Then don’t think twice

I haven’t got much of a comments policy. Any spam that makes it through the filters will be deleted, that’s a given. Apart from that, there are a few types of comment that I don’t like – people commenting for the sake of plugging their own blogs (human spam); anonymous comments; ad hominem attacks; anonymous ad hominem attacks – but nothing I could define tightly enough to put in a spelt-out Acceptable Comments Policy.

I came to blogging after several years on Usenet, and in particular on a newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban) which had very high informal standards for the content of posts and very low standards of civility and politesse. I believe the two were connected. It was understood on a.f.u, in its heyday, that a badly-written post could and would be torn line from line, with contempt, with wit and quite often with swearwords. It was a spectator sport, often undertaken for fun and without any real anger; most of the time the group’s sympathies would be entirely with the poster doing the shredding, not the one whose post had been shredded. It was also understood that this wasn’t personal: we might have called you an idiot on the basis of posting a stupid and ill-informed argument, but that should just encourage you to come back and try again. (I was particularly scrupulous about this myself, and used to tell people that they were being an idiot.) Most of the time it seemed to work: most people either shaped up or shipped out, although a few would always insist on hanging around and complaining. Either way, they rapidly gained a name for themselves, which was always a big part of being on Usenet.

With that experience behind me, it’s hard to get too worked up about anonymity – or rather, it’s hard to define anonymity. If an anonymous commenter signs off with his or her given name, and I recognise them as someone who’s in my phone book, is that really anonymous? Conversely, if a commenter with a screen name gives a valid URI and a valid email address, none of which give any clue to his or her real-world identity, is that not anonymous? What about the regular commenter with a consistent screen name – if one block of text can be linked to the author of several others, how much does it matter that nobody knows what their real name is? Deep waters.

More to the point, my a.f.u experience means that I find it hard to endorse any kind of blanket condemnation of ad hominem attacks, let alone ‘bad language’ or ‘rudeness’. Writing out of personal spite and contempt is bad (“don’t drive angry“). Writing to offend is bad; writing to provoke is bad; writing to arouse spite and contempt in other people is bad. But I don’t see that you need to use swearing or incivility to do any of those things – and I don’t see that swearing or incivility is a good indicator that you are doing any of those things. I’ve been deeply offended and angered by blog posts and blog comments before now, but I don’t remember that any of the offending material was rude.

Do I deplore ad hominem attacks? Yes, generally – but I also recognise that some attacks take passive-aggressive form, presenting the attacker as a well-meaning observer or a wronged victim who only wants justice. Scrupulously polite and civil language may convey the most hurtful sentiments. On the other hand, what can look like attacking language may be robust or even playful criticism. That said, I’m not so naive as to think that everyone who gives offence is just being playful or that everyone who takes offence is over-reacting. Setting out to cause offence and being offensive certainly overlap – but the first doesn’t imply the second, and vice versa. If we imposed a rule of universal politeness, it might drive personal attacks underground – or between the lines – but it would do nothing to stop them; those who want to would find a way. (And, at some time or other, we all want to.)

So, do I delete ad hominem attacks, or abuse, or anonymous trolling? No, not most of the time. And yes, sometimes – although this doesn’t necessarily correlate with the overt level of offensiveness. Essentially my comments policy is Tom‘s:

Please stay on-topic, informative and polite. I reserve the right to remove comments for whatever vague capricious reasons seem reasonable at the time.

You can argue with that if you want to – you might change my mind, or you might not. Either way, I won’t delete your comments. Probably.

One Comment

  1. Posted 7 April 2007 at 09:34 | Permalink | Reply

    You’re infringing my RIGHT TO FREE SPEACH you fascist!

    Comments should be FREE! SAY NO to comment moderation!

    Don’t you miss usenet sometimes?

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