A Note On Making Discussions Here Better

We often have vigorous and contentious discussions in the comments here at Daily Nous, and this past week—with its focus on philosophizing about transgender issues—was no exception (see here and here).

I’m happy to provide a public square for the profession to have these kinds of discussions, and I appreciate those who contribute to them in informative, insightful, helpful, and creative ways.

That said, I think there are some steps we could take to make the conversations here better. What follows are some suggestions that I hope people take into account when commenting here, in addition to adhering to the comments policy.

  1. Avoid contentious, evidenceless generalizations. Don’t say, for example, “various S’s say X”  without providing at least the rudimentary details (names, at least?) of some number—at least 3?—of specific instances of S’s saying X. Don’t say, “there are never any T’s at Y’s,” without providing several examples of Y’s at which T’s should be expected. And for the love of the availability heuristic don’t respond to this request by saying that everyone knows the generalization you are making is true. Not everyone knows. And if it is in fact something to know, let’s get some details so we can be epistemically responsible. [Insert joke generalizing about how Justin always mentions the availability heuristic here.] (I understand that there may in some cases be good reasons for refraining from providing details; however, being unwilling to spend the time and effort to find and describe them is not such a reason.)
  2. Avoid needlessly using or mentioning provocative terminology or labels. As someone who has been moderating these discussions for a while now, I’ve noticed how even the mere mention of certain terms—let alone their use—negatively affects conversation quality. Certain words, even when merely mentioned, can generate angry responses and insulting exchanges, alienate other contributors, and attract trolls. And sometimes, those words themselves become the subject of the conversation, derailing discussion of the post. Maybe you don’t think the term should be provocative, and maybe you are right that it shouldn’t. But if you suspect it is, try to use other, less provocative words to make your point. (Yes, my wording in this suggestion violates suggestion 1, but that’s because I’m giving priority to suggestion 2.)
  3. Avoid insulting, dramatic language (especially those adverbs). You don’t need to say that a view is “astonishingly” wrong-headed, “astoundingly” ignorant, or “ridiculously” irrelevant. That dramatic language is needlessly antagonistic (and, at the risk of violating this very suggestion, alas, it comes off as rather juvenile.) Just explain the mistakes, provide the missing information, steer things back on course, etc.
  4. Remember that you are speaking to your colleagues; be a good colleague. There are various heuristics one could use to check oneself on this. Not all will be appropriate, but some of them should be. When commenting here, you should generally be able to agree with the following statements (note that these are about the way you are communicating, so put aside, for the moment, any worries about the specific content you’re communicating):
     I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone I have to work cooperatively with on an ongoing basis.
     I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone who I think is as smart as I am.
     I would speak this way, face-to-face, to someone whose feelings matter to me.
     I’m interpreting my interlocutor charitably.
     I am thinking not just about what I am intending with my comment, but also about what the likely result of my commenting in this way will be.

    Of course you don’t, in fact, have to work cooperatively with your fellow commenters on an ongoing basis, you may not think that they are as smart as you, and you may not care about their feelings. But that doesn’t matter for the task of figuring out how to positively contribute to a productive discussion here.

    And here are some warning signs. If you find that your comment expresses any of the following, chances are you are not making a positive contribution to the conversation:
     My interlocutor is in the grip of an ideology, while I am not.
     My interlocutor is falling prey to various cognitive biases, but I am not.
     My interlocutor is arguing in bad faith, while I am not.
     My interlocutor should be ashamed of what he or she said, but I am not going to explain why.
     My interlocutor just cares about his or her own ideas/subfield/friends/demographic group/power, while I care about philosophy.
    If you find your comments match up with these characterizations, you may want to hold off commenting, or revise your comment before posting it.

    I believe that keeping these heuristics in mind will help you communicate effectively and productively online, which is increasingly an important component of academic professionalism.

  5. Don’t sockpuppet. (To engage in sockpuppetry is to use multiple monikers in the same conversation.) I can understand if someone who regularly comments at Daily Nous under their own name wishes to use a pseudonym on a particularly sensitive thread here or there. That’s ok. But once you commit to a new moniker for commenting on a particular thread, that is the moniker you need to use for that thread. Don’t switch to another on that same thread. Doing so is usually manipulative and creates false impressions. (I understand that something in a conversation you’ve already joined might prompt you to wish you had used a pseudonym. Sorry. The administrative ease of having a simpler rule takes priority here.)

There’s more I can say, but this is already longer than I planned. If you haven’t ever done so, please take a look at the comments policy. I’ll spare you the details for now and just quote one line from it here: “More generally, let’s aim for more thoughtfulness and less obnoxiousness. Humor and lightheartedness are welcome. Just don’t act like a jerk.”

As someone who has sometimes unknowingly been the jerk, let me reiterate that bit of common sense that your parents probably told you when you were a teenager: “you don’t always know how you come off.”

You don’t always know—but that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. I hope that the suggestions in this post help. I also hope that those who have been reluctant to contribute to discussions here because of their dissatisfaction with the tenor of the comments decide to join in. To them I say, “be the commenter you want to read on the blog.”

Thanks for listening. I understand there is a risk that what I’ve written here will sound like scolding, despite my efforts to counteract that. If you feel scolded, I’m sorry. Perhaps you can take comfort in knowing that I’m aware that I’ve had my share of communicative failures, and that I’m also aware that I’m not aware of all of them.

As usual, your comments and suggestions are welcome.

P.S. I am currently in an airplane somewhere high above the Atlantic Ocean, traveling to a conference that I will be at all week. As a result, you can expect that my attention to DN will be somewhat reduced; there may be longer than usual delays if a comment needs moderation or an email needs a reply. Have a good weekend!

(photo by J. Weinberg)


A comment, which I will not be publishing because it is from someone repeatedly attempting to sockpuppet here, asks, “now you’re trying to tone police?”

Though I don’t appreciate the sockpuppeting, I do appreciate the opportunity this question affords, so I will answer it:

Yes, I am trying to tone police.

Presumed follow-up question: “Aren’t you aware that complaints about tone have long been criticized as tools by which the powerful have silenced the vulnerable and oppressed?”

Yes, I am aware of this criticism (heck, Mill made a version of it) and while I am aware of examples of the phenomenon of using complaints about tone to silence dissent, I am not convinced that, on balance, the norms of civil discourse are worse for the vulnerable and oppressed than their absence.

In any event, fortunately for all parties (myself included), I’m not laying down rules for the whole world. I’m just talking about what I’m hoping for in the comments section of this blog. Here, I am trying to foster the adoption of norms of communication that will lead to the productive, mutually respectful discussion of a variety of topics among professional colleagues (who are, after all, human beings with varying opinions, personalities, styles, sensitivities, capacities for self-control, etc.). In this particular context, I think everyone’s voice has a better chance of being heard under such conditions.

Does this mean that I think anger and outrage about the profession is never warranted? No. (I was once asked, in an interview, if there is anything philosophers are outraged by that they shouldn’t be, and my answer was “Yes: people in philosophy being outraged.”) It’s just that the comments section of a professional blog is not likely to be a place in which outrage—especially pseudonymously expressed outrage—does much beyond generate annoying flame wars, prompt amens from the relevant choir, and attract trolls.

Note that I’m not even saying that one can’t express anger in the comments here. Just do it responsibly and respectfully.

If you feel overly constrained by these norms, please consider that they’re also in place to help relieve you of having to deal with comments from others that would provoke, annoy, insult, or outrage you. Perhaps you don’t feel you need such relief. In that case, consider yourself lucky, and keep in mind that not everyone is as temperate and thick-skinned as you are.

Let’s talk. Let’s disagree. Let’s criticize. Let’s argue. The better we are to each other, the better we’ll be able to do those things, and the more of us there will be with whom to do them.

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