A comment on comments
In creating a new, more technologically advanced website, one of the assets The River Reporter was most interested in developing was the comments function, which allows for an ongoing conversation among our readers, and between us and our readers. Such a conversation promotes several goals that are part of our mission as a newspaper and an online presence: to create and strengthen community, and to provide a venue for discussions that lead to constructive solutions of shared problems.
We also recognized, however, that this asset comes with some formidable challenges—including, chiefly, the obligation to moderate the conversation in a way that promotes the abovementioned goals. And as anybody who has ever participated in an online forum knows, the conversation all too easily degenerates into a mud-wrestling match that destroys, divides and manufactures problems rather than bringing people together to build something.
In order to prevent this kind of result, it will sometimes be necessary to delete individual comments or even ban certain users. This week, we experienced our first test in this regard with a post by a user named TheHick that responded to Jane Prettyman’s My View, “Just One Pad,” and for which we received feedback that the comment was objectionable.
After careful thought and discussion, we have decided to leave this comment up. But we thought that an account of the reasoning we used in making this decision would be helpful to others in understanding, in the future, what kinds of comments will and will not be tolerated here, and why.
It is incumbent upon us to be fair and evenhanded with regard to our moderation, and that means developing a set of objective principles according to which comments should be deleted that can be applied across the board, regardless of whether we may agree or disagree with the authors. The set of such principles that we are working with at present are:
• No ad hominem attacks, which means, attack the authors’ arguments, not the morals, manners, character or other attributes of the authors themselves.
• In keeping with the above, no use of pejoratives, including no racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted language.
• No statements we know to be contrary to fact.
Here is the comment in question, and below it our reasoning:
Submitted by TheHick on April 17, 2011 - 3:30pm.
This newcomer to Honesdale has it all figured out. I was just wondering what her compensation package for the landowners whose rights she intends to deny includes. Do they still get to pay exorbitant taxes? I was just wondering.”
First of all, is it an ad hominem attack? Well, it calls the author a “newcomer to Honesdale.” Is “newcomer” a pejorative? This is tricky. It shouldn’t be a pejorative; but there is a syndrome in this area, among some groups, that only people whose families have been here for generations are important, and that newer arrivals are outsiders.
The problem is that, as moderators, in order to impute that meaning to TheHick, we have to become mind police; to claim that we can get inside his/her head and know that, even though he/she is using a term that is not a pejorative, he/she means it as such, and the comment should be deleted. This is too slippery a slope to embark on. It's a heads up to keep an eye on commenters and see if they have a habit of fomenting this division and playing upon fears and resentments about it, but does not yet justify a deletion of this one comment.
Any other terms that can be considered pejorative? No.
Any statements contrary to fact? We don’t agree with what's said here, but what we see is mostly opinion. There’s an opinion that the argument in “Just One Pad” denies people’s rights. There’s an implied judgment that local property taxes are exorbitant, possibly open to debate but not open-and-shut false. There's plenty that can be disagreed with, or argued against, but really only one thing that, it could be argued, is just flat-out counterfactual: the statement “I was just wondering.” Hick is not wondering at all; he/she clearly knows exactly what he/she thinks. But that’s the use of a rhetorical device, irony.
Merriam-Webster defines irony as “a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning.” It is perhaps a stretch to call TheHick’s questioning “adroit;” from a literary critical point of view it seems pretty heavy handed. Nevertheless, this comment is clearly an example of the use of irony.
And here’s where the problem comes in, in terms of establishing civil discourse: on the one hand, we feel that TheHicks’s sarcasm and ironic approach could be read as denigrating. But in order to delete TheHick’s comment on that account, we would then be committed to forbidding all instances of irony, or the use of rhetorical questions. And that we are not willing to do. These devices are widely and sometimes very effectively used by people of all persuasions and beliefs, and if we started taking tools like this away from people we would be attacking some important principles of free speech.
So, on the basis of the principles of moderation we are currently using, we let TheHick’s comment stand. But there are a few things we want to make clear in conclusion.
First of all, with comments as with a number of other phenomena, there is such a thing as “cumulative impact.” This one comment doesn’t fall by the axe we have crafted; but if TheHick or any other user makes a habit of dropping in on threads, executing a single ironic or sarcastic stab without engaging in substantive debate, and using terms that while not, in the literal sense, pejorative, are code or “dog whistle” terms designed to enlist the animus of people who share their prejudices, they will be banned entirely.
Second, since we are obviously new to the challenges of moderation, we are open to suggestions by readers as to additional principles we might want to adopt, so long as they are consistent with the goals we set out at the top of this article. We are not, however, open to second-guessing about our individual decisions on comments and users. Posting on this site is a privilege, not a right, and we reserve the right to revoke that privilege.