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.