Commenting Here: Some Advice


This past weekend saw some bad behavior in the comments, to the extent that a few readers were contacting me to either point it out or complain about it or ask whether the comments policy had changed. 

I don’t spend all of my time monitoring Daily Nous. By the time I got around to reading the problematic exchange, it had been up a while. Rather than delete it, I’ve left it up as instructive example of a way online interactions can go wrong. There is no mistaking it for anything else.

It has been a while since I’ve drawn attention to the comments policy. This part of it got a fair amount of attention when Daily Nous began four years ago:

Before you comment, imagine the following. You are seated in a comfortable chair at a table with all of the other commentators. You have gathered to discuss an issue of mutual concern, and you are aiming to learn something from the conversation. Take off your shoes if you’d like. Wriggle your toes. Appreciate the wonders of everyday life in the twenty-first century. On the table in front of you is your favorite beverage. Through the window is your favorite view. And seated next to you is a child, who you brought with you for a lesson on how to discuss controversial issues with strangers. Are you imagining all of that? Okay, now you may be in the right mindset to comment.

The idea, as I’ve said before, is to keep things in perspective and try to have a productive conversation.

At some point, I added the following:

Daily Nous is an online space for philosophers, academics, students, and other interested parties to discuss news and issues related to philosophy and the philosophy profession. People disagree about these things, and the discussions can get heated at times. Those participating should be able to distinguish between criticisms of ideas and arguments, on the one hand, and personally insulting rhetoric, on the other. Sometimes the latter can be disguised in the words used for the former, so please choose your words carefully. If you’re making a criticism, please do it kindly. And if your ideas and arguments are on the receiving end of criticism, please don’t take it personally.

More generally, let’s aim for more thoughtfulness and less obnoxiousness. Humor and lightheartedness are welcome. Just don’t act like a jerk.

Let me now share a few other pieces of advice based on my experiences writing for large groups of people on the open internet:

  • Context is helpful; read the whole post or comment you’re replying to. You don’t want to get riled up about some point and comment on it only to find out that a later sentence or paragraph affects what you would have said.
  • Tone matters; try to be polite. Philosophers are people, too, and like everyone else usually respond better to criticism and calls for cooperation when these criticisms and calls treat them as members of the community entitled to be approached with politeness.
  • Words underdetermine tone; read in a friendly voice. It is easy to impute a bad attitude to the author of a piece of writing with which you disagree. The author may have a bad attitude or not, but usually it is best for the conversation to assume not: authors can be shamed out of commenting with a bad attitude by interlocutors who treat them as meaning well.
  • You will be underestimated; don’t dwell on that. For example, you may be harshly criticized for ignoring an obvious point in your comment that you in fact considered but didn’t judge worth writing about at the time. It is natural to feel insulted and annoyed by this, and it is tempting to reply in an insulting or harsh manner. Don’t. Not only is it unproductive, but it ignores the fact that we’re all in the situation of not knowing exactly what other people know, and there are bound to be missteps. (When people later call me out for emphasizing tone, above, and instruct me on how tone policing is sometimes used as a tool of oppression, I will keep this advice in mind.)
  • Your personality is not an excuse. Sometimes people give themselves a pass for behaving badly online by saying “that’s the way I am” or “I treat everyone this way,” or “people are used to me.” All this tells people is that you’ve been a problem for a while now, and worse, you know it. This is the opposite of an excuse, and you should try to do better.
  • People make mistakes; when you make one, admit it. We’re philosophers—it matters much more that we leave the conversation with a better understanding than that we began the conversation being right. Concede points as necessary, avoid overconfident posturing, acknowledge mistakes. Be “no less happy to be refuted than to refute.” This goes a long way towards showing people you’re worth engaging with.

Further suggestions welcome.

Lorna Simpson, “Five Day Forecast”

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