Friday, November 13, 2015

Writer Participation/Moderation As an Ethical Duty?

[Content note: Transphobia]

Sociological Images is a blog I've long admired, read, and (at times) participated in via the comment section.

The comment section there has often had its share of anti-feminist/anti-LGBT/anti-progressive commenters, which I've engaged with.

As part of my somewhat-regular series on blogging and civility, today I want to raise the topic of what responsibilities a blog forum and/or an individual writer might have with respect to comment moderation. By "responsibility" I'm not referring to a legal responsibility, but more of an ethical one. Although blogging is no longer a new practice, I don't think standard practices or thoughts really exist.

What raised this topic, for me, was Lisa Wade's recent post drawing parallels between the practice of using fear-mongering about white women's safety to justify both racist and transphobic discrimination with respect to restrooms.  

As of the time I'm writing this post, 31 comments follow the post, with about half of them being opposed to allowing transgender individuals to determine for themselves which restrooms they should use. About half are in favor of transgender self-determination, and a few are the typical oddball non sequitur comments of the type to be expected following virtually any post anywhere on Internet.

On principle, I'm not opposed to discussions that people consent to enter into about controversial topics, even if by having those discussions it may suggest that a matter of human dignity should be a debatable topic. Even if the person being argued with isn't convinced in that instance to change their mind, witnesses to the conversation sometimes are.

What is more troubling, to me, is tolerating commentary that is solely abusive, without the blogowner/blogger addressing it, such as:
"Trans women are males." 
Like, that's it. That's the person's entire comment. Deep thoughts with "Imelda B." Being a conclusion without an argument, it doesn't contribute significantly to the discourse, engage the original post, or do anything other than inflict more abuse on trans people.

Now, Lisa Wade is an academic and my experience with some academics who blog is that they don't often engage in comment sections following their posts (and I don't think I've ever seen her engage in the comments of any of her posts, but I can't say for certain whether that's happened ever). I experienced a similar phenomenon as a guest blogger at Family Scholars Blog (before Anna, Barry, and I broke it with our progressiveness, HA HA JUST KIDDING!!!), which would grant space to various academics to post articles. Only very rarely would most of these academics participate in the sometimes-very-active (and quite contentious) discussion threads that their posts generated.

I have no idea why, and this is only my experience - and I do know that comment moderation and participating in online discussions take time and resources. So, perhaps that's the issue. Whatever the case, I find that when academics blog, they often treat the practice as though its more akin to a writing a news article (after which journalists rarely engage in comment threads) than a blog post.

However, as I wrote in the comment thread at Sociological Images, I would argue that it's somewhat irresponsible/troubling to post topics about marginalized members of society such as trans* individuals (particularly if one is not a member of that group) and then to stand back (as in, not participate in the broader discussion, and not moderate comments) when a sort of "anything goes" commentary about that group is going on, much of which, yes, actually is abusive toward that group.

I'm not wedded to my opinions at this point, and would enjoy some broader perspectives on this issue.  Lots of people have lots of different opinions on comment moderation, as it's something that's really hard to do well - and as a blogger myself, I'm sensitive to that.

I think what is irking me is when writers bring up a controversial issue that seriously impacts people's lives and then ghosting when people talk about it like complete jerks. As I often feel during conversations with anti-gay individuals, I think there can be substantial class and privilege aspects to starting discussions when they are, from the writer's perspective, purely theoretical/abstract rather than lived.

Does the academic becomes less an educator and more an instigator of, well, an online discussion forum where any opinion is welcome to the table merely because someone has one?

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