Monday, March 05, 2007

Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of civility 

An open letter to my good friend Ed,

Dear Ed,

Dig what you said about CPAC and inviting crazy Auntie Ann, but were you really surprised? No, you had to be like the conference organizers were, right? They are only fooling themselves to say they were shocked. They weighed the cost of having her scandalize the conference again against the benefit of having her entertain the faithful for thirty minutes and took a shot. They lost, and the damage to the organizations is their rightful reward for losing that gamble. Anytime you invite her is a gamble. Fox has a dump button; live speeches don't.

But really, that's why people go to these things. They want to see the talking heads with bodies attached, without benefit of the nets presented by TV, radio, print and blogs. You went to meet all those cool people there, right? And like Auntie Ann isn't one of them? And when you come in contact with real people unprocessed, uncensored, sometimes the result isn't pretty. (I note you didn't say you wouldn't go again to CPAC if you and Annie were both invited.)

Same is true of commenters -- sometimes they aren't pretty. But your call for civility is a bit bothersome, if you'll forgive me saying so, Ed. See, back on this blog a long time ago we had a long chat about civility on a campus discussion email list. The campus tried to enforce it, and has ended up killing that list. My former co-blogger Jack Hibbard said this at the time,
Certainly the desire to censor somebody is a perennially human. Nat Hentoff is about the best author on all of this, and his Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee is worth reading, but its tough to go from desire to application. To want to censor is easy; doing it can be hard.

So we hit questions like who is going to determine what constitutes appropriate speech? And how will they make clear precisely what acceptable speech is? Will there be a word list? Will we not say "inane' any more? If 'inane' is forbidden, I can think of a lot of other words with equal or greater force that will have to be forbidden too; this could be a very long list. I'm glad I don't have to make it up. Or will context be important? Can we say some things or people are inane and others not? Or does who one is matter? A double standard has been pretty clear in the past, so would there be people who we can offend and others we can't? Or, if it's a horrific (can I say that?) thing to offend someone else, will acceptable language depend on the proclivity of others to be offended? And how will this be implemented? Will messages have to go through a screening committee before they are posted? (Boy, would I hate that job, though I doubt there's much danger I would be asked to do it.) Will somebody stop messages from going out and doing all their crushing (can I say that?) damage, or will writers merely be punished afterwards? And, of course, what will the punishment be? What's it worth to have offended somebody else, especially the most fragile among us who are most easily offended?

This list of questions could go on, and very well may. But to be honest my advice is to forget this whole business as soon as possible. Let people talk, and if they say something nasty (can I say that?) to you, either say something nasty back, or get a nasty friend to help you say something nasty back, or -- and this is usually my most preferred course of action -- go home and have a slug or two of good whiskey (can I mention whiskey) and blow the whole thing off (can I say that?).
And that, Ed, is my advice to you: Forget the whole business. It's of course your blog, and you're quite clear about moderating your comments -- a real difference between a blog and a discussion list on a state university campus. There's no question whether one can censor -- you can -- and who is to decide the rules -- that's your right alone. I've banned a couple of people, one of whom I let back after deciding I had overreacted. (The other remains off the blog not because he was offensive but because his signal-to-noise ratio fell to zero.) But we academics have had a long history with civility codes on campuses, and I will simply say they are the den for the most censorious in our midst. No matter how many times you say you won't censor content, you cannot help but do so. And in the end your comment boxes will end up the barren wasteland of so many Usenet newsgroups that took on a moderator and lost a community.

Given the excellent commenters you've had over the years, that would be a great loss.

Best to you and the First Mate,

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