Monday, December 2, 2013

Our yelling-"Fire!"-in-a-crowded-theater line

We had an experience last week that must eventually come to all who blog.  Or at least to those who allow comments, and who, as we do, wish to stimulate discussion and thought. We wrote a post about evolutionary psychology, arguing that behavior is unlikely to be as hard-wired as seems so often to be the default assumption, because it can swing drastically over time, influenced by cultural changes and so on.  That doesn't even mean that 'genes' have no role, but it does show that the effects of culture are such that it's unclear what is hard-wired, and we usually can't make confident specific evolutionary assessment of the behavior.  We said that the challenge is not in figuring out how we're hard-wired but in figuring out how our brains were hard-wired not to be hard-wired.

We moderate comments to prevent publication of all the spam that would otherwise end up cluttering every post.  We very much appreciate comments, believing that if this whole endeavor isn't a conversation, there's little point.  We are glad we are enough of a small, niche blog that we don't have to deal with trolls.  We publish every non-spam comment.

But last week, in response to our ev psych blog, a reader wrote suggesting, among other things, that because rape and crime are universal, these behaviors must be genetic.  His examples were not only the standard ones, so favored by the eugenicists of old, but also of rape by non-Europeans.  The comment struck us as having more than a tinge of racism and sexism, and seemed, to us, to be a modern reprise of pro-eugenics arguments as well.  We do not know the commenter, and perhaps nothing like that was in his mind, and the post itself said nothing about rape or crime!  So we wondered why those examples, the usual ones that have been used by the powerful to decide who is worthy, would be mentioned.  But, we published it anyway.  I moderate most of the comments.  I didn't consider not publishing it initially. It was in our view an ugly comment, which I thought would be easy to deal with in a reply. Ken replied. I thought his reply was a good one.  He summarized the nub of the commenter's points.

Then Holly weighed in, saying she wanted it to be known publicly that she wouldn't have published the comment.  Holly is a co-contributor to MT, and we respect her greatly, so we took her comment seriously.  What happens here reflects on her, too.  Should we delete the initial comment?  Delete that, and Ken's and Holly's and pretend none of it ever happened, neither the original comment nor our censoring of it?
Censorship: Wikimedia

After a lot of thought, I pulled just the comment.  Ken would have preferred to leave it, and his reply, but by the time he let me know that, the deed was done.  I left Ken's response, and Holly's, because I wanted readers to know we had censored a comment. Ken's comments indicated the tenor of the initial message, so it was pretty clear what he had been responding to.

Yes, we censored a comment.  To his credit, when he saw what we'd done the author emailed Ken and explained his position, as well as his dismay at our intolerance and scientific elitism.  Ken wrote back, explaining why his comment struck us as so out of line.  I am still uncomfortable with what we did, but I was uncomfortable with every option.

It's the only time we've ever pulled a comment.  We're not averse to disagreement. Indeed, as a friend we respect very much asked, after seeing what we'd done here, "How can you have a productive conversation if you exclude particular points of view from being heard?"

But this experience has made us realize that we do have limits.  When the disagreement strikes us as racist, sexist, and tainted with eugenics, that seems, to Ken and me, like a pretty good line to not cross.  

39 comments:

Holly Dunsworth said...

I didn't feel like it was right to ask you to remove it. Nor did I want you to! I did, however, have to state for readers that I would not have allowed it. This is because I felt it was out of bounds. It also squelched all the fun. It's hard to believe that people can turn things up to full blast like that and not realize how offensive it is. I just wanted to state for readers what my position was because students, turns out, read the comments and I think that treating the deleted comment as any others without pointing out how it crossed the line was potentially a mistake. So I had to pipe up. No intended insolence (wink) on my part and I do feel bad that I caused this much trouble.

Josh Nicholson said...

Seems as if you are following the way of Pop Sci and their commenting policy. I think, as a student, it is good to see even the ugly comments AND the response. This is how students learn what is right and wrong and how to address different comments. It does no go good to a student to say "that person is crazy." Period. What does help is to show why they may be crazy.

Ken Weiss said...

Don't feel bad, Holly! All the issues have been thoroughly aired, nobody's basic view was even covered up. And we all agree that we don't want to stifle discussion or disagreements.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I actually don't agree with that. I'd love to sometimes post without comments turned on. Sometimes I just want a post to sit there like a painting. But I respect very much that it's not in the spirit of the MT so I always leave them turned on.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I hardly think that removing one comment counts as following a no comments policy!

Holly Dunsworth said...

And it wasn't deleting an opposing opinion... it crossed the line for a few reasons but for one because it was a huge trigger. Very offensive, to my mind. And didn't deserve ink. Or if it did, deserved to be followed by comments pointing out how we don't like it, which we did.

Anne Buchanan said...

Yes, except that our thinking had nothing to do with whether comments change how people view the science or our posts. Let them, that's how humans work. But you have a good point, Josh, and Holly alludes to it above -- students would learn more from seeing the comment, and response. I still am not sure that reasoning is enough. We'll see next time. For the record, the guy wasn't crazy. Just had ugly things to say.

Ken Weiss said...

I'll add to this that we don't know he had ugly thoughts or just was writing in a reflexive way that is so common about these issues, and may not have known the history of such thoughts.

We certainly have learned a lesson. Originally, we left the comment and my reply. Then we acceded to Holly's reaction. Perhaps as you say, we should just leave comments up for readers to judge.

But there may always be some that we just won't post. Perhaps we should confer amongst ourselves before deciding. And have to have good reasons for blocking.

Jim Wood said...

This is a tough one, Anne. As something of a First Amendment fundamentalist -- *and* as someone who gets sick and tired of comments sections on other sites that turn into troll-fests and slanging matches -- I don't see an easy solution. (I also didn't read the original post, so I can't judge it on its own "merits".) I THINK I would have moderated the comment as much as possible without changing its substantive content, published it, and then immediately have provided a critical comment. At least that's what I thought a few seconds ago. Now I'm not so sure. But I'm not trying to second-guess you. After all, you and Holly saw the original comment and I didn't.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Jim. Yes, exactly, everything you say.

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, except that I can't, and wouldn't, modify a comment. Either it goes up as is, or it doesn't.

Ken Weiss said...

We originally did just that and even when we decided to pull the original comment, we left my reply to it, which outlined basically what it had said (perhaps the commenter would say unfairly, though I don't rally think so).

Again, this is a learning experience all 'round.

Josh Nicholson said...

Holly, I believe Pop Sci allows comments on specific articles still just not ones that may be controversial. Which, if true, is crazy because those are the ones that need commenting the most. As you guys mention he may have just been confused and there goes a lost opportunity for him to learn right from wrong.

My points are not specific to you or your blog either but I think should be considered on all blogs. Is it better to ignore outright wrong ideas or to correct them? Maybe many others had the same idea he did but did not post it.

I think answering difficult questions in a scientific manner (open with data) is much better than answering as a politician would (power w/o data)

Holly Dunsworth said...

I appreciate your comments, but wrong ideas are not offensive. The comment was offensive because of words and tone. Have you ever seen someone educate a blog commenter about those things? I certainly haven't.

Ken Weiss said...

Josh,
In this case it wasn't just that we felt the commenter was 'wrong' in a technical sense. It was that we felt, as we read the comment, that it had emotive tendencies in the sense that hate speech does. The comment referred to rape and criminality as inborn drives or tendencies. Had it been about, say, musical ability or the tendency to have monotheistic religion, there would not have been an issue.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Josh. Controversy is absolutely fine. Wrong ideas are fine (except, who gets to define wrong? Well, I guess we do, on our blog), and we're not here so much to correct anyone's ideas as to air our own and respond to others. I certainly agree with you that open with data is better than power without data, except that this wasn't a case of answering a question. So, an intolerant comment triggered our own intolerance. I would have been just as comfortable leaving it up as I am with having taken it down. That is, not very.

Carmen Nave said...

As a cultural anthropologist who had a really decent undergrad training in the bio-side of anthropology, I've been very much enjoying this blog as a way of keeping up with what's going on at a level that's comfortable and interesting for me. I've really appreciated the fact that I can point this blog out to non-specialist friends, and I've had the opportunity to say "this is one blog where you should definitely read the comments!" I think your choice to clearly indicate that an inappropriate comment had been removed while leaving the response was entirely appropriate to maintaining and promoting the civil and inclusive project that you've created here.

Culturally speaking, we are still learning how to do communication on the internet. Some really problematic--even violent--trends have arisen. Online communities can quickly devolve into hostile and negative places, and the United State's First Amendment isn't really a sufficient guideline for how to manage comment policies (nor should it really be, I don't think. After all, your readers are not citizens of your blog and you are not their government). I think that it makes sense to set out a commenting policy, at least among yourselves, that outlines what kinds of comments will and will not be tolerated, and what the responses to those should be. You could make it public or not, but it will serve as a guide so that you are not taken by surprise nor do you have to feel that you reacted emotionally to a comment.

In this case, it seems the comment wasn't deleted because you disagreed with the person's point (I've seen plenty of those comments left to stand here) but because they made that point in a racist and sexist way. That seems to me like a totally reasonable minimum standard for a comment policy. If I were to articulate a comment policy, it would go something like this: no racism, no sexism, no personal attacks, no threats of violence, and the threshold of interpretation is lower (that is, I will be quicker to put your comment in one of these categories) if the comment is made anonymously, based on the assumption that if you are not willing to put your identity next to that comment, then you are aware of its inappropriate content.

As for myself, I've always thought of personal projects on the internet as being like people's livingrooms. I don't expect that a person will insist that I have the same opinion as them, or shut down any disagreement. But at the same time, not every single thing that I or someone else can think of to say is appropriate when we are a guest in someone's livingroom. If someone says something that you wouldn't tolerate in your house (or here, maybe, in your classroom), then I don't see why you should feel bad about not tolerating it on your blog.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thank so much you for your thoughts, Carmen. I like your suggested comment policy, and we will kick it around amongst ourselves. And, yes about anonymous comments. As I say in the post, if we don't want to be inundated with ads in the guise of comments, and we don't, we are already drawing a line about what kind of free speech we will allow. Among other things, that diminishes the value of the thoughtful comments we do get. It's all a bit murky, when you think about it long enough.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Publicly published blog comments are not equivalent to spoken conversation even on a university quad or street corner for "all" to hear. So I feel no qualms about monitoring what gets posted here in perpetuity.

Manoj Samanta said...

"When the disagreement strikes us as racist, sexist, and tainted with eugenics, that seems, to Ken and me, like a pretty good line to not cross. "

I am very much against removing comments, and in our blog, we only remove the spams and nothing else. Regarding legitimate comments, however bad it appears to be, the process of refuting the argument is educational to readers.

Over the years, I learned a lot from people, who got banned from various boards, because their views did not conform with the majority. Between 2002-2007, I used to visit various economics-related boards, and saw one guy getting repeatedly banned or maligned for calling the bankers criminals. Later I corresponded with him and found him to be extremely smart with deep knowledge of history.

I am not saying that the all people getting censored are geniuses and most are not. However, doubts and disagreements are the real opportunities for others to learn. Also, it often happens that I may find the opinion of a person interesting/correct, although I agreed with the opposite view at the first time. In case of signed comments, I can go back and read his earlier exchanges to check what he said before had merit. If the comments are deleted, I lose the opportunity to do so.

IMHO, political correctness is not a good reason to remove comments. Unless I have legal reasons to remove a legitimate comment (e.g. one person harassing / threatening someone else or people from another race/country/religion), I will lean toward keeping the comment.

You may say that you are only filtering out 1 out of 100 comments, but I noticed that the economics blogs/forums, who removed the comments of the other guy started with one or other such "racist/sexist" comment policy and slowly expanded toward all kinds of unacceptable opinions.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Manoj. That's helpful. As this is the first time we've dealt with this, my thoughts are a work in progress. I'm thinking now that, personally, I'd rather not delete comments in the future. Co-bloggers may feel differently, and of course do as they choose.

But now I'm wondering why it's ok to delete comments from spammers. Unmitigated belief in free speech lets all that through, too, no? In part I'm serious about that, but in part the fact that so many of us don't publish spam means we are all already making a decision to censor and the real question becomes where to draw the line.

Manoj Samanta said...

"the United State's First Amendment isn't really a sufficient guideline for how to manage comment policies"

I read a different version of history. Prior to US and French revolution, a few people published pamphlets (often anonymously) expressing opinions that were far from mainstream and often "obnoxious". Telling a joke/drawing a cartoon about the king, or even worse, promoting arguments to doubt his legitimacy, may not appear unusual today, but various lèse-majesté laws made such action equivalent to treason in 17th and 18th century.

The framers of the constitution found that those who were treated as crackpots by the authority and vast majority of people turned out to be the real thinkers. So, they allowed expressing such opinions the most fundamental right.

When you read about 'freedom of press' in various founding documents, you have to realize that 'press' of their time is equivalent to blogosphere of today. It was a new and inexpensive medium for voicing opinions and many such opinions indeed appeared to be violent.


Ken Weiss said...

Manoj,
If you go back and loo at the comments, from my very first, referring to the at-the-time not-deleted comment, you'll see that even in this instance I made it pretty clear what the commenter's points were.

If a blog on evolution gets saturated with, say, creationist comments of the usual epistemologically baseless sort, it can turn into a littered rant. We try to keep this a serious attempt to discuss areas of science and human knowledge, which is not to say that this blog is a propaganda outlet.

It is easy to talk of believing in free speech, and liken its absence to the Nazi or Stalinist era, but it's harder to live with its realistic limitations (like not yelling Fire! in a theater). And I think Anne has a point, too. Spammers or clear-cut commercial 'comments' that advertise someone's product or website etc. are not appropriate....but as she says, it's a judgment call.

What if a commenter, say, sends some links to porn sites (or imbeds porn videos, or advocates child abuse)? We could accept that and comment below it that we thought it was inappropriate. But I think the vast majority of readers would say we shouldn't have allowed it.

Ellen said...

If you want to see what a site looks like when comments aren't moderated, read the replies below even the most innocuous YouTube video. I've been on the internet almost since the internet itself was born; my parents were very early adopters. The anonymity has always led to a degree of cruelty, nastiness and utter vulgarity on every single site that has ever gained any notable amount of traffic. Sometimes, moderation is required to maintain any conversation at all.

Ultimately your blog is your space. It's up to you to set the boundaries of the conversation based on your own level of comfort and your own preferences. Those who don't like the boundaries are welcome to have their discussions in one of literally millions of other spaces available online, or to create their own. Their freedom to express their views remains alive and well.

For a bit of levity on the topic, here are two videos of actors reading actual YouTube comments in a solemn noir atmosphere. Brilliant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJXLyUoz2M4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxrWuE5qC5c

Holly Dunsworth said...

Anyone is free to post whatever they like on their own blog. There's the free speech.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm with Ellen.

I doubt very many people would agree with some suggestions above that there is educational value in blog comment threads that take on people who are tone-deaf, or the like, or worse. And even if there was evidence that there is, I doubt many folks would expect all bloggers to carry such a heavy burden and engage with those people for the sake of any onlookers who might be enlightened.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I realize that a lot of what I said depends upon what I mean by education! Sorry. Unclear. Maybe I'm just a bit thrown off by some of the reactions here.

Anne Buchanan said...

We are a small blog, with the best commenters, as evidenced by the fact that we're just thrashing this out now.. I suspect that if we were attracting a ton of comments of the kind Ellen describes, I'd have no trouble censoring them. Pretty surely, this won't be put to the test.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Agreed. Which is why I think that I'm thrown by some reactions. I'd like to think we're trusted enough to reserve the right to decide what deserves to be published here or not.

Ellen said...

Yes. Personally, I'd err on the side of not risking losing the people having actual discussions in the comments because they were victimized or disheartened by cruel comments that added little or nothing educational, informational, or thoughtful to the conversation.

For example, I immediately leave any website that allows me to be victimized as a woman in comments. I believe that it is legitimate in a personal space like a blog for the desire of readers to not be victimized to take precedent over the desire of misogynists to express their feelings in any given space. Their free speech isn't impinged on; they are welcome to shout their feelings in Times Square at rush hour or to post them in any number of unmoderated or likeminded places online.

Ken Weiss said...

I certainly don't read blogs that are loaded with ideological rant, or if littered with obviously ignorant, bigoted, or politically offensive posts. All of us carry our own limits and biases. I, for example, would not visit pro-gun or anti-gay or anti-evolution or racist or tea-party sights. They have a forum but I have the freedom not to wallow in it.

Manoj Samanta said...

" But now I'm wondering why it's ok to delete comments from spammers."

The case of spammers is different. Spammers are using technology (i.e. automated emailing/commenting) to flood every possible website with their marketing materials and have no interest in legitimate conversation.

A good analogy is this. Let us say you want to have a town hall meeting to discuss adoption of various religious beliefs in society, and exclude 'Puritans' to join, because their opinions are too radical. That is censoring. On the other hand, someone, who brings in huge speakers inside the room and starts playing unrelated ads from a local beauty parlor loudly, is a spammer with no interest in discussion.

I know the next argument that is coming. What if the radicals use technology or personal efforts to overwhelm the blog ("If a blog on evolution gets saturated with, say, creationist comments of the usual epistemologically baseless sort, it can turn into a littered rant.")? I do not have an answer to that and agree that the blog authors have to draw an artificial line somewhere to keep the blog useful and sane.

If we reach similar stage in our blog, I will install one of the commenting software that allows voting and automatically makes a comment invisible, if it is voted down below a threshold. However, curious readers will have the option of checking what the comment said by clicking on it.

James Goetz said...

I can only ramble about this due to my time constraints or say nothing, and I decided to ramble. I appreciate this thread because it relates to my current essay in progress that involves philosophy, law, biological anthropology, and archeology. I need to work on one more subsection, which is a subsection on human rights. In this subsection, I am sorting through gruesome human history such as chattel slavery that designated slaves as property that by definition have no legal rights such as a slave trying to avoid rape from the slave owner. Fortunately, by the early 20th century, every nation made laws against chattel slavery despite unfortunate inconsistent enforcement of the abolition laws.

A challenge for philosophy and anthropology is moral relativism that rejects the naturalness of human rights (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights-human/). Fortunately, there are naturalist models of moral realism (http://fas-philosophy.rutgers.edu/chang/Papers/Railton-MoralRealism.pdf) and nonreligious models models of moral realism (http://www.amazon.com/On-What-Matters-Volume-Set/dp/0199265925). I happen to be a theist, but an appeal to theism goes nowhere in philosophy, so I am glad that there are naturalist models.

An appeal to natural rights indicates that there are mind independent / object moral fact such as "natural human dignity should be protected from chattel slavery." However, Aristotle in POLITICS part 1 defended that some humans are natural slaves and best off as slaves. I typically admire Aristotle but despise his view of slavery. In this case, proponents of natural human rights support that chattel slavery is wrong regardless of Aristotle’s view. In other words, the wrongness of chattel slavery is objectively wrong despite the conclusion of Aristotle and many other great minds in human history.

I saw that some paragraphs of early drafts of mine looked gruesome and unintentionally ambiguous. I could easily have made statements in the blogosphere that where unclear if I opposed chattel slavery.

Ken Weiss said...

This is basically way off topic, but in a way relevant. In fact, I just read a book about how the Europeans viewed the Native Americans. Many cited Aristotle about 'natural slaves' as a justification for enslavement. Others talked about Amerindians as 'children' who might be made to do things until they were properly educated (of course in this case, Christianized by the Spanish Church).

That serious people debated the human/non-human status of the Amerindians is revealing in some ways but understandable given that the Spanish had no idea the New World existed.

Using 'authorities' like Aristotle, they could think of the Amerindians as natural slaves, inherently inferior,....until the explorers discovered Cuzco and Mexico City etc. Those were civilized in all the Aristotelian senses of fully human beings, a real perplexing issue for the Spaniards who needed docile laborers.

I forget the name of the book, which isn't new, but could dig it out at home.

Manoj Samanta said...

Don't we use voice of 'authorities' like various economists to push countries into debt slavery? As it appears, people in Greece are injecting themselves with HIV so that they can get $700 medical benefit. How is that more noble than taking a few Greeks slave and giving them food/shelter?

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/11/greeks-self-inject-hiv-claim-benefits-2013112681147419888.html

Craig Wuthrich said...

For what it's worth, I strongly support comment moderation. Any sufficiently popular internet forum will inevitably become a cesspool of ignorance and hatred unless carefully moderated. This is your private backyard, so you have every right to remove those who don't play nice.

It goes without saying that disagreement is a good thing, but respect would seem to be prerequisite.

Jim Wood said...

The WHO has come out to declare that the rumor about Greeks deliberately infecting themselves with HIV is completely groundless.

Anonymous said...

*unsubscribes from this blog on his RSS feed news reader program*

Anne Buchanan said...

No clue which point Anonymous is making here (plus, 5 points off for not including his/her name), but it can be considered indication that I'm currently erring on the side of publishing every comment. But what I've learned this week is that that is subject to change. It depends.