On insults-4: The responsibilities of a blog author

In my private discussions with other bloggers about the issue of whether one should ban offensive commenters, the point was made that even if I could live with such comments, other readers may find them so offensive that they leave and never return because they think that by allowing them, the host is condoning such views. The suggestion was also made that men seem to be more comfortable with creating and being in a heated atmosphere and that if the blog host is not careful, the blog may become an exclusively male preserve. This is a serious argument that merits serious consideration. What is the blog host’s responsibility to provide a congenial environment to all who choose to visit?

My first reaction was that I would have thought that readers of this blog, at least the regular ones, are pretty sophisticated adults and would be able to distinguish between views that are congenial to the blog owner and those that, however repellent, are tolerated out of a commitment to openness. But that may not be sufficient for some readers to stay and is not an inconsiderable factor to consider.

While I may be in a position to ignore insults aimed at me, a more difficult issue is what should be done if someone says something totally outrageous, misogynistic, homophobic, and racist about someone else? Or simply uses vitriolic language for no apparent reason? I would have thought that that anyone who said such a thing would be immediately treated as a pariah by the general readership of this blog without any assist from me, and lose all credibility whatsoever. He or she would essentially be committing a spectacular act of self-immolation and no one would take him or her seriously again, and would become the internet equivalent of people you sometimes find on city streets, angry at the world and yelling at no one in particular and whom everyone just ignores. One would think that this possibility alone should be sufficient to deter such actions.

I find that the best way to deal with people who seem to want to merely irritate others and take the discussion into tangential areas is to ignore them, following the advice of #8 on my list of critical thinking attributes that says, “Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.” Or more commonly by the saying “Don’t feed the trolls.” Nothing is gained by going on and on.

There is a reason that offensive comments are nowadays usually made only within a closed circle of like-minded people or with coded language. Overt bigotry in public is seen as beyond the pale. The ESPN headline writer who made what was seen as a stupid pun about Jeremy Lin’s ethnicity was summarily fired even though he said he had used the same word in headlines many times before without comment, and no evidence has been produced that he was a raging bigot. There also seems to be a never-ending stream of celebrities and politicians making groveling apologies for idiotic and insensitive remarks. The apologies may not be genuine but the fact that such public acts of contrition are now seen as obligatory speaks volumes for the positive new climate. All major changes in social thinking usually begin with hypocrisy anyway, so even transparently fake apologies such as those offered by Rush Limbaugh to Sandra Fluke after his advertisers started abandoning him should be seen as a step forward.

But there is another reason that I am reluctant to censor even the most outrageous comments. It is because of all the reasons in favor of free speech that I wrote about earlier. Just as I am disinclined to cede to anyone else the power to decide what I can read or hear, so am I reluctant to be the one to similarly decide for others.

This is the really tricky issue. It is not a legal one. I clearly have the editorial power to decide what appears here. I am not the government and so the First Amendment cannot forbid me from censoring or even banning others. But I have always felt that the First Amendment is a good guideline for everyone to follow whenever possible, even if they are not required to, and that all speech should have the presumption that it is allowed. Even though I work at a private university on which the First Amendment is not legally binding, I have consistently argued that we should act as if we are like the government and abide by its guidelines as far as possible.

So my ideal would be to view myself and this blog as if we were government entities, and subject ourselves to the same constraints of the First Amendment.

Is this possible? I will have to wait and see. The trouble with having any power, even one as insignificant as editorial control over a blog, is that one is sorely tempted to use it to ‘make things better’ because free speech is, frankly messy. Maintaining faith that the public at large will themselves monitor their own speech and arrive at modes of discourse that are congenial to all is a real challenge.


  1. thewhollynone says

    It’s a tough one, okay. As a retired public school teacher, I have had more experience with “controlling” free speech, a necessary activity when dealing with adolescents. Unfortunately many commenters on the web act like adolescents and perhaps ought to be treated as such. I’m a 75-year-old grandmother who reads your blog for the science so I tend to ignore the adolescent male psyches on display-- although they do get rather boring!

  2. slc1 says

    I stand on my comment on the previous thread. Prof. Singham should not tolerate personal abuse and character assassination directed at him on his own blog.

  3. says

    No. Overt bigotry towards certain given groups is no longer tolerated, while overt bigotry towards others (people with disablities, addicts, trans people, etc.) is still tolerated.

    The idea of “they become a pariah and have no more credibility” is wishful thinking. Even reasonable adults aren’t THAT reasonable. Provided it isn’t WILDLY over the top, what instead happens is the behaviour becomes normalized. Those targeted by such slurs are, as always, in the minority -or at least have the minority of the social power- and as such, you’re relying wholly on the good will of the privileged to keep the bigots in check. Which just doesn’t work. Instead, you’ll have some people offended enough to leave, some people offended who stick around but now feel threatened and intimidated, then some people who aren’t directly offended but think it was inappropriate, and then a larger number who just see it as a tiny little (perhaps subconscious) nudge suggesting “this kind of thing is okay here. It’s normal”.

    I’m sorry, Chris, but your views on this seem coloured by extreme optimism (such as the completely inaccurate assertion that overt bigotry is no longer tolerated) and a general lack of having been on the receiving end.

  4. says

    A middle ground that some people can live with is allow the bigoted and horrendous comments (and Natalie is right, some bigotry is more than accepted), but then follow it up with disagreement.

    Cuz if you belong to a marginalized group where seriously everyone is in on it -being a woman: not everyone is in on it. Just a lot of people. But people know it’s not ok. Vs being a disabled person, where everyone is like “is ableism really a word? OMG I didn’t mean it that way stop being hypersensitive! What do you mean, I can’t use your neurology as an insult??? FREE SPEECH!” where if someone doesn’t say “yeah so that’s a shitty thing to say, stop doing it” the default assumption is that they’re ok with it.

    There are missing words there, but the tl; dr version is: you can allow stuff through and then explicitly say you think it’s expressing unacceptable prejudice.

  5. oldebabe says

    That’s about it for me, too, having had to hear, and be the recipient of, `free speech’ for many years in work-related situations.

    People who tend to be reasonable and literate will be so, and those who are not, will not. What Mano wants and does with his blog, however, is of course up to him. I won’t stop reading the blogs that I like because of potentially negative comments from other readers.

  6. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    I don’t see tolerance for misogyny, racism or homophobia on the ftb’s. With your good work, I hope not to see tolerance for transphobias either (I only learned from your blog that ‘tranny’ is a dire insult. I’m glad I’ve never used it, but I take no credit -- the opportunity hadn’t arisen.).

    There is tolerance for any kind of bigotry toward the religious, and toward people holding minority dissenting opinions, especially if those opinions are of an uninformed variety.

    To me, the biggest problem with epithets on blogs, whether bigoted or personal, is that they block communication. Call someone an asshole, and they are far less likely to pay attention to anything else you might have to say to them. I think the free speech argument is a red herring.

  7. vf says

    I agree with this.
    I read here subtle thoughts about insults and offensive comments, trying to understand them within the frame of the internet, or within the boundaries of free-speech, or within et.
    But insults and offensive comments in the first place should first be considered by themselves, per se : they are a verbal form of aggression, hence of violence, which is even worse when made anonymously (I am myself Vincent Fleury, writing from Paris). However legal it may be (first amemndment etc.) it remains a form of violence.


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