On insults-5: The private-public continuum of spaces

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.


  1. vf says

    Youa re already at 5 posts on insults and blogs; trying to sort out instances in which they are or ar not bearable, when or not to ban commenters (like myself), where or not the presence of others is an issue, whetehr the gender is an issue (maybe also the age is an issue) etc. Would not life be just simpler without insults?

  2. Mano Singham says

    Yes, it would be simpler, but where is it guaranteed that life should be simple?

    Human beings are complicated, with different needs and wants and rights and obligations. Trying to negotiate a consensus in a way that balances competing interests is messy and this series of posts has been trying to examine the various factors that come into play.

    I do not find insults useful or appealing myself but am aware that people do not always agree on what constitutes an insult and whether there are situations in which they are appropriate.

    My goal in blogging is not so much to simply say what should be done (though I do say that sometimes) but to look at the reasons that lie behind decisions.

    When people say they would like things to be simple, they tend to mean that they want everyone to do things their way. Things would definitely be simple if everyone just agreed with me. But they are not going to.

  3. vf says

    I think this is too tolerant. Education is here to teach people not to do whatever they like, even if it is legal. Education makes things simpler. It is confortable to speak with people who do not insult each other. As a matter of fact, I have a blog myself, it is a part of an online newspaper, and as such, you need to subscribe to the newspaper to be allowed to comment, although anybody can read the blog and the comments. All of a sudden: no insults ever.
    I am not sure what yo mean when you write this :
    “Things would definitely be simple if people just agreed with me. But they are not going to.”

    do you mean that people who disagree with you, automatically insult you?

  4. Mano Singham says

    But encouraging people to not be insulting (which is what education seeks to do) is not the issue being discussed here. It is whether you can or should prohibit certain types of speech.

    As an example, I taught my children to be polite to people. But they are adults now and I cannot force them to do anything. And I would not want to be able to.

    When I said that people will not agree with me, I did not mean that this means they will insult me. I just meant that when it comes to negotiating what should and should not be done when it comes to speech, things are not going to be simple.

  5. vf says

    Ok, so you do think that there are grounds for not forbidding/prohibiting insults, or at least you seem to imply that it can be discussed and it is not such a simple question.
    Ok. As a victim of insults, my view is simpler : No insults please, but it is just my view.

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    There’s three problems with your pollyanna scenario:

    1. There are times when I get so angry that I become sarcastic and even insulting. Recently I had someone lie to me. Not only did I know it was a lie, but I knew he knew it was a lie. I became rude, crude and socially unacceptable. If you’re polite to me then I’ll be polite back, but politeness consists of more than just not using naughty words.

    b. What’s an insult? In my opening sentence I accused you of being a pollyanna. Is that insulting or is it descriptive or is it both? You have to define what is insulting.

    iii. Insults are going to disappear about 10 minutes after the heatdeath of the universe. That’s just the way most people are.

  7. vf says

    I do not know what pollyanna means, it sounds like the name of a russian submarine.
    about this :
    >If you’re polite to me then I’ll be polite back, but politeness consists of more than just not using naughty words.

    i agree

    about what is an insult, of course there are fuzzy boundaries, but most insults are clearly insults.

    We all die eventually, I agree, there are ways to make life more friendly. It seems to me there is some toxicity on the internet which generates more insults than other forms of coummunication. But may be it is specific to the US, because of the first amendment etc. I am not acquainted with these idiosyncrasies.

  8. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I do not know what pollyanna means, it sounds like the name of a russian submarine.

    I can see one major difference between you and me. If someone uses a word or phrase which I don’t know, I look it up. I’m really tempted to be insulting to you because apparently you’re too lazy too look up the definition of a word but not too lazy to whine about me using the word.

    But as a special service to the vocabulary impaired, here’s dictionary.com’s definition:

    Pol·ly·an·na [pol-ee-an-uh]
    1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person.
    2. (often lowercase) Also, Pol·ly·an·na·ish. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

  9. vf says

    @’Tis Himself, OM
    I thought you were inventing a word just for the example. For fun.
    Don’t be too harsch with foreigners.
    Internet is really a bizarre place, if this is the way conevrsations go.

  10. vf says

    I cannot find anything unfriendly or any whining in my reply to you here above about polyanna. It sounded to me like the name of some submarine in the movie “red october” with Sean Connery, that’s all.
    therwise it seems to me that my replies were to agree about what you said, except by the end where I just conveyed the idea, of maybe fact, that I observe a toxicity with internet : it tends to generate insults.
    Indeed english is not my native language, I learnt it in highschool. Maybe the language of foreigners upsets regular commentors, as it did upset Myers, but what can I do? At least I have learnt a word.

    Sorry for bothering.

  11. says

    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.

    I wish I ‘d had you for a teacher in my undergrad physics classes, or any class really.

    Not that mine were bad, but I don’t think things like this ever got discussed, even in (for example) philosophy classes where you might actually encounter a heated debate.

    That said, it’s much, much easier for people to restrain themselves when they are face to face. Perhaps I was just lucky, but I really don’t recall debates ever getting vitriolic in school whereas I encounter it on a daily basis on the internet. I think it would be really shocking to me if it had. And I got my degree in 2004 in the US at a very large state school, so it’s not like I come from a time or place where there was more emphasis on politeness.

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your posts on the subject and I think you make a great case for having a soft-touch. You also do a great job of ‘editing by example’. You just sort of set a tone that I think lends itself to calmness and politeness. It really would feel like someone shouting in a classroom, even if it isn’t a classroom and we probably could if we wanted to.

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