Dear SoJo Commenters: "This Aggression Will Not Stand, Man." | Sojourners

Dear SoJo Commenters: "This Aggression Will Not Stand, Man."

"Fulham Warning" via Wylio
"Fulham Warning" via Wylio

Dear Sojourners Commenters,

Please consider the following statement by the our modern sage, C.S. Lewis:

“We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters' side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents. Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance? Dogmatic assertions on matters which the children understand and their elders don't, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously sometimes of their religion insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question, 'Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?' Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

From time to time in every family — and Sojourners most assuredly is that — self-examination and correction is necessary.

This is one of those times.

In recent months, since we launched our re-designed website and blogs, we have noticed a turn in the comments sections that we wish to correct rather than celebrate. A hostile, uncivil trend has begun to pervade the comments and that is something that, we cannot abide. To quote from The Big Lebowski, "This aggression will not stand, man."

As many of you already know, our mission at Sojourners is this: "To articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world."

Transformation cannot come to the world or to individual people if we are unkind. We cannot build each other up by nonchalantly tearing one another down.

Lately, an insidious spirit of incivility has crept into the comments sections of the website that runs contrary to our stated mission and identity as, first and foremost, a Christian community where we are, as Jesus told us, meant to be known for our love.

I want to share with you an email we recently received from a new reader who we'll call Mary.

She says:

"I'm a 'refugee from conservative fundamentalism' who was initially pleased to discover Sojourners, your website and your blogs, and a social gospel — justice with a spiritual basis. I was also encouraged to see your blog comment posting policy. After reading a few excellent and thought-provoking blog entries, I was then very disturbed to read your comment streams and find out that despite your policy, they are in fact nastier than many of the non-Christian blogs out there. Why do you allow this hateful name-calling and cross-theological bashing (not to mention the hoards of commercial posters who are spamming your site to sell things)? I'm now discouraged and thinking I'll never find a web site that fully meets my political/spiritual/social interests. If I wanted to argue with conservative fundamentalists, I could have stayed in that church. I'd like this to be a site where those of us committed to a social gospel can talk about it and not have to engage in the same nasty culture wars that are happening everywhere else.  Besides, your web site states that you have a civility policy; accordingly, you ought to be enforcing it."

Mary is right. We do have a clearly stated policy governing our commenters and their comments called the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant, which we put in place a few years ago to combat a tenor of incivility on our website at the time. Considering the current state of affairs in our comments sections, it bears repeating. The covenant says:

·       I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

·       I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

·       I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

·       I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

·       I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)

We here at Sojourners have not been as diligent as we should be in policing our comments section and deleting comments — and reprimanding commenters — that violate that covenant. For this lapse in conscientiously attending to our duties, we apologize and ask your forgiveness.

Sojourners was created to be many things, including a safe place where an honest, candid and vibrant exchange of ideas between people of good can flourish. When a reader new to our community comes away from her experience on our website feeling decidedly unsafe, something must be done about it. Unfortunately, Mary is not the only reader who has expressed such feelings of insecurity — very real peril, spiritually or otherwise — of late.

Our staff writers and guest bloggers work very hard and intentionally at crafting dynamic and truthful pieces that will provoke what we collectively hope is respectful and lively discussion. But increasingly, what we have read in the comments sections is not that. Instead, many of the comments, both in content and in tone, are arrogant, nasty, mean, judgmental, unkind, often vicious and terribly uncivil.

As my colleagues at Sojourners know, if I had my druthers I would eliminate comments altogether because, in my experience as a journalist for nearly 20 years, the majority of the time they become little more than a bastion of the loony and the mean-hearted. Sadly, that experience has been much the same here at Sojourners. We are a Christian community and do not — nay, cannot — tolerate the same level of inhumanity and vitriol that other sites do.

The Great Conversation that we invite our readers to join here at must, by definition, be both civil and respectful. Our comments sections should be a safe harbor, different from the comments sections of any other websites and blogs that deal with the busy intersection of religion, politics and culture.

To that end, during the last few weeks Sojourners staff and management have had a great many discussions about how we might best address the issue of incivility in our comments sections and correct it. We are committed to preserving the comments sections as a vital part of our community and that Great Conversation, but not at the cost of hearts and minds that have been wounded by their experiences here.

We can disagree, and we must when our conscience so demands, but we must do it with kindness, open minds and open hearts.

Therefore, over the next few weeks we will be implementing several changes that we hope will aid in correcting some of the disturbing trends we've noticed in recent months.

1.   We no longer will be allowing anonymous comments or comments from faux identities. To that end, as soon as our web masters can work out all of the technical details, we will be requiring all commenters to register (and re-register in some cases) and sign in under their true identities, via their public Facebook or Twitter accounts (or similar.) We are taking this step in the hope that folks will be less inclined to be uncivil or unkind if their real identity is known. In reading some of the nastier comments on our site, we've wondered whether the authors would be as bold in making such statements if they had to walk up to the targets of their vitriol and say it to their faces. We suspect not.

2.   We will be installing "like" buttons on each of our blog posts next to the "report abuse" or "report spam" buttons, so that our readers can laud constructive comments and alert us — and each other — to comments that violate our covenant of behavior. We will also be offering readers the option of viewing all comments for a given blog post by "most liked," as well as in chronological order (either from newest to oldest, or oldest to newest.)

3.   We will be far more diligent in deleting comment that are abusive and also blocking commenters who chronically violate our covenant of behavior, as is our right as an organization. Commenting on is a privilege, not a right. Those who abuse the comments sections and violate the "safe place" we seek to create with incivility will not be allowed to participate in it.

4.   We will be encouraging our authors to engage more directly and often with commenters with the hope that they can provide clarity when the content or intention of their posts have been misunderstood or misconstrued.

It is our sincere hope that these steps will go a long way to correcting the behavior in the comments section that should not be tolerated in a community anchored in love.

A word about SPAM:

First, we want to thank to those of you who have brought the recent onslaught of spam posts on the site to our attention. We are working with our technical folks here at Sojourners to do everything in our ability to rid the site of the vast majority — if not all — spam on the site.

Our new website platform has built-in filters that are supposed to (and do) catch many of the spam comments sent to the site. However, in recent weeks we have become the target of a new kind of spammer. Rather than the spam sent by web-bots —digital programs that automatically create and send spam messages en masse to random targets — human spammers who are paid a small fee to hand-produce spam messages and comments have infiltrated our site. These are much more difficult for spam filters to catch and delete, but we are working to implement new technologies that will, we hope, eliminate this kind of spam as well.

We know how annoying the spam is and we are working hard to rid the site of it completely.

Thank you for your patience and for extending us grace while we work through all of these new technological hiccups.

Thank you, as well, for your enthusiasm for the Sojourners community and our work. In the coming months and years, we pray that the website and our community writ large will be a dynamic place worthy of hosting part of The Great Conversation, and a family known far and wide by its love.

May the peace and grace of God be with each and every one of you.

Because of the One,

Cathleen Falsani
Web Editor and Director of New Media