Adopting less contentious on-line behavior

People who choose to visit the M* site should read the following by Jon Max Wilson.

I will highlight some crucial paragraphs below. I do not always agree with my on-line friend JMax. In fact, he has written a lot of things I don’t agree with. But we have maintained a good relationship because we have disagreed in a civil manner.

His concept of a blog being a digital living room is extremely important. I have expressed this in past privately to others at M* but not as eloquently as JMax does in the attached. Let’s stop and think about this for a second. A blog is a private space in a public world. Each blog has the right to control its content. A blog cannot publish everything. In addition, even the most “tolerant” blog has limits to what it will publish. No self-respecting blog in the Mormon world would publish racist white supremacist rants or calls for bloody violence. So, the truth is that every blog censors, they just decide differently where to censor. Every blog is different, just as every person is different, and they will choose different ways of publishing thoughts and comments.

I have been extremely uncomfortable with many recent discussions on M*. Several writers (including myself) have pontificated on relatively controversial subjects. The responses have often been disappointing, especially from people who call themselves followers of the Savior.

Let’s return to the concept of a blog as a virtual living room. If you invited somebody to your home and began to discuss a given issue, how would you react if the guest to your home began to insult you? If their comments were filled with sarcasm? If they self-righteously questioned your adherence to certain doctrines they consider important? I know what I would do: I would politely ask them to stop such aggressive behavior, and then if they continued, I would ask them to leave.

The relatively anonymity of the internet causes many people to engage in behavior they would never do in person. I have no doubt that the people who often leave incredibly nasty comments on M* are good people in person, good parents, good spouses, good members of the Church trying to negotiate their way through life the best they can. But when it comes to people expressing opposition to opinions they disagree with, many of them literally turn into on-line fiends, desperate to make it clear that they don’t agree, and the person who dared to disagree with them is an idiot, a monster, a sub-human who must be ostracized.

Beyond the issue of tone, there is the issue of just plain rudeness. What would you do with a guest who came your house and spent the entire time talking, never letting anybody else get a word in edgewise? You would not like it. Then why do commenters feel that if there is a post with 50 comments, they must leave 20 of those 50? Sorry, I just think that is incredibly rude. Leave one or two comments and then let other people join in.

I will be frank. I see a pattern of behavior. Many people feel it is their job to police the Mormon on-line community. They gang up on people who express views that do not conform to the majority. They intimidate people from coming forward with certain views. They are, in effect, digital brownshirts. Their behavior suppresses free speech and free expression.

JMax has a few key paragraphs that I would like to quote here.

20. Whether it’s my personal blog, my Facebook, twitter, or some other social platform on the web, my page or site is my Virtual Living Room. The other guests in my virtual living room are my close friends, family, co-workers, and associates. You are welcome to stop in, listen to, and even participate in the conversations as a guest. However, you do not have the right to come into my living room to dominate and monopolize the conversation with constant, lengthy, disruptive or hostile comments intended to promote your own contrary agenda.

21. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, your stalker-like need to stand as a witness against the the things I believe to be true and provide a counter-testimony to those whom you fear might be influenced or persuaded by me, in my own virtual living room, in front of my friends and family, is a manipulative form of intimidation. It discourages my friends, family, and acquaintances from “liking” or commenting on something I have said or linked to because doing so will subject them to tomes of belligerent contrary comments. It discourages friendly, casual, and productive conversation.

22. The consequence of this manipulation and intimidation is that I start to avoid posting things out of fear that it might obligate me to debate the issue in front of all of my other friends and family on a time frame not of my own choosing or that it might involuntarily subject my friends and family to yet another tedious debate that they did not even intend to subscribe to. I do not feel at liberty to say what I think or promote what I believe in even in my own living room, as it were. It gives the false impression that I cannot say anything of import unless I am prepared to answer, and have the time to answer, every possible criticism and dissenting voice. It draws upon my lack of time, my desire not to look like a fool in front of my friends and family, nor to drive them away, in order to silence my voice and shut down my views.

23. But I reject these false expectations. I have no obligation to let you hijack my page to promote views with which I disagree to my friends and my family, most of whom do not know you from Adam or Eve. It is a gross violation of the guest-host relationship and I am perfectly justified in censoring, moderating, or deleting your comments, and blacklisting you if necessary. And no, I am not violating your freedom of speech. You are perfectly free to promote you own views in your own virtual living room. I may even stop in to hear what you have to say. But if I do, it will be because I want to, not because you are making me and my friends and family hear your point of view by invading my space for your own purpose.

24. Whether it’s just you or it’s you and your friends forming a mob of like-minded digital-brown shirts overwhelming the conversation in my virtual living room with your own contrary views, don’t act surprised and complain when your comments get deleted or moderated.

25. I have no obligation to respond to you on your timetable. I have no obligation to respond to you at all. Time and tide do not allow every contention to be addressed. Just because I have not offered a response to your supposedly brilliant contrary argument within your arbitrary time frame does not mean that I do not have one. It does not entail that I have not considered your points, or that I have no rejoinder, or that I concede to your argument, or that I am dishonest. It means that I have a life and a sense of proportion.

You do not have to agree with JMax’s perspective on the Gospel and the Church to see that he is correct in many of his points here.

I believe the whole issue of “counter-testifying” is crucial. This seems to happen a lot with people who seem to feel “how dare somebody express an opinion with which I disagree!” There are well-intentioned people who seem to feel that “Mormons will look bad if I don’t stand up and oppose this viewpoint.” But then of course they usually end personally insulting the person who dared to express an unpopular opinion, making Mormons look even worse.

Just a few reminders:

–People are allowed to disagree with you. This is called free speech.
–Unless you are a M* permablogger, you don’t get to decide what is written here.
–If you don’t like what is written here, don’t visit and don’t read things written by people you don’t like. Life is about choices: make the choice to go visit another web site and read something else.
–If people write something that you consider offensive/beyond the pale/unacceptable, etc, leave a short, to the point comment disagreeing politely. Have the humility to realize that you yourself may have views that others consider offensive and unacceptable. Personal insults, repeated comments, attempts to intimidate by drowning out opposing views will not be tolerated at M* any longer.

One last bit of advice: it is only a blog. M* is only read by a few hundred people a day. Instead of spending your time telling us all how stupid we are (comments which will be deleted anyway), go spend time with your spouse and your kids. Do community service, go to the temple, go to a homeless shelter, call a long-lost friend and offer support. The world will still spin on its access if people on M* express viewpoints with which you disagree.

This entry was posted in General by Geoff B.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

26 thoughts on “Adopting less contentious on-line behavior

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » Adopting less contentious on-line behavior The Millennial Star --

  2. Then why do commenters feel that if there is a post with 50 comments, they must leave 20 of those 50? Sorry, I just think that is incredibly rude. Leave one or two comments and then let other people join in.

    I certainly get carried away in that respect sometimes. Although hopefully mostly only when someone engages my comments on the issue. I certainly have a tendency to post comments that are too long sometimes too. Ouch.

  3. Geoff B., I think you generally do a great job of writing posts that are not themselves contentious, even if people disagree with your reasoning. I think the tone of the post often sets the mood for the debate in the comments. Every once in a while, a writer, whether he or she knows it or not, will come across as arrogant; it’s not the message as much as the tone of that message that matters. It should be no surprise that people will react negatively in that situation. Of course, the best reaction to a show of apparent arrogance is often ignoring it, but, like a scab, some of us just have to pick at it.

    Overall, however, I think you yourself and most of your other writers do a good job at writing things that others on the bloggernacle disagree with without being particularly contentious about it. I commend you for that.

  4. Tim, thanks. The purpose of this post is to let some people know why their comments will be deleted in the future. There is room for debate, but within the framework of “a nice discussion like I would have in my own living room.” I am not going to have discussions in my own digital living room anymore with people who think it is their job to insult me or correct my political incorrectness. There will probably be a lot fewer comments on M*, but a lot of people will sleep a lot better at night.

    Mark D, I did not have you in mind when I wrote this, but it is always good advice to make fewer and more pointed comments.

  5. I think it is pretty rich that Wilson thinks he is having a nice discussion in his living room when he comes right out of the chute calling people children, liars, and hypocrites, then starts wringing his hands about the lack of civility.

    No worries, Geoff. I get who you mean when you say “some people”.

  6. Mark, if you don’t like what Jmax has to say, why don’t you ignore it? It is not your job to correct every person out there who has a different take than you do. There are literally dozens of people in the Bloggernacle who write things I disagree with, have snarky tones and call people names who don’t agree with them — that is their right, and it is a fool’s errand to spend my time policing them.

    I hope we can still be on-line friends and agree to disagree on this issue. But the atmosphere at M* is going to be changing, starting now.

  7. Sure, lots of crazy and insulting things get said all over, all the time, that’s not news. (Edited)
    You have my best wishes as you try to change the atmosphere on your blog. Next time I am in your neck of the woods I’ll shoot you an email. Maybe we can get together for lunch or something.

  8. The other thing that annoys the crap out of me is how certain perma-bloggers are friends with other the other people who do leave prolific comments and never say word one about and then when someone disagrees with that person and the debate becomes heated the perma will delete the person who disagrees. I believe this to be a pretty bogus way of handling something. If one gets deleted that both should get deleted other wise it becomes an issue of the Popular kids not letting the unpopular kids in the playground.

  9. Thanks for this Geoff. I think the contention I’ve felt in the blogernacle, is one of the reasons I have not posted on M* for a long time. I hope people respect this and the things that JMax wrote too.

  10. dblock,

    I agree it has to go two ways. (As per my other comments on the other thread.)

    Because we are all bias, we don’t always perceive things the same. So this does make it difficult to ‘play fair’ on a blog.

    I’ve been thinking about that point for a while. Do you have any suggestions here?

    One thing I’ve thought of is that there is a difference between attacking an abstract group of people and someone specific.

    (I actually believe attacking someone specific is sometimes the right thing to do, and sometimes attacking the abstract is the wrong thing to do. I just mean ‘they are different kinds of things’ and we should treat them like they are.)

    Other thoughts?

  11. Okay, another thought. I think ‘charitability of reference’ is generally in order. We all do our best to NOT look for the worst possible interpretation of someone’s words but instead see if we can find the strongest possible interpretation. That or else ask for clarification.

    Granted, a lot of interpretation is subconscious.

  12. dblock, I actually have met only one person in the Bloggernacle in person, and he is not associated with M* and it was accidental. There is no “popular group.” Believe me, a lot of “popular kids” will be getting deleted too. A lot of them are guilty of leaving 20 comments on a 50-comment thread. As I say, that’s rude behavior.

    If something about M* bugs you, don’t read it. Go do something else with your time. I am saying this with as much charity as possible.

  13. There are many kinds of private space, and many have a very public function, like newspapers and concert halls. Communities are much more than thousands of living rooms (hopefully). If Mr. Jones doesn’t like Mormons and won’t have missionaries in his living room, that is his concern. If he also sees to it that the MIA can’t rent the private community pool, on whose board he sits, for an evening just as many other youth groups do, then others in the community may correctly object. The living room metaphor applies to small, personal blogs (like Sixteen Stones or Ronan’s Headlife), but not so well to others that hold themselves out as performing some kind of community function.

  14. John M, having worked at a number of newspapers, I can tell you that the common policy is, in effect, exactly what I am describing. And they are for-profit enterprises dependent on keeping their customers (which M* is not).

    One of the first things you learn when you become a journalist is that you simply cannot please everybody. People get all worked up about silly things, and people take things the wrong way all the time. When they call and complain (which they do all the time), the answer is, “write a letter to the editor.” One percent of all letters to the editor get published at most newspapers. So in effect 99 percent of letters are getting censored. Letters that insult people and are exceedingly nasty get spiked. Everybody does not get an opportunity to have their marvelous views published in the paper. That is just the way it is.

    To the extent that M* has any obligation to any sort of community, it is to the readers who will maintain a civil and respectful attitude and keep to the comments policy, which is on the upper-left hand corner of this blog.

  15. For those who have forgotten, M* does have a comments policy which we try to enforce equitably:

    Millennial Star is a blog written by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We wish this to be a place where we and our readers can discuss topics and issues of interest to the LDS community in an edifying and uplifting manner. We invite all readers to add comments, and we expect those comments to uplift, rather than tear down.

    We welcome both members of the LDS Church and believers of other faiths. We ask that all respect the beliefs of others. Though we welcome readers and posters of all faiths, our posts take the foundational teachings of the LDS Church as common ground and the point of departure. Posters who wish to debate or argue those foundational teachings should seek one of the other forums available for such discussions. Comments that denigrate the Church or insult its leaders are not welcome.

    Comments should follow generally accepted standards for good taste and decorum, exhibit respect for others, and relate to the topic at hand. We invite readers who would like to discuss a topic that does not fit under an existing post to submit a guest submission or write a letter to the editor suggesting a discussion of that topic.

    The Millennial Star bloggers will take action to address comments that do not follow the above guidelines.

  16. I also think that one of the things that we have to remember is this concept that I have learned in the Customer Service arena for over 20 years:

    1) We need to stop having preconceived notions about what the person who has just posted is actually trying to say. We may see it what the person is trying to say in black and white, both literally and figuratively but the concept that the person just posted is rarely what the they really wanted to have expressed conveyed.

    2)Even more important than number one is this: this is an electronic medium, as such we miss subtle nuances that we get from speech, tenor, and facial expression, thereby completely misinterpreting what the person is trying to say. I think we all have a tendency to read things in our own voice, which by default that means we can read something as being snarky, when in fact its’ not.

    3) While its’ okay to attack someone’s idea, its not okay to attack them personally. FYI 1) its’ perfectly okay to ask John(Just an example) please clarify points A, B C I think you are wrong because of this. 2) it’s not okay to call someone and A@@ because you don’t agree with their view point and then post what you think.

  17. “Brown shirts”, that’s subtle.

    “Geoff B., I think you generally do a great job of writing posts that are not themselves contentious, even if people disagree with your reasoning. I think the tone of the post often sets the mood for the debate in the comments.”
    I think Tim makes a good point. A political post by Geoff usually has a tone that welcomes discussion, some other recent political posts seem to be solely set up to pick a fight.

    I don’t really get the living room scenario. How often do you invite people you don’t know into your living room to discuss something you are passionate about such as politics or religion? Blogs are more like a public park with a sign hanging on the bowery that says “Millennial Star”. If you want it to be a living room, make it a private blog that is invitation only.

    That being said I can appreciate the change you are trying to make. I will read over your comment policy again, and most likely avoiding those posts I mentioned that seem to be written only to bait people and cause hard feelings.

  18. [yawn] Whatever, most of what he wrote is pretty much what most people with their own blogs do. What I don’t understand is why he feels compelled to write this manifesto now, as if the whole “Mormon Pharisee” conversation caused some sort of traumatic epiphany for him.

    Seriously? That was nothing. By internet standards we were treating each other in the 99th percentile as far as being respectful goes. By bloggernacle standards, we were still probably in the 80th percentile. Obviously it’s impossible to quantify that.. but really, I’m shocked anyone thinks that the conversation here was very contentious. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too much time hanging around DKL, but it seemed pretty tame to me. Hasn’t JMW been around the internet/bloggernacle long enough to not be so sensitive?

  19. I understand the fine line between filtering content and wanting to exert control over the “debate”. If a person wants to pretend their block is a private yet public space, the solution is to have a private, invite-only blog. Or at the very least, block all posts from being commented on unless a user is a legitimate authenticated user.

    But some of those responses cited in the OP, while logical, seem to be a form of, it’s my horse and I’ll shoot it if I want to.

    I think the very nature of blogging and commenting on blogs is somewhat egotistical to begin with. When a person goes a step further and wants to control the debate that not only ensues but was initiated (or propagated) by their original post it is immature at best. At worst, it represents that compulsive desire for control which lurks in the hearts of all of us.

    No, I think it’s better to just respectfully disagree if someone wants to call you out on what you wrote. Say your peace, go your separate ways and ignore them. I think once you have to resort to reminding everyone of who is in charge, and who makes and enforces the rules is something I’m truly saddened to see — especially when its from someone whose viewpoints I often respect.

    I’m not saying I’ve seen this blog do these kind of things anyway, but since the topic is there I thought I’d toss my 2 cents in.

  20. Orwell,

    I agree our thread was mostly pretty tame.

    On the other hand, I think you are making a mistake on assuming you understand J Max’s motives. Looks more to me like he took advantage of the extra publicity (which is what I did too with my thread.)

  21. We could raise the bar from a polite conversation in your living room to a “friendly” little game of church basketball.

  22. Jjohnsen, (#17), personally, I think you are a model of how somebody should respond if they oppose a certain viewpoint. You have responded literally scores of times to different posts I have made. Sometimes you agree, usually you don’t. But you are never rude, abusive or insulting. Yet you manage to make it clear you disagree. And, importantly, you don’t feel like you must dominate the conversation — you make a comment or two and then let others comment. You are having much more positive influence on your viewpoint than people who are rude. At the end of the day, rudeness turns off the undecideds out there — calm, reasoned argument persuades people. This also applies to people like Tim, David H and BrianJ, who also make reasonable comments usually disagreeing with what I have to say. There are probably a dozen or so more, but they are not popping into my head right now.

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