Please note that this post is intended as a poke in the eye. Many of my posts are. As a blogger, a writer of any kind, it is not my job to make you comfortable. It is my job to shake you up, to unsettle you, to make you question yourself and the world, and to remind you what the damned point was in the first place.
I will also note that when I interact with you online, I do have more than your words to go on. I can see to whom you’re speaking. I can see who responds and how you, in turn, respond to them. I can see who your friends are. I can see the consistency of your words over time. Sometimes, I even get to see how you behave in real life. In short, I can see your broader behavior.
On to ethics. The following three recommended behaviors are not rules. They are simply things I note when I’m forming an opinion of someone’s online ethics.
Own Your Context
There are no vacuums online. Everything you’re doing happens in some context, perhaps more so when you belong to a blogging community. When you post something related to what is going on around you but don’t acknowledge doing so–when in fact, you use language meant to apply to all–it’s very easy for me to think you’re doing something underhanded. It’s easy for me to see you as trying to pretend you’re above the fray while simultaneously wallowing in it. When you do it repeatedly (context), it gets all that much easier.
So how do you talk about these things in context? As I see it, you have three options:
- State simply who you’re talking about. “Yes, this is about him, although I think we can all take a lesson.”
- Point to the context by way of disclaimer. “I’ve been meaning to write about this. The timing is unfortunate, but this really is meant generally.”
- Wait for a different context.
And the immediate context for this discussion:
- Isis writes an open letter to Samia on the subject of communicating with allies.
- Samia disagrees. Greg (Name Withheld Out of Fear) and Zuska comment.
- Zuska expands on her comment. (Also good but non-contextual follow-up post.) Greg comments.
- Isis writes an open letter objecting to Greg’s comments in both places.
- Greg links to Isis.
- Zuska also objects.
- PalMD adds context.
- Greg links to Zuska and PalMD.
- Janet offers unsolicited advice (the topic of this post).
- Greg offers a thinly veiled metaphor to restate his original point without the personalities.
Let me know if I missed anything. There’s less immediate context, too, but I think most of that is linked to further down.
One note, the last time Janet went context-free offering unsolicited advice to Greg, I responded in kind. It was fun, as a challenge, and I think I did it well. I’m tired of argument by elision, though, which is why this is here and in the form it is.
Own Your Bias
If The Daily Show has taught us nothing else, hopefully it has taught us that being professionally unbiased is nothing like the same thing as not having biases or even being able to successfully counteract those biases. We all have history online, friendly and unfriendly, with those around us. When you don’t acknowledge that history, it makes it very easy for me to think you’d prefer that people not know about it. It makes it easy to believe that those biases are more important to your making the argument than the subject of the argument itself.
Again, you can always attempt to defend yourself….
And again, my advice for dealing with this is the same as the first two points under owning your context. Put your biases out there for people to look at and make up their own minds about. Talk about how you see them relating to your topic–or not.
I tend to think my biases in this situation are fairly well known, but I might be wrong, so here goes.
- I like Isis. I read her blog regularly and have every intention of getting together with her for a drink when one of us finally makes it to the other’s city. You’re never going to hear about it, though. I also think her tendency to write passionately sometimes illuminates and sometimes obscures her message.
- I like Samia’s blog, though I’m always envious when she’s just done something fun with her hair color (damned job). I have no idea whether we’d get on in person, but I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to find out at ScienceOnline.
- I enjoyed meeting Zuska once I got over being shy and think her blog is a public service. We’ve certainly argued before, but I think it’s always been about interpretation rather than anything fundamental. I was tickled and a bit awed to get a Facebook friend request from her.
- I’ve never gotten into an argument with PalMD (nonoverlapping spheres), so there’s nothing to balance the fangirl squee in that case. I’m going to stop talking before I look any sillier.
- I think everyone knows that Greg and I are friends and co-conspirators, so I’m not sure what else to say about that. I like his wife and his daughter and his best friend and his sister, none of whom take prisoners. I’ve edited his work. See also what I said about Isis and writing passionately. The difference with Greg is that I’m much less diplomatic when I tell him he’s not helping, but I do it mostly behind the scenes.
- I always take a deep breath before getting into it with Janet. She’s one of the few people with whom I’ve argued and never later found common cause. She’s also the person who amused me by snubbing me at ScienceOnline (which I found out later was visible from across the room). It’s pretty safe to say we’re not fond of each other.
Does my dislike of Janet color what I have to say here? Judge for yourself. I’ll add that the reasons I don’t like Janet are mainly twofold. I think that for an ethicist, she asks too many questions in such a way that the answers she wants are implied. I also think she doesn’t take responsibility for her own opinions. In other words, I think she tries to argue from an authority I’m not willing to grant her.
Own Your Evidence
Linking is not just an inherent good. It’s also a way of tying yourself to your argument such that you are forced to examine it one more time. Beyond that, it allows your readers to decide whether you know what you’re talking about. If you add quotes, it forces your readers to make those decisions. When you don’t provide links and quotes, it makes it very easy for me to think you are misinterpreting the evidence willfully. It’s very easy to think you haven’t bothered to look at it, having already made up your mind what it says.
As always, the best way to defend yourself from these impressions is to do both in the first place. That allows people to decide whether this:
Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience’s claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience’s hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn’t really count.
My comments about the Isis character (and the High School Girl bit) were probably over the top, for which I apologize, but clearly they were also not well stated and/or not well understood (and thus reacted to in a way that is probably over the top, but understandable) I’ll just go ahead and take responsibility for the not well stated part.
They can decide whether this:
You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so – because a good guy like yourself doesn’t go around saying offensive things!
accurately describes this:
I do not expect Isis to NOT take offense at my comments. They were offered as critique and not everybody likes to hear critique.
They can decide whether this:
Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating.
is required as a response to this:
They were part of a larger critique that I’ve made pretty clear, and that some people seem to be getting and agreeing with, some getting and not agreeing with, and some not getting and not agreeing with. That is how things go on the internet.
Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts.
as a response to this:
This is very good for me. Every time we go around like this (this is what, the third or fourth time over the last year and a half?) about how to be a good feminist or anti-racist, or about pseudonymity/anonymity, with part of the conversation coming from Teh Angreee (TM), I get more accustom to it. It makes it a little easier to see where people are coming from without the personal reaction.
In short, linking and quoting allow everyone to make up their own minds in full knowledge of the circumstances.
So that’s it for the advice from me. I don’t even really have anything to say in closing except: I hope you have fun putting together your carnival, Danielle. I’m looking forward to it.
Update: This post is not complete without this one.