This is an announcement mostly for those who post comments on this blog. As many have complained, our comments are often less a respectful dialogue, and more a reflection of our polarized partisan culture in which the most strident voices dominate. A typical complaint:
I think sometimes I get offended by the arrogant curmudgeon types that act incurious but find space and time to belligerently persist, usually to the point where people tune her or him out. We all know them. It's distracting and not a fun time.
We've tried a couple of things to improve the comment climate. We began monitoring the blog more actively, having various Sojourners staff members take a turn each day removing posts that violate the Beliefnet Rules of Conduct. But that always leaves a lot to timing and interpretation - while dealing with a formidable daily volume - making fairness and consistency a Sisyphean task. Here are the key guidelines that are the most difficult to enforce:
You agree that you will be courteous to every Beliefnet member, even those whose beliefs you think are false or objectionable. When debating, express your opinion about a person's ideas, not about them personally.
Disruptive behavior may include creating a disproportionate number of posts or discussions to disrupt conversation ... making statements that are deliberately inflammatory ... or any behavior that interferes with conversations or inhibits the ability of others to use and enjoy this website for its intended purposes.
One aspect of courtesy and respect that's especially difficult to enforce is a climate of intellectual honesty. Most often this is violated by attributing views to bloggers or commenters based on unfair or inaccurate assumptions. Another typical complaint comment:
Those are our values. Please try to respect them ... it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to find any good will when you misportray my position.
Examples of this include labeling people "pro-choice" or "pro-abortion" because they do not support absolutist measures to criminalize abortion such as a constitutional ban. One can oppose abortion in principle without making it a crime under all circumstances. Another example is to label Jim Wallis or any other writer a "Democratic shill" because of support for particular policies that Democrats support, or criticism of Bush or Republicans. Minimal research would show that we praise Republican voices when we agree with their positions and criticize Democrats when we disagree with theirs, measuring both by our principles. But this post isn't meant to recycle those debates. It's to encourage commenters - on all sides of these issues - to have the intellectual integrity to discuss issues without caricaturing opponents as a way of writing off their views.
We are not simply complaining about conservative critics. Some of the worst vitriol in our comments has been from self-described liberals. We've even been accused of censorship for removing opposing views (even admirably so by those who disagreed with the comments that were removed). However, it should be clear to anyone reading our comments that we allow plenty of opposing viewpoints to be expressed. Applying our guidelines as consistently as possible, we routinely remove posts that insult our critics, and agree with the desire for honest and civil discourse expressed by many of you:
If you have an axe to grind, I, and I think most people on the blog, would appreciate not hearing about it. If your comments are intended to elevate the discourse, well, that is the intention of a blog such as this. With some of the sensitive issues that are discussed on this blog it is not surprising that there are strong opinions, but complaining without providing solutions and attacking the character of a person who posts their thoughts does nothing to positively contribute to the discussion. So, are you elevating or grinding?
So, here's the deal. After much deliberation we've decided to take the more serious step of permanently blocking individuals that violate the rules of conduct more than a certain number of times. We will warn them via email before blocking them to give them one last chance. You have our pledge that we will apply this policy without partiality to the ideas expressed, but solely to the manner. The way we see it, we've opened our house to you all for some vigorous conversation. We expect strong views to be expressed. But like any good host, we will ask a rude guest to leave if they are being abusive. This is common practice on other blogs and a far milder solution than some who have shut down comments altogether and only respond to hand-picked comments via e-mail - an option we'd rather not take.
No doubt this announcement will stir debate, which we anticipate and welcome.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners.