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