Civility III: The New Blog Order

I admit it: I’m instituting
a double standard

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
SO WHEN AM I going to get off this “civility” kick? Soon. Very soon. After all, electioneering season is almost back upon us in full force; we start endorsement interviews right after Labor Day.
    But that only gives greater urgency to an effort to encourage discussions on public policy issues that go beyond trite, partisan name-calling and sloganeering.
    As you know if you haven’t just tuned me out altogether, I’ve been worrying about the tone of the discussions taking place on my Weblog. Don’t misunderstand: I get hundreds of comments from thoughtful people from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, some really hostile partisans from both left and right have been running off the folks who want to have a dialogue.
    It’s not that these folks can’t take the heat. They just don’t want to waste their time.
    My greater worry is that such partisan, ideological nonsense is the very problem with politics in America today, aggravating reasonable people to the point that they just want to turn away. My column last week celebrating Joe Lieberman’s independent candidacy was about this same subject. I don’t have the authority to play umpire with regard to the national political discourse. But I can call balls and strikes on the blog.
    So after an online discussion that drew close to 500 reader comments, I’ve come up with a new system that I hope will work. It’s far from perfect, and will be subject to change if it doesn’t appear to be working, but since I want the site to continue to be a place where people are free to disagree strongly, forget about perfect. I’ll settle for better.
    Here’s the plan: I’m implementing a Double Standard (I thought I’d go ahead and call it that before the critics do, seeing as how that’s what it is). Or maybe you’d call it “behavior profiling.”
    Some people will be free to post pretty much whatever they want. With them, I will maintain the same hands-off policy that I’ve applied to everyone up to now. But I’ll have a different rule for everyone not in that select group: I will delete at will any comments that I deem harmful to good-faith dialogue.
    The good news is that you get to choose whether you’ll be a privileged character or not.
    To be among the elect, you just have to give up your anonymity (just as letter-writers on this page do). You won’t have to fill out special forms or show your birth certificate or anything. Just fill out the existing fields that precede comments with your real, full name; your regular, main e-mail address (the one you use for friends or family or co-workers, not something you set up on Yahoo for the purpose of hiding your identity); and if you have a Web site, your URL.
    If it seems necessary (either to you or me) to provide more info to establish who you really are, you can do so either in the text of the comment, or by e-mailing me.
    When would it be helpful to provide more info? Use your judgment — if your name is John Smith and your e-mail is, you might want to tell a little more, such as that you’re a Columbia attorney or a student at USC or whatever. And I’ll use my judgment — if you call yourself Mike Cakora (one of my regulars), but write something totally uncharacteristic of him, I’ll start asking questions.
    To be in the other group, just keep hiding behind anonymity. I’ll still let you through most of the time, but I’m going to start deleting comments that fit into one of two categories:

  • Insulting, demeaning personal remarks aimed at delegitimizing, discouraging or intimidating those with whom you disagree. If you don’t know what I mean by that, you’ll soon find out.
  • Dogmatic, repetitive, sloganeering ideological claptrap that fails to move the conversation forward and just generally wastes the time of anyone who reads through it in search of actual, original thought. If you use partisan buzzwords and labels as a substitute for genuine argument, you’re in this category. Once again, some of you may have trouble understanding exactly what I mean by that (such rhetoric is so reflexive today), but I will do my best to demonstrate.

    Between those two categories, I can tell you already that I will act upon the first with greater alacrity than upon the second. It is the greater offense.
    But, some of you are by now sputtering, this is so subjective! Yep, and to some of you, that’s just plain shocking. Not to me. I’ve had to make millions of such judgments in my 30-plus-year career. It’s what editors do. Every word I have ever allowed into the paper has required, at the most basic level, an unforgiving yes/no type of decision. Space and time constraints require us to leave out a whole lot more than we’re able to put in. Those considerations don’t apply on the Web, but something at least as important does: The need to have at least one place where people can hear each other think without being drowned out by shouted stupidity.
    I expect the number of comments will drop off for awhile. Some will depart in disgust, others in confusion. Still others will be more selective about what they post, which is actually the point of this. I hope we make up in quality what we give up in quantity.
    If you don’t understand how to meet the new standards, here’s a hint:
    Always try to express your ideas in a way that will actually change the minds of people with whom you disagree. Don’t write in a way calculated to win cheers and attaboys from those who already agree with you, or to give yourself a jolt of vindictive satisfaction.
    Oh, and remember: You don’t have to worry about the standards if you have the guts to stand up and identify yourself. Just don’t be a wuss, and you can still be a jerk.
    Unfortunately, given the present polarization of political attitudes, some of you will refuse to believe that “those other people” can ever be persuaded. You think there are people like you, and people like those others, and any attempt to reason across the divide is futile.
    If that describes you, you’ve come to the wrong place. I believe that good-faith dialogue has the power to bring us together over what we have in common. If all you want to do is shake your fist and shout slogans, there are plenty of other blogs out there that welcome that. Just not mine.
    And here’s where you find it:

30 thoughts on “Civility III: The New Blog Order

  1. SGM (ret.)

    Well, once an editor, always an editor I suppose. You had a good thing going, Brad, a media sponsored site that actually had free speech. But now it’s like all the rest. The only people in mass media that actually have complete freedom of speech are the publishers, and they all have their agendas and the editorial policies to pursue them. Looks like you’ve joined the club.
    Sigh… It was nice while it lasted, though. Take care and drop me a line at my e-mail cutout if you ever go back to the way it was.

  2. Ready to Hurl

    Brad admonishes against Insulting, demeaning personal remarks aimed at delegitimizing, discouraging or intimidating those with whom you disagree.
    Then Brad rants: You don’t have to worry about the standards if you have the guts to stand up and identify yourself. Just don’t be a wuss, and you can still be a jerk.
    This is too rich for words.

  3. Brad Warthen

    SGM, bud’s got it right. Stick around. It will still be good.
    As I said before, I can’t think of anything you’ve ever written that came close to crossing the line. So what’s the problem? I’m trying to create a space where you can express yourself and have intelligent conversations with other people without the exchange being hijacked by shouting matches about nothing.
    How can that be bad?

  4. Saluda Cuda

    From the lack of postings here, looks like the blog is in it’s last throes. Ah well another one bites the dust, good move Mr. Editor.

  5. SGM (ret.)

    Brad, I believe you’re a nice guy, and I also believe that your intentions here are good. Your goal is a laudable one. I just think that the way you’re going about it is wrong in a fundamental way.
    Maybe if your new policy was to delete posts by anyone that crossed the line, I would still be with you. But as I said in my post on the 18th, your new policy has created two classes of posters, those whose opinions and thoughts have full value and legitimacy because they’re “identified,” and those whose ideas are automatically denigrated and devalued.
    “Identified” posters have wasted no time in staking out the position that “anonymous” posters are now second class blog citizens whose speech is less valuable than their own. It took less than 48 hours for these open minded stalwarts to begin to “delegitimize,” by innuendo, the thoughts and ideas of anonymous posters.
    “I wonder if this anonymous poster cut and pasted [his entire post]…. [sic]”
    (Which LexWolf, the anonymous poster in question, obviously did not.)
    “I… believe that… dialogue is moot… the anonymous poster [is a] case in point.”
    Posted: Aug 22, 2006 4:09:46 AM
    “I’m sure you noticed the presuppositions in the anonymous poster’s script…. Anyone that doesn’t agree with their [all anonymous posters?] position ‘is [a stereotype]….’ No room for conversation there….”
    Posted: Aug 22, 2006 4:21:06 AM
    You asked above, “what’s the problem?”
    This is the problem and the real harm that the new policy has done to any debate here. You have established a policy that automatically elevates the value of the ideas of one group of people over that of another.
    From what I see, the new policy seems to have been somewhat self-defeating and instead of promoting more discussion (by liberating the intimidated and self-victimized?), it has (as Michigan Federal District judges are fond of saying) had a “chilling” effect on free speech, automatically denigrating the speech of some and driving others away (well at least me).
    I applaud your desire to create a space where people can have intelligent conversation (that’s what I thought you already had here), and if I hadn’t been enjoying myself as much as I have, I wouldn’t care where the blog is going. But furthur participation lends my tacit approval to something that I think is wrong on principle.
    But then what do I know? I’m just an anonymous poster. Well, my stop’s coming up. Let me tell you, the view from the back of the bus sucks. Unless things change around here, I’m walking in the future.
    Come on Brad, give it up! Set your people’s speech free, revoke the double standard and end the blog-apartheid. And if you do, rest assured, we anonymous posters will not be demanding any kind of Affirmative Action Program to make up for this week’s denigration. We’ll be happy to have our ideas stand on their own merits.

  6. Lee

    You are trying to reform someone whose whole life has been spent conforming to style sheets, templates, politically correct vocabularies, and censorship in order to move up the corporate ladder.
    Good intentions or not, he simply lacks the breadth of experience to know how to deal with straight writing.

  7. Herb Brasher

    SGM, I’m not going to try and defend Brad; he is perfectly capable of doing that himself, but I just have a genuine question for you. I do not understand how the following paragraph is supposed to help discussion here. Everyone who disagrees with Lex is said to be “screaming like a stuck pig” and “trying to ruin everybody else’s lives. What about people who are against the war in Iraq, but for some racial profiling? I don’t see how Lex’s statements that basically put everyone who disagrees with him in a corner are supposed to be helpful to dialogue here. In fact, they are pretty disrespectful.

    I guess the blog is now safe for “taxcutters” who never get around to cutting taxes. “Freedom-lovers” who only believe in freedom for themselves while doing their dangdest to run/ruin everybody else’s lives. “Educators” who have no idea how to educate but do know how to keep your kids on their plantation. War opponents who never seem to wonder where their freedom of speech is coming from and who will oppose war only as long as they are not affected directly. You know, the ones who indignantly refuse to allow profiling but if something happened these people would scream blue murder about “dots not being connected”. People trying to “advance” the conversation but only if it’s going their way. Some even profess to decry “government waste” even as they scream like stuck pigs when “their waste” is in danger of being cut.

    I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful myself by refering to his anonymity. I recognize that there may be good reasons for it. But statements like those above aren’t helpful to anyone.
    Or why would you let them stand?

  8. LexWolf

    Self-identified Herb Brasher*,
    where exactly do you have a problem with the paragraph above? Was it addressed to you? Did I even assert that I was talking about you or anyone else specifically? Seems to me that you yourself put on the shoe and found out that the shoe fit you perfectly. If so, wear it and stop telling other people that they can’t write about the shoe.
    What I don’t understand is why you and self-identified Randy Ewart* have this extreme compulsion to make everything an all-or-nothing issue. Why do you have such difficulty with the concept of making a generalized statement while still recognizing that there are exceptions to every rule? What happened to all that “nuance” you guys always claim for yourselves?
    Nowhere did I say that “Everyone” fits each and all of the points above. That’s your assumption only, and you know about ASSUME, don’t you? Read the paragraph again and you will even find that I specifically did not say “Everyone” when referring to stuck pigs: “Some even…. stuck pigs.” Clearly I wouldn’t have used “Some” if I meant “Everyone”, would I?
    In fact, this willful distortion and misquoting in which you and Randy frequently engage is to me the height of disrespect!! How does it “advance the conversation” when you continually make spurious and incorrect charges?
    * = we don’t know if these are their real names. They say they are but how do we know? Anyone can claim to be anyone else on the internet.

  9. Ready to Hurl

    OK, this is going to be painful.
    On one point I agree with Lexie.
    (I wonder if cats feel like I do now, after throwing up a hairball.)
    Brad has well expressed his contempt for those of us who retain our noms de plume. He ignores the fact that his job security, to note one concern for some people, is well protected because expressing opinions is his job.
    Many people made suggestions on how maintaining civility could be affected without onerous, arbitrary, heavy-handed, and time-consuming, interference by Der Decider, Brad. Other blogmeisters have recognized that blogs are communities and have put in place mechanisms for self-policing enforced by the community.
    Not Brad.
    Brad decides that re-inventing the wheel as a square is preferable.
    In deciding that identifying yourself by a “name,” Brad displays his ignorance of the medium. Years ago there was a New Yorker cartoon of a dog at a keyboard. The caption read: “On the Internet, no one knows that you’re a dog.”
    If “Mary Rosh” came back as “George Smith” and chose to select one of her Earthlink addresses as then Brad would be blissfully happy.
    Yet “George Smith” could be just as much of a nom de plume as “Mary Rosh.”
    Community self-policing isn’t perfect. There would be excesses and the level of “civility” might be more robust than a DAR tea party. In exchange, though, you get a free give-and-take.
    Anyway, I’m getting a great mental image of Brad as the “Church Lady” of SNL fame every time he zaps a post.

  10. LexWolf

    Heh. My daughter loves the old Dukes of Hazzard series and, to me, Brad is more like bumbling Sheriff Roscoe, always giddy at some “success” or another right before it blows up in his face.
    Brad is simply too stuck in the old media ways where any issue could be swept under the rug simply by ignoring it. He is so used to being a gatekeeper and dispensing his version of the “news” and the “issues” to the great unwashed “jerks” that he just can’t handle a vigorous debate (which inherently includes some incivilitizing – yeah, I know it’s not a word but I like the sound of it). That’s what this whole “civility” thing is really all about – reasserting his gatekeeper role, with a vengeance.
    As I mentioned before, the only people who have complained about being incivilitized are people on the Left (note to Herb and Randy: not all, just some!). People on the Right are used to being incivilitized all the time – after all, how many times can you be accused of being a racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe and all the rest without developing a thick skin? To us, it’s simply the way things are. We can either defend our point of view by producing facts or we can pout and whine about all the namecalling. Very few of us choose the latter option, even while this seems to be the preferred option for our opponents.
    Now to the “real name” trope again. Besides the fact that just because, for example, Randy says he’s Randy Ewart doesn’t mean it’s true (this is just an example, mind you – I’m not accusing Randy of lying!). A couple of weeks ago, he even posted a link to the school where he claims to teach and his email is hosted at that school. Yet this is far from any real evidence. Surely it wouldn’t be very difficult for Joe Blow at that same school to post with Randy’s name and email address. So then we’re at the point that either Brad simply trusts everyone who claims to be using a real name or he will need to start verifying – calling, emailing, whatever.
    Once Brad starts going down that verification road I wish him the best of luck – he’ll need it. I could easily come up with 100 different names and email addresses, all at different domains, in 100 minutes or less. That’s a lot of verifying!
    Of course, he could try to simply go by the IP address of the poster’s computer. Too bad that there are plenty of anonymizer services that let you hide your IP address, or simply randomly assign you a new one every day, hour or minute.
    So, RTH, here’s my hairball because you have this point exactly right: “In deciding that identifying yourself by a “name,” Brad displays his ignorance of the medium.”
    For a while after he started his blog, Brad proudly (and quite correctly) claimed to “not know what he’s doing”. Now apparently he’s decided that he does know, against all objective evidence that he still doesn’t know what he’s doing. Then again, what do we peons know compared to the great “editorial page editor”?

  11. Capital A

    Although I wish he’d have said it less directly offensively, Lex’s message, at its core, is right. What Mr. Warthen proposes is not achievable.
    I would suggest admitting ignorance, Mr. Warthen, so that we can get this whole mess behind us. Please don’t “pull a Clinton or Bush.”
    Accept responsibility for this (hardly major) mistake so that catharsis can come.

  12. Brad Warthen

    Naw, Cap A, I’m just going to send more troops in.
    Seriously, the handful of you who are having a major problem with this are ignoring a couple of things.
    First, I don’t have to know for sure whether a person is really who he or she claims to be, unless he or she uses it as license to break the rules that apply to the anonymous.
    The Mary Rosh/George Smith suggestion illustrates my point. If “George Smith” started calling everybody else a “worthless piece of garbage” and a “failure as a human being,” I really don’t think anyone would be fooled. However, if Mary used a fake name to make arguments that respect those with whom she is arguing, it wouldn’t matter that it was a fake name.
    That’s the beauty of this two-tiered system. At least, that’s what I hope.
    Finally, disabuse yourselves of the notion that I express opinions with impunity because it is my job. In a sense, it’s the other way around. I serve at the pleasure of the publisher. (Ironically, many of those who are most reticent to use their names are tenured educators or classified state employees — people who enjoy a protection I’ve never had and never will have.) Every few years, I get a new boss. I plan to stay in this job until retirement — which probably means surviving several more publishers. That’s not easy, because they’re all different.
    To some people, that suggests that I must be changing my mind about issues each time I get a new one. But I don’t — you can check. We are remarkably consistent. Sure, having a different voice on the editorial board — and that person being the boss — can cause us to be more interested in some issues than in others. Changing just one person on the board can make it harder to achieve consensus on some issues, and easier on others. You write more about the ones on which there is consensus. What we DON’T do is suddenly do a 180 on an important issue.
    Another way some might assume it works (and one hears this accusation frequently from people with extreme views) is that we just stay so vanilla and noncommital that it’s easy to skate from publisher to publisher. But no one who has seen the strong positions we’ve taken on the Confederate flag, the lottery, video poker, or school reform can accuse us of taking the easy course or dodging tough issues.
    The key is to learn how to develop relationships of mutual respect, so that you can remain true to your own deep convictions — even when they conflict with the other person’s — and still work together well.
    Anyone who knows how to do that will never have to hold back from expressing his or her positions on issues passionately and strongly — and will never have to worry about being “censored.” Just respect the other people on this blog. Then tell them whatever you want.

  13. Herb Brasher

    LexWolf sure wrote a long reply, seeing as how I didn’t ask him anything.
    I did, of course ask SGM his opinion of Brad’s new rules in the light of Lex’s quote.

  14. Lee

    It’s easy to distort, when you dihonestly cut and paste out of context for purposes of smearing someone to avoid facing the points they make in debate.

  15. LexWolf

    In fact, it’s the height of incivility to do that. It shows absolutely no respect for the opponents whose words are folded, spindled and mutilated. It shows even less respect for other readers whom Randy apparently considers so stupid that they won’t even notice his dishonest “quotes”.

  16. E. W. Dick

    When I first read your column about “Making the blogsphere safe for decent folk” (July 30) I thought “What a sensible idea” as I have found some blogs/forums, etc. so filled with comments that were rants by those who had nothing more to do than fill their messages with scurrilous remarks. It’s sad to see, from some of the recent posts, that there are many who do not like your suggestions, that they feel your “standards” restrict their freedom of speech. Perhaps they just don’t know how to write constructively about whatever it is that irritates them. I tried The State’s own Forum and gave up after finding the same ranters and ravers always there, seldom with any worthwhile commentary. Too bad some of them think your search for civility infringes upon their ability to write a decent blog. I, for one, will be on hand if this works out. I’m all for civility, in print, in person, whatever!

  17. Herb Brasher

    Don’t try to bait me into an argument, Lex. You are using juvenile playground tactics, so the word “bully” fits, as I wrote to Brad some time ago.
    I conceded nothing. I asked SGM a legitimate question, based on one of your own posts, in which you make no differentiation, but lump all those who disagree with you into categories.
    I didn’t ask you anything, and rest assured I will not reply to or comment on any of your posts any further. I intend to take Mike’s advice and not feed the trolls.
    I also agree that the subject of civility has been discussed long enough, and I’ll go on to other topics.

  18. Herb Brasher

    Oh, and E.W. Dick, thanks for your comments. I think you spoke for many of us. On my part, I hope that you stick around and comment, as the only way I think we can overcome the “ranting” is to overwhelm it with proper, respectful discussion.

  19. LexWolf

    Self-identified Herb Brasher,
    it’s easy to dismiss out of hand. It’s much harder to come up with a cogent response, as you have proven.

  20. Herb Brasher

    I think I owe you an apology, Lex. Re-reading my last comment, it comes across as being condescending, which I do not want to be in corresponding with anybody, even when I don’t want to agree with what that person writes.
    At the same time, I probably also should have taken your comment at face value; if you did not mean to lump everyone together, then I should take it as you mean it, even though to me it reads differently.
    I recall an earlier post in which I wrote about attitude, which probably came across as condescending, an attitude which, again, I did not want to convey. I apologize for that, too.

  21. Capital A

    I apologize for that, too.
    Posted by: Herb Brasher | Aug 25, 2006 4:55:25 AM
    Herb, you’re a good man. I’ve come to admire you over these last months, even if I only “know” what you post here.
    You’d even apologize to wolves when they have the worst intentions where you’re concerned. God bless you, little lamb.

  22. LexWolf

    Self-identified Herb Brasher,
    water under the bridge, don’t worry about it. I didn’t even notice it.
    However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I didn’t say a word about it while you would be screaming that I had incivilitized you, if I had posted the same comment you did. Tolerance, you know, work on it!

  23. Herb

    Be it little lamb, or whatever it is, one thing I started learning a long time ago, and am still learning, is that I don’t need to use the tactics of other people.
    I don’t need to necessarily win an argument, as long as I present the truth as I understand it. Besides, as St. Paul said long ago, nobody really knows all the facts about anything (no time, so no link, but it is in 1 Corinthians 8, you can look it up if you want). Knowledge puffs up; respect builds up. I prefer the latter, at least I want to prefer the latter. Sometimes my anger takes too much control.
    Respect for other human beings is the first principle of proper discourse, and it doesn’t really matter whether it is reciprocated, or not.

  24. Herb

    Oh well, of course it matters. But it isn’t essential. I have to learn, even if the other person chooses not to.


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