Civil discourse and our goals at Main Street Plaza

We dont need to stoop to insults to win debates; reality is on our side. And there are many people out there who are willing to listen to logic and evidence, when presented reasonably and in good faith. We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise.

Via kuri, I’ve just read a great post on being polite and being right. I’ve always held that tact and honesty aren’t mutually exclusive, and Sean does an excellent job of explaining why. There are just a couple of points I’d add to what he said:

Sean is specifically addressing atheists (in the context of a long-running debate about how to talk to religious people), but I think it’s useful to generalize Sean’s above quote. In an exchange of ideas, fair play favors the side that’s right. So if you think you’re right (about any given subject), you have no reason to fear a reasonable dialog with people whose ideas on the subject are different than your own. To give a concrete example, Main Street Plaza links to many faithful LDS blogs (and engages in discussions with the faithful Bloggernacle blogs), and they demonstrate confidence in their own position by being unafraid to link back to us. Plus, there’s another advantage to being open to civil dialog: when/if you’re wrong (or just slightly mistaken), you’re more likely to figure it out through civil discussion with those who disagree than you are by sitting in an echo chamber and engaging outsiders only through shouting matches.

(That’s why the one type of action by the CoJCoL-dS that really angers me is when they stoop to rhetorical games to try to shut up their critics, cf. here and here.)

The comment policy at Main Street Plaza has been to allow all viewpoints. I understand Recovery from Mormonism is filling a different role/niche than MSP in the grand ecosystem of discourse about Mormonism, so I don’t think their policy of deleting “TBM” comments is wrong — their policy is right for their goal of recovery just as allowing such comments here is right for our goal of dialog. (I don’t think we’ve deleted any non-spam comments or banned anyone so far. If a comment is insufficiently civil, we just follow it up with a quick moderator’s remark. However, I’ve heard people argue that silent deletion of comments is better than moderator remarks, so if people here prefer that type of moderation, we can discuss it.)

I was quite pleased to see that we got some very thoughtful, civil responses to a civil dissenting comment the other day. So, from my perspective, it looks like things are going well here. However — since this is a community blog — my opinion isn’t the only one that counts. Do you have any suggestions or criticisms for Main Street Plaza, or ideas about where there’s room for improvement?

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12 Comments

  1. 1
    Madame Curie says:

    I think I would prefer to have moderator comments at a published comment, rather than have the offending comment deleted silently. I think it shows more respect for both sides.

    The only thing that has occasionally made me uncomfortable is when a conversation has turned into “testimony” vs. discussion. When I am having a dialogue with someone, having a testimony thrown back at me shuts down the conversation (often purposefully so on part of the testifier). I see that as disrespectful. Its one thing to start a response with, “I feel like your comments invalidate my experiences. I have had good experiences with the Church, and here are some of them…” But when I made some logical remarks, and receive the response “I know this Church is true,” well, I feel like the person hasn’t read a word of what I had said, and I wonder why I bother.

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  2. 2
    John Moeller says:

    I think that silent deletion of comments is really inimical to open discourse. You could rightly be accused of “shutting up” instead of just accused of telling someone to “shut up.”

    By the way, I like that the subtitle is “A Community for Anyone Interested in Mormonism.” It would be a shame if MSP turned into an echo chamber.

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  3. 3
    kuri says:

    I agree with Madame Curie and John. I’ve always hated the “silent deletion” thing. I think it’s disrespectful (and usually cowardly and prideful), and probably worse than that, it hinders understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable discourse within a given forum. Moderator comments, OTOH, help people to understand the norms of the forum.

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  4. 4
    chanson says:

    Thanks for your feedback — I’ll explain where my remark about silent deletion comes from:

    There was a policy debate back when I was a regular at exmo-social. Some of the regulars argued for silent deletion (instead of moderator remarks) because they said that people feel humiliated by being chastized by moderators in a public way.

    Personally, I felt that there’s absolutely no reason to feel humiliated by a moderator comment because different sites have different policies (so a comment that’s A-OK on one site may be out-of-bounds on another) — and people won’t think ill of you for not having every site’s particular quirks down.

    In my experience, silent deletion often leads to a bunch of new posts and comments of the form “Hey mods, why’d you delete that comment?” — which themselves get deleted because the mods can’t explain the problem without reposting the offending comment.

    I’d rather have the exchange be open because it helps newbies see what the policies are, and it allows people to dissent if they like. I’m open to comments of the form “hey Chanson, I think you were wrong to tell so-and-so not to say X” — it opens up a discussion of what policies we’d like to have at MSP. That’s why I’m opening up this discussion now: I don’t want it to be me unilaterally deciding “what we do at MSP” by default.

    The only thing that has occasionally made me uncomfortable is when a conversation has turned into testimony vs. discussion. When I am having a dialogue with someone, having a testimony thrown back at me shuts down the conversation (often purposefully so on part of the testifier)

    I think that’s totally true, except that it’s not necessarily always an intentional tactic for shutting down discussion. I think a lot of people who use a testimony to avoid hard questions haven’t really thought about how that looks from the other side. And I think the commenters here at MSP have a very impressive track record at explaining (in a considerate way) why testimony-bearing doesn’t always forward the discussion.

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  5. 5
    Wayne says:

    This site has been impressively devoid of flame wars. There is nothing worse than having a discussion then see that discussion devolve to name calling, specifically “Hitler.” If Flame type comments are the ones being silently deleted I see nothing wrong with that.

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  6. 6
    Chino Blanco says:

    Hey, where’d my comment go? I was simply wholeheartedly agreeing with comments 1, 2 and 3. Good grief.

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  7. 7
    Hellmut says:

    I have to disagree with this. I don’t know that I am right. I don’t know that “we” are right.

    In fact, in the long run, I know that we will all be wrong.

    I am not interested in being right. Nobody can be right all the time. In fact, in the long run, we are all wrong. That’s the nature of scientific inquiry.

    All I can do is to be forthright and honest about my views and admit when logic and evidence prove me wrong.

    That is a matter of humility. The ability to admit error is the ultimate prove of self-confidence rather than the assertion of superhuman qualities.

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  8. 8
    Hellmut says:

    I like our comment policy. Since I know that I am right, I don’t need to argue with you.

    Chanson, please, stop provoking me and submit to the truth.

    . . . right now.

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  9. 9
    chanson says:

    Wayne — It’s true that there’s a certain logic to deleting pointless flame wars. I’m not saying that we would never delete comments or ban commenters under any circumstances, but I’m glad that we haven’t had to resort to that.

    Chino — lol.

    Hellmut — let me clarify a little bit:

    I am not interested in being right. Nobody can be right all the time. In fact, in the long run, we are all wrong. Thats the nature of scientific inquiry.

    I agree, and my goal isn’t to be right all the time (or to convince myself that I’m right all the time or something). What I mean is that there are questions where one answer is a lot more right than another, and we have nothing to fear by putting all of the possibilities on the table and evaluating them.

    Let me give an example to move this out of the controversial subject of religion to illustrate what I mean. Consider Jenny McCarthy’s claim that vaccines cause autism. From all the studies I’ve read so far, McCarthy’s claim is wrong. Figuring out whether or not she’s right about that is important because lives are at stake (specifically: the children who have died from preventable diseases because they chose not to vaccinate). It’s not a question where I want to embrace uncertainty, it’s a question where I want to have access to all of the evidence and make as unbiased an evaluation of it as possible, in order to come to an accurate conclusion.

    There are other questions where I’m totally willing to embrace uncertainty and say “I don’t know the answer to that one, and probably never will.”

    Trying to figure out accurate answers to questions when possible (and having confidence in the conclusions I’ve reached) isn’t the same thing as wanting to be right all the time (or assuming that I am right all the time). Rather, I assume that I probably do have beliefs/opinions that are wrong. But either way, I have nothing to lose from open dialog, and, indeed, I may well learn something…

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  10. 10
    Hellmut says:

    I agree, Chanson. I am going a little too far. There are things that we can and do know.

    Mostly, that is a matter of logic. Statements that describe universal conditions cannot be verified. Existential statements cannot be falsified.

    But existential statements need merely be demonstrated to be proven true.

    The famous example are Australia’s black swans, of course. Once we saw them, we knew that there are black swans (even though, Europeans might have had a difficult time to accept that discovery).

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  11. 11
    aerin says:

    I have agreed with the comment policy so far, and I think people have been respectful. When someone may have personally attacked another poster, usually one of the moderators brings that up and the personal attacks stop.

    So I think continued personal attacks are not acceptable (which I think is already the policy?)

    Also, I think comments that have absolutely nothing to do with the original post (and the person won’t come back and explain them) probably don’t add to the discussion either. For example, in this thread if I were to say “and we all know about asian carp travelling to Lake Michigan” without explaining how it had anything to do with the original post or other comments….

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  12. 12

    [...] negative about classes that I don’t attend (especially since I just got done talking about keeping things civil), but I hope this post falls within the bounds of constructive [...]

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