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Inevitably, a discussion of comment policy must focus on problem cases, and thus give the impression of a greater prevalence of problems, and a more intense atmosphere of acrimony, than is likely to arise in practice. In general, my inclination is to give the benefit of the doubt to any comment, although suspected cases of spam and other behavior driven by monetary gain or other motives irrelevant to this blog’s purpose (such as promotion of other websites) may have to be an exception to this benefit of the doubt. I’ve been tempted to omit any discussion of comment policy altogether until and unless actual problems arose, but in the interest of candor, I’ve decided state my thoughts on the matter up front.
I have myself suffered from censorship on other sites (including the Huffington Post and Firedoglake); and unlike many blog editors, I do believe that the concept of censorship applies with full force to privately run websites, just as academic freedom applies to private universities, and journalistic freedom applies to privately published news media. It is an act of intellectual dishonesty, even fraud, to give the impression that untrammeled discussion exists in a website’s comments, when in reality certain particular viewpoints are ruthlessly suppressed whenever they arise. And even if restrictions on expression are clearly announced, they can still amount to intellectually dishonest censorship if their principal motivation is to skew the participants’ thought processes toward, or away from, particular types of conclusions. When you’re moderating a website, the claim “I own it, so it’s my right to run it however I like” has no merit.
That said, not every instance of suppression can be condemned as censorship. A comment on a blog post becomes attached to the post (and thus to the blog) as an addendum, just as a letter to the editor published in a newspaper becomes a component of the newspaper, and is legitimately subject to editorial judgment (although not legitimately subject to arbitrary, unprincipled, and deceptive editing). So what kinds of suppression or editing of comments might count as legitimate? [Note, December 20, 2014: I am currently considering expansion of this list in the light of disheartening experiences in discussions on Twitter.]
Limitations of topic would qualify, generally speaking; the New England Journal of Medicine is under no obligation to publish play-by-play analyses of football games, nor need Sports Illustrated publish reports of clinical drug trials. Ruthless suppression of spam and other forms of irrelevant self-promotion fall under this rubric, as does prohibition of any participation (if detected) of public relations operatives (paid trolling). (For the record, paid trolls are not welcome to comment at De Dicto, at all, although they’re most unlikely to respect any such declaration.) Likewise, there are cases where the cause of free inquiry is best served by suppression, rather than toleration, of endless repetition of essentially the same arguments; “enough already” is a legitimate consideration. More generally, editorial judgments of quality can focus and enhance a discussion without illicitly constraining the outcome or serving a hidden agenda. At an extreme, contributions that would be removed from Wikipedia as vandalism are likely to be removed just as summarily from De Dicto.
I don’t believe it’s possible to specify in advance every possible circumstance that might justify suppressing a comment. If you comment here, you will — in the end — just have to trust my judgment; although, except in the most blatant cases of spam, vandalism, or the like, meta-level discussion of the propriety of any act of editorial judgment will be permitted, subject to the same considerations as any other discussion. I can only assure you that my judgment will, to the best of my ability, be governed by the kinds of considerations stated here — not by my arbitrary preferences.
Two particular issues warrant special consideration: so-called incivilities, and legally questionable comments.
I’m less likely to rule automatically against personal attacks and other so-called incivilities, in general, than most blog editors, particularly because I’m skeptical of the very concept of “civility” (Kennedy 1998; DeMott 1996). An ad hominem comment is not fallacious if it is relevant to the discussion, and I believe they often can be, especially when the speaker is claiming some insight from personal experience to support a point, or when the most cogent issue at hand is whether a particular commentator’s input merits rational evaluation at all (Leiter 2011, “The circumstances of civility”). Efforts to avoid offending anyone can constitute more of an impediment to clear thinking than actually giving offense would (Janis 1982, Groupthink). But personal and otherwise offensive comments are held to the same standards of relevance, and more generally of constructive furtherance of rational discussion, as other comments. In practice, many personal insults fail to meet the standards of rational discussion not because they are personally insulting, but because they are dishonest: for example, they attribute evil motives to baselessly to another party.
In particular, direct threats to other participants in a discussion will not be tolerated, as they subvert rational discussion in a way that offensive comments in general need not. This includes ALL threats of legal action, even if they are fully justified from a legal point of view. (However, discussion of the use of legal and other sanctions in a general political context is usually acceptable.)
In an increasingly repressive society with a fraudulent and corrupt pseudo-democracy, legal self-preservation must be traded off against the need for frank discussion of revolutionary change, including potentially violent revolution. However, if revolution is under discussion, try to keep it strictly on a theoretical level. Even if a revolutionary command center is needed, De Dicto is not the place. Comment, if you wish, on whether revolution is needed, and on general types of tactics that might be needed (such as the “black bloc” tactic or even armed insurrection), but do not call for specific concrete violent action to be taken at particular times or places. Similarly, I reserve the right to remove other types of comments that I believe might create legal problems.
Jones, Anthony. Stars and bras: a report from the trenches. Academe. 1990 Jul–Aug; 76(4):18–23. [annotation]
Kennedy, Randall. The case against “civility”. American Prospect. 1998 Nov 1;9(41). Internet version: 2001 Dec 19. Available from: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_case_against_civility. Accessed 2011 Dec 17. Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/640XikSHZ. [annotation]
DeMott, Benjamin. Seduced by civility: political manners and the crisis of democratic values. Nation. 1996 Dec 9; 263(19):11–19. [annotation]
Janis, Irving L. Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. 2nd ed. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Houghton Mifflin; 1982. [annotation]
Graeber, David. Concerning the violent peace-police: an open letter to Chris Hedges [Internet]. n+1. 2012 Feb 9. Available from: http://nplusonemag.com/concerning-the-violent-peace-police. Accessed 2012 Feb 9. Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/65KpxkaVf. [annotation]
Falkvinge, Rick. Do we really have to prepare for the fourth box? Falkvinge on Infopolicy. 2011 Dec 16. Available from: http://falkvinge.net/2011/12/16/do-we-really-have-to-prepare-for-the-fourth-box/. Accessed 2012 Jan 26. Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/64zvFQihO. [annotation]
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