Civility and Incivility, Truth and Fiction at #scio10

Last week’s Science Online conference was an amazing gathering of some of the brightest minds in science communication. What I didn’t talk about in my SEED report was one of the final sessions of the conference, Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents.

Each of the presenters gave a nice, thoughtful, 5-minute talk about their views on the issue, but what everyone was waiting for was the fireworks when open discussion began. For a while the discussion was tame enough, with everyone exchanging platitudes about how they view the issues. But then things got a LOT more heated. I’m going to describe this as accurately as I can reconstruct, and please excuse (or correct) me if I get it wrong because it has been reframed in many different ways by many different people. I’m going to leave out names for now, but I think most people close to the situation know who’s being discussed. Even though I’m presenting this as a dialog, remember that it’s just a reconstruction, and so the quotes are paraphrases at best.

MALE: I have found that the best way to have serious discussions online is to make a set of ground rules about how discussions are carried out. There are certain blogs I don’t even visit any more, such as PZ Myers’, because the discussion is so vile that all dissenting voices are immediately drowned out. The bloggers I admire, such as John Wilkins, have a simple rule that is quite effective: “This is my living room, and I ask that all visitors treat it with respect. In other words, don’t piss on my carpet.”

FEMALE: I just can’t agree with that. I spent many, many years working in an institution dominated by a white, male patriarchy. Whenever I tried to express my opinion in that setting, my voice was quashed. The same excuse was given: “don’t piss on my carpet.” In other words, in the name of “civility,” all dissenting voices were repressed. I suffocated in that environment, and now that I have my own blog, I’m going to say exactly what I want, and I don’t care how “civil” people think I’m being.

MALE (turns to face FEMALE. Raises voice): I’m extremely offended by that comment. Don’t you accuse me of being an oppressor. I am a Jew, and I’ve experienced the vilest sort of oppression for my entire career. Don’t you tell me how to behave! (There was more, and by the end of this tirade, he is almost shouting directly at the face of FEMALE).

At this point the moderators tried to take charge and settle things down. The discussion continued for a while at a not-so-elevated pitch, with some people coming to the defense of MALE and some to the defense of FEMALE. Finally, after the official session had wrapped up, MALE stood and launched another tirade at FEMALE before storming out of the room.

Now, here are a couple accounts that have been circulating the web of the incident. First, a cartoon:

And second, the account from Henry Gee’s blog:

I am at a session at ScienceOnline2010 all about striking the balance between enforcing civility in blog comments, and fighting off trolls. I make the point that civility can be encouraged by laying out ground rules – as John Wilkins says on his admirable blog, Evolving Thoughts – and I hope he won’t mind my quoting it in extenso :

‘This is my living room, so don’t piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don’t test it, please. Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don’t do it here.’

Much to my amazement I am criticized very sharply for expressing what I thought (and still think) to be a perfectly reasonable view. The counter-argument is that the enforcement of ground rules is an act of white male patriarchy and acts to exclude certain subsets of society from taking part. I think this is tosh, actually, but some otherwise intelligent and articulate people seem to believe it. Are such ground rules inherently discriminatory, or are they fair?

Hmmm… Neither of these accounts actually matches my admittedly imperfect recollection of the events at the session. Now, frankly (and ironically) I thought MALE’s comments and demeanor at the session in defense of civility were rude and unnecessarily confrontational, and if he had acted in such a manner in my living room, I would have asked him to leave. But I don’t think he ever told FEMALE to “shut up” or described her as “you people” as he did in the cartoon. Many of the comments I’ve seen flying around the internet suggest the cartoon wasn’t accurate because the cartoon character wasn’t shouting. Perhaps, but it also made no acknowledgment that MALE was himself a member of an oppressed minority.

Gee’s account (okay, it’s now quite clear that MALE is Gee, isn’t it?) omits the fact that Gee himself was quite incivil in making his point, perhaps buttressing FEMALE’s suggestion that sometimes incivility is the only way for oppressed people to be heard.

So what’s the answer? Should incivility be tolerated as a way for previously-unheard voices to be heard? On blogs I think the answer is quite simple: it’s up to the blogger. In that sense, Gee is right. Don’t like the rules on Blog A? Visit Blog B instead. But Blogger A (or B, or Z) has a perfect right to her own set of (or lack of) rules, which Gee may not agree with. And bloggers have all sorts of reasons why they might choose to censor, disemvowel, or otherwise moderate comments: they might want to generate traffic, be a place that’s safe for children, or just be a place where no f-bombs ever sully the exalted air.

But in a conference room, or in an online forum, or in any public space, the answer is not so clear. When Martin Luther King called for civil disobedience as a way of spreading the message of the civil rights movement, he asked that those who broke laws do so non-violently — that’s the “civil” part of disobedience, right? Is there an online equivalent? Is even King’s non-violent strategy always the right strategy? Aren’t there some actions which require an incivil response — genocide, insults to one’s parents or offspring, and so on? For Gee, the line appears to be crossed whenever someone suggests that “civility” isn’t always a good thing. Then, the gloves are off!

I’d draw the line, um, somewhere else. But in many (most?) cases it’s nearly impossible to come to an acceptable compromise that works well for everyone. Supporting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly implies allowing neo-Nazis marching through our neighborhoods too. Allowing cursing and ad-hominem attacks in an online forum implies that some benign conversations will needlessly be elevated to bitter, all-out brawls. I suppose that’s why discussions about civility can become so incivil.

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8 Responses to Civility and Incivility, Truth and Fiction at #scio10

  1. John Zhu says:

    Concerning whether incivility should be tolerated as a way for previously-unheard voices to be heard, I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The better question is: Can you put forth a strong, passionate dissenting opinion without resorting to incivility? And I think the answer is virtually always yes, and that’s why I’m in favor of a set of ground rules — nothing too strict, just basic common courtesy you would pay to someone if you were speaking face-to-face. On my blog, for instance, if someone uses particularly vulgar language in disagreeing with something I or another commenter wrote, I would delete that comment and post one of my own telling the offender exactly why his comment was deleted and that he’s welcome to repost and make his point without the vulgarity. In such cases, the only thing quashing their dissent would be their own inability or unwillingness to make their point without resorting to profanity and other troll tactics. If you have a valid argument to make, you can make it without cluttering it up with a barrage of name-calling and four-letter words. If you can’t, you just end up weakening your own point and adding nothing to the conversation.

  2. anonymous says:

    The other thing that every single person who writes about this seems to forget is that Zuska made her point more or less in the form of an attack. Henry was trying to contribute something meaningful to the discussion and he was more or less blindsided by Zuska. Very few of us wouldn’t respond in kind. I’m not saying that Henry’s behavior was exactly charming, but there is a huge double-standard for Zuska’s outburst (being ‘standing her ground’) and Henry’s outburst (being incredibly rude and uncivil).

  3. Bill Tozier says:

    I find myself thinking intensely lately about Richard Rorty’s chapter “Contingency of a Liberal Community”, from Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. If you’re not familiar with Rorty’s Ironism/Pragmatism, it can be a shock to see how he derides the extremes of both liberal and conservative attitudes. A few weeks back when I first read him, talking about his essentially humanities-facing academic-style utopia, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my time as an academic scientist and engineer.

    In a real way Rorty (more extremely even than his contemporaries who explored related themes, like Donald Davidson and Stephen Toulmin) blames the practitioners of philosophy, economics, politics, public planning, business, art criticism—all the “humanistic” fields we as scientists and engineers tend to ignore—for trying to become more “scientific”. And thus sacrificing their humanity.

    Rorty, Davidson, and Toulmin (as well as others, I suspect, back to James and Dewey in spots) take aim at the assumptions about the world that underpin most scientific practices.

    In reading about these exchanges, and chatting with PZ Myers at some conferences and Stu Kauffman at others, and thinking back to first-hand experience through the years… I can’t help wondering if Rorty (with Davidson and Toulmin) is right: arguing over the nature of Truth doesn’t, and cannot, get you anywhere.

    The most convincing thing I’ve seen to date, frankly, is the increasingly common spectacle of supposedly “objective” people arguing over the appropriate way to conduct an argument… and failing to get past it.

  4. dave says:


    Blindsided? Really? I thought her response was completely predictable given the tone of the original comment and the context of the presentations. Isis said in her opening talk that she didn’t feel she was doing her job properly unless at least six people a week emailed her telling her to “suck a cock”. Surely Gee didn’t expect that the assembled group was going to be completely sympathetic to his statement. And if he was being singled out in FEMALE’s comment as an oppressive white male member of the patriarchy, I didn’t see it.

  5. cass_m says:

    @anonymous – interesting that you thing the MALE was contributing something meaningful but the FEMALE was not when all she was doing was disagreeing (most likely passionately). If Dave’s perception is correct, the incivility didn’t start until after the disagreement. IMHO shouting someone down in person is always incivil.

    Uh – Hi Dave, first post – started following you on Twitter when you closed up shop at Scienceblogs. Now I seem to be here too.

  6. anonymous says:

    Yes, blindsided. Henry’s original comment may have had a passionate tone, but not one of attack. Then Zuska got all up in his Kool-Aid in a way that I can’t imagine he would have expected. Now, I love and respect Zuska and basically agree with everything she said but it is dishonest to say that she did not make her case in an aggressive manner (and a good argument can be made for doing just that, however, people are so busy denying what actually happened that they don’t bother to think of the utility of women standing up and ‘puking on shoes,’ so to speak). True, everybody from Science Blogs (and who reads SB) did expect something like this to happen. (And it was a mistake to have that particular panel – especially if the intent was to have any kind of meaningful discussion. Yes, Sheril talked about civility (in a civil way). Yes, Dr. Freeride had a more philosophical approach and explored the meaning of civility. And, as expected, Isis talked about ‘asshats, douchnozzles and FWTAOTI,’ and so on. Isis did do an uncharacteristically good job of calming things down when the whole thing exploded, but it was rather like someone who starts a fire then shows up with a fire extinguisher. What a coincidence! And how entirely clever to wear a blue wig (to keep a low profile) and not allow recording (a tape recording of this session would shut a few people up, but even if one exists, I’m sure it is under lock and key.) But it is a mistake to overlook the cultural differences (even though the language is the same) between UK and US. In particular, it is fairly comfortable to be Jewish (especially in academic circles) in the US, but the European Jew has an *entirely* different experience. Americans tend to think we are pretty good at understanding experiences of various other cultures, because we do have such a diverse population. However, we tend to view everything through a distinctly American lens. (If you don’t believe what an entirely different experience it is to be Jewish in Europe, ask Bora. Even in the US antisemitism IS a big deal, and minimizing this stinks.)

    Let me ask you: what makes you think that everybody who wandered into that session reads all of the relevant blogs regularly (including, but not limited to Henry)? Why do you have no problem identifying Henry by name but say FEMALE to refer to Zuska? Maybe Henry didn’t expect “the assembled group to be sympathetic to his statement,” (that statement being that each blog has the right to establish it’s own ground rules — how radical!) but does it follow that he should have expected people in a face-to-face meeting to react to his comment *as if* he had just suggested that rape is the woman’s fault?

    There is an important lesson in all of this which, unfortunately, is missed entirely because of everybody’s willingness to make this into a bad-guy vs. good-gal dog and pony show. Part of the lesson lies in the fact that the sort of loud-mouthed bullying (historically used to silence women) that Henry engaged in will no longer be tolerated. Concepts such as ‘civility’ have indeed been used as a gatekeeper (to keep some voices out). And, clearly, you don’t have to be a privileged white male to be a bully and use the power that you do have (apparently it is easy to forget that a blogger’s perceived power actually comes from her readers – or in some cases it would be more appropriate to say ‘followers’) to mock, humiliate, and devalue other human beings.

  7. EPhatMa says:

    Thanks for providing the middle way, Dave. Not that the middle is necessarily the truth, but I do appreciate your identifying specific excesses of representation (which may have been for comedic effect, I realize).

    Since you bring up the nonviolence of MLK,Jr, it is important to realize context. It was an era in which the threat of violence to achieve civil rights and other political goals was a reality. I believe that the nonviolence would have been nowhere near as effective if the status quo had not been frightened by the violent alternative. Incivility serves a very definite purpose in getting those in power to actually pay attention when they otherwise refuse and ignore. This is what FEMALE was saying, of course.

  8. dave says:


    Good points. Obviously this is a complicated issue, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that the experience of Jews in Europe is very different from the US. The reason I identified Henry by name is because he outed himself on his blog, while FEMALE did not.

    That said, I disagree that “everybody” wants to make this out to be a “bad-guy vs. good-gal dog and pony show” — the comments on Gee’s blog suggest that many are quite willing to line up behind him, and even in the session itself it seemed to me that the audience was pretty evenly divided.

    And by the way, Bill Tozier and EPhatMa, those are very incisive comments as well.

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