% of the non-bot instances. “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “I don’t like how you’re saying that” are the two things administrators are telling everyone when they close things and ban people. That impresses me less than Brad Pitt impressed Shania Twain in 1998*. It’s a way to insulate one’s self from the so-called marketplace of ideas. Obviously no one wants to run a shitty market, but allowing others to meet a bad apple at one or two of your corners is a good thing. That’s reality. And if those bad corners turn into bad streets and then bad areas and then a bad market, that probably isn’t a reflection of a lax censor policy. In that case, there is likely something wrong with the sort of posts being made or the sort of people making the posts. Anything on the Internet can attract awful people, but awful things will attract them in clusters. (That is in no way a comment on Patrick or Popehat. I think Popehat is a fantastic site, and I would think that even if Ken had never helped me so much with a tough problem.)

Now, feel free to say whatever you want in my comment section.

*I’m on a 90’s reference kick lately.

14 Responses

  1. As I was finishing this post, Nate made the point that some threads should be closed if they forget the topic entirely or sail off into vulgarities. The first part of that speaks to the issue I raised with my Recent Comments widget being clogged. The vulgarities part depends, however. I don’t think the thread at Popehat deserved closing; I think the tone people use is largely irrelevant to the content being discussed, so if there is still some meat on the bones, people should be allowed to speak as they please – even if they do growl a lot.

  2. What is your opinion on threads that auto close comments within a certain time frame?

  3. While I understand your point here, I can’t say I agree with it completely. While it’s true that even privately-owned blogs are inviting anyone in to make comments, I do think that a bit of moderation can be a necessary thing.

    A blogger wants as many people to read their posts as possible, and I would think that blogger would also want those people to feel comfortable at his/her site. If you have a comment thread where people are repeatedly insulting each other or resorting to name-calling, you’re not going to achieve that level of comfort. This is what happened on the Popehat thread, and is the reason why I agree with them closing the comments. Another thing worth mentioning is that those comments are still there. All of them. Nothing was removed- the moderators simply decided to keep what was already an uncomfortable situation from getting farther out of hand.

    According to the comments on another thread at Popehat, there are already people uncomfortable leaving comments because of the recent issues. People shouldn’t have to feel that way when they come to a blog, and if moderation can prevent it then so be it.

  4. Peachkins, I think most people stated being uncomfortable commenting because they didn’t like how the moderation was handled not how the thread went. I think that Patrick should moderate how he sees fit, however I understand were some users are coming from. In the end, if anyone doesn’t like how the moderation is handled, be it too little or too much, they can leave. I was involved in the thread referenced and part of the argument, closing it did give me a chance to cool down, but I still stand by my words.

  5. I understand what you’re saying about the comments regarding the moderation, but there was one comment in particular that came to mind when I posted. That was from Fox, who stated, “I’m very glad it was shut down, but I suspect that a chunk of the commentariat (especially those involved) might not understand why those remarks were so vile that shutting down the discussion became necessary. And that makes me more leery of joining future discussions.”

    Thankfully I think he/she’s wrong. It seems that most people- including yourself- who were involved with that thread and have commented since are being pretty supportive of the moderation. The bad language and the name-calling didn’t bother me to the point that I would leave. I have seen sites with worse things that I have still been willing to leave comments on. Honestly, even the comments in the closed thread at Popehat had plenty of valid and well-thought-out arguments despite the other faults, and I’m glad they’re still there for everyone to see.

    Glad to hear you’re standing by your words. I would hope that anyone speaking so passionately about a subject would do the same if they were to look back at their comments.

  6. You said: “All that said, I am against censorship on private forums – forums that are inherently designed as open-invites to the public.”

    You seem to have an interesting definition of “private.” Private forums are just that: private property which the public is permitted to view. Just because you view your comment section as the spiritual equivalent of a debate held on the national mall doesn’t mean every other blogger feels the same way. Nor does it mean that they should be obligated to follow the rules that you choose for yourself. Indeed, if you look at the “comment policy” on Popehat’s site, they state *explicitly* that they don’t intend it to be an “open invite to the public” in the way you wish it to be.

    Further, I do not believe it is cowardly to set the rules of engagement for one’s own property. If I post a campaign placard in my front yard, should I have to open my lawn to every person running for office? Is it somehow “cowardly” if I do not? Hardly.

  7. deselect – The purpose of those threads is to usually keep things up to date, and I can understand that. Sometimes I’ll get comments on issues that I consider more or less dead; it’s probably a bigger issue for bigger blogs.

    Martin – It isn’t merely that the public is “permitted” to view these blogs. There is an invite to participate. That isn’t merely my own personal preference, but rather what I think the very nature of a blog is.

    If someone wants to set up a bunch of restrictions about what is and is not allowed, that’s fine. The problem comes when that person wants to portray his website as a place for open and free discussion. It’s clear it’s anything but. I find that cowardly.

  8. There is an invitation to participation, but it is not infinite in extent. This is in the same way that a normal person asking a question of a stranger on the street is inviting conversation, but is not inviting to fisticuffs. I believe there are very few people out there who are truly intending their blogs as unlimited vehicles for communication. Even you acknowledge, albeit tacitly, that trolling and spamming are legitimate things to restrict on blogs: “I do not spam and I do not troll, thus there is no reason to prevent my (or most other people’s) comments from immediately posting…” You wish to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable which is far more permissive than the line drawn many others. And that’s fine. But now we’re talking about degrees of “censorship,” not a black and white line between the cowardly and the brave.

    As someone whose high school letter came in speech and debate, I am a great lover of intellectual exchange (and of free speech). But demanding that those who engage in a debate in one’s presence do so in at least a minimally respectful manner seems like simple good sense to me. I vehemently support the right of others to say whatever they want free of government restriction. But just because I support someone’s right to walk down the street talking in graphic terms about how much they hate minorities doesn’t mean I particularly want to hear it. On the open street, I can walk away. But on my property (which is what a blog is–a place that the blogger owns and will be forced to visit again and again if they wish to continue blogging), I will demand that the speaker exercises more civility. Am I a coward for wishing not to have someone else’s hatred and derision forced down my throat every day? I suppose one is welcome to make that claim. Bravery is being willing to dare the sword, but it is foolhardy to rush at a thicket of them with open arms.

  9. From my perspective, it’s actually more cowardly *not* to enforce a code of conduct when allowing people to leave comments. An argument that has substantive points but that’s filled with ad hominem attacks and digressions has such a poor form that it ends up injecting far more noise than signal into the ensuing thread. It then becomes highly likely for that thread to devolve into personal defenses and attacks, or to wander off into tangents utterly unrelated to the initial discussion points such that there is no “thread” there anymore.

    Furthermore, being uncivil to other posters can be hurtful in and of itself. Though one cannot *control* how a person responds to a post, one can at least minimize the probability of another person being hurt by employing a thoughtful, reasoned manner of expression.

    I disagree with censoring (most all post-related comment) content, as having a free exchange of ideas is an exciting and vital part of having the ability to comment. However, I believe that requiring good form to arguments ensures that it’s the issues that are debated, not the people raising them, and that maximizes enjoyment of the comment threads in question.

  10. As for that idiot who did get banned … everyone should check out that thread to watch the fireworks as Hawkins puts that fool in his place. Classic! I wish you’d let him back in so you can dish out more pain.

    http://forthesakeofscience.com/2011/06/12/new-jersey-tennessee-and-emotional-distress/#comments

  11. Even you acknowledge, albeit tacitly, that trolling and spamming are legitimate things to restrict on blogs

    I didn’t think I was being tacit about it. As I said, this isn’t as black and white as free speech in public is. There is an inherent interest in creating a space where people are able to openly discuss ideas. Spammers and trolls prevent that just as much as size 72 font would. It’s physically readable, but no one wants to sift through all that.

    However, when the sifting is through the back and forth between two or more people who are still adding some sort of substance, then I don’t see the justification in stopping that.

    But demanding that those who engage in a debate in one’s presence do so in at least a minimally respectful manner seems like simple good sense to me.

    I can’t get behind doling out respect where it is undue. If a flat-Earth made his way into one of my threads, I would be anything but respectful of his views.

  12. Thanks, Ken.

    (For anyone wondering, I don’t know who Ken is.)

  13. “However, when the sifting is through the back and forth between two or more people who are still adding some sort of substance, then I don’t see the justification in stopping that.”

    I respect your belief in this, your willingness to hold to this standard for yourself and your blog. But I don’t feel that someone who draws the line in a different place is a coward. That was my point. The fact that it *isn’t* black and white makes the charge of cowardice seem like an overly-harsh indictment. Ken and co. are just a little bit further down the slope than you are. For them, the value of the little added substance appears to be overwhelmed by the negatives of the abuse and ad hominem attacks. To my eye, it is more a matter of different tastes and levels of toleration than anything else.

    As to the respect issue, I apologize for being unclear. I was trying to draw the distinction between respecting the speaker as a human being (which I believe to be a societal virtue) and respecting the ideas being espoused (which would be a grave mistake in the case you cite). There is no need to be respectful of such a person’s views; indeed, there would be a strong need NOT to be. But there is no need to also abuse the speaker personally. Holding ideas like flat-earth (or creationism, or any other such fantasy) is a fairly strong indictment of the logic skills of the speaker all by itself. I would be happy to point out in fairly lacerating terms how foolish, how poorly supported, and how poorly reasoned such ideas are.

    By minimally respectful, I mean things like not making abusively phrased ad hominem attacks, and not calling the speaker names. Personal abuse tends to detract from the power of an argument, not enhance it. I personally find it neither edifying nor entertaining to read. Worse, if there’s a lot of it on a blog’s comments it tends to destroy readership rather than build it. That was the sort of thing happening in the “thread of doom” on Popehat.

    By the way, I really appreciate your dialogue on the subject and your reasoned responses.

  14. Perhaps you are right that “coward” is the wrong word. I certainly did not mean to call Ken or Patrick cowards – I don’t know Patrick, but Ken is anything but.

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