Should we be polite on blogs?

The old saying ‘politeness costs nothing’ doesn’t have much status anymore.  Especially not in the untamed wilderness that is the internet. You’ll also hear a lot of chat about how the ‘call to civility’ stifles debate and discussion of the really contentious issues.  I don’t buy that for a second.  I will agree that establishing rules of civility has been an effective tool of oppression, ensuring that uncomfortable truths can be easily ignored because they weren’t phrased right, but that is not and has never been an acceptable excuse for the dreadful conduct that is often witnessed on various internet forums and blogs.

I suppose it all depends what your goals are.  I blog because I like writing and I like chemistry.  I also like to keep a record of stuff I read, or see that this interesting.  I don’t blog to be particularly controversial or incendiary like some do.  I think that type of behaviour alienates a lot of reasonable readers.  I also think that those who speak so strongly about the right to be rude if required are the ones who frequently hold the most privileged position of all in the debate: that of blog owner or forum moderator.  And you can bet that they are reserving the ‘right’ to censor anyone who is too impolite or disagreeable.

Rudeness during debates is often a knee-jerk response, the instinctive and ill-considered comment that indicates limited engagement with the dissenting opinions (that the majority probably hold).  Engage with a difficult topic?  Engage with a different view point?  Far easier just to issue a vague attempt at a witty yet offensive rebuke and go back to tending one’s own disillusions.    No need to even consider that the other opinion may have some validity or merit.  Rudeness or incivility is as much a form of oppression and demonstration of privileged as having a  requirement for people to be polite.  I think people would do well to remember that.

Of course I write this from a British perspective, a point of view that sits quite uneasily in any discussion of rights, oppression and privileged.  But therein lies another point: on the internet no one knows your cultural background.  Wouldn’t it be simpler to acknowledge that the differences in opinion, so often expressed, may be a function of that difference rather than cultivated prejudice or real ignorance?  Benefit of the doubt,  another great expression that is underused on the internet.

10 Replies to “Should we be polite on blogs?”

  1. I think that one think people should bear in mind when thinking about this issue is that as a general internet rule, offence taken=offence intended*>10. Hence, I feel it is always sensible to err on the side of caution.

    Unless, of course, you’re more interested in hits and a certain notoriety than interesting discussions. But I’m sure that’s rare

  2. I don’t like rudeness and aggression on blogs/internet and shy away from it. For example I will “unfollow” people on Twitter even if I agree with their views, if they express them in childlishly immature and petulant (and profane) ways. I don’t think “politeness” is necessary, necessarily – you can have robust debate without being rude and alienating everyone sensible. I know that points can be made in a rational fashion without rudeness or slang, etc, and are all the stronger for it. They also make the writer look more mature than a writer who is just acting out and unable to control their impulses.

    Looking at it another way round, what is to be gained by rudeness? I can’t see that anything is. You can be direct, plain and honest without needing to also be rude.

    And, a lot is lost by rudeness, for example the vast majority of people who don’t join in blogs and internet groups professionally because of their childish, ill-informed and petty nature. Which is very sad, because good blogs and discussion forums are very useful and vald (even entertaining) places for debate of issues – without barriers.

  3. I moderated on a discussion forum for quite some time, there were a few people who were loved by people who met them in person but hated by those that had only interacted with them online.

    There’s huge scope for mis-understanding online because compared to face-to-face or even ear-to-ear communication it’s exceedingly low bandwidth.

    I attempt to err on the side of politeness

  4. The thing that annoys me the most, and makes me instantly lose respect for the blogger and interest for anything (s)he has to say, is the combination of rudeness, arrogance, foul language, self-righteousness on the one hand, and anonymity on the other.
    I say, if you are such an iconoclast, an enfant terrible, if you are so eager to trespass boundaries and be controversial, if you want to shock, it’s all great — just sign your name at the end and live with the consequence. Otherwise, shut the hell up.

    I like your new blog !

  5. Hear Hear!

    I’ve written before (tangentially, in the linked post) about the American dominance of the scientific blogosphere, and the resulting assumption by many US-based bloggers that all of their readers are also American. I have found that dissenting commenters from other cultural backgrounds get a rougher time of it than dissenting Americans; the cultural differences just aren’t being taken into account. It would be nice if US bloggers who like to tell people to examine their privilege would acknowledge that being American in a predominantly American blogosphere is just another privilege!

    (Mind you, I’m British AND Canadian, so I’m doubly polite. A few weeks ago I was walking through a park on a very narrow concrete path, with mud on both sides. Someone was walking towards me on the same path. We both politely stepped to one side and walked in the mud, rather than have one person stay dry. It made me smile).

    One wonders what the blogosphere would look like if it had evolved differently and was mostly British, or German, or Indian, or Brazilian, or…

    In response to Massimo, I do understand some of the reasons why bloggers would want to be pseudonymous. But yeah, I do tend to prefer reading real-name bloggers these days, or at least pseudonymous bloggers who have told me their real name in private.

    One last point: Personally, bad language doesn’t bother me, and I see it as a different issue to civility. You can be devastatingly rude to someone using the cleanest of language, whereas many of my friends use very offensive words in an affectionate way within our little group!

  6. Cath, I fully understand the reasons for anonymity — even though, as you know, I share your preferences. I am talking about the combination of anonymity and rudeness, aggressive behaviour, insolence.
    I say, if you are not going to have the testicular attributes to sign your name at the end, then I think you will look more respectable to the community if you keep your ‘fuck’, ‘asshole’ and what have you to yourself and your close friends…

  7. Well I also get the anonymity thing but as there have been many legal rulings and trial by newspaper rulings – there is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet.
    I take comfort in the notion that the folks Massimo is referring to will get their just desserts sometime.

    Swearing – well, I get that it can be affectionate within a group of close friends, but as Chris has written above – on the internet offence taken = offence intended. Unless you are really sure of who is reading your comments, or can style the comment in a way that your intention is ambiguous, its probably best to steer clear of the affectionate f-bombing 🙂

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