03 January 2015

Online discussion

I keep needing to explain the terms by which I manage discussion in comments on my Facebook feed, which I have tried to keep lively without being raucous. This is always challenging, and doubly so given my strong interests in cultural politics and politics politics. I like to think that I mostly do pretty well. (I use the same principle in managing comments on this blog, though the discussion rarely gets going here.)

For convenience, and for the benefit of others who find this useful, I’m posting it here.

Long experience has taught me that fruitful online discussion requires the attentions of a dictatorial moderator who mostly manages dicussion through thoughtful comment, but who will ruthlessly and unilaterally seize control on rare necessary occasions. This is not the open internet, this is my space. If you want free speech, go somewhere else.

That said, I like to let out a lot of rope. I cultivate the participation of people I disagree with, even disagree with vigorously. I like debate: to better clarify for myself what I think, to open me to possibilities I had not considered, and for the pleasures of debate itself. But understand, my purpose is to have discussion which offers participants information, entertainment, and the sharpening of our wits. Which means this is not a level playing field. People I disagree with have to be at least informative, entertaining, witty, or polite. People I agree with need not necessarily obey those same injunctions when debating folks I disagree with, as their rude dismissiveness may qualify as good sport for me.

Though I insist that everybody speak in good faith, saying what they mean and interpreting other commenters as generously as possible, and must start from the presumption that others are doing the same1. Bad-faith arguments are poison.

So you know, my cultural politics and politics politics mostly align with the hard left with strong sympathies for the radical left, and my friends tend to orbit the same locus … though I have many idiosyncrasies. If you like to challenge that, great. But bring your A game: it’s a fair bet that I’ve heard all the basic arguments before, and if I haven’t, likely someone among my Friends has.

There is an added dimension to these principles when discussing questions of social justice. This is not meant to be a safe space. If you need that, you have my respect but not my support here. But I do want this to be a welcoming and supportive space for folks on the sharp end of various sticks, so I give folks in privileged positions less rope than I give to folks in oppressed positions. I might well side with someone whom I disagree with who is Black and rude when discussing racism over someone who I agree with who is white and polite. The reasons for doing this should be familiar.

Plus, since Facebook includes a mix of folks who do and do not play a part in my meatspace social network, FB Friends who are realworld friends also get more deference.

This is my house. Play nice.


Yes, I do allow people to play the Devil’s Advocate, and do it myself, because I know what that role really means and I think it’s valuable.

Some folks, accustomed to different discussion norms, take me as dismissing their comments when I interrogate the fine points. (“You seem to be implying X and Y. I strongly agree about X but I have to admit that I’m skeptical about Y because of Z.”) But that’s actually a response that reflects respect; I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t suspect that I’m missing something important.

I have to underline my point about not maintaining a safe space. This reflects a high standard for what qualifies as a safe space. For instance, there are good reasons to think it necessary to exclude white people — or at least have very stringent ground rules around White participation — to provide a safe space for Black people. It should be evident why this standard for safe space makes it impossible to have a forum that qualifies as a safe space for everyone, so I am not attempting that.

I’m trying to cultivate a space in which people can expect to be respectfully challenged. This being an unjust world, I take that to mean that Black people and women and other people faced with systemic injustices deserve a greater measure of caution in order to deliver respect, and I think it’s incumbent upon me to listen for my failings in delivering that in my space. But that does not extend so far as allowing some people to go unchallenged; in my Facebook comments, everyone gets the respect of being asked to support and clarify what they say.


Edited to add “saying what they mean and interpreting other commenters as generously as possible, and starting from the presumption that others are doing the same” in March 2017 in order to make the point about good faith more explicit. Speaking in bad faith or presuming that others are doing so without very good cause is a good way to get un-Friended.

Also I have to caveat that the link points to Slate Star Codex. That is one of the handful of posts there which I still admire despite the site and its author proving extremely untrustworthy.


Lydia Laurenson said...

Interesting rules :) I sympathize and agree with some points here. I personally don't like it when people are rude in my comments spaces, though, even when I agree with them.

The problem is that I've realized that I can't always spot it when people who I agree with are rude. Sometimes I miss it, not out of malice but because my sympathy for them simply biases me too much.

Ken Stevens said...

I encourage and enjoy vigorous debate on my FB wall, but lament that my most extreme left & right friends, while often witty and sporting, also tend to be the most prejudiced. Like you, I hunger for meaningful debate with hard right folks, but damn there is often an impenetrable world view wall that's an abstacle to establishing common ground, or even common "facts." I recognize it could be my own prejudice preventing me from seeing a path forward, but I take some comfort in my experience that I experience the wall on the far left as often as on the far right. I am coming to believe that maintaining an extreme position requires a certain degree of ignorance and unwillingness to be enlightened. I often resign to the impossibility of persuasion and just settle on the enjoyment of witty repartee. But there is a lingering sadness.

John Prescod said...

MAGA people tend to reject, wholesale, exclusion of any group based on race, for any reason. We're all Americans.

Jonathan Korman said...

I have no idea who Mr. Prescod is but I wonder why he defensively brings up his claim.