The great thing about the internet and blogs in particular is that it enables immediate feedback and criticism. Most authors welcome this by enabling comments but even those who do not allow comments (Andrew Sullivan at The Dish is one such prominent blogger) get rapid-fire feedback from other blogs. Once you enter the blogging world, you must expect criticism, sometimes in quite harsh terms. It simply goes with the territory.
Part of the differences of opinion on how much freedom people should have to say what they think arises from different perceptions of where one’s blog lies on the private sphere-public sphere continuum. Someone’s home is clearly in the private sphere whereas the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is the classic example of a public sphere.
Those bloggers who use the metaphor of ‘their house’ clearly view the blog as close to the private end, just like their real homes, and thus have fairly strict rules over what can and cannot be said. I tend to view this blog as closer to the public end, though not fully public because I do have editorial control. It is more illuminating to compare it to a classroom. In a classroom I do not ‘own’ the space the way I do my home but am more of a custodian of the space, responsible for seeing that it is available for all to use.
My liberal attitude towards comments may be due to the teacher in me coming to the surface that sees even offensive comments as teachable moments to increase awareness of the underlying issues. When someone says something openly, at least the idea is now out in the open and can be critically analyzed, whereas suppressing it leaves no one else the wiser as to what is out there. Of course, in my classes, as the teacher I have the equivalent power of banning which is to expel a student who is being unruly and offensive, though I have never had to do that. But the classroom situation is also different in that the other students have no choice but to be present, and indeed have paid money for the privilege, and hence I have a greater responsibility to ensure that their learning experience is not ruined by the anti-social behavior of a few. So if a situation arose where someone was making life unbearable for other students, I would exercise my right to expel him or her, without feeling that my commitment to free speech was being compromised. The classroom is not in the public sphere. Along the private-to-public continuum, the classroom is near the center but closer to the private end, such as the home.
I view this blog, on the other hand, as also near the center but closer to the public end of the continuum, purely because no one is obliged to enter and everyone is free to leave at any time. But although it is not like a classroom with me as the teacher, it is hard to shake oneself of one’s other life and my personas in the two areas do tend to overlap and I do feel a sense of responsibility to readers to create a welcoming atmosphere for all who visit here. And so I do not want to completely rule out the possibility that I might have to ban someone in the future.
Viewing the blog as akin to a classroom brings out all the difficulties of striking the right balance between allowing openness and freedom while not allowing the place to get trashed and uninhabitable. Some teachers, right at the beginning of the semester, lay out rules for what is and is not allowed in the classroom. My own approach is to avoid such unilateral exercises of power. Instead I initiate a discussion with the class about how we should deal with situations in which controversial topics come up or where one person may say things that others find offensive. The class as a whole comes up with guidelines for behavior, often delegating power to me to take certain decisions. I have found that the very act of having such a discussion tends to make people more sensitive to the feelings of others and have never had to deal with any serious conflicts.
One other reason I am hesitant to issue a general policy statement in advance as to what might trigger a ban on the blog is because I have not had to deal with it so far and it is usually a mistake to make policy decisions in the abstract without some experience of the concrete. While I read quite a few blogs and comment occasionally, I really do not have any experience at all with banning others or being banned myself and hesitate to institute a policy without first having some sense of what it would look like in specific instances.
The nice thing about an unfettered internet is that people can always find some place that is congenial to them. I do believe that there should be at least some venues where anything goes (subject of course to the usual legal constraints of libel, copyright, etc.) where people have the right to express their views, however distasteful, and hence I would vigorously object to any attempt to establish codes of speech that are binding on all. Each site can and should decide what range of views they are willing to tolerate but should not have the right to impose those limits on others. I would especially oppose any attempts by governments to set limits.