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.

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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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