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. Griff Wigley said:

    Tracy, you ignorant slut. Thanks for initiating the discussion. 😉

    As the chief architect of our Discussion Guidelines and the one charged with the day-to-day task of enforcing them, I have a lot to say on this issue. But I think it would help to have some examples of comments that DID get posted here in recent months that you and others see as problematic.

    So that we don’t throw stones at those who made the comments, I’d like to first get their permission to discuss their comments here. This would require that people email me/contact us with the blog post comment # that you found to be problematic/offensive. I’d then contact the author of that comment to see if they’d be willing to let us discuss it here.

    January 8, 2008
  2. Tracy Davis said:

    Griff, that’s a nice idea but it’s too much monkeying around. Can’t we just have another free-for-all? (Why stop now?)

    However, people who are very specific about their objections to particular comments have more of a chance of persuading us to implement policy changes. Can I have it both ways? Let us know your thoughts here in general terms, but if you want to get specific, use the comment form.

    January 8, 2008
  3. BruceWMorlan said:

    Well, I for one have offered (to Griff at least, perhaps Tracy) a vision of a new way of conducting these sorts of dialogs, but without a programming team I am only able to be yet another dreamer. So I will continue playing by LocallyGrown’s rules and hope for the best (which so far has been pretty darn good). We (Griff, Tracy, I and the NCO team) struggled with this issue many a time at NCO, and as Griff has learned, and has pointed out, it is not easy to run a full-bore, “open source (TM)” conversation.

    One of the most important things that helps keep this conversation civil (99.94% of the time) appears to be the denying of anonymity. The cost of that model is that you get lurkers and the timid complaining off-line of being afraid to post. Griff has repeatedly offered to “mask” such posts and has in fact done so, posting content under his name that is clearly identified as “from an anonymous source”. But we (as a social network) should be very aware of the amount of time and effort this takes. Expanding the team that can vet and approve posts requires training, trust and time. There ain’t no such thing as a free social network.

    January 8, 2008
  4. Rob Hardy said:

    Last summer, I took part in a long LG discussion thread about the route of the Mill Towns Trail, with some heated exchanges between two of the other participants. I think it helped that we all knew and respected each other in real life. It always helps that I know and think highly (heaven knows why) of Brendon, otherwise I might often think he is just a lunatic. An online community is great, but it’s no substitute for forming a real community, where people have an opportunity to get to know and understand each other’s quirks and eccentricities, as well as their strengths. People can come off as harsh or shrill when responding to something off the cuff to something that pushes their buttons. People can push that SAY IT! button, and immediately regret it, or even (as has happened to me, in my thoughts about our Mayor) think something completely opposite a few minutes later, after talking it over with someone face to face. So, why not arrange some regular LG Happy Hour where people can find out things they might not otherwise, like that Brendon can be normal and that I am, despite my elegant prose, extremely shy and awkward. Of course, there’s always a risk that at such an event I might get drunk and tell Tracy how adorable she is. Or worse, Griff.

    January 8, 2008
  5. Patrick Enders said:

    It’s not a cure-all, but I would suggest an “edit” button for correcting one’s own recent posts. Some words sound great to the author whilst composing, but may seem inflammatory when read by others in a different voice.

    Could such a thing be easily implemented with your current software? I guess it would require registration, or at least a password – which unfortunately wouldn’t be ideal for encouraging new posters. Maybe it could be an option available to regulars who want to register?

    January 8, 2008
  6. John S. Thomas said:

    I would not change a thing, other than an edit button.

    January 8, 2008
  7. Rob Hardy said:

    Yes, an edit button, please, to correct stupid dittographies like “responding to something off the cuff to something” (above, comment #4).

    January 8, 2008
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    Patrick/Rob, John:

    Sean has been working on a ‘preview’ button since several people raised the issue a while ago. Thus far, he’s stuck.

    An ‘edit’ feature is generally not a good idea because comments have their own RSS feed (and thus comments get published to it immediately) and people comment back quickly. It’s too tempting to ‘rewrite history’ which causes a whole new host of problems.

    Some web forum software does allow edits but then alerts the reader with a phrase like “This comment has been changed since the original.”

    January 8, 2008
  9. victor summa said:

    Excepting Tracy’s remark that she couldn’t have said it better — referring to the New York Times, well… WOW, aren’t we lofty?. HAPPIFACE!!!

    ennyway… this here thread, starting with Tracy’s really well written words (her best) is truly a lot of good concise open honest and sometimes amusing dialogue.

    So, a few thoughts to lower the caliber of prose to where it usually is:

    Frankly, I think the idea of naming names of offenders and citing their (my?) offensive phrases is not all that bad.

    Maybe… we’ll learn that it is not that important … or, that it wasn’t “that” offensive … or that Wow, I really crossed the line and everyone hates me!

    I’m not eager to lessen the volume of the impact for the sake of saving a few “frail feelings”.

    Face it… this is, the ribald in your face 21st Century. Why should we lessen or attempt to write in same voice that Shakespeare or Etter have?

    IDEA: Having no idea how Sean or Griff might employ this… I’d advocate for the insertion of ICONS (i.e. smily faces, etc.) following the phrase that offends, or incites or intimidates. In an earlier F2F conversation we discussed what these might be.

    One Might be a FLAMING RED FIERY icon indicating an inflammatory remark.

    Another, a SMALL PILE OF DOG SHIT! What’s that mean?

    A third could be a fist with the middle finger pointing up!

    And one more might be a pile of bovine poop (not sure how that Icon would look different than that of dog poop – but…) Obviously, that would indicate, vast overstatement!

    And for the sake of propriety, I guess we should have some HEARTS and FLOWERS too. A wee bouquet.

    Now, how we accomplish this is akin to the problem of the “review ” board and, who that might be, as Tracy pointed out about the NYT.

    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.

    Solution? The KEY! Yes… let those denizens of youthful banter be the reviewers of record. Sort of a bizarre version of: “out of the mouths of babes… etc.”

    The important thing is to keep the honest open abusive flow, flowing.

    PS: As to flow … Kiffi’s has had it (I’ve been told) Been unjustly censored by you once too often, Griff. [insert fist!} She signed off in her last post but obviously Griff censored it.

    That is Northfield’s loss.

    Also by the way … last night at the Council meeting during citizen comment on Nelson’s motion to rescind the Saturday “Take away his Keys” resolution… Felicity Enders ( been critical of the Mayor and still is I’m sure) nonetheless, made an incredibly elegant statement rebuking the council for their conduct. Griff should pull that out and play it as a Pod Cast – thirty seconds but really well put, IMHO.

    PS: I’m gone too – won’t desert the mother of my children.

    Your loss… ‘Cause I know the real story of the traffic ticket.


    January 8, 2008
  10. Rob Hardy said:

    This is the kind of edit message you get on LibraryThing:

    Message edited by its author, May 24, 2007, 1:40pm.

    I really appreciate the feature for fixing typos! A preview feature would also, I think, give you a second chance to read over what you’ve written before you commit to it.

    January 8, 2008
  11. Charlene Coulombe- Fiore said:

    I would also like to see “an expiration” date…or perhaps the option of erasing old (blogs) comments or concerns.

    I mention this because today, I had a call from someone who was “hoping” to relocate to Northfield with the companies current purchase of the College City Beverage building.

    He told me he was sent a “link” to the blog concerning doing business in Northfield. He actually said “he was scared” and wondered if “his boss” had seen the blogs or get out of the deal????

    I found this to be exceptionally disturbing and I just wonder how can we address this?

    I know that Chris and I both addressed this to the (blog) team,
    wanting and hoping some of the comments would not affect the sale and this wonderful deal and project for Northfield. Now that the real estate portion is closed….how do we take it to the next level?

    Has this blog served it’s purpose?

    Just a few thoughts and something I wanted to share.

    January 8, 2008
  12. Felicity Enders said:

    Victor, stop it, I’m blushing!

    In all honesty, I do think things have gotten out of hand. If I hadn’t already gotten addicted to this site, I certainly wouldn’t start posting now. And I do understand Kiffi’s need to back away from the fire for a while.

    So how can we make this more friendly? My suggestions:

    A preview button. I think this is a good midway option – though I do think an edit function that perhaps showed the edits would be preferable. (For instance, right now I’m not sure my bullets will work properly…)
    Meet in person! Victor, Patrick, and I touched on a mini version of this last night at the council meeting. It’s much harder to thoughtlessly hit that “say it” button if you know the face behind the name. I know that wouldn’t solve all problems, but I would hope it would raise the level of civility.
    On many websites there’s a button to “flag this post” for inappropriate content. I would strongly suggest not deleting these posts, but instead putting a note on them saying “this post has been flagged for inappropriate content” if either ten ordinary people hit the button or the triumvirate decide it truly is inappropriate.

    January 8, 2008
  13. Felicity Enders said:

    Now that I see Charlene’s blog, I’d like to add that I think the issue she raises is incredibly important. I don’t know how to resolve it, but I think a more harmonious debate would make it much less of a concern.

    January 8, 2008
  14. Lisa Guidry said:


    I have lost clients because of all the drama going on in Northfield. You would also have to get the tv media, star tribune, & all the other media sources to stop reporting on Northfield. I also know of citizens that intend on moving out of Northfield because it’s affecting their professional careers.

    My office is in Lakeville, and my co-workers rip on me all the time. Not funny at all.

    January 8, 2008
  15. Larry DeBoer said:

    To enlighten the readers of the locally grown blog (blab?) site, how about adding another statistic to the monthly list of commenters – add a number after each name to attribute the number of words or characters to each name? Then we could better analyze not only who is commenting, but who is monopolizing the conversations. It might be helpful to the out of town potential businesses who are worried about the attitudes in Northfield but it would also be helpful to the “silent” majority of Northfield who will never put their name on a comment in this web site.

    January 8, 2008
  16. Patrick Enders said:

    I’d be cautious about ‘retiring’ old threads. Just yesterday, a bit of googling led me to an informative old discussion of development plans, and about how the whole Target thing went down. Many very thoughtful people have brought their ideas and expertise to these pages, and information like that can be quite valuable when rediscovered long after the fact.

    January 8, 2008
  17. Patrick Enders said:

    Well, that last post is a good argument for a preview/edit option. Those were my words, not Felicity’s.

    January 8, 2008
  18. Anne Bretts said:

    I agree that a preview option is good. I use it on Salon and it really helps a writer see (literally) how published comments will look to others. Just that quick step helps me tighten my posts and soften the sharp edges.
    An edit option might be good as well.
    I’m thrilled that more participants have joined the discussion; it really broadens the scope and limits the boring repetition some of us fell into just to get the last word.

    January 8, 2008
  19. John George said:

    I think it is only wise to self-edit one’s response before hitting the “say it” button. I know I have ditched whole thoughts after I sat back and looked at it. Too bad I don’t have that same chance in F2F conversations. Being the hip-shooter that I am, I have many times said something reactionary before I thought through what effect it might have on the person hearing it. Of course, in this fast paced society I live in, the whole direction of the conversation can sometimes change before I get my response analyzed. That is one thing I appreciate about this format.

    I have the good fortune to live with the most diplomatic but direct communicator I have ever run across. Many times, she has saved me from my own foolishness. I know there is a way to be honest and concise without being offensive. I always appreciate anyone asking me to clarify something. What may seem perfectly clear to me is not necessarily clear to others.

    The thing I struggle with the most is having to run back and forth between what I am posting and the post I am responding to. Because of my work schedule, it is sometimes a day or two before I get a chance to respond. I know I have lost whole thoughts before, but I attribute this to operator problems, and I have no idea how to resolve that.

    January 8, 2008
  20. Griff Wigley said:

    Patrick, I’ve edited your post #16 to show that it was yours, not Felicity’s.

    Larry, we had numbers of posts listed with the commenters list (lower right sidebar) for two months and just removed them due to complaints.

    Charlene, blog posts and their attached comment threads are rarely removed, as they can be linked from all over the web and are valuable as archives. The best way for anyone to deal with any given blog or individual blog post is to either participate in the discussion or to have one’s own blog that presents a different perspective. The latter is how I make a living, ie, helping organizations and leaders learn the art of leadership blogging.

    January 8, 2008
  21. Griff Wigley said:

    In today’s edition, Nfld News Publisher Sam Gett has a column titled Speaking out has never been so easy. He includes a paragraph about online participation in which he says that they allow anonymous comments:

    While you’re online, browse around our Web site and provide instant feedback with our story comment tool. You’ll need to register first, which is fast and easy. Comments are not edited and automatically post online, although we will remove those that are in poor taste. Like many media companies, we manage our Web site operation differently than our traditional print edition. For example, readers can post anonymous comments online – they can’t in print. This is done for practical purposes, since we don’t verify authorship online. And, frankly, the Internet is overflowing with anonymous postings.

    January 9, 2008
  22. Griff Wigley said:

    Rob, I like your idea of a ‘regular LG Happy Hour’ where people can meet F2F to socialize and discuss issues. What about the Contented Cow’s weekly Politics and a Pint series on Sunday nights at 6 pm? It’s informal, plus there’s a topic and a presenter.

    January 9, 2008
  23. Tracy Davis said:

    As other commenters have pointed out, one of the downsides of this medium is that we’re all just a bunch of disembodied virtual voices. If this technology is to be used to enhance local community, it has to be in addition to personal, face-to-face interaction; not instead of

    I also like the idea of a particular weekly time/place set aside for the Locally Grown community to meet in a congenial environment. I’m not sure I’d want it to be accompanied by more topical heaviness e.g. Policy&Pint. (I have enough in my life that requires me to be dead earnest, and it’s HARD.) But I’m two thumbs up for a REGULAR opportunity for a LG come-as-you-are gathering.

    January 9, 2008
  24. Tracy Davis said:

    P.S. Victor – I write better than the NYTimes a lot. Just not here. 🙂

    January 9, 2008
  25. Anne Bretts said:

    Great idea, Tracy,
    Maybe it could be a traveling event, featuring all the great gathering spots in town!

    January 9, 2008
  26. William Siemers said:

    Tracy…As you said, ‘…everyone draws the line in a different place.’ Not only that, everyone draws the line in a different place when they are in a different place. What is ‘coarse and bullying’ in one context, may be acceptable, if not encouraged, in another. We act differently in a bar room argument than we would in a disagreement over the flower arrangements at alter guild.
    That of course is obvious…what is not… is the context here, particularly to new participants.
    But I think I get it now…it’s summed up in that slogan often seen posted by government workers all over the country…”Be Nice or Leave”…which I understand might soon take the place of “L’Etoile du Nord” on the Minnesota state seal.

    Victor…You sure do a great job of skirting the ‘no sarcasm’ guidelines. Please don’t go away. We will all miss you and Kiffi if you stop posting. (Insert little heart here).

    Charlene…Blogs have opinions, just opinions. I suspect his ‘boss’ would be talking to people who actually do business in Northfield, rather than relying on a blog post, in order to make his decision about the business climate here.

    January 9, 2008
  27. Griff Wigley said:

    William, thanks for that. “Be nice or leave.” I’ve not seen locally, tho. Is it posted somewhere at Northfield City Hall?

    Also, you recently wrote this in another discussion thread #173 and I thought I’d copy/paste it here as I think it’s worth repeating:

    Julie…Tracy’s comments notwithstanding, I think this is a very civil venue. Seems to me that folks measure their words down to the millimeter. Great caution is taken to insure that opposing viewpoints are respected. The ‘good intentions’ and ‘common cause’ of all sides are duly noted. And even with that, if someone still comes away offended, he or she will likely receive an apology. These range from, ’sorry if I disagreed with your argument, but…’ to ’sorry if I hurt your feelings, but…’. Whether or not that apology is sincere is another matter, but what the heck, it seems to make everybody feel better. You would be hard-pressed to find political internet forum that was more civil than this one. If you don’t agree…well…I’m sorry.

    January 9, 2008
  28. Griff Wigley said:

    Patrick Enders confirmed via email that he’s willing to have me criticize one of his recent comments.

    Thanks, Patrick. You wrote in your comment #72:

    Kiffi, I’m not a legal expert. When I have had a chance to read the charter and the city code in full, and when I have also had a chance to complete a law degree to fully understand the legal meaning of the words of the charter and the code, I might have something to say regarding the validity (or lack thereof) of your interpretation of the finer details of that code. In the meantime, perhaps it would be quicker for you to file a lawsuit regarding this alleged violation of the code, and have this matter settled in a court of law?

    I normally would have intervened on this but I was swamped with Xmas-related stuff and I didn’t catch it.

    It’s sarcasm, pure and simple. And in a conversation, people feel insulted when sarcasm is directed their way and when people feel insulted, two things often occur. 1) they respond in an insulting manner back; and 2) others who are reading get intimidated and don’t risk joining the conversation.

    It’s hard, in the middle of an online conversation where the issue is vitally important, to remember that bringing one’s ‘spirit of inquiry’ is vital to the overall culture of civic conversation that makes this place ‘work’ for a large number of citizens… and fun for us, the triumvirate.

    So Patrick, consider yourself whacked upside the head. 😉  I’m interested in your response, as well as the response from others (please wait for Patrick’s reply, tho!)

    January 9, 2008
  29. When someone disagrees with me, I am much more apt to take offense, find flaw, nitpick wording, overreach in interpreting. When someone agrees with me, well, what beautiful words…

    I don’t think there is any reasonable way to modify this nearly-universal human perception, either on-line or off-.

    I see it played out here all the time. Often, “taking offense” is a tactic used to try to disarm your opponent when you can’t pose an effective disagreement on merit.

    That’s very common in this forum as well.

    This being said, discussion here is so much more civil than just about any other online site, and I think this is a lot of hand-wringing over very little.

    Yes, things can always improve, but, in the name of improvement, many things get broken.

    January 9, 2008
  30. Lisa Guidry said:

    I actually agree with Brendon, it’s a miracle! I must say Brendon you have improved. 🙂

    January 9, 2008
  31. Well, I do my best. We probably agree on a great number of things… like I’m sure we both hate the Loch Ness Monster… that jerk. It never returns my calls.

    January 9, 2008
  32. Bruce Morlan said:

    [nonsequiter] Gee Brendon, when I talked to Nessie last night she said you loved her and left her. Something about unrequited love and some plays you were writing. I consoled her and she promised to return your next call.[/nonsequiter].

    January 9, 2008
  33. Patrick Enders said:

    Thanks, Griff. Yes, I have agreed to put that post up for a public flogging. I consider that an excellent example of the need for an ‘edit’ feature. I was having a bad day, and the previous posts had really pushed my buttons. I did have a point buried deep in there, but what came out was a snide, inappropriate post that I regretted seconds after I hit “say it.” I was mean and snippy, and not at all civil, and for that I was and am very sorry.

    One point of disagreement with your critique, however: I am fairly certain that I was not being sarcastic.

    January 10, 2008
  34. William Siemers said:

    Sarcasm is designed to humiliate, wound…I don’t know if that can be said about Patrick’s post.

    January 10, 2008
  35. Patrick Enders said:

    There are several definitions of “sarcasm” on Most of them include a component of “irony” or (and I certainly lacked this:) “wit.” The ones that include either of those words as merely a possible component of “sarcasm” seem to fall short of the mark for me, because those definintions would seem to encompass mean taunts like “Your feet are big!” within their definition of sarcasm.

    Again, this is a point of semantics, because my post was definitely mean and rude.

    I offer the following, more civil version of what I should have said: (with the disclaimer that I haven’t gone back and reread the post I was responding to in composing this. It was long and involved, and I have to get off to work.)

    You’ve made a very serious allegation: that by passing resolutions without the mayor’s signature, the Council has illegally usurped the mayor’s veto power over any resolutions of the Council. Your argument for a mayoral veto is dependent upon a very careful reading of several legal documents (the charter, the code, and Minnesota law), and is particularly dependent upon the legal meaning of the word “shall.”

    My uninformed, gut feeling is that “shall” is typically used as an imperative, such as: “Congress shall meet on the first day of…”, or “Upon receipt of this document, the recipient shall be considered notified of…” (not real quotes, but just my imperfect recollection of how I have seen the word used in the past).

    If your interpretation of the law is correct, then the Northfield City Council has committed a significant violation of the law, and a significant overreach of its authority. Apparently, the Council does not concur with your interpretation of the law, and they are likely to continue to act as they have been doing so far. If you truly believe that your interpretation of the law is correct, then I believe that your best recourse is to present your interpretation of the law to the Council themselves; if they disagree, then the only recourse likely to settle this matter once and for all is to take legal action.

    I think that one would pass muster as civil and appropriate, and I think it says what I actually meant with the first, nasty post. For my own education, would others agree?

    January 10, 2008
  36. kiffi summa said:

    The “Ghost” of Locally Grown, thread “Mayor intends …….etc”, speaks:

    Patrick: From my point of view, there is entirely too much being made of this post of yours(#72). If you look back at my response, (#78, maybe) you’ll see that I did NOT take offense, but made my argument back to you, and explained the C. Jon Denison newspaper article reference; I did not “escalate”, and you did not “escalate”.
    We were two adults, having a disagreement about our respective points of view: that’s all.
    From our successive posts, I think it was clear neither one of US held any ill will against the other, so I wish it was not being used as an example. It is an example only of two people disagreeing and being willing to discuss it with each other, make their argument, and present it to the “public”. Isn’t that what this site is all about?

    Shakespeare has an appropriate play title…………..

    January 10, 2008
  37. Patrick Enders said:

    I’m glad to see you return to the site. Your voice, as well as Victor’s, is important to the discussions that take place here. Although I did not take the opportunity to talk with you at the Council meeting Monday, I was very glad to have the opportunity to talk pleasantly, albeit briefly, with Victor that night. (I’d hoped to talk after the Council meeting, but 11:15 was already about three hours past the Enders household bedtime, and we really needed to get home quickly.)

    Nonetheless, I do think that my post should be held up as an example of a bad post. It’s not the only one that has ever graced these pages, but since it is mine, I have offered it up as a point of discussion

    I do apologize to you for my remark. Our disagreement on this matter is a real one, but it should never be personal or stated rudely. And I was certainly rude in that instance.

    January 10, 2008
  38. Tracy Davis said:

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is whether this medium can work for all personality types.

    Personally, I find it helpful to argue; arguing allows me to identify fallacies or inconsistencies in my own thinking, and helps to point out apects of an issue that I might need to reconsider. However, for many people, the emotional component of arguing negatively outweighs any possible cognitive benefit. Some people learn by arguing; others are simply distressed by it, get emotionally “flooded”, and shut down; even when the arguments are civil. This has nothing to do with intelligence; it has to do with temperament.

    Of course, even for those personalities for whom arguing can be constructive, this only works up to a point, and presumes reasonably well-crafted arguments, not the kind that go:

    “Yes he did!”
    “No he didn’t!”
    “Did so!”
    “Did not!”

    etc etc ad nauseam.

    On the other hand, in many cases people aren’t argued into their beliefs, and they’re not likely to be argued out of them, and….. can’t we all just get along?

    Part of what I was getting to in my original post, which I didn’t articulate, is the question: For those of you for whom arguing is not a sport, and does not feel constructive to engage in – what sort of format would make it feel safe for you to express your views and opinions without worrying about the fallout? Is it even possible in this medium?

    And please, for you arguing types, saying “Just get a thicker skin” doesn’t help. It’s not about being thin-skinned; it’s about having a temperament that processes things through a filter in which the big contentious chunks tend to get stuck and cause distress, regardless of their logical or intellectual merits.

    January 10, 2008
  39. Felicity Enders said:

    Tracy, I found your comment about personality types very interesting. I suspect that’s part of the difference between those who post and those who read. I think it also may play into both the tendency to write more quickly (ie do first and think later and perhaps wonder where the edit button is) and read messages as more or less personal/challenging.

    I’m thinking back to what I know of the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI). I know it has problems, but I’ve found it very illuminating in groups before. I don’t have any insights into the difference between posting and reading, but….

    MBTI quick description:
    People are categorized along four scales, for which the extremes are below. Not everyone has a preference in every category.

    1. Introvert vs. Extrovert (I vs. E). This is not with respect to how much one talks, but rather an indication of where one gets re-energized. When exhausted, do you hole up at home or go out with friends?

    2. iNtuitive vs. Sensing (N vs. S). This has to do with how one gathers information. Intuitives are those who jump to the whole picture, while sensing people are those who take in pieces of information from the senses.

    3. Thinking vs. Feeling (T vs. F). How does one assemble information? Does one think through things to achieve a logical answer or follow one’s feelings to what feels right?

    4. Perceiving vs. Judging (P vs. J). How does one act? I’ve always found this one the hardest to understand, so I’ve copied this from “Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)?” (see their site for more details)

    Ok, so here’s my point. Suppose a strong Thinker talks to a strong Feeler and says what they think (in a way that another Thinker would understand). Even in person, that interaction can be fraught with drama, but the issue can be augmented online. That’s especially true if the two do not know one another. The T is likely to believe that the message s/he wrote was perfectly logical, while the F may react to a nuance that the T didn’t even notice. As a strong F myself (and not just in my name), I’ve come to learn that there are some people who I have problems interacting with. With F2F communication, it’s easy for me to see when we’re not connecting, but online I can’t tell that as easily.

    I also wonder whether a strong P may be more likely to write very quickly and then realize after the fact that the post may come with unintended consequences. And I suspect that a strong J might be more likely to read such a post with critical eyes.

    I’ve seen businesses/schools do personality typing for teams, so that the teams learn about their differences. That’s not just important when things aren’t going well. It’s also important because really successful teams need representation from numerous personality combinations who bring different skills.

    And I’ve written this pretty quickly but have to go to bed, so I hope it makes sense.

    January 10, 2008
  40. John George said:

    Tracy & Felicity- Absolutely EXCELLENT posts on your part. I have been thinking about this same thing today, but have been too busy here at work to add anything. The whole issue of understanding personality types separates the “right” vs. “wrong” standard and should allow open communication. Karen and I came across this teaching early on in our marriage, and it has helped us through many struggles in our own relationship and relationships with our children. I and Karen are secure in our esteem of one another, so we can disagree on things and still come to an understanding. It is a lifelong endeavor. I think this same dynamic can be used in any interpersonal relationship or communication. Thanks for stating these ideas so clearly.

    January 10, 2008
  41. Griff Wigley said:

    Patrick, thanks for being a good sport… and for your apology.

    The definition of sarcasm that I tend to operate by: “a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark.” So when you wrote to Kiffi:

    In the meantime, perhaps it would be quicker for you to file a lawsuit regarding this alleged violation of the code, and have this matter settled in a court of law?

    it’s easy to see how someone could take it to mean “If you’re so damn smart, why don’t you sue ’em?” or some such… and then the whole exchange could degenerate from there, or just intimidate others e from chiming in.


    January 11, 2008
  42. Patrick Enders said:

    What I said was sharply written, rude and inappropriate. Perhaps we can agree to differ slightly on our preferred definition of sarcasm (unless you think that’s an important point to discuss), and agree that I was uncivil and rude.

    Otherwise, I think I’m feeling adequately flogged now. Do we have any other examples (or categories) of uncivil dialogue that we might discuss? 🙂

    January 11, 2008
  43. Patrick Enders said:

    I hope everyone might indulge me for a minute, but after a bit of thought, I decided that the definition of sarcasm might be worth discussing. I bring this up because I think sarcasm (as I understand it) causes more problems on discussion boards than rudeness or meanness does.

    Please bear with me if this kind of thing is of any interest to you, but do skip on ahead to the next message if you’re already rolling your eyes.

    First, I’ll offer a couple definitions of sarcasm:

    sar•casm –noun (, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary)
    1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.
    2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark: a review full of sarcasms.

    sar•casm – n. (American Heritage Dictionary, reprinted at
    1. A cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound.
    2. A form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule.
    3. The use of sarcasm. See Synonyms at wit.

    I propose that irony is the key component of sarcasm that causes particular problems on message boards. But since Alanis Morrissette has forever muddied the definition of “ironic,” I’ll again offer a definition:

    i•ro•ny –noun, plural -nies. (
    1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.
    2. Literature.
    a. a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.
    b. (esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.

    Irony (and, by extension, sarcasm) is relatively easy to pick up in face-to-face conversation. It’s communicated through our intonation, our faces, and our posture. It can also be brilliantly put to use in long-form literature, where the context of the whole makes the meaning of the ironic phrase apparent.

    In the short written form used in message board conversations, we lack the nonverbal cues of conversation, as well as the broader context of literary works, by which to recognize the contrary intent that is implicit in an ironic remark. When that ironic comment is also mean, cutting, and/or bitter (and therefore sarcastic), it commits the double sin of both causing hurt, as well as sowing confusion which further disrupts the ongoing conversation.


    To summarize my point:
    Mean is bad.
    Irony is confusing.
    Sarcasm is both ironic and mean, therefore,
    Sarcasm is bad and confusing, which is worse than being just bad.

    Is anyone still there?
    (The author strains to listen, hears only the sounds of crickets chirping, and quietly exits stage left).

    January 11, 2008
  44. Paul Fried said:

    I think the three of you do a great job, and a great service to the community, by offering a forum, and usually by being quite tolerant of those who disagree with you. I have been guilty of at least mild sarcasm at times on other threads, as well as what could only be described as rant. But when I was expressing disagreement or frustration with the triumvirate, you let my comments stand. I think this is a sign, not only of civility on your part, but also of ethical behavior: If Griff posts a rumor he heard from, something to the effect of, two or three “reliable/credible sources,” and if someone questions his ethics for making the post, even if we question the ethics of spreading gossip, we should still praise you for your ethical sense in leaving the criticism stand.

    I know that civility has more to do with politeness, and ethics with right and wrong, but there’s an overlap between the idea of civility and ethics. If someone acts unethically in the statements they make in a blog, that could be considered uncivil, and vice versa.

    Tracy has said that her participation is merely about expressing opinion, but I think her standards are higher than that. What sets the three of you, and the service you provide here, apart from a guy in his bathrobe who blathers on YouTube, is that you’re usually concerned not only with opinion for opinion’s sake, but concerned also with getting at the truth of issues, getting at careful understandings of issues, and helping people arrive at these through dialogue (and have some fun in the process). The fact that you allow comments at all implies that you see a value in more viewpoints than your own, and while fun, fluff and sociability are certainly part of it, you also deal with serious issues and seek what can only be described by words like “truth” and “understanding.”

    All this implies not only a need for civility, but also an ethical sense.

    And to a certain extent, it probably necessitates that the three of you hosts need to hold yourselves to higher standards than those to which you hold your visitors. If LocallyGrownNorthfield is an example of “leadership blogging,” then visitors may have their lapses in judgment, and sometimes you’ll need to moderate, or be patient, as you usually show good judgment in doing. You often do seem to hold yourselves and each other to higher standards. The importance of the example you set by your own civility and ethical sense (in addition to being welcoming, fun and occasionally fluffy) should never be underestimated.

    January 11, 2008
  45. Jennifer Torgrimson said:

    I rarely comment but decided that I should this time. I usually am a lurker and read here to find out more about what’s going on in the community. When something interests me, I do my own research to find out more.

    Email and blogging are definitely different than face-to-face discussions, as several people have pointed out. Personality differences make that more pronounced. In the past, I was spoken to more than once about my emails at work. In my mind I am sending people facts when I send an email. As a simple example, I might send someone an email that says, “Today the temperature is approximatley 20 degrees F, and the sky is overcast.” It was fact (check the weather page) and without any emotion on my part. My previous boss would tell me that my email disturbed several people because of my gruff manner and that I should lighten things up. So I had to learn how to say it in a fluffier manner (which to me, honestly, is a waste of time when wanting to convey the same information–again, personality types–I’m more like Spock). My newer version goes like this, “Today is a great day! It’s already 20 degrees F with overcast skies, but I am so thankful that it isn’t snowing or below freezing, aren’t you? Smiley face. People respond much better to that….so I’m trying to be better about not being so Spock-like.

    Honestly, though, after reading some of the posts, there are several people who either beat a dead horse (use the same argument over and over) or post in a sarcastic (or just plain mean) manner on a regular basis. I hope not to meet these people in person. If I do, you’ll know who you are by the look of surprise on my face and how I back away from you quickly and make an excuse about needing to bathe my dog right away. On the other hand, there are several people with whom I could actually see myself being friends, and others whom I would love to work with on some committee because it’s obvious that they are thoughtful and hard working.

    I do not agree with everything that everyone here says, but that’s a good thing. My father (who was an attorney before he died) used to say,

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. ” —Voltaire, (Attributed); originated in “The Friends of Voltaire”, 1906, by S. G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall) French author, humanist, rationalist, & satirist (1694 – 1778)

    I firmly agree that we should keep those words in mind. I want us all to be able to speak our minds, and then be able to defend our thoughts and rationale behind what we’re saying. If you can’t defend it because it’s emotion and not fact, then say that too. That’s one of the things that makes Northfield great (I know, that’s another blog). We are a group of committed, caring people who are intelligent and informed (often, but not always) and who are willing to put themselves out there for the betterment of the community. That’s part of why I moved here and I’m proud to be a part of all of you.


    January 11, 2008
  46. Anne Bretts said:

    What a great explanation, Patrick, and a great discussion by all.
    I agree that mean and rude aren’t good, but I also am disturbed by accusations made without evidence. There is a difference between an opinion and an accusation, and the distinction between the two often is blurred here.
    “I think the pastor ran off with the collection money” may be your personal opinion, but it also is a serious accusation that shouldn’t be repeated without some supporting evidence. Repeating stories heard in conversations is not the same as producing evidence.
    I also think it isn’t productive or helpful to discredit the value of another person’s comments. “If you had read the document”…or “If you had lived here when”…or “Unless you have been to all the meetings”…all of these are phrases used to put down others rather than make a point.
    I’m OK with someone saying, “I have been to 20 meetings on this, and over time I have concluded”…or “I have read the charter and I believe it means”…
    I think the assumption should be that we all have a right to comment and those comments should be taken on their merit.
    And general slams of the newspaper are just lazy. Dispute a particular point in a story, but derailing a topic thread by making a broad indictment of the newspaper’s intentions, biases and operations doesn’t move the conversation forward.

    January 11, 2008
  47. William Siemers said:

    It seems like we’re being a little tough on ‘irony’ here. Can’t it be amusing? Like the old line, ‘Quitting smoking is easy…I’ve done it many times.” (I admit I got that off google.) Or Victor’s post early in this thread.

    I’d be the first to admit that irony can be difficult to detect in a venue like this, particularly if not carefully crafted. But when it is obvious and without ‘meanness’, it can add interest, humor and variety to posts. I don’t know…it seems like posts that include satire and irony can make a point in a different way than a strictly ‘civil’ discourse.

    January 11, 2008
  48. Paul Fried said:

    Anne: I’ve been thinking about your comments about evidence and claiming “the pastor ran off with the collection money,” etc. It’s a great idea, but there are some limitations. For example, if if there’s already evidence published somewhere that one can quote or link, it’s easy. But in the case of the person who has attended many meetings, or witnessed things, or even taken photographs, for guest comments to include certain kinds of evidence is a tall order. If one has the know-how and the time, photographs and certain kinds of evidence could be posted for free on a blog started for that purpose. But this assumes the person commenting has both the know-how and the time.

    Does civility require suspicion until such evidence is all laid out? Or does civility sometimes, as in the example you give, trust the word of the person who has attended the many meetings, or witnessed the thing many times? How do you decide when to trust, and when to require evidence?

    January 14, 2008
  49. John George said:

    William- I like your idea of adding some humor to the threads. In this past year of discussions, passions of convictions have run high. I need to state that I think that is ok. If a person is not really passionate about what they believe, then why believe it? Perhaps, in this venue, if we were to state, ” I know I am being sarcastic here, but….” or to state, “I think it is ironic that ….”, maybe that would clear up some suspicions. One of the hardest things to do on a blog is to state something with conviction without attacking another contributor. I think that can be done, as you said, “…But when it is obvious and without ‘meanness’, it can add interest, humor and variety to posts.” If the only way to be civil is to state something without conviction behind it, then I question whether that is real communication. I’m open to correction on that, but it is something I believe.

    January 15, 2008
  50. 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
  51. 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
  52. 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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