A few random thoughts regarding civility and blog moderation

09.20.2012, 3:32 PM

On any discussion forum, rules about civility – including a decision to have no rules about civility – cut some people from the discussion.

In a forum with no rules, people who can’t function well in an environment filled with anger and vitriol will be effectively shut out of the discussion. In a forum with strict civility rules, those who are too passionate and open to express themselves without anger will wind up banned from the discussion.

Either way, some of the folks cut out from the forum’s discussion will be good people, with good reasons for how they are. Maybe Lucy is justifiably angry because she’s been treated with injustice her whole life. Maybe Sally grew up in an emotionally abusive household where her parents yelled all the time, and now can’t abide yelling (not even the online version).

We shouldn’t ask “how can this forum be open to everyone?” No one forum can serve all people’s needs. Fortunately, the internet has thousands of forums to choose from.

A better question to ask is, what kind of discussions do we hope to have on this forum?

* * *

But what about privilege?

It is sometimes easier for people with privilege to calmly discuss issues like single motherhood or same-sex marriage, because they don’t have any skin in the game.

Furthermore, class privilege – and in particular, a college education — goes a long way towards training people to effectively use a detached, faux-objective mode of discussion.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t get over-deterministic when considering how privilege effects civility. Today, the angriest people in American politics are wealthy straight white men (four examples: Michael Savage, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews). These are men who have literally everything the world’s richest society has to offer, but who still explode with contempt every time they’re in a disagreement. For some people, privilege facilitates expressing anger and disdain, since a person who is privileged enough doesn’t have to worry about hurting other people’s feelings.

At the working-class, commuter college I attended, I was on the debate team, and met a ton of people who weren’t from privileged backgrounds (in terms of class, wealth, race, disability, and sexual orientation), and who thrived under civility rules that were far stricter than any I’ve seen on any internet discussion forum. Rules can be inhibiting, but they can also be a way for people from wildly disparate backgrounds to face each other on level ground.

Civility, at its best, is not about shutting people up, or forbidding passionate engagement. It’s about keeping in mind that everyone matters, even the people we disagree with. It’s about treating a debate not just as a disagreement, but also as a collaboration.

Sometimes, that comes easier for people who haven’t been as privileged their whole lives, who are less likely to have fallen for the illusion that we are all isolated individuals, and more likely to be aware of how interdependent everyone is. But sometimes that’s much harder for people without privilege, because they’re the ones whose lives and families are directly at stake.

* * *

I have a lot more to say about civility and blog moderation, but maybe I’ll hold off until a future post. :-)

30 Responses to “A few random thoughts regarding civility and blog moderation”

  1. JeffreyRO5 says:

    Does the discussion about civility pertain only to rhetorical civility, such as not accusing others of ill intentions for their position, or does it include discussing the civility of the substance of the topic, such as denying minority groups equal legal rights? I find the latter to be extremely uncivil, even when rationalized by, say, religious beliefs.

    Seeking clarification…..

  2. Mont D. Law says:

    The only limits I am in favour of have to do with not actually making an argument. So posts with just a video link or an article link and nothing else should be discouraged. As far as I am concerned these posts are just a way to violate the civility policy without being seen to violate it. It is also way to avoid responsibility for unpopular positions, since when the content of the link is questioned the poster can claim they don’t agree, they are just trying to start a conversation. I object to this from front pagers and posters equally. If the 30 post rule stands it is even more important for posters because valuable thread space is eaten up.

    I exclude promotional links from this.

    I also believe that thread jacking could be policed better. And I don’t think notification posts about violations of the policy should count in the 30 post limit.

  3. I should remind people that I am not a moderator, so none of my opinions about civility or moderation carry any official weight. :-)


    I’d say that “civility” is context-dependent. If Pigpen uses Sally & Lucy’s wedding reception as a chance to tell everyone why same-sex marriage should be banned, that’s extremely uncivil. On the other hand, if Pigpen states the same views as part of a formal debate event on the subject matter “should same-sex marriages be legally recognized,” that’s not uncivil, in my opinion.

    As my post says, I think we have to ask “what is the purpose of this forum”? If the purpose of the forum is to provide a space for people to discuss and disagree about issues like marriage equality, then it’s not uncivil to discuss that here.

    But I wonder if you’re not conflating “civility” and “right”?

    In a sense, I don’t think it’s right that people are seriously discussing whether or not same-sex marriages should be legally equal under the law. In my ideal society, we wouldn’t have to discuss that, any more than we’d have to discuss whether or not Jews get equal rights under the law.

    So, in that sense, I don’t think that it’s right that we have these discussions.

    (On the other hand, I do think that the only way we’re going to move from our current society, to a society more like my ideal society, is to talk about it — and, in fact, to talk about it a lot. So in that sense, I think it’s right to have these discussions.)

    But that’s not the same as civility, in my view. Civility is not the same thing as right and wrong.


    I don’t know for sure, but I think that it would create extra technical work for the moderators to be micro-adjusting the total number of comments allowed per post depending on the content of comments.

    I do think 30 is sometimes too few, and that maybe we should consider raising it to a higher number.

  4. Matthew Kaal says:

    Barry, thanks for the post.

    JeffreyR05 – I think it puts the moderator in a nearly impossible position when we ask her/him to begin policing the substance of topics or positions and determining if they are “uncivil.”

    This is a blog where there is an expectation that taboo and controversial topics will be discussed and debated by people who disagree. Parts of our disagreements will stem from the positions we’ve taken, the philosophies we embrace (that underpin our positions), and our broader experiences (which will flavor how we react and engage each other). If we rule certain positions to be prima facie uncivil, we begin to silence voices without giving consideration to the actual arguments being made – and we risk silencing thoughtful people and good conversations that would otherwise fulfill the goals of this blog.

    How do we tell someone their experience and their philosophical understanding of the world aren’t valid or civil? Who wants to be the moderator with that job? Its just not possible to make those calls with the needed impartiality.

    I think the difficulty is that thoughtful people may at times support positions that are destructively wrong. Do we ban them flat out? I think the better, if more difficult, path is to attempt to engage them and reason with them in such a way that they in turn engage and understand our position and where we are coming from. Only once we’ve reached that place will we ever begin to move towards agreement (or respectful disagreement.)

    This is hard because it asks all of us to try and understand each other’s experiences and value systems and how they shape our arguments. We can’t hold our hands up and say to someone else “that’s harmful, I reject that and refuse to talk about it.” We instead have to say “I think that’s harmful because a-b-c, and therefore we ought to consider if it is a good position, and if it isn’t, we ought to walk away from it.” That is a harder conversation. It is also a more valuable conversation for everyone involved.

    Respectful disagreement ought to be construed widely enough for us to say that we think our opponent’s views are morally and ethically problematic, harmful, and unsupportable. We just have to be clear in expressing such views that they are about viewpoints, not about the people who hold them. The worst we can say about them is that we disagree with them and think they’re wrong.

    In all of this we have to treat each other with respect and dignity even in disagreement (which people with truly uncivil positions will struggle to do). If we think someone’s position is uncivil, our goal (in my opinion) ought to be to gently show them the error of their way – not cast them into the outer darkness that is the internet beyond FamilyScholars.

    If rhetorical incivility cannot be reached, that is the point where I think the moderator should step in, because that can be more easily policed.

  5. Matthew, what about topics where there is broad agreement in our society?

    For instance, if someone came in and started arguing that how to deal with the problem of Jews having too much power over the money supply is the most crucial problem facing American families today, my suspicion is that person would be quickly banned no matter how civil their tone.

    I think that realistically, there are some questions that are no longer seen as open to reasoned, civil debate in our society. Some views are “taboo” because there’s now a consensus that they are wrong.

    Same-sex marriage isn’t one of those views; any poll will show that huge numbers of Americans can be found on both sides of the debate. But some views really are, if not beyond all debate, beyond debate in any blog I’d care to participate in.

  6. Ted says:

    As a relative newcomer here, I confess to being bewildered by the civility policy, though I try never to be uncivil. One of my comments was deleted because I allegedly was uncivil to a highly public opponent of ssm. I am sure that what I said was hardly something this person had not heard before and was nowhere nearly as uncivil as some of the things that this person had said.

    I am intrigued by some of the things that Barry says above about anger and privilege. In some ways, I am a very privileged person in terms of how such things are measured in this society, but I am also angry about the denial of equal rights to gay people in general and to me and my partner in particular ( and, of course, the very fact that I am denied equal rights and equal dignity in this society may mean that I am actually not so privileged despite possessing other vestiges of privilege). I don’t think my relative privilege facilitates my anger, at least in the sense that I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else’s feelings, but it certainly means that I don’t have to worry about economic retaliation. I don’t enjoy hurting other people’s feelings, but I do think people who are cruel or who espouse policies that wreak harm on others need to be called out.

    Can you clarify your points about privilege and anger?

  7. Matthew Kaal says:


    I’d like to think that if I was being consistent, I’d engage an anti-Semitic person in the way I described above. I’d probably still think that person was horribly misguided – but if they were sincere and open to talking about it, I’d hope that I was up for the conversation, and that I would eventually get to challenge them on what I believe to be hurtful beliefs. I have some good Palestinian friends who actually do believe some conspiracies about Israelis, and I’ve had conversations with them about it which challenged our friendship because the disagreement was so strong. Eventually it took my understanding their feeling of oppression by the Jewish state for them to recognize that not every Jew is plotting against Palestine…it was challenging but fruitful conversation which added value to the friendship in the end.

    Now if someone is overtly hateful or irrational, I’d have little tolerance for it and I wouldn’t want to participate in that sort of conversation.

  8. Matthew (or do you prefer Matt?), I think you were responding to me, not to Jeffrey?

    I think you should consider the question less in the light of how you’d argue with a good friend who had some anti-Semitic views, and more in the light of what kind of forum do we want this to be.

    To give an example, my own blog was recently linked to by Stormfront, a racist and anti-Semitic group, and as a result I had a large influx of first-time, commenters arguing for obviously and over-the-top racist positions. Some of them were overtly hostile, while others took a more faux-academic approach.

    If I had approved all or just some of those folks to comment on my blog, that would have altered the tone of my comments section; it would have turned the comments section into a place in which the idea that white people aren’t inherently superior to others, had to be constantly defended.

    Is that an alteration that I wanted for my comments section? Would it have turned my comments section closer to, or further away from, the kind of debates I’m hoping to have? How would the large influx of people stating long-discredited racist views have felt to the people of color among my blog’s readers?

    I agree with you that in the example you gave, the way you reacted made sense, and was the right thing for you to do. (Although I also wouldn’t blame any Jewish person, in that situation, who decided that the conversation was one that they didn’t want to have.) But I don’t think the logic necessarily applies the same way if what we’re discussing is the comments section of a blog.

  9. Ted:

    As a relative newcomer here, I confess to being bewildered by the civility policy, though I try never to be uncivil.

    Keep in mind, Ted, that I’m not a moderator, and I have no special authority or understanding of moderation policies. So reading my post about civility won’t help you to understand the moderation policies here.

    One of my comments was deleted because I allegedly was uncivil to a highly public opponent of ssm. I am sure that what I said was hardly something this person had not heard before and was nowhere nearly as uncivil as some of the things that this person had said.

    I read the exchange you’re talking about (including the comment you wrote that was deleted). My guess is that it was deleted because you moved away from just refuting the comment you were responding to, to speculating about malicious motives of the comment-writer. Your comment also had a tone of contempt for the person you were responding to.

    I realize, of course, that many people believe that the person you were responding to has earned contempt with her real-life acts and activism. For purposes of this forum, however, I don’t think it matters that some people believe that. Regardless, it still breaks the civility policy to be so obviously contemptuous of another comment-writer here. It’s better to respond to the argument, not to the person making the argument.

    As I understand it, one of the many purposes of this blog, is to be a place where people with strongly opposed views on family-related issues, including same-sex marriage, can meet and have mutually respectful debates. That can only work if people on all sides are willing to address people they disagree with, as if they respect those people. (At least in the comments section of this blog.)

    Again, all this is just my speculation. I am not a moderator.

    I am intrigued by some of the things that Barry says above about anger and privilege.

    I’m glad you found my post intriguing!

    But keep in mind that I was talking about how “some people” respond to privilege. Not everyone responds the same way. If my post doesn’t apply to you — well, then, it doesn’t apply to you!

    Privilege is a good way of thinking about how large groups of people tend to be treated, and to act, on average. But it’s not a good guide as to how any one individual will act. For that, what matters is a big mix of things, including each person’s individual temperament.

    I don’t enjoy hurting other people’s feelings, but I do think people who are cruel or who espouse policies that wreak harm on others need to be called out.

    I agree, but — when you’re addressing other participants in this forum — that “calling out” has to be done in a respectful fashion.

    Being respectful doesn’t mean that people won’t have hurt feelings, of course. “Never hurt anyone’s feelings” is too strict a standard, and it would shut down too much discussion.

  10. Matt N says:

    Barry, I’m still mulling over this post (so many things to think about!), but I just wanted to point very appreciatively to-

    It’s about keeping in mind that everyone matters, even the people we disagree with. It’s about treating a debate not just as a disagreement, but also as a collaboration.

    That’s definitely something I think is innate to any sort of effective civility.

  11. Schroeder says:

    I especially like that quote as well, Matt N.

  12. Barry–thanks for this thought provoking post.

    I especially liked

    Civility, at its best, is not about shutting people up, or forbidding passionate engagement. It’s about keeping in mind that everyone matters, even the people we disagree with. It’s about treating a debate not just as a disagreement, but also as a collaboration.

    Looking at debate as a collaboration as well as a disagreemnt can really change quality and tone of what’s being said–or at least I hope so!

  13. Ted says:

    Barry, my comment did not express contempt for Maggie Gallagher. It did say that the National Organization for Marriage was not interested in promoting marriage, but in preventing gay people from getting married. I do not see that as a contemptuous statement, nor even a controversial one. Is there any evidence that NOM has any interest in anything other than preventing gay people from getting married?

    The current civility policy is obviously very subjective. It also is something different from what the site says it is: “be rigorous, be powerful, be funny, but don’t be mean.” The comment of mine that was deleted was not mean. But just reading around in the archives, I have seen lots of mean comments, especially by a couple of bloggers. The lack of consistency in applying a civility policy is a huge problem here.

  14. Thanks for the compliments, Schroeder, Svetlana and Matt.

    Ted, I have absolutely zero interest in getting drawn into defending NOM (I am not a fan of NOM, to put it mildly!).

    But I do think the way that this discussion is, if we’re not careful, about to be diverted into a discussion of NOM, illustrates why it’s a good idea to focus on refuting arguments, rather than focusing on the person making those arguments.

    It’s true that Maggie Galligher has a longtime association with NOM. But the specific argument you were disagreeing with, on the specific thread, had nothing to do with NOM. The only reason NOM came up is that you were addressing the speaker, rather than just addressing the speaker’s argument.

    A lot of people (including me) are furious with some of the things NOM has done. But if every time Maggie posts a comment I change the subject to what’s wrong with NOM, what would that do to the overall quality of discussions on this blog? Would the blog be better if it was impossible to stay on topic whenever Maggie (who is, in theory at least, one of the bloggers here) posts a comment?

    Regarding contempt:

    I had perceived your argument as including a tone of contempt for Maggie Gallagher. For instance, when someone starts talking about someone rather than talking to someone, even though they’re in the (virtual) room, that to me communicates a certain tone.

    But I could be mistaken. You know your mind better than I do, obviously. I am sorry if I misinterpreted you.

    The current civility policy is obviously very subjective. It also is something different from what the site says it is: “be rigorous, be powerful, be funny, but don’t be mean.”

    I can’t imagine any civility policy that wouldn’t be at least somewhat subjective.

    But I agree, the current civility policy that you quoted is different, imo, than the moderation policy that is enforced in practice. I’m not a moderator on this site, nor one of the people who runs the blog. But I imagine that they’re aware of problems with the current approach, which is why they’re beginning these discussions and looking for new approaches and ideas.

    Finally, you mention consistency. Perfect consistency is impossible in any blog that tries to make room for passionate opposition.

    Look at it this way; not every driver who goes above the speed limit is pulled over. Many people who drive too fast get lucky and don’t get pulled over most of the time. But I don’t think that makes it wrong for the unlucky driver who does get pulled over to be given a speeding ticket.

    If there’s a pattern of moderators making decisions that are biased one way or the other, that might be an issue. But I’m not convinced there is such a pattern here. Certainly, I can think of a few ex-comment writers here who were very anti-same-sex-marriage, who were banned from commenting here because of a persistent sneering tone.

  15. Ted says:

    The fact that my comment was deleted is not important in itself, and I don’t want to belabor it except insofar as it may be typical of the kinds of comments that are routinely deleted. In any case, Barry, my comment about NOM was not off-topic.

    Maggie Gallagher brought up the question of whether marriage was a right, suggesting by her tone that marriage is not a right. I simply pointed out that it was curious that someone associated with an organization called the National Organization for Marriage did not believe that marriage was a right. I did take a swipe at NOM (as many other commenters have done), but my purpose was not to express contempt for Gallager but to engage her on the question of whether marriage is a right, a question that she introduced as being relevant to the thread topic of the full, faith, and credit clause of the constitution.

    Many of the most interesting discussions I have engaged in range across related issues, as one comment leads to another. Surely, these related issues are not “off-topic.”

    I think there should be civility guidelines and guidelines for comments in general. But they should neither be so subjective as to be mysterious, nor so rigid as to be stifling.

    Some of the best commenters here (I think of JeffreyRO5, for example) seem to have mastered a technique of making forceful, sometimes withering, comments without violating the civility policy. I admire that ability. Others seem to me to violate the policy all the time but simply are not called on it, presumably because they are also bloggers here.

    I fear that one effect of an artificial civility policy is to grant equivalency to all positions or to permit deeply prejudicial positions as long as they are stated politely. I am not speaking only about same-sex marriage or homosexuality, which are my main interests; I think some of the comments routinely made here about adoption and surrogacy are extreme. Often they are stated in very offensive terms, but even when they are not some of them indicate a deep incivility. I would hope that a new civility policy might consider this problem as well.

  16. JeffreyRO5 says:

    I gather that standards of civility (unkindness, unfairness, hostility) do not apply to topics or groups, but only to individuals.

    So it’s civil to insult a group (gays, mixed-race couples, Catholics), by discussing what they may or may not be or do; it’s uncivil to insult a person (Maggie Gallagher, say, or, another poster here) if your comment might be unkind, unfair or hostile. Even if true.

    I have a couple of concerns, which probably nobody much cares about, but that I’ve hinted at in earlier posts:

    1. I reject the notion that insulting groups is civil, but insulting individuals is uncivil. Only gay and lesbian people seem to be subjected to the idea that it’s ok to discuss what legal rights they should be allowed to have. I have yet to find a forum discussing what legal rights blacks, Hispanics, or Jews should be allowed to have, or not have. Why? Because such a discussion would be considered, um, uncivil, wouldn’t it?

    2. Insisting on civility seems to be a tactic for some people to create a safe space for expressing the most unseemly points of view. I noticed it a couple of years ago, as momentum shifted so strongly in favor of legal same-sex marriage: opponents of same started making accusations that supporters had become uncivil, hostile, vicious, etc. I guess if you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger.

    3. I think a fact-based policy, perhaps in addition to a civility policy (even if that civility policy only applies to rhetoric, not substance) might be in order.

    Ultimately this website can make any rules it wants. But I find it uncomfortably ironic that discussions that are very insulting to particular groups (whether to extend equal legal rights to gay people, for instance) are being monitored for whether the discussion is proceeding civilly.

    I understand that Maggie Gallagher is in some way an official “member” of this website. Perhaps that buys her some degree of insulation from criticism. Fair enough. But for what it’s worth, she has said and done some things that, if said or done in the name of marginalizing blacks or Jews, would result in an avalanche of well-deserved and unflattering criticism. If it’s civility you want, let’s make it a two-way street, ok?

  17. Diane M says:

    First, I didn’t know there was a 30 comment limit. I think it would be useful to publicize that more. I know I have separated my thoughts into more than one comment because I thought it made things clearer – if there’s a limit I won’t do that. It also will push me to not comment too many times on a hot subject.

    Second, in response to the blog, I don’t really like looking at the issue of civility in terms of privilege. I don’t want to suggest that any group is better or worse at being civil.

    I think we are all capable of being very upset by an issue and losing our tempers. As some of the comments have suggested, a person who is generally privileged may have some particular issues that really hit home. (I would really struggle to be nice to Rep. Akin.)

    I also think that it is possible for well-educated people to fall into the false civility you refer to – you can be horribly mean to someone without cursing at them or making a direct personal attack. It’s a skill. :-)

    In terms of people being educated or not, I suspect that the name “family scholars” mostly attracts people who have been to college. Some people are even more educated and are experts in their field, and perhaps one aspect of civility is to respect both their expertise and the insights of non-experts.

    Anyhow, a thought from reading your blog: an important part of civility is to remember that different issues are more personal for different people. So I need to take some calming breaths and recognize my feelings on an issue. I also need to recognize that something that I can be cool and detached about may not have the same effect on other people.

    I would add, though, that I think we can be both civil and passionate. Sometimes the most convincing argument is one where a person explains why they need ssm or talks about how it feels to go to church and hear single mothers being insulted, etc.

    I have also been thinking about the place of trust in civil discourse, but I haven’t fleshed that out.

  18. Diane M says:

    In terms of civility to groups versus to individuals, I think there are two arguments.

    The first is a practical one. When Larry Summers suggests that women aren’t as good at math, calling him names is not an effective argument. Being civil and proving him wrong just works better.

    The second is a squishier one. I am willing to believe that some people are genuinely concerned that same sex marriage won’t work or is against their religion. I think they deserve to be listened to in a respectful discussion. I don’t think they should be accused of causing anti-gay violence (although I think laws limiting discussion of homosexuality at school do allow bullying and should be vehemently criticized).

    I recognize that I would not be as willing to talk to someone who was against interracial marriage. That seems to me to be a view that is too far out there to be considered. Of course, if I had been around in the 1950s, I might have had to respectfully discuss the issue.

    When I think about why some views are ones I’m willing to consider, I think a lot of it comes down to context. At this point, people who still think that segregation is good have no excuse. People who are against same sex marriage, on the other hand, are in the mainstream. If you talk to them, they really aren’t terrible people.

    The other consideration for me is that even ten years ago, many progressive people were not accepting of same sex marriage. So I don’t want to get too mad at people who are guilty of the same thing as many good, loving people I know.

    I also want to be careful because I suspect that there are terrible blind spots I have.

  19. So it’s civil to insult a group (gays, mixed-race couples, Catholics), by discussing what they may or may not be or do; it’s uncivil to insult a person (Maggie Gallagher, say, or, another poster here) if your comment might be unkind, unfair or hostile. Even if true.

    I think this is an accurate description of how moderation here works, except the phrase “a person” is too broad. I don’t think there’s anything in the Family Scholars policy which forbids us from talking smack about people who are public figures and who aren’t personally contributing to FSB discussions.

    Rather, we’re supposed to avoid insulting people who are posters or comment-writers here on this blog (including the ones who are also public figures).

    (That’s how I, personally, interpret the moderation policy I’ve seen practiced here at FSB. As I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing me repeat by now, I’m not a moderator or a blog-runner on FSB, so my opinion is not authoritative).

    I reject the notion that insulting groups is civil, but insulting individuals is uncivil. Only gay and lesbian people seem to be subjected to the idea that it’s ok to discuss what legal rights they should be allowed to have. I have yet to find a forum discussing what legal rights blacks, Hispanics, or Jews should be allowed to have, or not have. Why? Because such a discussion would be considered, um, uncivil, wouldn’t it?

    I can see what you mean, but doesn’t that lead us to the conclusion that to even have a debate about marriage equality is inherently uncivil? Are you suggesting that a forum like this is inherently uncivil, and therefore shouldn’t exist?

    Only gay and lesbian people seem to be subjected to the idea that it’s ok to discuss what legal rights they should be allowed to have.

    This isn’t at all true. For example, it’s easy to find forums discussing what legal rights undocumented immigrants should have. Or what legal rights women should have (Should women be able to legally choose abortion? Should insurance include birth control for women? Etc.). Or what legal rights donor children should have (the legal right to know their bio-parents). Or what legal rights trans people have. Etc, etc, etc.

  20. Diane M, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, which is why I’m not responding to it. But I sometimes worry that there’s something weird created by my habit of responding mainly to disagree with people. So thanks for posting both your comments. :-)

  21. JeffreyRO5 says:

    Barry, you took a big leap from my comments, I think. I was trying to point out that civility, or lack thereof, occurs on many levels, not just rhetoric. I think everyone understands that calling someone an insulting name is uncivil, as is impugning someone’s motives. But at some point, it’s fair to draw some conclusions about someone, especially public figures with well established viewpoints and, often, well publicized tactics. It may be unkind to discuss the dreadful things someone or someone’s organization has done but that doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of incivility. I understand that a Maggie Gallagher doesn’t want to be called a bigot for wanting to limit legal marriage rights to straight couples; who would? But it’s not an inaccurate label, at least not as I understand what a bigot is. I don’t think civility requires silence about a public figure’s bad words or deeds. Indeed, citizens need to be more, not less, vocal, about such words or deeds.

    I also think that the notion that some topics are fair game for public discourse inappropriately lends credibility to an otherwise uncivil topic. The anti-gay marriage crowd has gone to great lengths to craft the same-sex marriage issue as a social issue, to be decided by “the people”, rather than as a legislative or legal issue. Nobody ever did this on the subject on mixed-race marriage, divorce, adultery, or any other marriage-related issue. Why? Beats me. Given the severity of the impact of divorce on society, how on earth did we all not discuss who should and shouldn’t be allowed to divorce??? We left it up to state legislatures to decide, and went on with our lives.

    And I think I can safely say that there will be no articles posted on this website entitled, “Why Mixed-Race Couples Should Not be Permitted to Have Children,” even though our society is often tough for mixed-race kids and one could certainly make a rational case (civilly presented, of course) that no child should have to endure that hardship.

    Which leaves me wondering, whenever the “civility policy” comes up, why it is considered civil to discuss whether gay and lesbian citizens should be allowed to have the same legal rights as straight citizens, as if we routinely and publicly discuss who has which legal rights as Americans. I’m unaware of such discussions involving non-gay groups.

    Could you or someone post a discussion about that? I’d love to read the comments for why people think that it’s civil and appropriate to discuss whether gay people should have the same legal rights as straight people.

  22. Tristian says:

    JeffreyR05, the issue is not whether or not gays have the same rights. The question is whether or not denying recognition to same sex marriage violates their rights. You may be convinced the answer is obviously yes, as am I, but there are plenty of people who disagree. Now we face a choice. Do we engage those people in discussion or not? If yes, I’d suggest we begin with the charitable assumption that they are reasonable people of good will and this demands we engage them with civility. If we can’t make that assumption there’s no point in engaging them at all, unless it’s for the sport of exchanging insults.

    The difference between this and mix race marriages is that few of us are still willing to grant the assumption of good will and reasonableness to opponents. Perhaps the day will come when the same is true of opponents of SSM, but that day hasn’t come yet for a lot of us.

  23. Ted says:

    JeffreyRO5 nails it for me.

    Politeness is all well and good, but whether one smiles or whether one snarls, when someone argues that gay people are unworthy of equal rights or that allowing us to marry will weaken the institution of marriage, you are not being civil. Whether your motives come from some abstract definition of marriage or from deeply held religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin, to argue that homosexuals should not have equal rights under the law seem to me uncivil.

    I wonder if what you are seeking to define for discussion purposes is something other than civility? You may want to ban insults or prevent people from linking to deeply insulting posts on other blogs, but I doubt that you can enforce actual civility. We are discussing people’s lives, not some remote question.

  24. Tristian says:

    Ted, it seems to me you’re using the wrong word. “Civility” is both too weak and too strong for what you want to say. It’s too weak in the sense that surely what you want to accuse anti-SSM types of advocating is more along the lines of “wrong” or “evil” or “unjust.” It’s too strong in the sense that calling their position uncivil suggests they have no business asserting it, no matter how sincerely they may hold to it. I would use “civility” to refer precisely to things like name calling and insults. Keep it content neutral, and consider it a precondition of productive dialogue–pretty mundane stuff. Differences about matters of content are much more important.

    JefferyRO5People who oppose SSM are not automatically people of good will–plenty quickly prove themselves to be not worth the time of day. I am more willing to begin with that assumption than with people who would still oppose mixed race marriage (or who are members of the Klan) because it’s easier for me to understand how a decent person can get SSM wrong. This is for two reasons. One is that it’s easier to imagine someone coming from a background that would lead to the kinds of beliefs that encourage opposition to SSM. The second is that I think it’s actually a more complicated issue than mixed race marriage. We disagree on a few things, one of which is the possibility of arguments against SSM that are worth considering.

    Now, my question to you is this: if you find the anti-SSM position so contemptible, what is the point of any kind of conversation? I don’t bother talking to Klan members precisely because I can’t imagine anything good coming of it. If you think opposition to SSM is on that level of pernicious stupidity, by all means quit being polite. Of course, you shouldn’t complain when your host then shows you the door.

  25. admin says:

    JeffreyR05 – I deleted your last comment because the comparison you were attempting to make was uncivil and violates our standing policy. Because this is an article about our moderation policy, I will explain the rational behind the decision to take it down (to give you a glimpse into the moderator’s mindset).

    The nature of the comment was to compare one group of people to another in such a way that (whether the commenter meant it or not) it set up a straw man argument. This sort of argument has often led to the deterioration of the civil tone of past conversations, and was unnecessary for the commenter to make his point. Because of its inflammatory nature, and earlier precedent, I am using moderator’s discretion in an attempt to push the conversation back into civil territory.

    Under normal circumstances JeffreyR05 (or any other commenter) would not be allowed to question the moderator’s authority to exercise this discretion without violating the civility policy. JeffreyR05 (and everyone else) is welcome to continue in this discussion, and even discuss the role of the moderator in policing discussions on the blog, with the exception that his earlier comment is now off limits and further questions as to why moderator’s discretion was used in this instance will not be permitted.

    Thanks to all, please carry on.

  26. Ted says:

    Tristian, I think you are right in that “Civility” is both too strong and too weak for what I want to say. Let me try again. I think we may have reached a tipping point, analogous to the tipping point that was reached in, say 1963, in the Civil Rights Movement. From that point on, one could not talk about civil rights for African Americans without revealing oneself as either on the side of the angels or a bigot. One might talk about the speed at which integration in the South would occur, but one really could no longer speak out against integration without branding oneself a bigot.

    Something similar has happened in terms of civil rights for homosexuals. For example, when David Blankenhorn first talked about the “equal dignity” of homosexual love even as he opposed same-sex marriage, that was considered a refreshing gesture that softened his image in the culture wars. Because he was a nice person and did not seem to wish ill on gay people, many gay people were eager to conduct “civil” conversations with him.

    But when that phrase was used after the Prop 8 election, it came to seem less refreshing than meaningless and, even suspicious, as more of a ploy or tactic than any real expression of acceptance. Hence, soon after David’s testimony in the Prop 8 trial he was characterized as a bigot by many bloggers and, then, more famously by Frank Rich.

    Something had happened in the culture. Gay people were no longer satisfied with gestures that came to seem empty to them. Or “civil” discussions in which our rights were debated as though they were abstractions.

    Last week, Cardinal George of Chicago held a blessing for married couples on their golden anniversary. Unfortunately, he used this wonderful occasion as a time to attack same-sex marriage and there has been an outcry. He tried to speak civilly. He referred to gay couples as “friends” and said that there should be a way for the state to recognize the “special relationships” of “friends” without calling them marriages.

    Now, it is unlikely that the Cardinal intended to be insulting. He probably thought he was being kind. But gay people certainly felt dissed by the language–the refusal to recognize us as real families. In addition, what might have been acceptable three years ago–the plea for another way for the state to recognize our relationships–now rang hollow and desperate, especially since the Roman Catholic Church fought tooth and nail against Illinois’s civil unions bill. How can you take seriously an opponent of ssm who suddenly embraces a bill that he had previously denounced? He clearly wants to pretend that as Illinois moves toward marriage equality (either through a court ruling or legislatively) that he now loves civil unions. In fact, the only times that the RC Church has endorsed recognition of gay couples in any way has been when they thought the alternative would be marriage. In every other instance, they have opposed civil unions and domestic partnership and even nondiscrimination laws.

    In any case, my point is that gay people will no longer accept the language of being considered lesser or sinful or any of the other epithets used to deprive us of equal rights.

    It may be that “civil” discussions of equal rights under the law are no longer possible because of the tipping point that has taken place in the culture generally, but, far more markedly, within the psyches of gay people.

  27. JeffreyRO5 says:

    I shall remain mystified as to why my deleted comment was deleted, since I can no longer see it, and didn’t memorize it.

    My original question remains unanswered: is it permissible to question the civility of the substance of the topic, or just the rhetoric employed in discussing it?

    In other words, in discussing whether gay or lesbian couples should be afforded equal legal rights, such as the right to marry, that straight couples enjoy, may one discuss the civility of the nature of such a discussion?

    I think the discussion is richer, more rewarding to allow that aspect of the same-sex marriage debate. It touches on something that makes us American, the perception that we’re all created equal, and enjoy equal standing under the law. I don’t mind discussing same-sex marriage in a vacuum but it doesn’t really exist in a vacuum: it spills over into other areas we hold dear, not just its impact on our tradition of different-sex only marriage.

  28. Jeffrey says:

    The deletion of a comment raises one of the frustrating curiosities about how civility is measured and enforced by moderators and bloggers. It isn’t transparent and maybecitvdesnt have to be. But civility is sometimes used here as a hammer to stifle conversation and seems applied arbitrarily. Although it hasn’t happended in awhile, there have been times when comments have been shut down on a specific thread after the blogger became hostile, then used civility as the reason for shutting down conversation. It also seemsvasvif civility is used to chide commenters, while bloggers are allowed to be more uncivil, but without consequence or chiding.

  29. Myca says:


    My original question remains unanswered: is it permissible to question the civility of the substance of the topic, or just the rhetoric employed in discussing it?

    There was a wonderful post on Owldolatrous a while back that covered something very relevant to this:

    2. This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t. There is no “live and let live” on this issue because Dan Cathy is spending millions to very specifically NOT let me live. I’m not trying to do that to him.

    Asking for “mutual tolerance” on this like running up to a bully beating a kid to death on the playground and scolding them both for not getting along. I’m not trying to dissolve Mr. Cathy’s marriage or make his sex illegal. I’m not trying to make him a second-class citizen, or get him killed. He’s doing that to me, folks; I’m just fighting back.

    I agree.

    And yes, of course, I see that civility in discourse is critical if there’s going to be discourse. Of course. There’s no realistic alternative. I get it.

    But the problem is that right now we’ve got a situation where calling someone a bigot is verboten, but being a bigot isn’t.

    The people who benefit from that are the bigots. The people who suffer from that are the victims of bigotry.

    I would like to see a commentary system that recognized that these are not parallel groups, and that “there’s nothing mutual about it.”


  30. [...] a long discussion on civility with many of its resident writers. (Here are early contributions from Barry Deutsch, Amy Ziettlow, Ralph Lewis, Elizabeth Marquardt, and Fannie; for others, visit the blog.) Their [...]