My Quarterly Plea for Comment Thread Civility

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As y'all know, I exercise a pretty light hand on the comments section.  That's a tough choice.  I could probably have a more civil comments section if I were more willing to delete nasty comments and ban trolls.

On the other hand, I don't trust myself in the position of censor.  That's why I'm pretty obsessed with a hard core version of the first amendment:  I don't trust anyone as a censor.  One will always find most outrageous those people who disagree with one's own pet notions.  If I started deleting comments, the net effect would be to pull the comments section towards agreeing with my particular brand of libertarianish, market-loving philosophy.  This is not, to my mind, the point of the comments section.  So I delete comments only when they are obscene or intolerably nasty; I ban people only when they have a history of repeatedly derailing threads, defaming my family, or similarly doing things that would get them kicked out of any decent private home.

So I have to ask you guys to do it for me. Play nice.  Don't call people names--any names, not just profane ones.  Don't characterize people as having bad motives.  Don't make absurd statements about how liberals, Republicans, or some other group are less virtuous, clever, empathetic, rational, pragmatic, civic-spirited, patriotic and so forth, than the fine, upstanding Americans on your side. 

In the first place, it's incredibly rude.  In the second place, it's basically never true.  (I give you one exception:  white supremacists are a bunch of vile racist jerks, and you are free to state as much in the comments section.  But you are *not* free to characterize those who oppose affirmative action as white supremacists).  And in the third place, while you lightheartedly believe that you are opening your opponents to justified ridicule, in reality all you achieve is to start everyone else snickering at you, because you sound like such a bigoted, arrogant fool.

Assume goodwill on the part of those with whom you are arguing.  Assume that they are basically good people.  Assume that they, like you, are trying to make the universe a better place for a small planet full of East Africans Plains Apes.  When you encounter a maddeningly frustrating argument, consider the following possibilities:

  1. You are stuck on something that is ultimately a value judgement between two incommensurable and worthy goals:  the autonomy of women versus the future life of a fetus
  2. One of you has misunderstood the argument of the other (and you may be the one in error)
  3. There are key missing facts

Try to employ these exclusively, rather than the thesis so beloved of most of the internet: 

4.  My opponent is a selfish jerk who wants to bring as many people as possible under the dominion of his iron fist.  Also, he is stupid, has poor taste in clothes, and vivisects puppies in his spare time.

As to profanity, I ask you all to remember that my mother and father read this blog.  They, who watched me run on fat toddler legs through fields of grass in my little flowered sundresses.  They, who listened to my innocent lips burbling the Lord's Prayer on the way home from Sunday school.  Please do not say anything that you would not like a perfect stranger to hear you saying about, or to, their daughter. 

Many of you, liberal and conservative, are of course behaving yourselves splendidly.  Your comments bring joy to my weary heart, and wisdom to my withered brain.  Of you, I ask only one favor:  don't feed the trolls.  If people behave badly, don't respond.  Ignore them.  They are wailing toddlers seeking attention with a tantrum because they don't know any other way to get it.  Act accordingly.  If other commenters become unbearable (cough/Basic Fact/cough), email me.  I'm never unaware of it, and if the complaints get too heavy, I'll ban them.  Not that this will necessarily prevent them from coming back--but unlike feeding their madness, it at least provides temporary relief.

Thanks,

The Management

PS.  Any comments along the lines of "I would be civil, but I cannot stand idly by while you defame national health care and vivisect puppies!" will not be deleted.  But they will drive me into the sort of bleak, existential despair that I usually reserve for August afternoons spent reading Camus.

Update:  These rules are oldies, but goodies

1) No one gets to pick some time in the distant past when everyone was right, and declare that they draw their moral authority from the denizens of that halcyon era. The fifties and the sixties are over, folks. If your idea can't stand on its own now, its popular history won't help it.

2) Stop complaining that the other side is advocating for their ideas. Lying and deception are fair game for outrage; campaigning is not. If your ideas can't stand the heat, throw 'em out and get some better ones.

3) Stop calling the other side names. It's not just counterproductive; it's boring. Unless your rhetorical skills are something special, limit your attacks to their ideas.

4) Stop whining about what happened in the past. If politics were nice and perfectly fair every time, it wouldn't be politics, it would be nursery school. Clinton is out of office. I don't care what he did or did not do with any number of women, and I don't care what the Republicans did to him. It was five years ago. Get a new topic. Ditto the 2000 election. If Gore runs against Bush and loses then, you're going to look a little stupid.

5) Can the hypotheticals. I don't know whether Gore would have done all right in office after 9/11 or not. You don't either. You don't know what the Republicans would have said or not said about him, although I would point out to one commenter on this site that what restrained Daschle & Co. from criticising Bush for so long was neither good taste nor goodwill, and one can assume the same rough factors would have restrained the Republicans. Either way, you don't know. What's particularly odd is that the people presenting these hypotheticals always act as if they were irrefutable facts with which no one with smidge of reason could possibly disagree. "You can't tell me that if a plane had gone down in China on Clinton's watch, the press wouldn't have given him a full pass." Whatever, chum; the Psychic Friends Network just cut me off for non-payment.

6) If you have to fudge numbers and blur distinctions in order to make a case for your ideas, why do you believe them? If you don't understand the science or math behind an issue, why are you arguing with people who understand it better? Do you hope to convince them with the vast inertial weight of your ignorance? Or are you hoping to get them so frustrated by the difficulty of explaining climatology to someone who dropped out of freshman physics that they spontaneously combust? [unfortunately, this does not work -- ed.] Or do you just enjoy looking like a total idiot in public?

7) People should not be referred to as "Fascists", "Marxists", "Communists", "Nazis", etc. unless they are actually devotees of the schools of political thought, or members of the political parties, that those labels describe. Many people will be surprised to learn this, but those terms actually have specific meanings, which are not "The political orientation of anyone who strongly disagrees with me."

8) Assume, until proven otherwise, that your opponent is a person of goodwill. Accept that some things are value judgements that will not be argued away: between, for example, a higher absolute standard of living for the poor, or less inequality of income. Between economic growth and wilderness preservation. Between great taste and less filling. If you know that your opponent is factually or theoretically wrong, assume that this is ignorance or misinformation, not malice.

9) Do not walk in assuming that you occupy the moral high ground. No one listens to sermons except the converted.

10) If you're wrong, admit it at once. No one will fault you for being mistaken. Everyone will hate you for refusing to admit it. Andrew Sullivan et al. didn't go after Tapped because they got the numbers wrong, but because they refused to admit the possibility that the numbers were wrong, and wrote snotty posts about anyone who suggested they should check again.

11) Many people wander into the other half of the Blogosphere having carefully nurtured a plethora of witty responses to the straw man arguments that flourish in the echo chambers of both the liberal and conservative press. They are therefore expecting that as soon as they have shone the cold light of reason on the ridiculous notions of those rubes on the other side, all but the mean-spirited and vicious among them will immediately see the error of their ways. When they find out that those people have real live reasons for believing as they do, often bolstered by real live facts, they are hurt. This is not what they expected. They feel surprised, and somehow betrayed. At this juncture, they often choose to go on the offensive, name calling and writing sarcastic, bombastic screeds which often seem to center around the silliest and most biased material available to their side, yet are shocked to find out that libertarians are, for some reason, unconvinced by the latest publications from the CSPI. Often, defending their initial assertions against angles they hadn't, in their previous hothouse environment, really considered, leads them to take increasingly extreme positions in defense of their original unnuanced view, until having found themselves arguing that in order to, say, prevent abortions we should take down the name and phone number of anyone who ever paused in front of a Planned Parenthood Clinic and then hunt them down and shoot them, they flounce away after declaring that everyone on the site is a bunch of ignorant [expletive deleted] who kill babies for fun. If you find yourself caught in this cycle, I have news for you: they're not the ignorant [expletive deleted] here.

12) If, when someone seems to refute a point you have made, you say "That's not the point", you must then state what the point is. If they then refute that point, you are not allowed to say that that actually wasn't the point either, and the real point was some third thing that hasn't been yet refuted. Neither may you change the subject to tangential or related issues until you have conceded that you were incorrect about the first topic.

13) If you are going to attack someone for citing sources that are biased, do not try to prove this by using sources that are equally biased in the other direction; i.e., do not try to prove that Cato is wrong about something by flashing up a talking points memo from a Nader group. Your opposition could get seriously hurt laughing that hard. It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

14) No one is much moved by exhortations to the effect that they're just selfish and mean. First of all, it's rarely true, except in the case of Objectivists, and they don't care.

15) I don't care how mad you are -- I mean it. No name calling. Unless they call names first. Even then, it's polite to fire a warning shot across the bow.

16) No, drug testing in schools is not the same thing as jack-booted thugs coming to our house in the middle of the night and making us "disappear". Neither are trigger guards on handguns. As much as you may disagree with these particular decisions, let's tone it down a little, 'kay?

17) And fer gosh sakes, will you get out a little more? The sureness of your own ineluctable moral superiority, of the venal stupidity of the other side, of the patent weakness of the opposition's arguments and moral fiber, is a little tiresome. Cruise around and see what the other side has to say. Then attack them. Nicely, of course. Really, it saves a lot of trouble putting words in the mouths of straw men when you can probably find some idiot somewhere who said pretty much the same thing, and think of how much less typing you'll do. Oh, and after you've slapped them around, it's polite to offer a handkerchief with which they can clean themselves up before they have to go back to work.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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