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.