I participated in an interesting discussion recently with some other bloggers about what to do with commenters who seem to be either trolling to create mischief or being outright abusive and insulting to either the blog host or to other commenters or anyone else. Should such people be banned?
Although I have been blogging for seven years, I personally have never had to confront this problem. In fact, I do not even know how to ban someone. The discussions have been pretty peaceful even when the topic was controversial. On occasion, there have been people who disagreed with me persistently and implied motives to me that I thought were unwarranted but there has never been any real nastiness that might have tempted me to wish that they would go away. My usual practice is after awhile to simply walk away from exchanges that I think have ceased to be fruitful, particularly if the other person does not provide useful information or substantiation in support of their claims.
But not all the other blog authors agreed with me and I discovered that the practice of banning some commenters who were perceived as obnoxious or abusive is fairly common. The divide on this issue seemed to be between those who see their blogs as existing largely in the private sphere to which commenters are granted the privilege to enter, and those who see it as part of the public sphere where pretty much anything goes. While each blogger has the right to decide which path to take, they do lead to quite different landscapes.
The former group uses the metaphor of the blog being ‘their house’ and reason that anyone who enters their house has to abide by their rules and violating it by insulting the host and other guests is grounds for being thrown out. Some lay out explicit rules for what is and is not allowed in the comments and have no hesitation in yanking those who run afoul of those guidelines.
The latter group (of which I am one) tend to be more or less committed to the position that we are working largely in the public sphere and thus should not have the expectation of not being offended by what is said about us, at the very least because we reserve the right to say things that may be construed as being offensive to others. Of course, the blog is not a pure public sphere, since the blogger does have editorial control. Hence we are more like newspaper publishers/editors and the issue becomes trickier. But I suspect that newspaper editors’ sensibilities are largely commercially determined by their desire to prevent the loss of advertisers rather than to some abstract ideas of civility. I am not so constrained. I write because I have things I want to say and whether people think it is worth reading is up to them. Market share does not factor into the equation.
Furthermore, I take the view that such criticisms are not necessarily personal. After all, very few of my blog’s readers know me or other commenters personally. To a greater or lesser degree, depending on our prominence, bloggers are not so much individuals as a ‘brand’ (to use a somewhat distasteful piece of contemporary commercial jargon). For readers on the internet, ‘Mano Singham’ is now a brand, an umbrella label for that set of views that are loosely associated with me, just as ‘Wall Street’ is a brand for the policies of the financial sector. When people attack ‘Mano Singham’ or ‘Wall Street’, they are attacking the brands and what they stand for, not necessarily the individuals who make them up. So getting angry at insults hurled at the brand is like getting angry with someone who curses General Motors.
But while I can perhaps ignore things that are said about ‘my brand’ because I have developed a thicker skin, one blogger raised an important issue concerning vitriolic comments made about other commenters or other people, or intemperate and even vicious language in general. If I let such comments stand and not expel the culprits, am I not tacitly condoning those words? It was pointed out that some of the worst excesses come from people who display racist, misogynistic, and homophobic qualities and that I may be able to take a more casual attitude because I am in a privileged position and not vulnerable to such attacks.
The point that I may be arguing from privilege because I am not a member of groups that are routinely subjected to abuse is a good one. It is true that I have not been subjected to anywhere near the same level of abuse as some others and I am mindful of the fact that this may be unduly coloring my somewhat relaxed attitude on this issue. To combat it, I tried to think what kind of insult a commenter could say about me personally that would tempt me to ban them but have failed to come up with any. I have many personal and professional qualities that I am sure could be easily turned into coarse insults. I tried to think of some but I discovered that it is hard to find ways to insult oneself without soon descending into laughable parody. It struck me that being insulted is like being tickled, one cannot do it to oneself but requires another person to be effective. So I will have to wait and see what others may come up with.
But what about people who are not insulting me but are attacking others? In a comment to the previous post, Beth pointed out that people who have not developed a thick skin may be shut out of the public sphere because they cannot tolerate a high level of vituperative language. Do we have a collective responsibility to provide at least a partial shield so that those who are uncomfortable with the sometimes intense heat of the language of the public sphere can find a more temperate zone?
This is a serious argument that merits serious consideration and in the next post in this series I will look at the blog host’s responsibilities to all readers.