The Panel on Civility and Completely Losing Your Junk

Starting this post has really been a challenge for me. I’ve felt like I needed to comment on our panel on civility, especially since others in the blogosphere have been. I mean, I was there and together with Janet and Sheril, it was partially my panel. 

Video 1: There were certainly parts of it that were just about this uncivil. Paul Anka sings Smells Like Teen Spirit (via Rebecca Skloot)

As I’ve thought about what to talk about, the only thing I have been able to come up with is that cracking wise just doesn’t feel right. To offer a brief recap, we were discussing how one moderates their blog community. One of the participants commented that he believes ground rules are important to a community and derives his from John Wilkins’s. Specifically, John’s policy is:


This is my living room, so don’t piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don’t test it, please. Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don’t do it here.

Another participant expressed concern, admittedly in a tone that implied a strong emotional attachment to the words she was speaking, that this general policy could be used to exclude some voices from the discussion – particularly the voices of people who are classically excluded from the dialog in science.  I wasn’t prepared for the other discussant – the one who originally said not to piss on his carpet – to then turn around, raise his hiney out of the chair, and yell spittle-laden profanity at the person who had responded to him.  And, I mean, raise his voice in a way that frightened me to the point of thinking that things were about to spiral out of control in a horrible, horrible way.  I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going, but it was nowhere good.

Dog%20Poop.jpgFigure 1:  Then again, part of me also appreciated the irony of a man who advocated not pissing on anyone’s carpet coming into my session and taking a huge crap on it.

The most I could do was to try to diffuse things by telling everyone to sit down and be silent for a moment. I don’t remember anything specific about what was said to me by the yeller, except that he didn’t read my blog.  What can I say?  I don’t read his either.   While I did not witness it personally, I am told that the berating, spittle, raised voice, and multiple f-bombs continued after the session ended.

I’m just so fucking baffled by it. I mean, how does one go from being the grand advocate for civility to being in the face of another audience member in less than 60 seconds?   I suppose the lesson this teaches us is that, for some, “civility” is what we expect of others.

But, when shit gets real, those folks who call for civility will do as they please.

This all leaves me pondering where to go with the next post.  I’ve got some ideas on the types of rulez a blogger might use for managing their commentariat.  I’ll also share with you the slides I offered with the appropriate context, but for now I feel like that session needs a major reboot in my mind in order to get things back on track.

Pascale Lane has a great follow up of the discussion.  Check it out here.

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27 responses to “The Panel on Civility and Completely Losing Your Junk


  1. Nice choice of pic . . .Mr. Bill with a real-world dirty sanchez. …truelol…
    …tom…

  2. It was really amazing the way that when stuff got real, you who claim to lose your junk stayed calm, authoritative, on task, as polite as might be expected and deftly returned the session back to the realm of the sane.
    Kudos to you Isis.
    Your commenter was probably even more impressive. It was clearly a very deep felt topic she was addressing and she stayed focused and refused to be intimidated. Kudos there as well.
    I learned a lot that day.

  3. I spent a long time after the session wondering “what the hell just happened?” It took me almost a full day to figure out what happened and I’m still not quite sure why–that is, what the shouter, who was only one seat over from me, was so upset over. That his understanding of what the shoutee had argued wad about sixty degrees off true was clear, but what he thought she had said and why he found it so upsetting is a complete mystery.

  4. You’ve done it! You’ve incontrovertibly defined civility!
    “Civility” is what we expect of others.
    Brilliant! I thought maybe that was an old saying, but, nope, looks like you own it!
    As I read this I was wondering if this confrontation might have been a set-up, like the scene in “Chasing Amy” where Hooper X shoots Banky Edwards during a panel discussion at a comic book convention. But no, I guess not.

  5. I am guessing it might be this:
    1) someone suggests that the shouter censors, excludes, is prejudicial, racist, sexist, or in any other way manipulates the discussion, presumably without any evidence to back this up beyond “excluding those that are usually excluded” (possibly unintentionally – but it could come across this way).
    2) Shouter becomes annoyed by this, and possibly rightly so, but with definitely the wrong response (since when did railing on someone make a good example of anything?)
    Reasoning behind this. I write this comment, and you have no idea if I am female, male, somewhere in between, white, brown, black, green (very very sick), religious, non-religious, rich, poor, employed, unemployed…but what I will be judged on by the other readers is my comment. If Isis were the type to exlucde “the usual groups”, how could she possibly know what category I fall into?
    Therefore if you stand up and state that you have a policy of excluding comments based on content i.e. “reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all” and someone comes back basically suggesting you are using this power to nefarious ends, then what can you say?
    It was a bone-headed response to a bone-headed comment.

  6. I think the thing that may have prompted the original comment was “offensive to all” in his rules – this tends to imply that “offensive to some” is OK, and perhaps that since very few statements will be offensive to absolutely everybody, what he actually meant was “offensive to me/the majority”. Which will tend to concern someone who feels silenced.

  7. Yeah, Harold. I think we might be on to something.

  8. Hm. I always equated the “don’t piss on my carpet” universally with “don’t insult people who are making a point and conduct yourself like you would in real life without the anonymity of the internets” roughly translated to “I reserve the right to boot you if you make asshat comments that have no point”. Rosa Parks (to use some other people’s examples) did not get in the bus drivers face and scream obscenities about his racism and masculine virtue, she calmly took her seat and made her point. That is civil. And fostering an environment where diverse groups of people feel safe to disagree is a tricky proposition indeed.

  9. “by telling everyone to sit down and be silent for a moment. I”
    That’s such a classic working mommy manuever.

  10. Yes, from the reports I have read, Dr. I brilliantly applied “time-out” to what sounds like classic toddler behavior.
    I have been in scientific sessions where I thought fist-fights might break out. Emotions clearly get high, and the different sides of the argument keep telling each other that their viewpoint is wrong. Minor name-calling may occur (how anyone who doesn’t see it my way can walk upright, that sort of thing), but the type of language described in the “civility” session does not occur.
    We need to keep our discussions open to all voices, or we end up being Fox News. If that means tolerating some F-bombs, I’m OK.
    And I love the definition of civility above. Must remember that one.

  11. “But, when shit gets real, those folks who call for civility will do as they please.”
    should read:
    “But, when shit gets real, at least one folk who calls for civility will do as he pleases.”

  12. Really, one is all you need to make the point.

  13. I think that what gets forgotten in the “It’s my house, you’re my guest, so do as I say,” point of view is that when someone is visiting, the -host- has obligations as well. If someone is going to use the analogy and treat their blog as their castle where they set the rules and are ruler and (presumably benevolent) despot over all, they ought to understand that guests in their domain will have certain expectations as well.
    For example, if I visit a blog where the blogger talks a lot about how they respect openness and transparency, and then they get all riled up when someone makes a comment they don’t like, I’ll feel disappointed, and it may eventually make me reconsider whether I want to return to that site.
    At issue, maybe, is that the internet is so huge that no matter how odious someone is, they can still find an audience. If all that’s important is getting X number of visitors, then the value of civility is measured by that standard. In the past, where civility, politeness, etc, were tools to help small communities of people get along so that they didn’t kill each other while scrounging out their existence, these traits were valued much differently than they are today. If we don’t like what someone posts, we can go elsewhere…but if I lose readers, there are hundreds more that will come to see what all the hubbub is about.
    If people want more civility on blogs, they have to raise its perceived value, to find a way to make civility more desirable. What does it cost someone to not be civil? What does someone gain for it?

  14. I find this debate deeply ironic. As the issues involved are something I feel very strongly about.
    As a p.g student I found myself in a troubled academic department and ran into severe problems with one particular member of staff.
    So severe that after my last meeting with the particular individual I ended up in a state of acute shock as a result of the meeting.
    I did not make a formal complaint but tried to resolve the matter as stupidly all I was concerned about was finishing my course of study.
    My department was less than sympathetic and dealt with me as if I was attempting to make an unfounded accusation rather than attempting to resolve a very serious issue.
    I left as the matter proved far too stressfull to deal with any further with my confidence in tatters.
    I had as a result a somewhat jaded view of academics.
    From time to time over the last few years I have occasionaly corresponded with a particular academic who has been very helpfull and encouraging and despite not knowing the cause of my lack of confidence I am certain he has been well aware of it.
    I think good supportive and inspiring teachers are rare in a university setting. I was lucky enough to have one as an undergrad and have been lucky enough to meet one other online.
    His name is John Wilkins.
    This is not a topic I feel particularly comfortable talking about as it was a very unpleasant experiance but in light of the issues raised I thought it important to say something as I feel a lot of the comments made are very wrong and ill judged.

  15. D. C. Sessions

    His behavior certainly sounds very uncivil. I mean, who would tolerate carpet f-bombing?

  16. I am warning you all one more time about sockpuppetry.

  17. The subtext I see:
    Paneler: Blog policy is all are welcome, but this is my territory. Don’t anybody else try marking it – if people are here it is because it is MY territory.
    Questioner: Oh, so someone died and made you king of the Internet? “Some are more equal than others” and all that?
    Paneler: You question the legitimacy of my territorial claim AND call me a ____-ist? Grrr, bark! Bark!
    There is no lack of Internet real estate, and I think that there need to be places where people of different ideas come together and exchange ‘em while allowing that some people just don’t want to deal with challenges to what they say on their blog.

  18. “particularly the voices of people who are classically excluded from the dialog in science.”
    Such as who? Idiots?

  19. yeah, watch it sockpuppets!!!!

  20. I conjecture psychological projection as one possible to the incident. “People need to restrain their impulses to rudeness” results from a undercontrolled impulse to rudeness.
    But it’s only a conjecture.

  21. I don’t know. Wasn’t there but seems to me, the guy that doesn’t want his carpet pissed on, proved the other persons concern.

  22. I wasn’t prepared for the other discussant – the one who originally said not to piss on his carpet – to then turn around, raise his hiney out of the chair, and yell spittle-laden profanity at the person who had responded to him.

    This isn’t clear to me. The person who “originally said not to piss on his carpet” is John Wilkins, as he originated the phrase. But “other discussant” seems to mean the person who earlier quoted John Wilkins. Which one did the yelling? By “originally said” are you meaning “earlier in the discussion said”?

  23. Isis the Scientist

    Yes.

  24. come on, let’s name names.
    I do believe the person under discussion is Henry Gee, based on comments left on the thread at NN.

    Saturday, 30 Jan uary 2010 – 03:53 UTC
    Arikia Millikan said:
    Hey Henry Gee, you know who doesn’t like you? Me.
    I was sitting behind you in Dr. Isis’s session on civility at ScienceOnline, and the way you belligerently yelled at the woman sitting next to me made me sick. Furthermore, at the conclusion of the session that you single-handedly turned into an episode of Jerry Springer by exhibiting a complete lack of self-control and masculine aggression, when you stood over her (and me) and yelled insults at her again before storming off, it made me afraid for the physical safety of us both. You may as well have physically attacked her, because the outcome was the same — it created a chilling, silencing effect. Because of what you did, the brave woman sitting next to me, as well as others in the room, might be deterred from speaking out against hegemenous patriarchal constructs in the future because they’ll be afraid assholes like you will come at them with testosterone-fueled rage. What you did there was defaming to you and the institution you were there representing, and are here representing on this forum, and you deserve every bit of criticism you have coming.
    If there is anyone who is casting a pall over the enterprise, Henry Gee it is you.

    He did a fantastic not-pology for his display as well.

    Saturday, 30 Jan uary 2010 – 05:47 UTC
    Henry Gee said:
    Oh, hegemenous constructs to you, too. Sure, I should have kept shtum, and I regret not having done so. But since that whole episode I have discovered how suckered I’d been. There I was, thinking that I was going to attend an interesting session. But then I woke up to find I’d entered a nest inhabited by some very strange people, who on the one hand say, very high-mindedly, that ‘rules’ are discriminatory – and on the other use rules in an ad hoc manner simply to silence the people who disagree with them. Honestly, I had absolutely no idea, before that session, that people exist who think like this. More fool me.

    afterwards, in that same thread, he mentioned he was tired of taking criticism for his bad behavior, and basically suggested he was thinking of taking his ball and going home.
    I, for one, wouldn’t miss him, and will be interested to see if Nature could find a saner replacement for him.
    OTOH, he was probably just being his usual petulant self, and didn’t mean to threaten all with departure.

  25. Pingback: Womanspace: Responses to Rybicki’s display of male privilege on NPG « The Contemplative Mammoth

  26. Pingback: Nature’s Henry Gee comes full circle |

  27. Pingback: I’m sorry….but you brought this on yourself, honey. | DrugMonkey

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