The Value of Aspirational Rules

In my part of the physical and digital world, discourse has gotten a lot more polarized in recent years. People are less likely to presume good intent and are more likely to take the worst possible view of another’s words. People are less likely to consider nuanced positions and instead take binary views: either you’re fully on my side or you’re a bad person. People are more likely to take things out of context or ignore the time and place in which something now objectionable was said.

People aren’t doing this for jollies; it happens because people are hurt, have been systematically hurt for years or decades or longer (personally or as part of a group), and want it to stop — and because fast, available, many-to-many communication has finally given people a platform to raise their voices. People want to make society safer and less hurtful — worthy goals! People want to be heard.

Owners and moderators of platforms and public spaces are now more mindful of their roles in public discourse. Many have concluded that aspirational rules like “be nice” or “treat others as you would like to be treated” or Victorian Sufi Buddha Lite don’t work. Instead, rule lists and codes of conduct grow more detailed as new ways to cause discomfort arise. Unfortunately, the authors of these tomes don’t always follow their own rules or consider how those rules can be misused.

We need to stop doing that. I don’t mean “don’t have rules”; I mean we need the aspirational, nuanced, people-oriented rules to be front and center, even though they don’t come with easy checklists. We need to use them with a dose of humanity and thoughtfulness, and we need to be willing to examine individual cases with transparency, working together with our communities.

Gavel in front of thick book.
(licensed under Creative Commons)

A Case Study

(Reflections follow. This case is an illustration.)

There was an incident on Stack Overflow this week. A new user had gone looking for, and found, some old posts on the network’s religion communities about a sensitive topic, and argued that the site’s code of conduct barred those posts. The user raised the concern publicly, with selective quotes and links. Some of the material was problematic by today’s standards; some was not.

Raising a concern wasn’t wrong. Publicly calling some of the posts bigoted, on the other hand, was wrong. In alleging violations of the code of conduct, the user violated the code of conduct’s rules against name-calling.

What happened next? Two community managers allowed the name-calling to stand. When asked about it, one of them said explicitly that the name-calling was not a code violation! Calling other users names is still ok at Stack Overflow, it seems, so long as the person doing it has the “right” characteristics (demographics, friendships, 20k Twitter followers, whatever). Feeling hurt changes the rules.

This hurts everybody. It hurts the person who wrote a well-sourced post on a difficult topic. It hurts the members of the communities that are now being painted as bigoted and wondering if they dare answer the next difficult question. It hurts the members of marginalized groups and others working constructively to reduce bigotry, by validating hostile methods.

Under the aspirational rules that Stack’s code of conduct replaced, name-calling would never have been acceptable. I had hoped that in the years since the blog post that launched the “welcome wagon” and the tweet that launched attacks against moderators and one community, the folks at Stack would have learned more about de-escalation, working with people, and avoiding double standards.

Reflections

I don’t mean for this post to be about Stack’s ongoing failures. I brought the case as an example, as context for my own reflections.

I had moderated mailing lists before, but I really began to learn about moderation when I joined Mi Yodeya, an outstanding online Jewish community. From my first days there, I saw the good behavior and the gentle approach modeled by its moderators and community leaders. Their approach seemed natural in that context especially, as it fits in with some core Jewish values — values like “what is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Rabbi Hillel) and “do not place a stumbling-block before the blind” (Leviticus) and “judge others favorably” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers).

These are values I strive to live every day, online and offline. Quite aside from their status as religious commandments, they make practical sense. It is far, far easier to resolve a difference if I approach it with the presumption that I am misunderstanding something or lack some information. Sometimes it’s a matter of education (sometimes mutual education). A spirit of cooperativeness, a little humility, and using “I” language rather than “you” language can be very powerful. Instead of accusations and assertions of truth, it’s more effective to talk about how things are received. Accusations shut down conversations; sharing feelings without rancor advances them.

Even when I know I’m right, approaching a dispute this way allows the other to save face. In a religious community where slander is akin to murder, preventing embarrassment is pretty important.

I’ve sometimes been criticized for this gentler approach, told that I’m giving trolls too much leeway or too much of a platform. Gentle does not mean wussy, though. I’ve had to kick people out of communities for consistent, unrepentant bad behavior. It’s sad but sometimes necessary; sometimes dialogue doesn’t work. Dialogue is still the first thing to try, though, before reaching for the hammer.

I’ve had my share of failures when trying to resolve disputes, either judging too soon or letting someone with bad intentions (as it turned out) drain too much from me. I’m not perfect and I’m still learning. But I still believe the path of humility is the better path. Over the years people have said a lot of things to me that, as a woman or Jew or person with a disability, I find offensive and tiring. The vast majority of them didn’t know, and as for the rest, trolls out themselves pretty quickly. If I tell somebody “knock it off, that’s antisemitic” or, worse yet, “you’re antisemitic”, then not only have I jumped to a conclusion that might not actually be true, but I’ve doomed any chance of resolving the issue and teaching the person that that phrasing or that meme or whatever is problematic. We know that doesn’t work, so it’s better to try the path that might work.

People are complicated. The best tools to deal with complicated people are the ones that help us to engage constructively with the human being at the other end of the connection. That might call for discussion, interpretation, and working together, which takes time and effort. But what’s the alternative?

We should never lose sight of our aspirational principles; we should keep them front and center at all times.

Community lead on Codidact, building a better platform for online communities: https://www.codidact.com. By the community, for the community. Opinions mine.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store