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Civility in Online Discussions

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DonAthos
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It has happened a few times where I've felt motivated to bring up the issue of "civility" in threads in which I've participated here. Enough so that I think it warrants its own, separate discussion.

Let me set the table a bit for what I want to talk about.

When I look through threads I'm occasionally taken aback by the kind of "discussions" that some here participate in. They are hostile and filled with invective and scorn. Do I mean to implicate everyone? By no means. Nor am I making any claim about a certain percentage who participate in that manner, whether "some," "many" or "most" or anything like that. All that I'm saying is that it happens often enough that I'm no longer surprised to see it. If this hostility isn't quite "characteristic," it's certainly a noticeable feature of the community. A predictable feature.

And if this were most places on the Internet, I guess I'd let it go and spare everyone a pointless lecture on my own ruffled sense of propriety. I fully expect the comments on a YouTube vid to be heinous, for instance, and don't think I could get through to the myriad snarky 14 year olds there via such an appeal. But given the nature of this community -- people who care about ideas and take them seriously; people similarly committed to reason and standards of integrity and honesty -- I expect something different. Something better.

It's enough to make me wonder whether some people believe (perhaps implicitly) that there is some tie between being "honest" and intelligent, and being cruel or cutting. That's certainly nothing new to me, if so; I've lived long enough to recognize that sometimes the intelligent feel that their ability gives them license to be scornful, especially to those they consider (often incorrectly) to be their inferiors. Or maybe some take meaning from reports of Ayn Rand's testy demeanor and anger? Maybe they think that there's something inherently virtuous in being mean?

But here is why I believe that "civility" is important, and especially given the context of the kinds of discussions that I presume we wish to pursue.

Discussions don't generally take place between machines, but men. As a man, I strive to be logical, to be reasonable, and to use my mind as best I can to arrive at truth, to make good choices, and to live my life well. Discussions are both enjoyable and profitable for me in that they serve those ends. When I "philosophize" in a social setting (here meaning: discuss, debate, argue), I like the give-and-take and am thankful for those who challenge me. Why "thankful"? Because their challenges can often provoke me to new insights, both into their positions and into my own. And what is more, as a man I am prone to error and to mistake. This is not an argument for any subtle kind of skepticism, but a recognition that the process of arriving at truth is neither automatic, nor necessarily "easy." Through the process of argument, sometimes I am led to recognizing that I have been/am wrong, and to correction. This is, in fact, precisely what happened to me when I read Rand; I was persuaded that I had been wrong on a number of topics, and was overjoyed at the discovery.

However. As a man, I am also an emotional creature. Not to disparage emotion, which I think plays important roles in my life, but I know from experience that when I am in the throes of a strong emotion, my ability to reason clearly is sometimes impacted. When I fight with my family, with my wife, I sometimes say things that I recognize I do not mean or otherwise believe, upon later reflection. What's worse, I have a short temper -- a flaw that has long been with me, and which I continually seek to correct through being aware of my own emotional state, and tempering my passionate drive for immediate response against those who arouse my anger. There have been times even here, and despite my apparent righteousness on this subject, when I have lost my temper. And I have regretted it every time.

What we seek to do through conversation, and the rewards that are possible through these discussions, is wholly threatened when we allow ourselves to get angry, to lash out. Am I speaking just of my own personal experiences? Perhaps, but I do not believe so. Incivility -- "being a jerk" -- is a provocation to another person's anger; an invitation to "lose it." And that is no boon for rational discussion of any kind. To the contrary, it does nothing but put men "on their guard," and make it less likely that they will give all arguments the cool and reflective analysis that reasoned thought and discussion so often demands.

So. What I'm asking is that we try to maintain a certain level of politeness in our discussions. That we hold others -- and most importantly ourselves -- to the highest possible standard. This is not a call for false kindness or that we should all "like" one another or anything of the sort. Feel free to hate me, hate each other, I don't really care about that. Nor would I ask that we refrain from stark and frank discussion of ideas: it is not uncivil in this context to say that a certain position is unequivocally wrong, or to clearly demonstrate why. But if we want to discuss any topic of import, we ought to treat that topic with the respect it deserves. (If it is an unimportant topic, why discuss it at all?) And because we are men engaged in this discussion, and not machines, we should strive to be equally respectful of and polite to one another in order to facilitate the kinds of discussion necessary to make the entire endeavor fruitful.

If instead we just want the emotional satisfaction of railing against perceived "enemies," and allowing our bile to flow unimpeded, there are a million other forums on the Internet seemingly tailored for just that very thing. I would rather we make this place unlike all of those others, and as a valuable by-product demonstrate to the world what it looks like when men and women of intelligence, reason, and goodwill come together to discuss those matters upon which they might (howsoever temporarily) disagree.

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I don't know why so much of this 'uncivilized' behavior exists. I sometimes feel that forum threads are 'battlegrounds' where person A picks on each and every little thing person B says. I don't see the point, especially when the 'debaters' involved don't seem necessarily excited about the topic. They're just out for blood. This is the first forum I joined, so I used to think it was just oo.net that had this problem, but after joining others, I've noticed the same thing. I guess I could understand it if there was a reason.. but it's just so unnecessary.

Or maybe some take meaning from reports of Ayn Rand's testy demeanor and anger? Maybe they think that there's something inherently virtuous in being mean?

I hope not.. I would hate to meet such a person.

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Excellent post. You might be interested in a past topic of mine with a similar, though slightly different focus, also prompted by discussions in other OO.net threads at the time, here. I think occasionally, with topics that get particularly heated, it's important to defend the practice of civility in online discussions, particularly in a forum we all care about.

Edited by Dante
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I would rather we make this place unlike all of those others, and as a valuable by-product demonstrate to the world what it looks like when men and women of intelligence, reason, and goodwill come together to discuss those matters upon which they might (howsoever temporarily) disagree.
Here! here! From your lips to the ears of God!
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Just to add-- Civility in topics is preferable to learn and get a new perspective. Many times I will go into a topic and listen to what people have to say and think -- OK I never thought about it that way.

Anger and cruelty makes it hard for that to happen because it's as if you came into the topic with the purpose of defending your preconceived notions without getting to the purpose of any debate - getting to the truth. In addition, if you are cruel, whether or not you are right or wrong, it may turn the other debater off and fail to get the message through to them.

Edited by Matt Giannelli
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An inherent weakness(and strength) of internet discussions is the lack of non-verbal indicators due to the relative anonymity of the internet. When having a discussion in person with a "snarky 14 year old" I am far less likely to push inconsistencies in his or her thought or require a 60 year old level of wisdom and experience to support his statements. I'll simply take them for what they are. Likewise, I'm not likely to try to change a 60 year old's fundamental outlooks on life, cause what's the point of that?.

Without a word being said, in person I can ascertain a persons relative age, sex, level of income, and many more things with fairly consistent accuracy while online this isn't the case. For example, say I meet a 47 year old who starts lecturing me on the benefits of a paleo diet. I can tell right away from his immediate access to facts and understanding of the subject that he has a solid grasp of the field. Maybe I inquire and then find he is a nutritionist by trade and has studied and lived by paleo for 7 years and has a flawless physique. I'm going to sit back and enjoy the lecture. Online, he could just as easily be the snarky 14 year old pulling up wikipedia to make an argument on his half-baked notions of dietary nutrition. I have no way of knowing how much weight to place so I'm going to press harder than usual. A benefit of being online is that we are all perceived equally in the valuation of our opinions so ideas aren't as immediately discarded. The downside is that we usually shouldn't be regarded equally because some of our opinions are more valuable than others.

Not sure that I have any contribution on how to alleviate the problem but to note that the more time I spend online the more often i can get a sense of whether a continued argument is worth having. I feel that I've gotten better at avoiding the continuation of useless conversations...not..you know...a lot...but a bit better.

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Actually, I think that being consistent Objectivists tends to give rise to verbal aggression like what we've seen in controversial topics. When fact and value are integrated, truth and falsehood is closely integrated with good and evil. If someone is horribly wrong about an idea/topic/whatever that really matters to you, you'll tend to think badly of them. At least once they've burned through any benefit of the doubt you give them. (Observe that the words "wrong" and "right" elegantly integrate a truth-false judgment and a value-judgment together in the same pronouncement.)

When a bunch of individualists disagree on a huge issue, you're going to get heated, strongly-opinionated discussion. (Whichever side is in error.)

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Anger is what you feel when you perceive something contrary to your values. Many people here value truth and take it very seriously (as did AR as you can see). Hence anger, as an emotion, is often "present" in discussions.

Personally, I don't take it personally most of the time. I recall a favorite quote of mine from TFH: "Don't bother to examine a folly -- ask yourself only what it accomplishes " (which is to say, move past the superfluous container of the message and just focus on the message itself).

Sarcasm, in particular, is really not worth fussing over: its often the fastest way to convey an idea, so the key is to not take it personally.

All that is to say that, per the natural and common behaviors that people bring up here, the key is to simply filter them away. If somebody is being an asshole on the Internet, I don't actually presume they are an asshole in real life--so I just ignore that trait and move on to the point being made.

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Actually, I think that being consistent Objectivists tends to give rise to verbal aggression like what we've seen in controversial topics. When fact and value are integrated, truth and falsehood is closely integrated with good and evil. If someone is horribly wrong about an idea/topic/whatever that really matters to you, you'll tend to think badly of them. At least once they've burned through any benefit of the doubt you give them. (Observe that the words "wrong" and "right" elegantly integrate a truth-false judgment and a value-judgment together in the same pronouncement.)

When a bunch of individualists disagree on a huge issue, you're going to get heated, strongly-opinionated discussion. (Whichever side is in error.)

I'm glad you brought this up. In calling for civility, I'm not arguing against "passion." You don't know me in real life -- you have nothing to go on for this except my word -- but I'm a passionate guy. Even when I haven't lost my temper, when I'm talking about anything I care about, I get animated. I admire "heat" in that sense. And strong opinions? Absolutely.

But there's still a way of talking to people that I consider, not just "polite," but as I've explained important to valuable conversation. And where passion is concerned, I believe that we are capable of focusing and using that passion when choosing how we respond to a given situation.

For instance, imagine that right now I believe that you are wrong on this topic that we're currently discussing. Imagine that I feel this strongly, passionately, that I'm "heated" on the subject. I still am master of how I choose to express my disagreement. (And how much more so, given that I'm typing this, and have the power to craft my response?) It's not that I would disagree with you any less, or be prevented from expressing my disagreement to you clearly, should I opt for "civility." Note these differences in possible phrasing:

1) You're wrong about this, and here are the reasons why:

2) This is a ridiculous notion. You should know why already, but if I have to spell it out for you:

3) You're ridiculous. I shouldn't even bother trying to explain since it's so obvious -- you're being intentionally obtuse. But in case anyone reading this isn't completely dense, they can consider that:

This is all I'm really talking about. This is a choice that we make, and I think that #1 is the right one for this forum. #1 isn't exactly bending itself over backwards to be nice and circumspect. It's direct -- blunt, even, and I'm not proposing it as the one and only "guide to civilized style," but I'd still take it head and shoulders over #2 and #3. And yet I believe that I see #'s 2 and 3, or their spiritual cousins if not verbatim, time and again, derailing potentially productive conversations and scaring away who knows how many would-be contributors of value.

If I thought that the only way to maintain a healthy passion for ideas, and for one's own presumed correctness, was to impugn one's interlocutors, then I guess I'd back down here and just decide that discussion, as such, wasn't for me. These catty and sophomoric exchanges aren't just problematic for sincere philosophical discourse, but I find them actively unpleasant. I'm too earnest and care too much about these topics to tolerate being disrespected for my contributions by people I'll never know in real life, and when I allow myself to get drawn in, I suffer for it and find that I've made my life worse. So if playing in the mud were the price of admission, I'd just bow out now and let the pigs have at it.

But I don't believe it is the only way. I don't think we lose anything of actual value by acting in a dignified manner. Not passion certainly. Not our conviction. Not our clarity and directness. And rather I think (and believe I have argued) that we stand to gain.

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heh. Don, I've been given number 2 on that list and am STILL offended when I think about it. And I've seen number three all too often in discussions.

([edit] Though I should note, that the incident of number 2 was even more subtle, along the lines of "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and teach you, since you are clearly ignorant." The issue in question involved detailed information about the way the industrial consumers of petroleum. ...Of COURSE I'm ignorant of that. It would've been pretty random for me to somehow know the facts he spouted. So I made an "error of knowledge", which is fine, but his tone still indicated to me that I was "lacking" as a human being, that I had somehow failed to do what I ought to have done.

If you're giving someone the benefit of the doubt, it is rude and patronizing to TELL them that you are doing so.)

Relevant:

http://xkcd.com/438/

And this one still gets me. It's so simple, so poignant.

http://xkcd.com/386/

[edit] Dante, I looked at that thread. Ended up watching the video link at the bottom, a pretty inspiring interview. It's nice to see once in a while that she did receive applause from relatively neutral audiences, and didn't alienate everybody.

Edited by musenji
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Imagine that I feel this strongly, passionately, that I'm "heated" on the subject. I still am master of how I choose to express my disagreement.
I agree that it does not take much. Mostly, re-reading a post once to tone down passion that came out as a sneer.

3) You're ridiculous. I shouldn't even bother trying to explain since it's so obvious -- you're being intentionally obtuse. But in case anyone reading this isn't completely dense, they can consider that:
When this becomes a person's standard approach, rather than an occasional occurrence... when they're sneering at nearly everyone else on the forum... then I suggest they ought not to participate at all. It indicates that either they have a problem that they need to fix, or that the forum is not the right place for them (except in the role of troll).
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Ha! I had a faint premonition Don Athos would start a thread like this!

Very worthwhile, and may even merit 'pinning' somewhere.

The same things bothered me when coming on board a few years back -

that with such commonality of interest, and shared philosophical method,

there was an excess of raw anger on Objectivist forums that took me aback.

Time goes by, and one becomes more inured to it, but as I've experienced,

the hardening regretfully also leads to uncivility on one's own part sometimes.

(At those times and after, I have got pissed-off at myself.)

Civility is the oil in the machinery to allow discourse to continue - without it,

it grinds to a halt.

Civility is also a sub-category of good-will, I believe: the pleasure in noticing other minds

learn (as you are doing); the respect for their minds and their potential.

However, it cannot and should not be compelled. This then becomes 'icy politeness',

the fore-runner to the dearth of passion for ideas, and then insincerity and untruthfulness.

May the passion and earnestness and sincerity, continue, and when it crosses the line

at times, I hope I (for one) will know to pull back.

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And this one still gets me. It's so simple, so poignant.

http://xkcd.com/386/

XD Several years back, (back in the prime of my youth, before I got too old and tired and frail for such things *shakes cane at whipper snappers on her lawn and hunts down her 17 cats to feed them before continuing*,) I used to participate in a lot of debate with general audiences hoping somebody at some point may be hearing things they hadn't heard before or heard put a particular way and take an interest in further exploring the ideas I was talking about. Because this was a general audience, there was all kinds of different view points in any given debate and nobody knew the foundations of Objectivism before we were trying to jump into discussing something like capitalism or abortion, thus these discussions could get really long and hard to make progress in. So, the people I was living with at the time got used to me doing these things and often staying up late doing it. They came across this particular comic one day and from then on they would regularly quote to me, "Someone is wrong on the internet," when they saw me up late on my computer.

. . . Oh, right, there's a topic to this thread. :ninja: Not much I have to say that hasn't been said already. Once arguments start to take on an element of negative implication about the character of participant's involved or their values, people get far less likely to listen anymore. It looks like instead of having something to gain perhaps by exchanging ideas where one or more parties may come out with more knowledge than they went in that they are just under assault, there is nothing to gain, just something to try not to lose. They're just looking to try to defend themselves as they are now. Also, if you really think somebody you are in a discussion with just will not be willing to consider anything you have to say no matter what, why bother going and getting worked up and making all these off topic public declarations of your negative assessment of that other person? It doesn't further the topic and it isn't like unless you state outright all these things that people will think you are some strong supporter of that other person you have been strongly disagreeing with for however long. Why let somebody you have concluded is a lost cause keep occupying your time and effort and thoughts any more? I'm just reminded of the thing where Roark was asked what he thought of Toohey and he said that he just didn't think of him, he didn't see any reason to. (Granted though, Roark underestimated the impact Toohey had which made him worth accounting for, but random strangers on an internet forum are very unlikely to have such influence on any large scale.)

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Well, personally I write for the gallery, and use the person I'm overtly talking to as a way to accomplish this. Thinking about things this way makes things less personal but you may end up with less regard for your sparing partner since they are, in this context, superfluous.

Polls, in this regard, are nice because you can see what your audience is thinking of the debate versus only the person you are debating.

I also take a Nietzschean view of my audience: I prefer quality over quantity. I don't care about the "ballast" of centrist voters' opinions. If I get a three converts out of thirty, this very well might be enough for me to be convinced that my argument was on the right track.

Surely it's less of a factor on this forum, but not everybody has strong opinions about all subjects.

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Actually, I think that being consistent Objectivists tends to give rise to verbal aggression like what we've seen in controversial topics.

I'm wondering, would you say that this is a good or bad thing? I'd lean to say that this is bad for many reasons, namely that verbal aggression makes discourse uncomfortable, as has been stated. There is nothing to gain by getting worked up, especially when most often it's easier to spot errors of knowledge. Too often I've observed errors of knowledge are a lot of the time falsely attributed to evasion because the so called errors are so "obvious" that the only way someone could be wrong is if they're evading. Even still, if someone is horribly wrong, there isn't often reason to think badly of them or even get upset. I don't know what you mean by burning through benefit of the doubt; it may often take years before a person begins to change their mind.

DonAmos, I'm glad you made this thread. I was thinking about starting a related thread a few weeks ago, but I couldn't quite figure out precisely what I wanted to say. What you wrote captures what was on my mind, and then some.

As for people in general, many don't seem to put a lot of value in civility and tolerance. Both concepts are useful when striving for intelligent discourse, and even requirements. Yes, tolerance does refer to permitting what you disapprove, but that would include "being wrong", which is quite alright. As long as the other party is being civil as well, inquiring into your thoughts, then there is plenty of reason to keep that tone. If you think an issue is too basic to justify maintaining discussion, then move on. If the other party is starting to get obnoxious, mention to the person, or in a forum like this, ask about moderation if it hasn't been taken care of. People never work out quite so simply, unfortunately. The angriest people tend to be the most vocal (this is especiallynotable to anyone like me who has played MMORPGs in large guilds). But what each individual can do is lead by example, and even generate discussion themself, so that a community becomes more visibly good-natured.

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But what each individual can do is lead by example, and even generate discussion themself, so that a community becomes more visibly good-natured.

Good topic and great post.

This quote is something I find to be very useful in real debates and discussions as well. Sometimes the best way to lead is to show and the best result is to demonstrate it first.

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  • 2 weeks later...

In many ways I think it is like life in general. While civility is an admirable goal, it can take two to be civil. But It think the best response to feeling one's blood start boiling is just the same as in real life: don't punch the other person, just walk away, with as simple and neutral parting statement as you can muster.

Of course it is much easier to be civil when everyone is being honest (which one would hope for on a forum like this!), and giving people the benefit of the doubt ("this person is not an idiot/evader/troll - this is an honest disagreement between two people both seeking an objective truth") always helps. But if you can no longer give the benefit of the doubt - give enough benefit to just walk away.

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