There Will Never Be a Be-All, End-All Rulebook For Productive Discussion

Recently, there has been an enormous amount of talk in the blog circles that I frequent about civil discussion. Dan Fincke at Camels with Hammers wrote a set of guidelines for civil discussion, a response appeared on PZ Myers’s blog shortly after that, and other members of various atheist blogs and organizations have written up similar sets of guidelines with an eye toward enabling productive discussion around ideological divides. Personally, the only one I’ve seen that I thought got just about everything right was Ozy Frantz‘s contribution (which I cannot fucking find at the moment, goddamnit!), which I highly recommend. In addition to recommending Ozy’s post as the best of the bunch, I’d like to say that I think there is a broader point to be made from all of this. The broader point is that there is no set of absolute rules that will guarantee a civil discussion.

All sorts of rules for facilitating civil discussion have been put forward over the last few months, and while, for the most part, I encourage the spirit in which they were written (that is, the spirit of encouraging civil discussion), I generally haven’t thought much of the resulting substance. The problem, in a nutshell, is that for every thing anyone has said is “never okay”, there is almost certain to be some context where that thing is not just okay, but the most appropriate possible response.

Some people put forth ideas so destructive and absurd that ridicule is an appropriate response. Some people say things that are patently untrue, and deserve to be accused of lying. Sometimes people take actions to which doxxing is an appropriate response (see the context for the quote below as an example). Some people are so consistently damaging to communities or conversations, that they deserve to be banned from participating in them. Some people consistently argue in bad faith, and as such don’t deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt that they are arguing in good faith. Anyone who argues that any of the above never happens hasn’t spent a lot of time on the Internet. Of course, there are plenty of situations where ridicule, doxxing, etc., are incredibly disproportionate reactions, as well. It’s all about context. Ignoring the fact that an action that is wildly disproportionate in one context can be completely appropriate in another is, as one of my favorite bloggers once put it, like trying to reduce morality to an auto-reply form letter (the context in which the following quote was made is different from the context that spawned this post, but the lesson is the same):

There’s this idea floated by people are who not terribly mentally sophisticated that if the sexuality community supports a “vigilante” outing of this one man, no matter how vile or illegal they admit his behavior to be, then the community surely has opened itself up to being obligated to support all outings of all people in all instances.  This is the sort of junk you get from the theory class – they’re too busy working on keeping their theories perfectly consistent.  They might as well be arguing, “I am against putting people in jail for murder, because once we start jailing anyone for anything, we will have to jail everybody.”  There is no slippery slope.  It’s lazy thinking, pure and simple, from people who don’t care enough to determine ethics on an individualized basis, and prefer to make sweeping decrees without paying any attention to circumstance.  It’s morality as an auto-reply form letter.

(emphasis original)

My point is this: no matter how hard everyone tries, we’re never going to be able to reduce conversational decency to a flowchart that you can follow to figure out if your contributions were appropriate. Anytime we try, we are inevitably going to end up with rules that condemn people who are saying important things and excuse people who are contributing nothing. Sometimes more politeness and benefit of the doubt are appropriate, and sometimes people need to be called out on their bullshit. Conversational brutality should be reserved for brutes, but let’s not pretend there aren’t any brutes in any of these conversations. Saying one person did something wrong because “X is never okay”, or because some other person also did X, and it wasn’t okay then, without paying any regard to context is never, ever going to get any of us anywhere. Context matters.

Let’s have conversations about whether particular actions are appropriate or inappropriate, by all means. But the moment we start trying to come up with some sort of definitive rulebook, we divorce ourselves from the level of nuance that such decision-making requires in all contentious conversations.