Sunday, July 22, 2007

On your blog, anything goes?

Clay Shirky offers a good partial defense of blog comments. But I was puzzled by two aspects of the following:
I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason.

1. The ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ view is dumb for reasons that are not specific to blogs. The value of free speech lies in its contribution to reasoned debate, as J.S. Mill himself recognized. We're not infallible, and so rational progress is made more likely if critics are allowed to question the conventional wisdom. (And even if we're right, reasoned challenges keep us on our toes, and prevent the truth from becoming a 'dead dogma'.)

But "no filtering" won't necessarily advance this end. If someone in a town meeting is yelling so loudly that no-one else can be heard, their unfiltered contribution is in fact preventing reasoned debate from taking place. In this way, they are violating the spirit and purpose of free speech. So it may be necessary to silence the loudmouth precisely for the sake of (everyone else's) free speech. The same goes for blog comments: nonconstructive or abusive comments should be deleted precisely for the sake of ensuring that the blog can remain a venue for reasoned debate.

Not all forms of speech are valuable. Strictly speaking, we should replace 'free speech' as a slogan with the 'free exchange of reasons/ideas'. Abuse is not an idea. And it merely serves to scare off those who might actually make a positive contribution to our discourse. So, while we ought to tolerate any civil disagreement (no matter how strongly we disagree with the substance of the view expressed), the arguments for free speech do not extend to the protection of abusive or otherwise unreasoned discourse.

2. I'm also puzzled by the suggestion that there are no ethical limits to what a blogger might do in "their space". Imagine, for example, a blogger who deletes civil but critical comments -- merely because the blogger doesn't want his mistakes to be exposed. Surely such intellectual dishonesty is unethical in any situation. It's possible to act badly even in your own home, after all!

This does seem a remarkably common view, however. For example, earlier this year NZ blogger Span (in an otherwise excellent post, which noted that accusations of spin have become a too-common substitute for reasoned counterargument) wrote:
What do bloggers owe their readers? Do we owe you honesty? Do we owe you truth? No, not really.

A comment Make Tea Not War made (on a post she wrote about phalloblogcentrism at What We Said) challenged me to think about the annoyance I feel when other bloggers don't link or hat tip - we don't even owe each other that. There is no code of ethics for nz pol bloggers.

No Right Turn concurred, adding that he chooses to "maintain some basic intellectual standards" - as if it were just a personal quirk - YMMV, and all that. I don't think he really believes that, fortunately, as he's quite scornful of the 'sewer', and isn't shy to denounce their lies and bullshit. But then I'm puzzled by his claim that there are no "obligations" in the blogosphere. (Why so critical of the sewer-dwellers if they haven't done anything wrong?) Perhaps he was talking about enforceable obligations.

People have the "right" to act like jerks, in the limited sense that it would be wrong for others to coercively prevent them. But the mere fact that we are at liberty to act in some way, says little about whether we should so act, or whether it's even morally permissible. The relevant question is not, 'Are others allowed to stop me from doing this?' but 'Is this something that any minimally decent human being would do?'. Morality obliges us to be minimally decent people. Blogging, like any other arena in life, provides ample opportunity to violate this most minimal standard, e.g. through abusive or intellectually dishonest behaviour.

(That's not to endorse proposals for a blogging 'code of ethics'. Rules are tedious and often stupid. We can merely point to some general virtues - civility, honesty, etc. - and let people discern for themselves how these apply in any particular situation.)


  1. I think just because somthing is "your space" doesn't mean you should feel some obligation to lower its standard (by imposing a large amount of censorship) below that of anyone elses space. thats jsut some sort of large scale insult to yourself.

    I agree with you that one might delete such comments that undermine the debate although you might want to have a set of rules (even if unwritten) that relate to why you would delete them. I favour as I have suggested before considering deleting nonsense, repeat posts, posts that are just personal insults etc.

  2. I think the issue you are raising revolves around the term "decent," as that can have different meanings for different people. While there were many calls for codes (before and after the Kathy Sierra incident), many saw that as something that might stifle free speech and expression, if something such as a code could be possible in such a network as the Internet.

    I was intrigued by your statement "the arguments for free speech do not extend to the protection of abusive or otherwise unreasoned discourse." As stated, it appears you are saying that free speech is something meant only for an educated population that engages in reasoned discourse. If so, who can be the judge of this and thus determine when this right no longer applies? The blogger? A network censor? Search engine companies? Governments or religious authorities?

    Likewise, different people can mean or feel different things regarding abusive discourse, and the same judge question can also be asked.

    "Morality obliges us to be minimally decent people." Sounds good, but some people have very different views of what it means to be decent, and much less moral. Thinking of US examples, I consider the issues around radical pro/con: abortion, animal rights, and gay rights proponents. Radical (dedicated?) people on either side of these issues have justified all sorts of actions done out of a sense of moral decency.

  3. "who can be the judge of this and thus determine when this right no longer applies?"

    I'd tend to favour the most 'local' option available in each case: the individual blogger, the meeting moderator, etc. (Certainly not any universal rule imposed from On High.) Ideally, there should be plenty of alternative public spaces available, under different rules, so people can pick and choose which degree of moderation they find acceptable -- and vote with their feet if any particular host starts to abuse their power.

    "some people have very different views of what it means to be decent"

    Right, I was just arguing that bloggers were still subject to moral constraints; not that we would all agree on exactly what those obligations are.

  4. Thanks for this Richard, I agree with your post. I try to run my blog along those lines, but I note that although I feel a moral obligation to do so many other bloggers don't, including one of the biggest bloggers in NZ, David Farrar. Kiwiblog has in a way set the tone, and the moral standard, for many other bloggers imho.

    It will be interesting to see if there is as much abuse if National do indeed supplant Labour next year.

  5. In practice discourse is usually best served, it seems to me, by being VERY selective with respect to who is permitted into a forum and by holding participants to VERY high standards of reason and care in thought. If you keep out people who could have been insightful that's OK so long as you don't keep them from building their own forum. An un-PC example of this is that I think it was tragic that Jews who were discriminated against in Ivy League admissions didn't respond by building their own universities. As a result, the world is poorer, in terms of the number of high quality universities it contains and the diversity between them, than it could have been.

  6. Do you think a forum benefits from selective entry in addition to demanding high standards of whoever shows up? (I would hope the latter alone might suffice, given the influence of self-selection.)

  7. I'll have to read more to decide.

    The Philosophy Carnival posts don't leave me very optimistic, but from what I have read so far the blog comments seem to be of exceptionally high quality.


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