Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Notes On Moderating A Blog

(Bubbles, photo by Keemz)

One of the questions you will have to ask yourself with your first post as a blogger is how you will deal with comments. I don't personally know any bloggers who say they would allow absolutely any kind of comment, no matter what it contained. For one thing, you'd run afoul of possible lawsuits and legal liability from the free blog-offering sites that many of us use. If, however, you intend to exercise no moderation at all, this essay is not meant for you.

For the rest of us, we require an ethos of moderation, and this will derive from your intention as a blogger: Why are you writing? What do you hope to accomplish? If education, sharing resources, encouraging community and shared growth are among your goals, your ethos of moderation should facilitate your intent.

Community-building and the synergy of diverse voices is a strong intent of mine as a blogger. However, after decades of community activism I am well aware that not everyone who enters into group conversation is willing or capable of behaving in a manner to assist in my intention. Some voices actively seek disruption -- those of us who worked in groups targeted by the FBI know what damage an infiltrator can do. The right wing is even more organized and determined to thwart our freedom of associaton and thought now. If any part of you suspects a commenter is trying to interfere with your chosen work, I believe it is self-destructive to give them airtime. Make them go elsewhere to spread their confusion.

I likewise do not read the comments left on blogs where trolls/racists/woman-haters are not shut up. They have nothing to say I haven't already heard, and their presence contaminates the fresh, open, kind connections which is the hallmark of genuine human connection. On the rare instance when I do read down a comment thread so contaminated, I will not leave a comment myself. This is true whether the attempt to intimidate others is coming from the right or so-called left-leaning allies. Dobermans operate from a power-based view of the world, and I don't try to reason with dobermans.

I have on occasion driven a doberman from a comment thread where they are ruining potential connection, but mostly I leave those blogs to the mess their moderators have failed to address. (Or which they secretly allow in order to drive away certain voices they find troublesome -- this is particularly the case on some feminist blogs where a longstanding disagreement about key interpretations of feminist theory has resulted in a culture war everyone is terrified to openly acknowledge.)

Freedom of speech does not mean I am required to engage in conversation with anyone who comes at me with their opinion. Gender conditioning teaches women we can't say no to male "venting" and teaches men the whole outdoors is their potential urinal, but I have overcome that conditioning and it has freed me up to hear much more interesting stories than if I didn't insist on my boundaries. I trust my self-examination process, and am not answerable for my choices to people who are not supporting me in a tangible way. As Fran Winant said "What I don't know now / I can still learn."

And I regard the comments threads under my moderation as a conversation which already suffers from the lack of in-person amelioration offered by tone of voice, facial expression, or instant give and take. It is more demanding to be kind and clear on a comment thread, but the demands are growth-inducing and slowly create what is often referred to as "safety". I prefer to call it respect, decency, and reciprocity.

These habits of discourse are available to anyone, of any gender, race, age, ethnicity, class or creed, and are common to every culture. It is inhuman to abandon them in favor of letting dobermans control the discourse. It inhibits rather than fosters liberation, and the only folks who argue to the contrary are those who intend the silencing of honest, respectful difference of opinion. If you can't hear the nonviolent, respectful thinking of someone who does not share your worldview in every detail, don't come to a conversation under my purview. Huddle with your kind until you are healed enough to hear the words of someone who will defend your human rights and freedom of expression but doesn't necessarily share your interpretation of X.

Of course, this sounds more cut-and-dried than it often is in comments threads. Human communication is incredibly messy, and there's a great deal of research proving that acquiring the skills to sort out the mess, our ability to read social cues and intention, is what made us human instead merely another large ape. So, when trying to suss out what is being said or meant to be said, I rely on a few beliefs.

I believe the human drive toward cooperation and altruism is far stronger than our drive to compete or relatiate, and is much more rewarded in our culture. I believe real growth and development only occurs under "positive reinforcement", under conditions of trust and reciprocity, and all lessons learned from punishment and pain are rigid encrustations that will eventually have to be undone for clear thinking to take place. I believe hate is a manifestation of fear, always the result of childhood trauma (usually from our parents), and anger is a thin scab dried over terror. I believe the only way to facilitate change in someone who is terrified is kindness. But I also believe it is not my job to offer rehabilitation to everyone I encounter; I get to choose my battles. If I can't make it better, at least I can walk away without making it worse.

I believe everybody thinks (or hopes) they are good and trying to make the world a better place, at least for themselves if no one else. Even Dick Cheney thinks he is a good guy. Thus, telling someone they are evil means they will stop listening to you, because cognitive dissonance demands it of them. Is it more important that you express your upset at them or that you maybe make a connection by treating them respectfully? It's a choice we make all the time, and I have no judgment about where you draw your limits; I only care about labeling others as evil and fit to die in comments I am moderating, because it makes everybody nervous and go a little (or a lot) quiet.

Some of the finest leaders and thinkers I know were raised with obnoxious privilege which made them, at one point in their lives, stupid and hurtful to those around them. What changed them, invariably, was contact with someone who believed they were not inherently the asshat they had been raised to be. I think everyone has the potential for this kind of transformation, absent certain kinds of brain damage. But their ability to recognize and then make use of help is an individual path of recovery that, seemingly, only a certain percentage of folks are able to utulize.

Fortunately, even a small percentage can turn things around dramatically, create an environment conducive to more growth and tolerance, and foster permanent genetic predisposition to human generosity. This is, in fact, the story of human history, despite the bleak cries for help you have been taught as our legacy. This is why those trapped in fear want most of all to stop education and open conversation -- why the right is so terrified of lesbians -- because open minds have a tendency to keep opening. They don't want us to leave them behind. The only alternative they've given themselves for love is a vengeful, dimwitted g*d who is willing to kill his own son rather than learn something right off the bat. I'd live in terror too if that bounded my entire existence.

I am reminded of the Persian proverb which was displayed on a blacklight poster in my bedroom when I was a teenager (I'm going to correct the pronouns to make them inclusive rather than perpetuating a failed worldview):

S/he who knows not and knows that s/he knows not, is a fool, shun her/him.
S/he who knows not, and knows that s/he knows not, is a child, teach her/him.
S/he who knows, and knows not that s/he knows, is asleep, wake her/him.
S/he who knows, and knows that s/he knows, is wise, follow her/him.

"Shun" in the first admonition is harsh and has a christianist overlay, so I would substitute "avoid". But it's the middle two suggestions which require of us a daily decison on our communication and associations. How do we teach and learn from each other, waken each other, and foster such environments on our blogs? How can we perfom this task with an understanding of how damage leads us astray, makes problem cases of us even when we intend to be allies?

The voices of discord and despair dominate most of our corporate-controlled messaging currently, because keeping us apathetic and afraid makes us malleable. In her poem "Conscientous Objector", Edna St. Vincent Millay swore to us "the password and the plans of our city are safe with me/ Never through me/shall you be overcome". My intention as a blogger is to be an antidote to those who mean to overcome our quest for human liberation and dismantle our democracy. Your tender hearts and fumblings toward revelatory connection are safe with me. Let's see how far it will take us.

(Thanks to Jill Cozzi, among others, for earnest endurance and ethics as a blog moderator.)