Civil Civic Dialog: The Impossible Dream?

Dueling MonologuesIn a recent comment on the “Mayor Intends to Serve Out Term” post, Julie Bixby said, “I have spoken with several people who read locally grown and would love to comment but are afraid of the consequences. . ..” Private comments from other people (offline) have expressed similar sentiments.

We’re not alone in this dilemma. In a recent online editorial, “Civil Discourse, Meet the Internet“, the New York Times said,

How does the august Times, which has long stood for dignified authority, come to terms with the fractious, democratic culture of the Internet, where readers expect to participate but sometimes do so in coarse, bullying and misinformed ways?

I couldn’t have phrased the question better myself. This is something the triumvirate has batted around extensively, with one advocating totally free, unmoderated speech; one advocating stronger moderation for “tone”; and one advocating extensive IQ and EQ tests before approving user IDs for participation. (BONUS POINTS: Guess which opinion belongs to which member of the triumvirate.)

Well, we’re not in a position to do what the NY Times did, but they started addressing the issue by hiring four staff people to screen comments.

“I didn’t know how big it would become, and I didn’t know how tough it would be to manage,” said Jim Roberts, editor of the Web site. A particularly hot topic on a blog can generate more than 500 comments. . .

So, get this – our volume of comments on Locally Grown can easily get to 30%-50% of the volume experience by THE NEW YORK TIMES. I’m loving that. But we don’t have four staff people to deal with it, either.

This is a complex issue, with many ramifications. We’re trying to build a virtual space which allows people the freedom to express their opinions to their neighbors. . . in a thoughtful, respectful manner. In my opinion, that’s not what we’re getting (although the recent discussion on Sex With Seven Women comes close to what I personally consider to be the ideal balance: direct and honest exchange of ideas and opinions while maintaining a [mostly] civil tone). But everyone draws the line of what’s acceptable in a different place.

So, what are some potential solutions, or strategies to elevate the dialog? A plea for more self-policing of adherence to our guidelines? Siccing the greater LG community on code violaters, i.e. requesting that participants cry “foul” when they think a commenter has crossed the line? Do more heavy-handed moderating? It must be said that several members of the LG community are much more frustrated by comments they perceive as ignorant or uninformed than those they think are “mean”. But we also know that many participants (and lurkers) are unhappy with the overall level of discourse and the ad hominen remarks which occur with distressing frequency.

What to do? (I’m especially interested in hearing from the lurkers.)


  1. Anne Bretts said:

    Paul, I feel you’re talking about a specific situation, so I don’t have enough information to respond. I was just giving an example of ways of wording a statement, nothing more.
    I suppose if you hate the pastor and have been fighting with him, or if you want the pastor fired so your friend can be appointed to the pastor’s job, I guess you could feel you were being fair when you aren’t even close. I guess if you love the pastor you could deny reality, as has happened in many churches where people refuse to believe allegations of child molestation.
    (These are not hidden references to any local situation, just an example of the way our positions color our perceptions.)
    I think, as I mentioned earlier, the Rotary test for fairness in repeating a statement, as well the golden rule of doing unto others (or speaking about others) as you would have them treat you is a good one.

    January 16, 2008
  2. Paul Fried said:

    Anne: I was thinking of a variety of possibilities, in part in response to your line, “accusations made without evidence.” Your distinctions between opinion and accusation are helpful, as are your scenarios with the pastor and congregation.

    Regarding the Golden Rule, if you were President and had lied about WMD, cherry picked intel, or used a known forgery to get the country into a war, how would you like to be treated? Well, you wouldn’t like to be found out about it in the first place, that’s for sure, or impeached over it. If one had that kind of character in the first place, most would still want the pension, speaking tour and Presidential librarary, wouldn’t we?

    …or does that misapply the rule?

    (There’s an accusation in there, I’m sure, but not without evidence others have uncovered….)

    January 17, 2008
  3. Anne Bretts said:

    Paul, those are really interesting points, and well beyond my oriiginal point about being careful in writing that we don’t confuse giving our opinion with a license to slander people.
    To the bigger point, if you lied and put others in danger, then you have demonstrated in your actions how you treat others — and therefore you have demonstrated how you should expect to be treated.
    Basically, if you hurt others, you have no basis for asking them to treat you well. I think that’s where the eye for an eye philosophy kicks in — you do evil, so you expect evil in return.
    There is a difference between consequences and revenge. Now I’m no religious philosopher here, so I’m just winging it, but it seems to me we have laws and rules so that people who are reasonably objective can establish and enforce consequences that are appropriate without creating mafia-like vendettas. We can’t allow the families of victims of a serial killer to torture him, for example, although some early cultures found that an effective way o keeping control.
    I guess it’s the difference between the Italians butchering Mussolini in the streets and the Allies trying the worst Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. I think this is the basis of the torture debate, that we can’t allow our people to use any method of torture that we wouldn’t want used on our troops.
    Back to the original discussion.
    This is quite a stretch from my original point, and I’m sure my logic isn’t perfect here. But it’s an interesting topic.

    January 18, 2008

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