On Trolls, Derailing, and Charity

March 9, 2012

I add this post at Nemo’s request. It carries over from the prior discussion, which was getting unwieldy.

I changed the commenting style to be flat rather than threaded. I hope it works better!

Quick set of links into the comments for convenience, mostly the one’s I’ve not answered yet:

  1. Nemo suggests that I’m, on occasion, heroically charitable
  2. Jamie suggests that I’m not being responsive but that I don’t seem touchy
  3. Nemo is reminded of racial profiling

I’ll reply in comments to keep everyone on an even footing.

I posted a comment on this FP post about derailing. I took the opportunity to reread Joyce Trebilcot’s “Dyke Methods” and “More Dyke Methods” (sorry, JSTOR access needed for both). What I found most relevant is the idea of non-persuasion as an ideal. I’ve been trying some of this in these threads, but I don’t know how effective, or even noticeable, it is.

Ooo, this recent issue of Hypatia is very relevant. The subject is “EPISTEMIC JUSTICE, IGNORANCE, AND PROCEDURAL OBJECTIVITY”.

Update: Comments still seem threaded. Bother!

55 Responses to “On Trolls, Derailing, and Charity”

  1. Bijan Parsia Says:

    Responding to Jamie.

    Oy. Okay, “As you stipulated… “as you agreed”… “as you did not contest” … “as we both know”…

    “Oy” usually marks a bit of exasperation, so sorry. The phrases are not equivalent, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. If you want me to pick on, I agree with “As you stipulated”. I disagree with the rest of them (i.e., I don’t think I agreed, failed to contest, or co-know).

    In any case, the key bit seems to be:

    I’m stumped by your refusal to agree with this. And I’m more stumped by the idea that it’s important whether you ‘said’ or ‘stipulated’ that it was a mistake, or whether Anne attributed a vicious remark to Nemo by using the word ‘vicious’ or without using the word.

    I refuse to agree because 1) I don’t agree, 2) I’m concerned that agreeing on the narrow reading (which I might be willing to do to make progress) will seem like agreement on wider issues, and 3) since Anne has already indicated distress at how the discussion of her was going, I’d rather not tred there too much. Obviously, the last requires similar consideration of Nemo (and, e.g., you and me), but I sorta hope I’ve been doing that. Nemo doesn’t seem to have experienced distress about this discussion per se, and I tried to signal that I would make adjustments (unto deletion) in order to make them more comfortable.

    It’s important to me whether I “said” or “stipulated” because I spent some effort trying to avoid being committal on this point. I can about the use of the word “viscous” (and “gross”, etc.) because it was distressing and not directly apropos to what “charity” requires, so, seems a distractor.

    I take it that part of what makes this example dialectically appealing is that applying what you think is rather minimal charity would have avoided a harm. This is, indeed, one of the benefits of using charity. But then I can use “more heroic” (in Nemo’s eyes) charity to avoid a different harm. I’d rather we used an example where no one or only I was possibly harmed, but I think it’s clear, if we accept some pretty standard underdetermination theses, that charity can have this outcome. This makes charity dangerous!

    So, I guess there’s some wanting to underscore some of my points about charity. Indeed, I’d rather move the discussion there rather than focus on this example. I could have done a better job of that, I guess.

    I’m happy to discuss an example that puts me in a bad light🙂

    You do not strike me as touchy at all. But I might be mistaken! Because here you seem to be saying (uh, implicating, communicating by your comment…) that if Nemo had not been banned (and had not modified his style), you would have left the discussion. Is that true?

    Yep. I had left the prior discussion. Not primarily because I was offended by Nemo per se. In a prior thread, I wrote:

    At this point, I’m afraid I get very suspicious of your good faith. If you can make the connection that it’s weird to treat informed consent for abortions as radically different from every other sort of informed consent, you can make the obvious link to the intent of the law. So, I’m not sure what’s up, e.g., whether we’re being trolled. I do want to assume good faith, and there is the Be Nice rule, so I’ll just leave it that I’d appreciate some reassurance on this point, thanks.

    sw’s (profbigk) vouching made me participate in this second conversation with a strong attempt to presume good faith on Nemo’s part. But I gave up on that prior conversation because I didn’t see that I could successfully or satisfactorily participate in it. I had pretty much reached that point in the communion thread before the troll accusation cropped up.

    I didn’t particularly care who was a fault. I get a bit concerned when I participate too heavily. At least on other people’s blogs.

    Hm, actual meaning of the passage that Anne mischaracterized? I do think that was quite clear. But I have a feeling this is not what you’re talking about now.

    No, that’s what I meant. It’s just the underdetermination, degrees of charity, and multi-agent optimization point again. (I.e., readings aren’t fixed or given, we can, perhaps, distinguish between readings on the basis of how charitable (e.g., some function of how likely they are and how favorable to the speaker; a highly favorable but unlikely reading is highly charitable), and charity toward one participate might reduce charity toward another).

    The same could be said about banning you or me.

    Yep. It might be more reasonable to ban me, at least, on the basis of that thread.

    • Jamie Says:

      Okay, I get the sense that it is not a good idea to continue this. I will just say a few things, hopefully harmless ones.
      First, I take it when someone stipulates that p, it is then fine to say within the same conversation that they agree that p, that we know that p, and so on. This is the whole point of stipulating. When we stipulate that p, we are adding p to the common stock of propositions that may be presumed in the conversation. And this stock is the one we use when we decide what to count as known, agreed upon, and so forth.
      Second, I don’t believe anyone is harmed by being misinterpreted (well, it can happen in special cases, of course). The aim in using charity is not to be harmless but to understand.
      And third, I am really surprised that you felt you had to withdraw from the discussion because of the way Nemo was arguing. It’s not that I can’t imagine ever feeling that way, but the particulars of the situation. (And I really just mean I am surprised, not some other normative thing that could sometimes be expressed by saying one is surprised.)

      I’m on the road now and I may not be able to look in again for a while.
      I’m on th

      • Bijan Parsia Says:

        Re: The stipulation, it depends on the scope of the stipulation, right? That’s the “within the same” bit. I, frankly, lost track of the scope. I thought that I had popped it. It is a complex set of overlapping conversations! Sorry about that.

        Second, I don’t believe anyone is harmed by being misinterpreted (well, it can happen in special cases, of course). The aim in using charity is not to be harmless but to understand.

        Interesting! But, really? I certainly have felt harmed by misinterpretations, at least, publicly expressed ones. They can damage other people’s good opinion of one which is an ill in itself and can yield further ills.

        The aim in using charity is not to be harmless but to understand.

        I think an aim in using charity is to understand, but charity is pretty clearly a strange tool for that per se. Why not just go with plausibility, or best evidence the interpreter has? (Yes, there is a story, but we’re also talking about situations where charity presumptions are often abused or manipulated.)

        I do think we need take care to distinction the distinction between what might be called “fundamental” charity in the sense of the form of charity that “is not an option, but a condition of having a workable theory, it is meaningless to suggest that we might fall into massive error by endorsing it.” Obviously, the notion of “massive error” is relative, but it’s clear that sometimes being overly charitable will lead on into a great deal of error just as failure to be sufficiently charitable can generate error. One reason, in my view, to prefer, in quotidian interpretations, more rather than less charity is that 1) it reduces the risk of harmful, or, if you prefer, distressing misinterpretation, and 2) it aids in coming to agreement (by which I mean agreement wherein there is persuasion, not just agreement on what was said).

        In everyday speech we apply charity to the interpretation of non-speech actions (“it’s the thought that counts” is a principle of charitable interpretation; generally, you take a presumption of good thoughts to make the crappy or offensive gift good, rather than taking the crappiness of the gift as evidence of bad thoughts). But even in linguistic interpretive contexts we need apply charity to more than assertions (e.g., questions and commands) and charity might require interpreting things as non-true (e.g., irony!). But then we don’t just want to interpet the speaker as rational but aslo as good (for a wide range of virtues, from being intelligent, articulate, and relevant, to not being mean, to being friendly, to not holding nasty views).

        I just see no way to divorce these even in the situation of fundamental charity. We have to be able to sort out jokes, irony, metaphors, similes, etc. And we do read more than just what is said or implied about the subject matter but also on how what is said reflects judgements about current interlocutors, the community as a whole, etc.

        And third, I am really surprised that you felt you had to withdraw from the discussion because of the way Nemo was arguing. It’s not that I can’t imagine ever feeling that way, but the particulars of the situation. (And I really just mean I am surprised, not some other normative thing that could sometimes be expressed by saying one is surprised.)

        To be more precise, I was withdrawing because of the way Nemo and I were arguing together.

        I’m male. I’m argumentative. I’m trained as a philosopher and work in computer science. I easily take up lots and lots and lots of space. I can get caught up in details to the detriment of the bigger picture or of how other people are feeling.

        In feminist spaces (as well as others!), I try to be more systematically restrained.

        I hope to have a fuller post on charity per se, so I hope when you’re back you can take a peek. Safe journey!

  2. Bijan Parsia Says:

    Replying to Nemo:

    All things considered, supplying the “full” in “You take a man’s word to show hers to be without [full] merit” might be what you referred to earlier as heroically charitable, possibly demi-deifically charitable.

    Well, not if I read the “grain of salt” the way I did. People omit stuff. For example, in one comment I noticed that I had omitted a “not”. I’m sure you supplied it unconsciously when reading it. Once you accept that the point was casting doubt, not casting a specific amount of doubt, it all seems to hang together.

    Whether you’ve received the right amount of charity is an interesting question. I know people often misread me, esp. in person. I’ve been stunned by what people read in my behavior or demeanor. Some things that I can control, I do to make such readings less likely. Sometimes that’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s unfair.

    (And some misreadings have been heartstopping, leading to broken friendships and slander most foul.)

    I think it’s clear that I had some misreadings of you. Sorry. It might help to instead of defending the details, to just say, “I just mean that…” or something similar. I don’t know!

    Whether my doubts about the claim had epistemic warrant at the time, or instead were simply prescient, I’m glad for the mourners’ sake that it seems now not to have been the case.

    There we heartily agree.

  3. Bijan Parsia Says:

    And finally, before I travel, responding somewhat selectively to Nemo:

    To put it another way, that definition struck me as basically consisting in an internal awareness with few or no necessary implications in any given case for the final assessment of the claims

    I don’t think it’s limited to internal awareness. In a communal epistemic situation, it might require showing how the final (or even a provisional) assessment was made esp. if the claim is assessed negative. (All things being equal, good counter evidence requires addressing.)

    But I do think that it was a close call at best, and that the presumption or onus should properly have switched back at least weakly in the other direction well before the thread ground to a halt.

    Didn’t it? I didn’t call you a troll (using that as shorthand here for the various negative models; not meant literally). Indeed, I didn’t call you a troll during our exchange on the communion issue. I did hit a point where I felt like I could do nothing useful for myself or others in that exchange and I was having more and more difficulty not embracing my negative model.

    And whichever people were responsible for banning me (if, as I surmise, that’s what’s happened) clearly took it as sufficient evidence of something pretty bad.

    Or just that, for whatever reason, it wasn’t going to get better. It’s a blog. Managing comments is tricky, but being excluded isn’t necessarily based on a strong negative view. Being disruptive need not be intentional, after all.

    After all, we ostensibly hold these discourses under the auspices of some level of commitment to free expression, and it’s often been observed that that principle is only ever meaningfully engaged with respect to expressions that make us uncomfortable (expressions that make no one uncomfortable not being in any need of forbearance).

    Here I just disagree. As far as I know, FP hasn’t presented itself as a free speech forum, but as a heavily regulated one (see the be nice rule). The regulation is there to help support certain speakers. There’s always the possibility of collateral damage.

    That’s a good observation. It occurs to me that it might not be without some explanatory value in accounting for the priest’s behaviour.

    Really?!

    That metaphor brings to mind racial profiling, for some reason. And indeed, I did feel have the vague impression at the time of being rounded up with the usual suspects.

    Whoaaaaaa. Those two comments in quick succession set off severe alarum bells. I mean, racial profiling?! Is it that you don’t understand the difference between behavioral and racial profiling? Even so! Similarly with “usual suspects”. Sheesh.

    Ok, exercising calm.

    As I said to sw, I don’t know your personal background. But such a comparison is commonly regarded as offensive, esp. given how inapt it is.

    Similarly, it feels especially obtuse to conflate the epistemic (and other) threat(s) that women and feminists face with the persecution complex of the Catholic Church.

    After all this, it’s surprising to say the least.

  4. Nemo Says:

    [Bijan wrote:] Well, not if I read the “grain of salt” the way I did. People omit stuff. For example, in one comment I noticed that I had omitted a “not”. I’m sure you supplied it unconsciously when reading it. Once you accept that the point was casting doubt, not casting a specific amount of doubt, it all seems to hang together.

    Perhaps so. There is a charitable consideration here that works in the other direction, however. Had I supplied, as you did, the parentheticals in “without [full] merit” and in “only worth [taking with] a grain of salt”, I would still have to reconcile somehow with A.’s contention that “that cannot be accepted on a feminist blog.” The idea that anything less than according full credence and no skepticism to the particular pro-Johnson (if not actually Johnson, as you allowed) claim cannot be accepted on a feminist blog is, in my view (and not just qua feminist) even more objectionable than the way A.’s comments read without the supplied parentheticals. Accordingly, t’s arguably more charitable overall not to supply the parentheticals.

    [Bijan wrote:] Didn’t it? I didn’t call you a troll (using that as shorthand here for the various negative models; not meant literally). Indeed, I didn’t call you a troll during our exchange on the communion issue.

    I know, and I’m much obliged that you didn’t do so. I wasn’t thinking about you there so much as I was about others.

    [Bijan wrote:] Here I just disagree. As far as I know, FP hasn’t presented itself as a free speech forum, but as a heavily regulated one (see the be nice rule). The regulation is there to help support certain speakers. There’s always the possibility of collateral damage.

    The level I’m talking about isn’t, in my view, something proper only to a “free speech forum” (whatever that is), but to most fora devoted to intellectual discourse of one sort or another, especially with an academic inclination. The fact that the forum may be more or less heavily regulated (which regulations were not, incidentally, so far as I can see or anyone else showed, violated by me) is not contrary. Indeed, the nature of the particular regulations in the “Our Policies” section seem to me calculated to *facilitate* the free exchange of ideas, in part by ensuring that their presentation is not weighed down by things like, e.g., ad hominem attacks or foul language that could be an unpleasant distraction without adding any real substance.

    [Bijan wrote:] I mean, racial profiling?! Is it that you don’t understand the difference between behavioral and racial profiling?

    I believe I understand it well. I simply thought your particular turn of phrase about the “family resemblance” had infelicitous connotations associated with the latter. I probably oughtn’t have mentioned it, as I know they were inadvertent. Kindly disregard. That did not come across at all as intended.

    [Bijan wrote:] Similarly, it feels especially obtuse to conflate the epistemic (and other) threat(s) that women and feminists face with the persecution complex of the Catholic Church.

    I don’t believe I did conflate them, at least not intentionally; in fact I was trying to distinguish them when I referred back to your citation from the Politics. I do think it would be best to avoid phrases such as “persecution complex”, which could be read as suggesting that bias against the Catholic religion, its institutions and adherents in the United States, which is well attested and analyzed in the literature and a significant phenomenon in the national history, is merely a delusion.

    Travel well and safely, Bijan.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Perhaps so. There is a charitable consideration here that works in the other direction, however. Had I supplied, as you did, the parentheticals in “without [full] merit” and in “only worth [taking with] a grain of salt”, I would still have to reconcile somehow with A.’s contention that “that cannot be accepted on a feminist blog.” The idea that anything less than according full credence and no skepticism to the particular pro-Johnson (if not actually Johnson, as you allowed) claim cannot be accepted on a feminist blog is, in my view (and not just qua feminist) even more objectionable than the way A.’s comments read without the supplied parentheticals. Accordingly, t’s arguably more charitable overall not to supply the parentheticals.

      Well, I certainly don’t read what Anne said that way. Her example was illustrative not meant to be the whole consideration. I don’t think either Anne or I generally read any particular assessment as the problem, but the pattern of assessments and (lack of) acknowledgements.

      Indeed, the nature of the particular regulations in the “Our Policies” section seem to me calculated to *facilitate* the free exchange of ideas, in part by ensuring that their presentation is not weighed down by things like, e.g., ad hominem attacks or foul language that could be an unpleasant distraction without adding any real substance.

      But “innocuous” speech can weigh down the free exchange of ideas. One can be devastatingly abusive while remaining exquisitely polite. Similarly, one can derail a conversation while adhering to some virtue. These are fairly banal points, aren’t they? This is why strict adherence to a set of rules isn’t really sufficient. It’s too easy to circumvent, intentionally or otherwise, any set of rules. Check out the whole of the Our Policies statement and think about the substantive rather that the procedural aspects of it.

      I believe I understand it well. I simply thought your particular turn of phrase about the “family resemblance” had infelicitous connotations associated with the latter. I probably oughtn’t have mentioned it, as I know they were inadvertent.

      Really? “Family resemblance” the technical philosophical term? And you associate it with racial profiling (only a Google away!)? (Not to mention the usual suspects!)

      I really don’t know what else to say. As Xena said, it’s stuff like this that makes people wonder if you’re trolling.

      Frankly, comments like that, even epistemically softened and retracted, tend to end conversations with me. The fact is that’s hugely offensive, is very much a standard dominance trope (i.e., that the only racism that’s left is racism against white people), and is, well, bonkers. Attributing intent based on behavior which is relevantly similar to behavior that is commonly expressed with that intent is not even vaguely the same as detaining people based on their race. Indeed, one is fine and the other hugely objectionable. Similarly, assessing occurrant, attributable behavior is exactly unlike rounding up the “usual suspects” to blame for a behavior.

      Oh well. Even if we stipulate no ill intent, I trust you can see why I might want to avoid conversations where I end up associated with racial profiling.

  5. annejjacobson Says:

    I’m surprised at the idea that Nemo has been banned. We put his comments in the “to be moderated” cue. That’s all.

    It’s late, and today I was over at Rice for the whole day discussing women in philosophy.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Whew! I figured it was something like this.

      • Nemo Says:

        I’m glad to hear this (relatively, since it’s somewhat humiliating to be placed on moderation probation at all). Typically (based on my limited experience) when you push the button on a comment and the blog, you get an automated message that says that the comment is being held pending moderation.

        About day or so after I noticed this was happening, something appeared to change, as I was no longer getting that notification – I’d press the button and the comment would just disappear, neither being added to the thread or triggering the announcement about moderation. Since I couldn’t otherwise account for the change, I was inclining toward the hypothesis that I’d been banned. But then a couple of days after *that*, I tried to comment again and it was back to the announcement about moderation. Maybe there was some temporary browser glitch or something on my end prior to that.

  6. swallerstein Says:

    I haven’t seen any of Nemo’s comments in the FP blog, so
    I wonder if they are passing the moderating barrier.

    By the way, from my experience, I’ve noticed that a person whose comments are moderated is placed at a disadvantage in a dialogue, since her responses may be delayed for hours (or days), while those who debate her position have their comments appear immediately.

    I recall getting into an argument with one blog owner (not the FP blog), only to find that my polite and reasoned (if not well reasoned) arguments spent days in the moderation
    vault, while his arguments appeared in minutes. Since spectators of a debate eventually tire of following it, if one can delay the progress of a debate through moderating it in slow motion, the power of moderation allows one to control the exchange and to keep spectators from reading arguments that put one’s position in a bad light.

  7. swallerstein Says:

    email follow-up

  8. Jamie Says:

    Good point, sw.

    Bijan, could you clarify something? You wrote this:

    The fact is that’s hugely offensive, is very much a standard dominance trope (i.e., that the only racism that’s left is racism against white people), and is, well, bonkers.

    I would like to know whether you actually think that what Nemo was saying was that the only racism that’s left is racism against white people.
    If that’s not what you think, could you please explain what the parenthetical remark was supposed to mean?

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      This wordpress app is eating my comments. And I can’t see yours or mine. Sigh.

      I am not accusing Nemo of anything except of causing me a great deal of WTF.

      I did put it poorly. What I meant is that it’s pretty typical of reversal tactics (like antiantiracism) to throw up such accusations (or speculations). If the stick, great. If not they’ve undermined the concern and probably messed up the target.

  9. Jamie Says:

    For some reason I just noticed this.

    [Jamie] Hm, actual meaning of the passage that Anne mischaracterized? I do think that was quite clear. But I have a feeling this is not what you’re talking about now.

    [Bijan replies]No, that’s what I meant. It’s just the underdetermination, degrees of charity, and multi-agent optimization point again. (I.e., readings aren’t fixed or given, we can, perhaps, distinguish between readings on the basis of how charitable (e.g., some function of how likely they are and how favorable to the speaker; a highly favorable but unlikely reading is highly charitable), and charity toward one participate might reduce charity toward another).

    Huh?
    You think that the actual meaning of what Nemo wrote is ambiguous, and that charity might lead someone to interpret it as meaning something patently sexist and dismissive, rather than the more plain meaning which is neither sexist nor dismissive?
    I must say I find that amazing. Maybe I have misunderstood you.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Ok, long delay.

      So, first point is that obviously this isn’t charitable toward Nemo. My point was that charity toward Anne might induce less charity toward Nemo.

      To abstract from this case (which both involves real people and, for me, is getting hard to keep straight; I know a lot more now so reconstructing early interpretative position is getting harder), consider a simple discourse:

      Person A: “Person B is a liar.”

      Person B: “Person A is a liar.”

      If our optimization function includes truth telling then we’re going to have to treat either A and B as a liar and, indeed, this bit of discourse as evidence for that fact. Of course, if we are willing to impute other sorts of attitudes than assertion we might be able to save both as truth tellers, e.g., that they are joking.

      Of course, in a nonsymmetric case, we may be able to find analyses such as “Person A got Person B wrong, but it’s not so (hostile|unreasonable|unusual) that they did so.”

  10. Nemo Says:

    [Bijan wrote:] One can be devastatingly abusive while remaining exquisitely polite. Similarly, one can derail a conversation while adhering to some virtue. These are fairly banal points, aren’t they? This is why strict adherence to a set of rules isn’t really sufficient. It’s too easy to circumvent, intentionally or otherwise, any set of rules.

    Yes, you’re quite right, and I grant all this. But this is leading away from my point there, which was not a politeness-based or rule-adherence-based defence of anything I wrote (my parenthetical about that was sort of a throwaway). Rather, it was my disagreement with the implication that, because the forum is regulated, it thus wasn’t the case that “[A] greater level of certainty [of malevolence] than existed might fairly be required in order to excuse oneself from putting up with the discomfort (or from pursuing private alternative means of alleviating it, such as ignoring the comments).”

    And this all sprang originally from your observation that a high “level of certainty of malevolence isn’t required to be uncomfortable with your comments”, which I agreed with and know from personal experience, as I was uncomfortable myself with comments in the other thread.

    I regret not picking up on the Familienähnlichkeit allusion. I expect the less said by me about the lapse at this point, the better.

    Turning the page to a slightly different concern, since one of the topics of this thread is “derailing”, I’d like to also offer a small reflection on the topic generally. It’s obviously a concept figuratively based on trains, and we habitually use train-inspired imagery to express similar ideas (e.g., you noted previously that the “train was in the ditch” and talked about “getting off the main line”; I suggested that the other thread had “ground to a halt”). So in some sense we have internalized the notion that intellectual discourse is like a train. Which is defensible in some respects; they have momentum and variable pace, they can figuratively carry us places, etc.

    Of course, no conceit is ideal, but there are some ways in which this one is rather problematic. Trains travel along a line, which while not absolutely inflexible (it can gently curve given enough space) has relatively narrow tolerances for safe deviation. Everyone aboard a train is obliged to travel in the same direction and at the same speed from an objective standpoint, even if relative to one another they can experience the illusion that they are not. A train does not depart without an itinerary. And a train’s track is laid out in advance, such that it not only follows ground that has been traveled before, but does so in a broadly predictable way determined by the railroad company. Even if the passengers do not experience it from moment to moment in this way, they are going through motions laid out for them.

    I trust that the reasons for which it could be problematic to overlay this conception onto intellectual discourse – even a relatively bounded discourse – are apparent.

    I think it’s possible that the train trope and its derivatives (e.g., “derailment”) have their genesis, consciously or not, in a particular way of looking at discourse. It also seems possible, and not mutually exclusive of this, that the adoption and use of the trope subtly reinforce or induce in the user this particular narrow approach. If we grant those possibilities, I think it becomes worth looking critically at whether this increases the likelihood that, e.g., an interlocutor going “off script” is going to be perceived as a derailment.

    It it possible that we would benefit from a substantially new and different model of looking at the whole issue of what we call derailment and its attendant concerns?

  11. swallerstein Says:

    I would say that adherence to a set of rules almost always is sufficient and that we should stick to the rules.

    If the rules don’t work or are not working, we should change the rules. Fine.

    However, what we should not do is subject people to a kind of Chinese cultural revolution type scrutiny of the political correction of their motives, their intentions, their subintentions, of their “objective” mentality, their wholehearted commitment to the cause, etc.

    That kind of scrutiny foments conformism, hypocrisy,
    and groupthink.

  12. xena Says:

    Being on Moderation Probation is no biggie, Nemo. Fp took awhile to warm up to me, too. The first discussion I joined was on rape, and crawling with trolls, most of whom were deleted. They decided to watch me for the sake of the “Be nice” AND “Don’t feed the trolls” rules. That’s probably my worst habit, besides spending $200-$300 on lotteries every year. I’m a stress-induced insomniac, and like to blow off my stress by indulging in caps rants against online weirdos who aren’t worth my time. It’s my own bizarre form of therapy😉 It works for me, but comes close to breaking some fp rules.

    My second misunderstanding was on a post about Creationists a few days later. With Republican asshat after Republican asshat flooding the media and American lawmaking machines with truly hateful and misogynistic bills on birth control and rape, the Creationists and anti-masturbation weirdos are a somewhat useful distraction, imo. The point I was trying to make may have been presented badly, and was definitely lost in about a dozen others’ defensiveness about harmful religious cults, and disagreements about Cultural Relativism. I must have written over 5000 words that day, trying to prove that I agreed with most of what the pile-on crew were saying, that no, I was not a Creationist, that I only meant that I’d rather see some fool argue for teaching bad science in schools and lose, than argue for teaching abstinence and win. That if somebody whose views are harmful&disagreeable is going to get so many freebies anyway, why not give less to more groups, to keep them competing with each other, rather than allowing one group with way too much power abuse the legislatures to push their views on the public?

    My 3rd probation earner was a disagreement about several points of radfem ideology. Those arguments frequently get my comments deleted. Arguing with radfems is one of the most difficult things to do on a feminist blog. I found myself engaging in a good deal more self disclosure than I’m comfortable with, for the sake of proving that life sux for me too, and I still like some of the men out there, dangit. Who wants a world where everybody goes premenstrual together and fights like cats and cats? Sounds like hell to me😀 Then there was the time I referred to a childhood friend as a black boy. I didn’t mind being deleted for that so much. Some people are truly hurt by those words. I didn’t bother to explain that I meant boy as in child, not ‘boy’ as it’s commonly used by racists.

    So it happens to all of us. Fp didn’t take me off Moderation Probation till my gravatar and email address changed. After the change, I was straightup with them about who I am. I’m not hiding anything, and if I put my foot in my mouth, I’m at least sincere about my reasons for doing so.

    I don’t think the fp moderators are trying to silence free speech. There are plenty of blogs where people can hate on women or men or liberals or communists or atheists or theists or gays or straights, or what have you. The moderators at fp are asking for courtesy and reasonably well informed opinions, and that’s all. That’s the reason it’s one of my favourite blogs.

  13. synapseandsyntax Says:

    Seems only fitting to mention here that I’ve been stuffed in the mod-hopper at FP as well, and am taking my leave of that space. The gory details are over there if you’re curious, unless they’ve also been deleted.

    Pleasure chatting with y’all.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Hi s&s,

      Sorry, where are the gory details? I’m always curious, though sometimes I succeed in repressing the curiosity🙂

      • swallerstein Says:

        It’s a great spectator sport seeing what gets deleted, what gets moderated and what is kosher.

        Maybe someone could compile an anthology of the best deleted posts from our beloved blog.

        Are you people old enough to remember Kremlinology?

        That was the experts guessing on who was in and who was out in the Kremlin, back in the good old red days, from who wore a hat and who appeared in the front row and who stood next to whom, etc., in the ceremonies and rites of the Soviet elite.

        This situation calls for a new form of Kremlinology.

      • Bijan Parsia Says:

        I do remember Kremlinology, but eh. I’m not sure how helpful that is either analytically, snarkicly, or strategically.

        I think it’s useful to have multiple spaces. I’m grateful to get the prompt and opportunity to write and discuss. Managing comments sections can be really difficult. Being managed can be very frustrating.

        I, personally, am not too interested in snarky metacritque of comment management at FP. Or venting about it, much. If there’s discussion that can lead to a more satisfactory experience, that seems great. Otherwise, I, personally, prefer to chat about object level stuff.

      • swallerstein Says:

        Ok.

        For what it’s worth (not being snarky), as I said above, clear and precise rules are one key to successful moderation.

        If the rules are clear and precise enough, those who comment will have no space to speculate on which comments appear or which do not.

        Now, at times there are blog moderators who are very arbitrary, like Yahweh in the Old Testament, who do not even pretend to follow a set of clear and precise rules.

        That style of moderation does ok too, because commentators learn to adopt to the moderator’s personality or they leave. A lot of them leave, but those who stay are family members, so to speak.

        What does not work, in my experience, is blog moderation where there are lots of rules, but they are not clear and precise enough or where they are applied unconstantly. That leaves commentators guessing and gossiping.

      • Bijan Parsia Says:

        Hi swallerstein,

        I’m not so sure that there are sufficiently clear and precise rules that have the right sort of scope to handle lots of reasonable situations.

        I’m simultaneously a big fan of rules and skeptical about them. Any formalist regime can be subverted. (I like rules as a support for good faith actors, but the good faith is essential.)

        (I have trouble sticking to all sorts of rules. For example, it’s taken me a long time to get to a point where I mostly adhere to my strict no-late-coursework policy. And that’s really only because of the mitigating circumstances committee option. So I’m sympathetic to people in similar circumstances.)

        I agree that rules inconsistently applied can, indeed are likely, be counterproductive (at certain levels of inconsistency). But, eh. I’ve been on the internets a loooong time now, and I’ve trouble getting worked up about moderation in optional forums. I’m sad if it hurts someone.

      • swallerstein Says:

        Bijan:

        I’ve been a classroom teacher myself and it isn’t easy.
        My method as a teacher is to start out strict (scare them a bit the first day) and then get nicer as the term goes on. Students, in my experience, do not respond well if you start out liberal and get stricter, but they love you if you start out strict and get more liberal as the term goes on. However, there probably are cultural differences between Chile and the U.K.

        In any case, you’ve been really forthright about who you are with all of us and since reciprocity counts, here’s a link to my blog, mostly about my son, Pablo, who left the world (but not me) in 2001: there’s my profile (in Spanish) as well as pictures taken many many years ago.

        http://vivepablowallerstein.blogspot.com/

        • Bijan Parsia Says:

          Thanks for the sharing, swallerstein. I’m very sorry for your loss. From your photos, I can see that Pablo was a lovely boy. From your posts, I can see that he was well loved.

      • synapseandsyntax Says:

        Hey Bijan,

        They’re here, if you’re looking for an idle distraction. In brief: some totally civil and on-topic comments by Nemo get deleted; I point this out; I get put on mod probation; I observe that this departs from the comments policy; my comments get deleted; I briefly doubt my sanity, then conclude that I have better things to do; exeunt omnes…

        In general I agree that meta-critique of comment policies is fruitless. I’ve seen a few online communities tank by virtue of heavily partisan moderation and ban campaigns, and the only reliably effective response is just to leave. So I just wanted to mention here that I’ve appreciated our exchanges, since I’m now de facto unable to comment over at FP.

        As a final passing thought, I can appreciate your view that one should be sparing with the attention one gives to mod wars: it’s a first world problem on a free internet, &c. And yet, when moderating a blog that claims to speak to the outside world for some non-trivial chunk of a community, one’s actions form a model for outsiders of what that community is all about. It would be a real shame if anyone concluded that those actions were representative.

        • Bijan Parsia Says:

          Thanks for the links and discussion s&s. I’m sorry for your experience.

          I certainly don’t want to re-moderate the discussion, but looking at Nemo’s first comment, I just don’t see that it was very wise or helpful. Once that’s in play, it seems easy for moderation to get complicated.

          Speaking as someone who has a “quirky” way of looking at things (in my first year of grad school at UNC, halfway through the “protoseminar” (boot camp for philosophers) I had this huge tussle with Jay Rosenberg; after several hours he finally got at what I’d been trying to convey in my essay; he acknowledged that it was a possible and even interesting reading of the topic paper; but he also said that he didn’t know anyone else who would have gone that way; and that was the first thing that struck me; he spent a fair bit of effort recalibrating to my skew), I have been in situations where I had to do quite a bit of work to avoid poisoning a discussion for other people. A lot of the time, it involved waiting to let other topics and people establish some space in the conversation. (I often found this very difficult.) But, for example, why not post that comment on the NewAPPS article itself?

          I still don’t have a good idea of where Nemo’s coming from, but I’ve worked myself to a place where I’m fairly calm about them. But it’s not hard for me to look at that first comment and feel incredulous and angry and as if I’m being baited.

          When I read your comment, I wonder if you would have read the NewAPPS sentence that way, cold, or if you were inclined that way by the discussion?

          And in a fairly familiar way, the threads get ever more complicated. Compare with the discussion I’m having with Nemo over my proposed dilemma. I’m not finding it hugely productive. Instead of focusing on the moral tension I find interesting, we’re all over the place. I can’t seem to wrench it back to the core idea. Nothing that I’ve tossed at Nemo (e.g., the Williams example) really pulls them back on track (from my perspective). The ratio of my improved understanding to conversation isn’t favorable.

          And now we have a bunch of people who feel unhappy because they’ve been moderated (which is pretty disruptive, after all). What was a generally pleasant experience becomes less so. It’s frustrating, for sure.

          I’m wandering a bit, but I’ll end with saying that I enjoyed our exchanges as well. Thanks.

      • swallerstein Says:

        Bijan,

        First of all, thank you for your kind words.

        I participated in a Yahoo group for many years and in order to join, one had to send a short email to the moderators explaining who one is and why one wanted to participate. One could participate in the group using an alias (although most people did not), but the moderators always knew the identities of those who post. That system eliminates trolls and there’s no reason why it could not be used in a blog like FP, where serious issues are being discussed.

        • Bijan Parsia Says:

          From what I can tell, that’s rather a pain in WordPress. Also, people have good reasons to be anonymous, even to moderators. Finally, as we’ve seen, there’s disputes as to whether some people are trolls. This doesn’t solve that problem. From this last thread that S&S and Lois210 posted about, I think one thing that may make the moderating at FP harder to predict is that it is a group blog with group moderation. Crooked Timber uses that model except each poster has strict control over their own posts.

      • swallerstein Says:

        Your observation that the fact of being a group blog brings problems hits the nail on the head.

        I can see that it must be hard for the moderators to deal with the normal human differences between them, at the velocity which internet demands. They undoubtedly could easily team-teach a class and work out their differences over coffee, but online things move fast.

        Actually, we should be thanking them for going to all the trouble to provide a space to discuss feminist issues and getting nothing but headaches for their efforts.

  14. lois210 Says:

    Hello,
    Add me to the FP Mod Hopper crew. Wow, it is so frustrating, maddening, and degrading. It’s a kind of two-pronged silencing, because first there’s the actual censorship (they are not letting any of my comments through anymore), and then there is the helpless feeling, too, and that makes me feel inarticulate.

    Of course you are all right about it’s being a “first world problem”, and I should say “eh” like Bijan does, and instead focus on the real problems that face us. I shouldn’t take it personally. Somehow I am, though. If it weren’t a feminist blog, I’d probably be able to shrug it off more easily.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Hi lois210,

      (My home connection is dodgy so I’m commenting from my phone. This is unlikely to improve my orthography.)

      I think there’s room both for “Eh” and being upset. I think most online managed conversation situations, even if they go pear shaped from some perspectives, are not big free speech issues. I like to think of comment sections more like conversations than publishing platforms: there’s lots of reasons people don’t want certain other people in particular conversations or conversations to go certain ways.

      But the flip side of this is that exclusion or being wapped on the nose still can hurt, be frustrating, or discourage. I’m sorry you had that experience.

      Another blog I follow has essentially no moderation and has perennial problems with trolls. Active moderation or semiactive moderation is, frankly, really really hard. (Ie you have to do a lot of unpleasant work, make judgement calls, live with making people feel crappy.)

      I don’t think this takes away the sting, of course.


  15. It looks like there might be a limit to the thread depth that prevents me from replying to the right comment, but this is a response to Bijan’s comment here.

    I hope you don’t feel put upon to justify or ombudsmanize for the current mod policies. I only bring it up at all because it appeared relevant to this post as a kind of data point about what gets called trolling or derailing at FP. I admit the situation was a little personally disappointing and frustrating, but I’m more inclined to look for a useful, generalizable lesson for the future than dwell on how someone is wrong on the internet. Anyway.

    In re: Nemo’s first comment, I guess I just don’t see why it’s especially unwise. As Andy observed, it is generally acknowledged that, whether the law applies or does not, the Martin case will reinvigorate the public debate about it. I still can’t see why it’s ok to say, in that kairos, that the law applies and is bad, but not that the law does not apply and is good.

    Or maybe you’re only referring to the reading that Nemo took of Lisa Guenther’s sentence about the law, where he opted for the more straightforward interpretation that has Guenther calling for something like a general repeal of the right to self-defense. I agree that the most sensible thing to do is to ask politely for clarification, which is what I went ahead and did at the time. I explained why I didn’t think Nemo’s response to it was completely uncalled for, since it is not always clear how to be maximally Gricean about sentences like that. It sort of went ok.

    But I did read Guenther’s excerpted post before reading the comments, and that part did jump out at me. I think of posts like that a having a similar context to a open letter or petition: you’re hoping that your views get disseminated and reach a large public audience, meaning that you should strive for a statement with a unique reasonable interpretation. If I were asked to endorse that post, that phrase is definitely something I would ask to be amended before signing on.

    I tried searching in this post and the last one for the “Williams example”; I assume you meant the post about Barbara Johnson? That discussion got recursively exegetical really quickly, and appears to be conducted simultaneously on like five levels of meta-discourse at once. Let’s just black-box that entire post and posit that you feel like you’re arguing with molasses. Yeah?

    This brings me to my final point: do we really need to try to gauge people’s true intentions to have well-moderated discussions? I am very sympathetic to swallerstein’s criticisms that it foments moderation where comparisons to the intellectual style of Leninist/Maoist regimes become regrettably apt. Is the problem with Nemo really that he lacks the ‘correct revolutionary spirit’ or somesuch? Can’t the problem with medieval schoolmen-type nitpicking, if it really is such, be spelled out without having to determine whether a dissenting voice is sufficiently ‘one of us’?

    All formal rules have their limitations (I assume you’re not thinking of, like, pure Carrollo-Wittgensteinian problems with rules) but I’ve got to believe that there’s something better than this. Consider the current situation, where contradictory actions have apparently been taken by several mods, leading to a conclusion where no one thinks that the right thing has been done. What’s clear, at least, is that the actual policy is something quite different than the stated policy, which in terms of fairness and transparency is the worst of both worlds.

    Finally, I think there’s been a bit of trading on how much this stuff really matters. At one pole of opinion is the “lol, internet” attitude. Somewhere else along the spectrum is the position that it is no better to do X on the internet (insinuate that people with differing opinions are autistic (!), pretend not to hear criticisms of one’s views) than to do the analogous thing in person. If we think it is contemptuous for a session chair to cut the mike at a conference when an audience member challenges the chair’s argument, I can’t see how it can be much better to do it online.


    • That turned out to be way longer than I intended. TL;DR: that’s definitely not how I would run things if I ran them, but I don’t.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Hi S&S,

      Your comment here needed to be moderated because of the included links. Sorry for the delay in posting.

      It looks like there might be a limit to the thread depth that prevents me from replying to the right comment,

      Yes, and I though I’d managed to turn threading off. Sigh.

      I hope you don’t feel put upon to justify or ombudsmanize for the current mod policies. I only bring it up at all because it appeared relevant to this post as a kind of data point about what gets called trolling or derailing at FP. I admit the situation was a little personally disappointing and frustrating, but I’m more inclined to look for a useful, generalizable lesson for the future than dwell

      I don’t feel put upon at all. I hope I don’t come across as arrogating a role that isn’t mine at all.

      I’m interested because my reactions are clearly rather different that yours (and other people’s). I guess it could be as banal as motivated reasoning.

      In re: Nemo’s first comment, I guess I just don’t see why it’s especially unwise.

      It seems to fit in with a pattern of early comment in a thread containing a observation which is at least in ethos construable as minimizing, denying, undermining or otherwise downplaying the moral reaction to the reported situation. In this case, I feel anon “sr” philosopher reaction that Nemo’s initial reading was obviously off base. You share Nemo’s reading, fair enough, which is interesting. So why didn’t that assuage me? I think it’s because saying “plain scary” in this context seems to go beyond noting that there’s an infelicity in the phrasing.

      At this point, I feel it’s pretty obvious how the conversation will go. People with my reaction will react. Nemo will start defending things at a very elaborated level in a way that people like me will read as plainly missing the point of our reactions. At this point it starts to snowball, as people like yourself who share the reading (reasonably) jump in.

      Note that this is all orthogonal to whether Nemo intended this effect or who’s in the wrong (it could be that I’m unduly touchy).

      The Williams example is Bernard Williams’ from “Utilitarianism: For and Against” about Jim the botanist.

      Let’s just black-box that entire post and posit that you feel like you’re arguing with molasses. Yeah?

      That’s a good way of putting it.

      Can’t the problem with medieval schoolmen-type nitpicking, if it really is such, be spelled out without having to determine whether a dissenting voice is sufficiently ‘one of us’?

      Perhaps? But there are a load of potential problems with medieval schoolmen-type nitpicking, including the implicatures particular flavors of picking produce. So, in this way, I don’t think it’s relevant whether someone’s true intentions are to derail or troll (for example). That is, purity of heart is not a defence or not a conclusive one.

      All formal rules have their limitations (I assume you’re not thinking of, like, pure Carrollo-Wittgensteinian problems with rules)

      No, I’m specifically think of things like parliamentary subversion and the use of the letter of rules to undermine their spirit. I am thinking of harassers who walk up to the line without crossing over. Or, of (intentional) trolls who don’t violate an explicit policy but who’s comments produce chaos and shift as the rules shift to cause more chaos. I’ve seen examples of all of these. Of course, it’s easy to find problems in varyingly arbitrary application of rules and I’ve experience where sincere adherence to even fairly complex rules helps enormously.

      Consider the current situation, where contradictory actions have apparently been taken by several mods, leading to a conclusion where no one thinks that the right thing has been done. What’s clear, at least, is that the actual policy is something quite different than the stated policy, which in terms of fairness and transparency is the worst of both worlds.

      This is part of why I’m concerned about etiology, here. I’ve been on the managing side of a mailing list as well as the managed side, and I’ve seen situations where the disruption functions in part by provoking odd or inappropriate moderation. Obviously, the best scenario is to have no intervention at all (I notice that on FP if self regulation has occurred there’s usually a note to that effect).

      Finally, I think there’s been a bit of trading on how much this stuff really matters. At one pole of opinion is the “lol, internet” attitude. Somewhere else along the spectrum is the position that it is no better to do X on the internet (insinuate that people with differing opinions are autistic (!), pretend not to hear criticisms of one’s views) than to do the analogous thing in person. If we think it is contemptuous for a session chair to cut the mike at a conference when an audience member challenges the chair’s argument, I can’t see how it can be much better to do it online.

      Well, my “eh” is more that I think analogies to oppressive states are extremely unhelpful as well as inaccurate in this context and that somewhat asynchronous written discussion has different dynamics than real time, verbal discussion. Obviously, I care enough about making things work to post like crazy about it. (These few posts with their extended comments are clearly above “eh” level caring. I can kind of justify it in that I pledged this new year to blog more, but I probably should blog about Computer Science a bit as well. Blogging about metaissues on someone else’s blog is a bit over the top.)

      I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from.

      • synapseandsyntax Says:

        Ah, I didn’t see that post about Williams. I thought you might have “thinkoed” a transposition of two common English surnames.

        It seems to fit in with a pattern of early comment in a thread containing a observation which is at least in ethos construable as minimizing, denying, undermining or otherwise downplaying the moral reaction to the reported situation.

        I don’t know enough of the lore of FP to weigh in on the patterned nature of the comment, but FWIW I didn’t go quite so far in my reaction to it. Many other commenters did much less than Nemo did to make it clear that that they thought the shooting was a “horrible tragedy” without getting accused of practically being secretly pleased with Martin’s shooting. I have a heard time reading anything written by anyone in that thread as denying or downplaying the moral valence of a 17 year old kid getting shot for no good reason.

        But on a philosophy blog it isn’t improper, I think, to try to reach beyond the contingent details and understand how the world can be made more just. I don’t suggest it’s inappropriate to write in with purely emotionally expressive sentiments, just that it’s expected and not unfitting that philosophers should ask questions about justice. Though it sounds horrible to say it, 17 year olds die every day—we’re only talking about Trayvon Martin because his case makes those questions impossible to ignore. I would have thought it went without saying that everyone was saddened by the events, without trying to figure out who sounds broken up enough about it. Moderating by judging grief reactions to the deaths of strangers would be a quixotic task indeed.

        Although I don’t want to drag things too much further back into first-order criticism of people’s comments, I think ASP’s reply, on the other hand, is question-begging in a way that probably has a lot to do with the emotional valence of the entire thread. Nemo thinks L is bad. To ASP, L is good because she thinks it promotes cause C. The only people who oppose C are moral reprobates who do not deserve the time of day. Therefore Nemo is a moral reprobate. It sounds absurd when you spell it out, and yet that’s what happened. Maybe the case for L promoting cause C is so strong that allegiance to C requires L, but the purpose of a blog comment (let alone of a trained philosopher) is to convey convincing arguments, not to heap on abuse and invective.

        The real problem here is that once one becomes totally convinced that one’s on the right side, and especially that one speaks for the interests of a group of historically wronged people, then one’s opponents become not merely incorrect but morally repugnant and dangerous in the effects of their speech. I would say that this is a common liability for all groups with explicit political orientations: it’s easy to become convinced that quelching the opposition (such as it is) is not only advantageous but obligatory.

        That’s why I find something of value in the comparisons to closed societies. It’s crass and distasteful to compare the effects of authoritarian states to heavy-handed moderation, no doubt. It’s the implicit political teleology, rather, that I find similar to those of states that had explicit visions for realizing some world-historical purpose, as opposed to <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_society"<open societies which aim at the more modest goal of making sure its citizens play fair according to public, transparent rules. It’s not the gulags and forced labor I want to analogize, but rather the doctored May Day line ups, purges and denunciations. They were some of the clearest examples of the unfortunately universal human tendency to shrink from one’s critics when given the power and the moral cover to do so.

        I’d venture that FP has been clear in expressing its intention to be a closed society of sorts. That’s its prerogative, and it’s not like AJJ will soon be rolling tanks into Hungary or anything like that. But it’s worth pointing out the pitfalls that tend to beset the decision-making mechanisms of closed societies; I’d argue that we’re seeing them already.

        In sum, I suppose I agree with Nemo (or Nemo channeling S. Wallerstein), about transparent rules. If the rules are good, then in order to stay within the letter of the law, one will end up having to contribute productively to the conversation, even if unwillingly. It might be tricky to get exactly right, but in light of the carnage here, you have to think that any direction is up.

        • Bijan Parsia Says:

          (Again, if you have links, you’ll almost certainly be shunted into moderation as part of the antispam measures. I’ll approve as quick as I can.)

          don’t know enough of the lore of FP to weigh in on the patterned nature of the comment,

          This is really just my observation based on three threads or so.

          but FWIW I didn’t go quite so far in my reaction to it. Many other commenters did much less than Nemo did to make it clear that that they thought the shooting was a “horrible tragedy” without getting accused of practically being secretly pleased with Martin’s shooting. I have a heard time reading anything written by anyone in that thread as denying or downplaying the moral valence of a 17 year old kid getting shot for no good reason.

          But the problem wasn’t the first part, but the last part of the comment. It doesn’t necessarily inoculate a comment from being problematic to prefix it with, essentially, a disclaimer.

          Sigh. I recommended to Nemo that they use markers to signal where they are in the conversation space as a way of keeping people from bad reactions, and if their first part was an attempt to do that, well, oh well.

          I find it easy to read the “plain scary” part as downplaying, in pretty much the way anon “sr” philosopher did. Your mileage obviously varies. But then let’s suppose both responses are reasonable in the sense that good faith, skilled, reasonably tempered and charitable epistemic agents might have either reaction depending on their precise background, defaults, emotional state, and near term experience. (I take our two divergent reactions as exemplars). How to manage such a set of interlocutors? People will be bruised either way.

          But on a philosophy blog it isn’t improper, I think, to try to reach beyond the contingent details and understand how the world can be made more just. I don’t suggest it’s inappropriate to write in with purely emotionally expressive sentiments, just that it’s expected and not unfitting that philosophers should ask questions about justice.

          Agreed. I, personally, am very interested in the subversion of the feminist angle on stand your ground laws (i.e., enlarging self-defence to cover women who kill their abusers). I’m pretty sure it’s straight forward to show how the current law and application is fucked up, but it bears some interesting similarities to the misuse of Dworkin-MacKinnon style anti-pornography statues.

          I would have thought it went without saying that everyone was saddened by the events, without trying to figure out who sounds broken up enough about it. Moderating by judging grief reactions to the deaths of strangers would be a quixotic task indeed.

          I didn’t see the rationale being that Nemo et al were insufficiently saddened, though maybe it came out that way at some point.

          Although I don’t want to drag things too much further back into first-order criticism of people’s comments, I think ASP’s reply, on the other hand, is question-begging in a way that probably has a lot to do with the emotional valence of the entire thread. Nemo thinks L is bad. To ASP, L is good because she thinks it promotes cause C. The only people who oppose C are moral reprobates who do not deserve the time of day. Therefore Nemo is a moral reprobate. It sounds absurd when you spell it out, and yet that’s what happened.

          I’m not sure what L and C are, but that’s not how I read it. Nemo said that 1) someone proposed repealing all self-defence laws and 2) that such a suggestion was plain scary. I don’t share that 1 is a reasonably construal of the text and I find 2, in this context, tone deaf to say the least. Overall, it uncomfortably echos racist justifications (e.g., blacks are scary, expanded self-defence is necessary given how scary “things” are, etc.).

          If you think 1 is a stretch and share my reaction to 2, I hope it’s clear why the comment seems rather provocative. (I.e., it looks like someone stretching to find a reason to invoke 2.)

          The real problem here is that once one becomes totally convinced that one’s on the right side, and especially that one speaks for the interests of a group of historically wronged people, then one’s opponents become not merely incorrect but morally repugnant and dangerous in the effects of their speech. I would say that this is a common liability for all groups with explicit political orientations: it’s easy to become convinced that quelching the opposition (such as it is) is not only advantageous but obligatory.

          I agree with this in a general way, though I think it’s part of human overall socio-epistemic structure. I’m not convinced that it’s entirely what’s going on, here.

          I’d venture that FP has been clear in expressing its intention to be a closed society of sorts. That’s its prerogative, and it’s not like AJJ will soon be rolling tanks into Hungary or anything like that. But it’s worth pointing out the pitfalls that tend to beset the decision-making mechanisms of closed societies; I’d argue that we’re seeing them already.

          But that’s exactly how the analogy breaks down. Managed conversations make sense in an open society. FP isn’t a society (as a whole). I tend to think of blogs as more like conversations or classrooms. You can stifle a conversation (or disrupt a classroom) in any number of ways, sometimes in simultaneously opposing ways (for the different people). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to balance interests, including the interests of people who are intimidated, made uncomfortable, or offended by others.

          Obviously, everyone needs to step up as appropriate. A heavy moderation hand can screw everyone.

          But, for example, I’ve already started to skip such threads (which is why I didn’t see the moderation debacle). I’d do so even if I thought my reaction was unreasonable: That my reaction is unreasonable doesn’t make it fully controllable by me. (I’m not saying that the moderation is in my interest. I certainly never requested or suggested it.)

          Obviously, I’m not remotely voiceless, so there’s no need to make space for me. I do like to think that I can add some value, though.

          Re: the carnage: Well, it is good to see that the confusing aspects of the moderation are being addressed. That’s encouraging, isn’t it?

  16. lois210 Says:

    Here are a few contributions this evening from me (at least in part because I reflected on the fact that I showed up here and presented myself as a victim, and now wish fervently that I’d made some other kind of entrance).

    First, I am very wary of criticisms of others that accuse them of “schoolmen nitpicking”. I’m sure this has to do with the fact that I’m in training as a philosopher, and might be a bit defensive on my part, but briefly: two comments could look almost exactly alike, superficially, and one of them be tiresome nitpicking while the other is extremely important nice distinction-making. The devil is in the details.

    Second, my interpretation was like Nemo’s, not like Bijan’s. But on the other hand, I think the FP moderators are perfectly entitled to insist on a certain focus for any given thread. It’s just that they could do it in a clearer, less peremptory manner.

    Third, I think we all agree that the analogy between a feminist blog censoring commenters and a nation-state censoring citizens is limited in its usefulness. In the former case, there isn’t any serious question of violating someone’s rights. I think of a graduate seminar (in general, I mean, not a particular one) in which the professor cuts off certain lines of discussion just by professorial authority. No doubt it’s important for professors (or other seminar-leaders) to have such authority. But equally, it can be very troubling when the authority is used regularly to silence certain kinds of views in favor of others. And it would not, to my mind, be a sufficient answer, on the part of a particularly authoritarian professor, to say, “Well, there are plenty of other seminars in which you could bring up your point of view; here we are only going to listen to arguments that take up a semantic externalist perspective.”

    Finally, after some reflection I’m inclined to agree with swallerstein that clear rules are better. That’s despite their inflexibility and imperfect effects. But that’s a big argument, perhaps for another day.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      First, I am very wary of criticisms of others that accuse them of “schoolmen nitpicking”. I’m sure this has to do with the fact that I’m in training as a philosopher, and might be a bit defensive on my part, but briefly: two comments could look almost exactly alike, superficially, and one of them be tiresome nitpicking while the other is extremely important nice distinction-making. The devil is in the details.

      The problem definitely lies in discerning which is which. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the idea that sometimes even extremely important and nice distinction making can be the wrong thing. Context and effect really matter.

      So, for example, right now I’m not annoyed by Nemo’s picking on my dilemma posts per se but that it seems very unproductive toward better understanding of the dilemmas. As it stands, I feel like I’m spending a lot of effort addressing merely technical objections and questions, rather than ones that open up new fun things to think about or deepen anyone’s understanding.

      The current posts probably do nothing for me professionally (being in computer science at the moment; it’s hard to see that any of this would lead to, e.g., a publication in philosophy which wouldn’t make my dept. happy anyway). I do like thinking about things, but I don’t feel that pointing out the same problems with the transvag ultrasound law stimulates much thought for the cost. (It was nice to find the chemical castration posts, but I can’t help think there are more efficient and pleasant ways to reach that.)

      I think of a graduate seminar (in general, I mean, not a particular one) in which the professor cuts off certain lines of discussion just by professorial authority. No doubt it’s important for professors (or other seminar-leaders) to have such authority. But equally, it can be very troubling when the authority is used regularly to silence certain kinds of views in favor of others. And it would not, to my mind, be a sufficient answer, on the part of a particularly authoritarian professor, to say, “Well, there are plenty of other seminars in which you could bring up your point of view; here we are only going to listen to arguments that take up a semantic externalist perspective.”

      Is that really a good problematic example? I mean, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where that was good teaching as well as bad teaching. (E.g., the class is focused on semantic externalism.) But isn’t the key detail when the discussion direction is disturbing (whether by content or style) other members of the class? The question there is whether to annoy the people currently comfortable by squelching them, or to leave the other students annoyed.

      Unless we believe that people weren’t complaining, that’s the situation. I’m pretty naturally inclined to favor the talkers, being one, but that’s why I try to think oppositely.

      • lois210 Says:

        If my IP were on a blacklist, then my other comments would get caught too.

        Is that really a good problematic example? I mean, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where that was good teaching as well as bad teaching. (E.g., the class is focused on semantic externalism.)

        I don’t think so — a seminar focused on semantic externalism that will not consider any criticisms of semantic externalism? That would be a terrible job of teaching.

        But isn’t the key detail when the discussion direction is disturbing (whether by content or style) other members of the class?

        No. People who are going to be disturbed by alternative perspectives should not attend seminars. They should attend prayer meetings.

      • Bijan Parsia Says:

        If my IP were on a blacklist, then my other comments would get caught too.

        Good point. I’ve no idea why that specific comment ended up in spam.

        I don’t think so — a seminar focused on semantic externalism that will not consider any criticisms of semantic externalism?

        Oh, sure. Sorry, I didn’t read your example as excluding critical perspectives. Sure.

        No. People who are going to be disturbed by alternative perspectives should not attend seminars. They should attend prayer meetings.

        Well, I did say “content or style”.

        I guess we simply don’t agree. I think it can be reasonable to limit some fora with respect to content or style for a variety of reasons, including accommodating some people. Obviously, this can be done crappily and that will often wreck the forum (e.g., a class). But I’ve been in classes where it was wrecked by the facilitator not exercising more control and I’ve talked with people who got very little out of a class because there, essentially, wasn’t room for them.

        Now, we could just say “tough nuggets; the rules are fair; deal”. But that privileges certain sorts of people in a way that’s worth reflecting on, I think. (I’m generally privileged by such rules, fwiw.)

        To put it another way, one test of these metaphors for me is whether they can be used to explicate all the problem states, not just the pro-less-fettered, clear rule ones. Classrooms are better than totalitarian societies for that, for sure.

  17. Nemo Says:

    Some discursive thoughts:

    1. Vive Pablo Wallerstein.

    2. Regarding the FP moderating flap, I guess I’m now leaning towards “Eh”, though I confess to having taken umbrage earlier. I think the sting relates to how easy it is to cultivate the impression that forums are more like real places than they actually are, and forum interaction more like in-person interactions than they really are – and then react accordingly.

    Favorite forums can grow to seem sort of like favorite cafes or pubs, where (as the song goes) “everybody knows your name”, you’ve hung out for years, you feel like you’ve earned your regular place, and eventually you’d take it as the height of indignity if one day the barman cuts you off, the bouncer starts throwing his weight around, or the boss pulls rank. It says something rather positive about FP and the expectations people have of it that some have cared enough to muster genuine resentment over the recent moderation issues.

    3. Bijan is right that analogies to oppressive states are not exceptionally helpful in the forum moderation context. I do think that drawing on thoughts about laws is not completely uninstructive with respect to thinking about forum rules, though, as long as you keep things in perspective and remember the difference in what’s at stake. Even if laws and forum rules are not greatly analogous, some of the same intuitions about fair play are going to inform – even reflexively – people’s reactions to how they’re applied in various situations.

    For example, I was thinking about the mild difference in opinion between S. Wallerstein and Bijan (both of whom made decent points, I thought) over the proper role of written rules and policies.

    Roughly summarizing the sentiments expressed, as I understood them, Bijan thought that no set of written rules and policies is going to be sufficiently exhaustive to cover every situation that people will reasonably want to discourage. He invoked the example of the harasser who steps up to the line without crossing over, and that of the person who skillfully subverts the spirit of the law while respecting the letter.

    S. Wallerstein, for his part, seemed inclined toward the view that these situations do not provide justification for reaching beyond the rules themselves in order to impose penalties. Rather, he thought that they are indications that the rules need amending. According to this view, for example, if we are not comfortable with a person occupying the space that just skirts the line, it would be an indication that the line has not been situated correctly. Or if someone is able to subvert the spirit of the law while abiding by the letter, it would be an indication that the letters needs rewriting in order to properly embody the spirit.

    Consider the following argument that I fancy S. Wallerstein might make:

    “Forum rules should define offenses with sufficient definiteness [1] that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited on the forum and [2] in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory moderation and penalization. First, because we assume that commenters have free will to steer between acceptable and unacceptable conduct, we should insist that rules give the commenter of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that they may act accordingly. Vague or unwritten policies may trap innocent commenters by not providing fair warnings. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory moderation is to be discouraged, rules must provide explicit standards for the moderators. Especially in a group-moderated forum, vague or non-explicit rules for comments unfairly delegate basic forum policy to individual moderators for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory applications.”

    There’s a certain appeal to that, so far as it goes. It’s actually a close adaptation (with the relevant concepts substituted) of language from some significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions talking about vague laws. So, to return to something I was saying above, while it’s often unhelpful and even tedious to critique forum moderation as though it were law enforcement, it isn’t necessarily wholly uninstructive.

    4. In the ethical dilemma discussion, I know I haven’t so far done justice to Bijan’s Williams example.

    • swallerstein Says:

      First of all,

      Nemo: Thank you for remembering Pablo.

      Clear rules are better for everyone, better for the moderators, better for those who comment.

      In my experience teaching and as a parent, when the rules are not clear and one has to fidget with them as things occur, one loses authority (in the best sense of the word). If one has an ethical vocation, as the moderators of the fp blog do, authority is important and is ethically justified by that vocation.

      I sense that in the past few weeks the moderators of the fp blog have lost authority and even some of the respect that one had for them. They could have avoided that situation with clearer rules.

      I don’t think that there’s any need to explain why clear rules are useful for those who comment. It is frustrating to see one’s comments end up in moderation or deleted. It hurts. Most of us have issues with rejection and those issues are often brought back, on an unconscious level, by having our comments deleted.

      Now here is a post from the fp blog on micromessages.
      http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/micromessaging/

      In the post great sensitivity is displayed towards how small clues can validate or disvalidate (does that word exist’) people in a classroom situation.

      In the comments section the case of a woman whose professor does not make eye contact with her is discussed and analyzed in detail.

      One would expect that bloggers who show such sensitivity towards the issues of micromessaging in the classroom would show equal sensitivity towards the same issues in managing their blog, but they do not and that is disappointing.

      • lois210 Says:

        On clear rules:

        I think we should agree that having clear rules in advance has significant costs. As Bijan says, someone intent on it will find loopholes, and the rules will likely end up ruling out some things that shouldn’t be ruled out, and ruling in some things that are problematic.
        My feeling, though, is that they are worth the cost. When instead the practice is for moderators to leave in or throw out people’s comments at will, and sometimes I’d say at whim, there is an arbitrariness and a clubbiness (despite the protestations that there is no club) that mutilates the spirit of feminism. (IMHO.)

  18. lois210 Says:

    Did something of mine get trapped in moderation?
    It was fairly long, but had no links.

  19. lois210 Says:

    Ran out of nesting room on the thread above; continuing here.

    I guess we simply don’t agree. I think it can be reasonable to limit some fora with respect to content or style for a variety of reasons, including accommodating some people.

    Of course it can.
    I think we got too abstract and lost track of what position each other was trying to defend.

    But I’ve been in classes where it was wrecked by the facilitator not exercising more control and I’ve talked with people who got very little out of a class because there, essentially, wasn’t room for them.

    Wasn’t room for them, in what way? Obviously you don’t mean there wasn’t classroom space! They didn’t get a chance to talk because some loudmouth was hogging all the questions? That can definitely be the problem. Or are you talking about some other kind of ‘space’?

    • swallerstein Says:

      The classroom analogy goes only so far, because behind the fp blog there seems to be an ethical-political vocation which is not always present in a classroom situation.

      For example, in a philosophy class they often discuss very technical issues that will change no one’s life and do not call upon students to rethink their values.

      Feminism, on the other hand, calls upon us to rethink our values.

      Now if I am called upon to rethink the micromessages I emit when I deal with others, I will have to work upon myself (philosophy as a way of life, as Pierre Hadot calls it) in order to meet that challenge.

      I would expect those who call upon me to become more aware of my micromessages, of my implicit biases and of the way I use and abuse my privileges to guide me in that challenge and they can only do that if they are aware of their micromessages, of their implicit biases and of their uses and abuses of privilege.

      It seems that the goal is to see others as they are, without being blinded by gender, race or other biases and then to treat others with the respect or lack of respect that they deserve based on what I see.

      What happened in the fp blog, among other things, is that they did not seem to be aware of their micromessages nor of their implicit biases (which distort our perceptions not only of gender issues but of so many other things) nor at times of the privileged position that a blog moderator has with respect to those who comment there.

      Now, being unaware of micromessages and of implicit biases and of the privileges that power brings with it are all part of the game of normal living in contemporary society, and I don’t expect much else from most people, but there is a thing about practicing what you preach, even though it’s easier to preach than to practice.

      Let’s take the case of Xena, who has gone through numberless limit experiences, which undoubtedly shape and color they way that she sees the world. She is not a normal middle-class academic and does not always speak like one. However, it seemed to me that the fp blog exists precisely to give a space to voices like Xena. Quite the contrary, her often quite innocuous comments are deleted and moderated. I think that a lot of academic middleclass implicit or not so implicit biases are evident in the fp blog treatment of her.

      The revolution is not a dinner party, said Mao Tse Tung. You can’t have them both: the revolution and a polite dinner party.

      Sorry for ranting.

  20. synapseandsyntax Says:

    Sorry, hit the thread limit again.

    I’m not sure what L and C are, but that’s not how I read it. Nemo said that 1) someone proposed repealing all self-defence laws and 2) that such a suggestion was plain scary. I don’t share that 1 is a reasonably construal of the text and I find 2, in this context, tone deaf to say the least. Overall, it uncomfortably echos racist justifications (e.g., blacks are scary, expanded self-defence is necessary given how scary “things” are, etc.).

    If you think 1 is a stretch and share my reaction to 2, I hope it’s clear why the comment seems rather provocative. (I.e., it looks like someone stretching to find a reason to invoke 2.)

    I would have conceded the point about (1) being a reasonable construal, but I think I have to say something more about it in order to address (2). Just as another data point, I think reading “plain scary” as echoing racist justifications is less tenable than Nemo’s original misreading. Here’s one way to think about it:

    Many feminists express frustration at the fact that most people hold views that are basically in alignment with mainstream feminist goals, yet few people call themselves feminists. This is usually blamed on conservative smear campaigns, and there’s something to that. On the other hand, it ignores that some seriously prominent feminists have sometimes said seriously crazy stuff: consider de Beauvoir on women’s choice to work outside the home, Brownmiller on rape, prominent N.O.W. members on Valerie Solanas, (Irigaray on physical laws…). All of those statements really are plain scary. Part of the work of declaring a forum to be a feminist space where feminist perspectives and assumptions are taken for granted is that you have to specify: whose feminist perspectives?

    You might say: that’s ridiculous, I don’t think Solanas is a hero for trying to shoot Andy Warhol. And you would be right (about Solanas, at least). But when very prominent and mainstream members of a movement endorse plain scary views, it affects the default context in which ambiguous statements are interpreted. Calling for a general repeal of the right to self-defense is actually quite tame in comparison to de Beauvoir’s comments on whether married women should be “allowed” not to work. I too am sometimes irritated by the “I’m not a feminist, but…” trope, but I can understand that one might have to jettison a lot of historically important feminist writers before you’re comfortable with what’s left.

    So if you’re a political moderate trying to engage with feminists in good faith, trying to be charitable by filling in the lacunae in a writer’s statements with (one major brand of) rhetorical feminist mortar might actually result in less charitable interpretations than if you had just gone ahead in the first place and “imposed” your conventional wisdom.

    Anyway, I don’t think we need to invoke generalized racial anxiety in order to explain the “plain scary” comment. Repealing self-defense laws would be scary enough, I think, to account for Nemo saying that. The awkward danger in hearing uncomfortable echoes, of course, is that one is left holding the bag if the remark turns out not to have been racially motivated at all. (“Who’s the racist now,” one might imagine one’s token conservative friend asking with relish, “if I say ‘scary’ and you think ‘black people'”? &c.) As someone glad to be considered your epistemic peer, let me just say that it’s not a dialectical hill I would want to die on.

    I’m not sure what L and C are, but that’s not how I read it.

    In that example: L, the law; and C, the cause of anti-racism. But L and C are mere placeholders. The form of argument implied by ASP is unsatisfying regardless of the particulars substituted.

    But that’s exactly how the analogy breaks down. Managed conversations make sense in an open society. FP isn’t a society (as a whole)…

    What makes me want to compare FP to a closed society is the sense that some of the moderators are rooting for particular outcomes rather than merely trying to disinterestedly keep the peace. Even thought FP is unlike a society in many relevant ways, Popper (IIRC) thought this distinction explained the other differences between authoritarian and liberal societies, hence the comparison.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to balance interests, including the interests of people who are intimidated, made uncomfortable, or offended by others.

    Maybe this is just a case of my not knowing ‘what it’s like’, but I tend to see this as an interest whose legitimate service is much narrower than its illegitimate service. Certainly actual intimidation, like threatening someone with violence, is not legal, let alone to be tolerated in a forum. There is also value in enforcing a general refrain from personal attacks. But isn’t examination of one’s values supposed to discomfort one and even generate offense? (Recall discussion sections in philosophy 101…) Consider how many conservatives claim to be intimidated, made uncomfortable or offended by a general secular presence in public society. What kind of claims to protection from debate do they have? Perhaps there is some entire class of counterexample I’m missing, but it seems like a rule ripe for abuse.

    Sorry if I’ve dropped any of the threads here; I tried to be rapid in my reply.

    • lois210 Says:

      [BP] I don’t think it’s unreasonable to balance interests, including the interests of people who are intimidated, made uncomfortable, or offended by others.

      Is that what’s happening, though? Here’s my experience. I posted some comments that are in no way intimidating. Practically anything could make *somebody* uncomfortable or offend *somebody*, but there was no particular reason for me to think mine would. They were removed, and then my comments were blocked for a while. (That ended when I registered for a WordPress account and used that – I have no problem with using a WordPress account if the bloggers prefer it.)

      In the mean time, Anon Sr Philosopher posted some pretty nasty remarks about me – they were casual swipes rather than rants, and in themselves they didn’t really bother me. (I am used to dealing with internet rudeness, belittling comments, and so forth.) What does rankle is that all of them were left intact. The ‘be nice’ rule was not applied.

      So, I think this supports S&S’s concern that

      some of the moderators are rooting for particular outcomes rather than merely trying to disinterestedly keep the peace.

      Jender cut off the comments *just* after A.Sr.P. took another gratuitous shot at me. I’m willing to believe that was a coincidence, but the whole pattern isn’t a coincidence. (Which doesn’t mean it’s fully intentional, of course.)

  21. Nemo Says:

    I wouldn’t say that I was reading Guenther as calling for an abolition of all right to self-defense; at least I do not now recall that being my intention. It was more a reading as calling for modification (though I know she said “repeal”) of existing self defense laws to the extent they are grounded in a perceived threat to life. That would indeed touch upon, and require some changes to, most or all self-defense laws throughout the US, yet without equating to an abolition of the right to self-defense – so again, I don’t think I initially read Guenther to be calling for an outright abolition of self-defense doctrine.

    For example, it would be possible to change (or repeal and replace) the law so that self-protection (or protection) of others a valid defense to a charge of criminal homicide only if the defendant can afterwards demonstrate that there existed an *actual* threat to life. In other words, to require that the defendant’s perception be not merely objectively reasonable, but actually correct.

    That would shift 100% of the legal risk of being wrong onto the defendant. Traditionally and currently, the legal risk of making a mistake is partly borne by the defendant (because if their perception of a threat to life and limb is objectively unreasonable, they’ll be punished), and partly borne by the person against whom the defendant used force (who bears the risk that circumstances of no actual threat may nonetheless give rise to an objectively reasonable perception of threat). Some people have proposed this arrangement in the past, and I had taken Guenther perhaps to be of that camp. As I indicated, I think such proposals make for alarming policy, though obviously not nearly as much as eradication of absolutely all right to self-defense (which was not my reading).

    I still don’t see how, at the time in question (i.e. before Guenther intervened later on), the reading proposed by anon “sr” philosopher (and to some extent by Matt) – essentially that by calling for the repeal of “other laws” Guenther was calling for no more extensive changes than to remove a duty to retreat in public – was objectively “obvious”, “straightforward”, or “most plausible” as those commenters suggested. The modifiers Guenther initially attached to “other laws” don’t distinguish Florida’s SYG law from other self-defense laws; on the contrary, they’re precisely things Florida’s law has in common with current self-defense laws generally.

    If one intends to refer specifically to “other laws” that impose no duty to retreat, there are many “obvious”, “straightforward”, and “plausible” modifiers one could choose to that effect, and Guenther seemed to have chosen to pass them up all up in favor of modifiers that leaned in the opposite direction (i.e. the direction that faces my initial reading). But I suppose it’s academic now.

  22. Nemo Says:

    Whoops, a few proofreading errors in my last post. Hopefully you get the drift.


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