In a previous post I shared a few concerns about how mass-blocking on Twitter may lead to less speech, less intellectual diversity, less productive disagreement, and therefore less skepticism in practice. Today, I’d like to share my concerns about banning people from comment-enabled blogs and other relatively public forums.
Firstly, a concession. Banning may be necessary to further the goals of a given site, and this may be true even when that site is intended to maximize interaction and minimize moderation. I don’t know of any atheist or skeptic blogs which welcome Dennis Markuze, for example. If the site is intended as a ‘safe space’ wherein everyone assents to a certain set of propositions, then banning may be necessary to maintain the integrity of the space. For example, I would fully expect to be banned by a site intended solely to foster discussions between single Muslims, or gay Christians, or agnostic anarchists, for I am none of these things. I used to moderate a forum intended solely for Oklahoma Atheists, and at the time I’d have been pretty much unsympathetic to anyone who became ‘born again’ and moved to Texas.
Given that banning is sometimes necessary, we also have to admit that it can be unnecessary, especially when it it the result of arbitrary and capricious moderation, personal beefs, or irrational discrimination. If, for example, I was running a forum dedicated to open discussion of American politics, it would be arbitrary for me to exclude discussions about the efficacy and morality of the Drug War. If I was running a blog generally about skepticism, it would be arbitrary for me to disallow discussions about any topics which are amenable to the process of scientific or methodological skepticism. If I was modding at JREFF, it would be entirely improper for me to ban someone merely because I’ve had nasty run-ins with them elsewhere.
Given that too much banning will probably have the unfortunate effects as too much blocking, how then do we strike a proper balance? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to propose a few ideas for consideration:
1) No drama from other spaces – This is similar to the ‘Reset rule’ from Pharyngula, except that I really mean it. I will not assume that because someone acts a certain way at the pub or the football, that they are going to act the same way at a symposium or a funeral. Most people manage to adjust their sense of decorum to the environment in which they find themselves at the time, and therefore people should be judged on how well they comport themselves in any given situation.
2) No guilt by association – Each individual should be judged by their own actions, nothing more nor less. If I hear that you’ve been posting at some truly horrible place like Stormfront, I’m going to at least check to see whether you were trolling them or otherwise trying to make them think. If you’ve been posting in a very lightly moderated space like www.Twitter.com or www.SlymePit.com, I’m not going to judge you by the people you interact with but rather by your own words in those interactions.
3) No single-strike rules – Everyone deserves a warning, a reminder of the ground rules, and a second chance to live up them. Maybe even a third, if they are conciliatory about it. Except on Facebook, of course, because some cyberspaces should be treated more like living rooms than public greens. If you cannot behave in my living room, then just GTFO.
4) No banning for disagreement per se – No matter how ridiculous your ideas are, I’ll try to tell you why I think you’re wrong. Even if you’re a racist going on about succession, or a creationist going on about your holy writ, I’ll give it a go so long as you can be polite about it.
5) No double-standards – Cyberspaces such as Atheism Plus and Pharyngula are famous for having one set of standards for the in-group and a vastly more stringent set of rules for noobs and outsiders. This is counterproductive for anyone who wants to avert groupthink in favor of genuine skepticism.
6) No pile-ons - Probably the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on the internet is the attempted enforcement of prevailing group norms by piling on and abusing newbies until they lose their shit and get banned. This is a ridiculous school-ground tactic, completely unfit for skeptics who claim to love truth above all.
Those are just a few suggestions to level the field of ideas. Your thoughts?