On Civil Discourse

Don’t Feed the Trolls, and Don’t Be a Troll

I despaired after the Trayvon Martin verdict came down because the national conversation on race in this country has devolved to a state where reconciliation seems impossible. People feel passionately about the issue, and there is a lot of anger being expressed and not much listening going on. On one side, people are claiming that we live in “post racial” society and racism is not a problem any more. On the other side, folks say that racism in America is alive and well, and we as a society still have a lot of work to do to change. The way this issue is playing out in the media and popular culture, people on all sides are not engaging in any sort of productive or civil discourse.

Race is just one issue among many others that divide the nation, that divide progressives and conservatives. I continue to despair because I see little hope for productive dialog across the left-right abyss. Until a critical mass of citizens commits to truly listening to and respecting diverging opinions, we’re not going to be able to make progress towards building a more just and civil society. The priority has to be civil discourse and respecting one another, not winning the debate.

In the days after the verdict in Trayvon Martin’s case came down, I posted a couple of opinion pieces about the Trayvon Martin verdict that I thought were well written on my Google Plus page. One article in particular prompted some debate in the comments of the post. I am decidedly on the progressive side, and believe that justice was not served in the case. Since I posted it publicly, anyone can comment on the post, unless I block you. A couple of readers whom I don’t know posted their opposing points of view.

The exchange started out okay, and they just expressed their opposing views. Another progressive friend posted a comment (in response to the article, not to any other comment in particular), and one of the folks with an opposing view angrily lashed out at her, calling her stupid, and her ideas bulls***. To me, that crossed a line, so I deleted the offending comment, blocked him from my page and from further discussion. I did so with a statement to everyone following the thread that I don’t tolerate trolls and incivility.

After that, another reader stated his disagreement, and accused me of banning the previous offender simply because he had a different point of view. He posted a few things that were angry in tone, but not yet bullying per se. I rearticulated my position that calling someone stupid and using offensive language is enough for me to shut someone down on my turf. He continued to assert his belief that I was shutting down dissenting opinions. Finally, he too, called my friend stupid in another angry rant, so I blocked him from further comment.

I welcome friendly debate and differing opinions. I strongly prefer diversity of all kinds – including political and social perspectives. I don’t want to live my life only socializing with like-minded folks. I want to understand why people arrive at such starkly differing opinions. However, I have yet to encounter anyone, online or otherwise, with an opposing opinion who is willing to debate without intimidation or insults. I would like to build bridges, not walls, but I will not engage with people who are mean and hurtful.

Taking a note from Ta-Nehisi Coates, I claim the prerogative to curate my comment feed as if it were a dinner party: If you’re going to berate and insult one of my guests, I’m going to ask you to leave. I welcome disagreement, not abusive and uncivil behavior. I’ve taken a stab at writing my own ground rules for civil behavior in public debate. If you are on my turf, any blog I manage, and social media feed that I control, here are the rules of engagement. And if you don’t play by the rules, you don’t play at all:

  1. Come to the table with good intentions, seeking understanding and common ground.
  2. Assume that everyone, like you, also comes to the table with those same good intentions.
  3. Listen openly. When you don’t understand something, ask clarifying questions.
  4. Prioritize respect for others over being right.
  5. Stay focused on the issues being discussed and debated. Don’t distract and bait with insults and unrelated topics.
  6. Take a breath, especially when you feel yourself getting upset.
  7. Don’t take disagreement personally.
  8. Take ownership. You are responsible for what you do and what you say.
  9. Be nice. Be cordial.
  10. Do not feed the trolls! Don’t engage in debate with anyone who treats you or anyone else disrespectfully. Walk away, or you risk becoming a troll, too.

References:

The Thorny World of Online Comments – from On The Media

How to Creat an Engaging Comments Section – from On The Media

Trolls: A Field Guide

Internet Trolls Wikipedia Page

Cutting Internet Trolls Down to Size

4 thoughts on “On Civil Discourse

  1. Courageous Heart NetWork

    Excellent article! Trolls will always be lurking under bridges being crossed by civil people willing to meet halfway. I commend you for standing up for the integrity of your posts and setting clear rules for commenting. Trolls will always cry that they shouldn’t have to follow the rules, (i.e., “freedom of speech”) or the rules of common decency and respect. That’s why they are trolls. Stop them where they start. Good for you.

    Like

  2. Many thanks for the comment. I applaud your efforts as well. I think there is a big difference between free speech and productive civic dialog. I’m heartened to see a trend among online news sites towards curating to weed out trolls and bullies.

    Like

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