Those who do not know their internet history are doomed to repeat it, clearly.

screencap of Boromir from LOTR; text added ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY PLEDGE "CIVILITY" TO ORCS OR WORSE.  IT IS FOLLY.Datum the First: On April 8, 2007 Tim O’Reilly wrote a Draft Blogger’s Code Of Conduct after issuing a call for such a code a few days earlier, (in response to the notorious harassment of Kathy Sierra for having opinions about interface usability).

Datum the Second: I wrote About That Blogging Code Of Conduct on April 12, 2007 in response.

Datum the Third: A few days later Lauredhel wrote Draft Blog Reader’s Code of Conduct: Don’t threaten to rape and kill her as a separate response to the proposed code.

Datum the Fourth: A few days ago Daniel Fincke wrote The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge (Camels with Hammers is the name of Fincke’s blog).

Datum the Fifth: Chris Clarke wrote The Desert Tortoises With Boltcutters Civility Pledge yesterday in response to Dan’s big novel idea (Desert Tortoises With Boltcutters is not the name of Clarke’s blog) .

I pledge not to fetishize civility over justice. I recognize that the very notion of “civility” is defined in large part by those in whose benefit the status quo is maintained. I further recognize that the structure of “civility” at least in part has been created with the express purpose of bolstering chronic injustices.

That’s only the first of Chris’ five-point pledge.  There’s a few mentions of the false equivalence of treating those who are defending themselves from attacks aimed at silencing them as if they are just as aggressive as the attackers, too.

In the nearly seven years between datapoints the second and third and fourth, many similar initiatives have been proposed.  O’Reilly’s was far from the first, either. Because there is a fundamentally uneven playing field involving who is listened to and which communication styles are valued over others, a disparity which such codes/pledges do nothing to redress, shortly after Finke’s suggestion fails and is forgotten there will be somebody else attempting to save the internet from itself by just being more civil to each other, as if nobody ever thought of that before (and as if well-documented cultures within which people savagely shame/shun each other with the pointed barbs of icily polite faux-civility simply do not exist).

Datum the Sixth: in October 2011, s.e. smith wrote On Blogging, Threats and Silence at Tiger Beatdown, about these silencing tactics and how “traditional” advice for coping with the relentless attacks simply plays into the harassers’ hands, which is why such advice needs to be rejected:

It’s concerted, focused, and deliberate, the effort to silence people, especially women, but not always, as I can attest, and particularly feminists, though again, not always, as I can attest, online. The readers, the consumers, the fans, may not always notice it because people are silent about it. Because this is the strategy that has been adopted, to not feed the trolls, to grin and bear it, to shut up, to put your best foot forward and rise above it. To open your email, take note of the morning’s contents, and then quickly shuttle them to the appropriate files for future reference or forwarding to the authorities. To check on the server, fix what needs fixing, and move on with your day. To skim the comments to see what needs to be deleted, to know that when you write a post like this one, you will have to delete a lot of heinous and ugly comments, because you want to protect your readers from the sheer, naked, hate that people carry for you. To weigh, carefully, the decision to approve a comment not because there’s a problem with the content, but because you worry that the reader may be stalked by someone who will tell her that she should die for having an opinion. And when it happens to people for the first time, they think they are alone, because they don’t realise how widespread and insidious it is.

All of the bloggers at Tiger Beatdown have received threats, not just in email but in comments, on Twitter, and in other media, and the site itself has been subject to hacking attempts as well. It’s grinding and relentless and we’re told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general. To compress us into small boxes somewhere and leave us there, to underscore that our kind are not wanted here, there, or anywhere.

The whole series of posts linked below for more datapoints than any critical thinker should need to demonstrate why attempts such as O’Reilly’s and Fincke’s are doomed to fail, no matter how well-intentioned they mean to be: when others want to frame your very dignity as a human as either a matter up for debate or else a matter too inconsequential to be considered as relevant to a debate, then the vocabulary they use to do so doesn’t matter – their viewpoint/stance is intrinsically uncivil at its core, and vigorous expression of contemptuously uncivil scorn for such arguments is logically valid, a strategically sound protective response, and an activist act of defiance against their silencing tactics. They lie when they claim to want a debate, because it’s crystal clear that what they really want is our silence.

Always remember that what is so visible with respect to silencing tactics on the internet doesn’t only happen there. All sorts of social conventions in every shared space regarding what is and what is not considered “rude” serve to maintain the status quo and silence dissenting voices. Of course, if we entirely rejected conventions regarding socially acceptable behaviour the world would be an indecipherable cacophony where no mutually advantageous cooperation would be possible at all, so don’t think I’m proposing any such absurd solution. Everybody, whether individually or in groups, has a right to set boundaries on their interactions with others: it’s just that by which boundaries they set, and especially whose boundaries they prioritise, by these signs shall you know them.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, Meta, social justice, Sociology

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15 replies

  1. And hey, this was recognised centuries ago even, and John Stewart Mill, John Stuart Mill, who wrote the following in his spectacular defense of free speech in Chapter Two of On Liberty, was probably not the first to realise it either:

    With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely, invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions.

    h/t thephilosophicalprimate on Pharyngula

  2. Well said tigtog — though I detect the possibility of a slight rewrite here, as the gap measured in years seems to be inbetween your datums three and four, not earlier. The civility pledge is an invitation to rules lawyering, argument by filibuster, and all sorts of uncivil tricks that can squeak under Dan Fincke’s rubrics, and so it is no surprise to find the usual slimy types already trying to infiltrate his comments with smelly offerings. It’s ‘spot the logical fallacy’ over there currently, and presumably Fincke is asleep and not minded to rebut the uncivil crap being deposited all over his shiny new thread.

    • oops, well caught, Xanthë – missed fixing that one up in the redrafting.
      As to what’s happening over at Fincke’s blog, colour me utterly unsurprised.

  3. Great post tigtog, quality stuff.

  4. Yes, yes, yes to not staying silent. Back when I was active on alt.polyamory, we had a serial sexual harasser who would send increasingly creepy emails to female* alt.polyamory posters. Quite a few of us had suffered in silence, until I believe it was Piglet started posting about it on the newsgroup. That opened the floodgates, and his response to being publicly censured and told not to email many of us, convinced me how important it is for women to drag all that private personal crap out into clear public view.
    And he wasn’t trying to silence us or chase us off the newsgroup, he just seemed to have an odd compulsion or fetish or something.
    * He was cissexist and didn’t send emails to posters he knew to be trans.

  5. Chris’s post was just the best thing EVER.
    At the end he points to a comment which inspired him from Xanthe:

    So Dan Fincke wants all his blog threads run as though they were cozy debate clubs; I was not impressed with his civility to Natalie Reed when she turned up to disabuse him of the notion that civility was a universal panacea in precisely the way others have pointed out. It not only stacks the odds towards the status quo, it also permits performances of faux civility which are not actually civil, and are thus ripe to be exploited by disingenuous commenters who prefer rules lawyering to honesty.
    Lastly, verbosity like Dan’s can be a barrier to civil discourse in itself: rhetorical masturbation without ever actually getting to the issue again is a supposedly civil tactic of debate that is often highly negative in practice, rather like the verbal equivalent in a spoken debate, the Gish gallop; to address the point requires far more energy and patience than is reasonable. And it doesn’t take much effort to find examples of people who like bullshitting at length in discussion threads for plausibly deniable reasons, just because they can and they know it succeeds in derailing and gumming up the works.

    In the words of another very civil but evilly accurate feminist – Oh, my wordy lordy, YES.

  6. I had to look up Gish Gallop. Yeah (sighs) I’m wrestling with one at the moment. Explains why my posts on anything except dogs are thin on the ground.

  7. Yes, that would be me busily destroying the joint over at FTB.
    The Gish Gallop — Duane T. Gish was famed for touching on a dozen or more lies about evolution/creationism in the course of a debate, so that an unwary opponent who tried to address them all would quickly use up all their allotted time. What I’ve described as ‘argument by filibuster’ is the attempt to silence or derail discussion by posting massive slabs of densely written text as demonstration of having profound knowledge of the topic that forbids criticism; anyone attempting to counter that move has to commit to a similar expenditure of effort to address the bulk of it, and of course actually treating it seriously will invoke follow-up postings of similarly pedantic nit-pickery from the arguer which will tend to move ever further off-topic.
    When Chris referred to my comment and the description of this type of incivility as the ‘proximal cause’ he was almost certainly thinking of someone who’d crapped out a highly problematic three-thousand word essay as a blog comment on one of his threads, and who probably expected people to perhaps bow down and worship it as some sort of philosophical insight of genius. When contradicted the commenter then proceeded to dig down in search of the centre of the earth…

  8. I read Pharyngula, but not Camels with Hammers, so Chris’s post was left without some context for me. I admit to only skimming the “above the fold” portion and liking it.
    Looking at the Dan Fincke post it was based in (linked from here), I got as far as the second point before I couldn’t continue. Point 1 was bad enough – to convince someone, one has to understand the position that one’s argumentative opponent has taken. This requires listening and thought. To say that one must sometimes listen and not always aim to convince is to say that being convincing is possible without listening. This is not so, and doesn’t bode well for Dan’s position.
    And then we get to point 2, wherein Dan says that people who hold other ethics than me should still be tolerated by me. If we’re talking about deeply grey areas, maybe. But we’re frequently not. We’re frequently talking about the ethics of, say, forcing women to be incubators. Or of the idea that murder is ethical if it’s for honour. Or similar and very stark ethical problems in the people who are, I’m assured, waiting to be discussed with if only I were civil enough. I dropped the whole thing right there – I will not allow a bullshit mindset of “civility” to grant these arseholes tolerance. They don’t deserve it, nor should it be asked.
    Part of actual civility, in my book, is in demanding that the basic humanity of all humans be acknowledged. I’ll not civilly engage with an arsehole that wont acceed to that demand, no matter how flowery and “civil” their denial of a human’s humanity may be.

    • And then we get to point 2, wherein Dan says that people who hold other ethics than me should still be tolerated by me.

      Yep. there’s a huge difference between the legal concept of toleration (refraining from officious interference and harassment as the minimum standard of acknowledgement that cultural groups outside one’s own have an equal right to gather/travel in shared public spaces) and what appears to be too many people’s concept of interpersonal toleration (that others are obliged to listen to jerks, especially polite jerks, without objection or criticism).
      eta: I say cheers for legal toleration, and jeers for that twisted view of interpersonal toleration.

      • Fincke is also ignoring the enormous false equivalency elephant in the room: the attempt by some to weight words such as racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist, bigot etc as being equal in incivility to words such as wh*re, sl*t, f*g, n*gger, tr*nnie, b*tch, c*nt etc, so that anybody challenging ever-so-politely-expressed bigoted attitudes with sociologically accurate labels will now breach that civility code (if he lets these novel equivalency attempts succeed in his space).

        No way I could ever sign on to that.

  9. that others are obliged to listen to jerks, especially polite jerks, without objection or criticism

    It occurs to me that part of the problem might be that these people know they are jerks; their only defense is “I have the right to exist even though I’m a jerk”. They seem to have a lot of experience with being socially excluded and not much experience with socially excluding others, given the techniques they use. (“No yucky girl germs in our clubhouse” doesn’t exactly measure up to eg the Hoydens’ commenting policy “You get three attempts to prove you’re interesting or funny or otherwise making a contribution to the discussion”.)

  10. I’m not sure why we’ve moved on from the idea that ignoring bullying in ‘real life’ is the best solution – ie acting politely and pleasantly or removing ourselves from the bullying – but we have not moved on from this position in our online interactions. If calling out bullying is right to do in the classroom or workplace, surely calling out bullying is also the right thing to do online. While I generally agree that civil discourse is preferred online or anywhere, it’s pretty damn obvious that it can be used as a very powerful silencing technique, online or anywhere, when you define ‘civility’ as ‘not disagreeing with my opinion’. Same as freedom of speech arguments so frequently being used to bully or silence any opposition, but doesn’t seem to extend to making sure that less powerful people get the same freedom to both speak and have their views heard.
    Furiously agreeing with all of you, and wishing that quite a lot of other people (many of whom never seem to shut up and listen) would shut up for a while instead of shouting repeatedly about lack of civility and how their freedom of speech will be eroded if they have to listen to anyone else except themselves. *Insert rude noise here*

  11. To be honest, I just wish there was some way to create a blog reader’s killfile.
    I remember those from back in my Usenet days – you’d run your newsfeed through a filter, and all the dills, nincompoops and ding-a-lings could be filtered out (along with things like spam, cross-posted “performance art” and similar). Regularly, when reading blog comments, I long for the days when I could just put a particularly tendentiously dull commenter into the killfile, and not have to see what they wrote, because they bored me rigid, or regularly raised my blood pressure to the point where steam would be coming out of my ears. It was a wonderful solution – you didn’t have to make your killfiling public (although quite a few people did, and the happy sound of *plonk* would echo through troll threads as a sort of cheerful counterpoint emphasising how little the regulars wanted to hear from them) and you wound up avoiding a lot of the worst that Usenet had to offer.
    I’d love to see something like that for blog comments. I really would. Because that would add to the main point which has to be raised about a lot of this: there are a lot of people who will not alter their behaviour unless it is made absolutely and utterly clear they are losing themselves friends and making themselves enemies by not doing so. Unless it is made absolutely clear their behaviour is intolerable (in the sense of “absolutely not tolerated”) they’ll carry on being sexist racist homophobic dipshits (or lily-livered commie pinko apologists for everything; pick your poison to suit your tastes) all over the place.
    And of course, in addition, I could killfile all the ones who regularly make my blood pressure rise, so I didn’t have to read ‘em.

    • There was a Greasemonkey killfile script for FTB at one stage, and I think it also worked on other WordPress based blogs. I’m not sure whether it’s been kept up to date, but the Pharyngula wiki should probably know.

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