Monday, May 17, 2010

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals of Anonymous Criticism of Real People And Things

This is not meant to be a statement of Official Philosophy Smoker Policy.

Some dumb asshole recently left a staggeringly ignorant and racist comment in one of our comment threads. In the ensuing discussion, the point was raised that this is the downside of permitting anonymous commentary.

I've been thinking about this lately because a little while ago, in a discussion thread concerning some content I lifted from some other blog, someone left an anonymous comment about the author of that other blog that was about 80% vicious invective (much of which was empirically false) and about 20% actual content. The person who was the topic of this comment wrote to me to ask why we would approve a comment like that, when it was so obviously a personal smear and made such a negligible contribution to the debate.

I told this person that I published the comment mostly because of the 20% of it that I thought was worthwhile. I also said that I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I think that there is a huge value in letting the dickheads have their say. I think there is no value at all in maintaining a public illusion that there are no dickheads, and I think there is a tremendous value in allowing the dickheads themselves to demonstrate once and for all that they have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion.

Here's an example of this sort of thing in action: when we were (mostly) celebrating the APA's new anti-discrimination policy, there was a not insubstantial subset of commenters who opposed the policy, and who articulated the following reason for doing so: since the guy who presented the petition to the APA works at Colorado @ Boulder, and that department lacks homosexuals, there must be something or other wrong with something or other. Another thing that came up was that I, Mr. Zero, must be (secretly) gay (even though I already conceal my identity), or else I wouldn't care so much about the injustices heaped on gays. I allowed this discussion to go on for kind of a long time because it served the important purpose of demonstrating that there was very, very little serious opposition to the policy.

I also think it's worth pointing out that we almost never get comments like these. I approve well over 99% of the comments we receive, and although we've had a few problems where somebody is being a real dickhead, these have been isolated and rare. If we had a problem with abusive comments or something, I would consider adopting a more heavy-handed policy. But we don't. Other people have more restrictive comment-approval policies, and these policies appear to work well for them, but ours seems to work quite well for us. Almost all our comments are thoughtful, respectful, and intelligent. The comment about how Asians are treated at Harvard and Auburn, for example, was swiftly and completely demolished.

I think we have a really great community here. And that's why I'm proud to be a Smoker.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

So are you denying that something or other is wrong with something or other? If so, I await your argument.

Jeff C. said...

An interesting read that touches on anonymous internet posting:

Dr. Killjoy said...

I must say, I'm not a fan of your libertarian-paternalism switch-hitting. If you think that banning the pure bile that was the relevant offending post is heavy-handed, then you have a pretty fucked up notion of what it is to be heavy-handed.

Either put an end to the moderator charade and let the blog police itself or get your "hand" out of the featherweight division and put a stop to all of the bullshit troll idiocy.

If you moderate the blog to guard against spiteful, racist, unsubstantiated rumor-mongering personal-attack posts, then either fucking get to work or back the fuck off--your current namby-pamby model fucking stinks.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Killjoy never taught the fallacy of false dichotomy .... as George Bush said, you're either with us or you're against us ... so, let's move on ... the moderator is doing an excellent job ... keep it up!

Anonymous said...

If you aren't familiar with John Gabriel's ground-breaking work on anonymous internet posting, you should read up on his Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. It's a short read.

zombie said...

All I know is, somebody or other is gay.

Anonymous said...

Of course, this blog does not purport to be analogous to the New England Journal of Medicine, But...

I think it would be a bad idea to let all the pseudo-scientific wacko's publish their ideas in a print or online-blog version of a (western, scientific) medical journal. Similarly, I am in with the group of people who simply do not discuss Holocaust denial - I do not waste my time debating it with tragically miseducated people, and I believe publicly explaining why wackos are wackos just gives the wackos more limelight.

Of course, the context really matters, but roughly, most wackos will not learn from reasoned debate. Many of them are hopeless. Some of them might turn a bit a way from the wacko-dark side if they really commit to spending immense amounts of time with a highly proficient, extremely patient, special education, learning specialist - though that does not happen very often.

I say ban the wackos. Freely and quickly delete their nonsense (including that alleged 20%).

GTChristie said...

In another blog I follow, there is a similar problem. There's one fellow who doesn't even read the blog of the day before posting a rant. He gets deleted -- daily. A frequent reader can catch the rant (totally open posting allowed) but it disappears in a few minutes. This means the host must police the place constantly. Another fellow is not a good philosopher and his points are banal, but he is an honest poster and tolerated. Difference between a dickwad and a featherweight. The host does not pre-screen at all, just polices, but it takes up a lot of his time. He's finding it necessary to eliminate anonymous posts. Part of the problem is that Google Blogger does not allow blocking by user ID or URL to permanenty scotch repeat offenders (there are third-party plugins available however).

In a phi blog, I personally want to be anonymous sometimes just so a mistaken or ill-advised statement can't dog the rest of my career. Frankly I have some personal opinions that do not match (or are irrelevant to) my published work, so I'm anon sometimes to prevent confusion. But I'm willing to give up my anonymity if it means not wading through profanity laced invectives that fail to advance a point under discussion, and I think preventive moderation, while it contradicts the "free market of ideas" meme, is justified. And certainly a blog run by philosophers should be able to distinguish between a mere fool and a dickwad, so ... prior restraint is just good housekeeping.

You're already approving the comments anyhow. I say filter it.

Anonymous said...

If person X is a dickhead, does that mean that their head looks like a dick or that they are a dick's head? Which is more insulting?

Word verification: muslimpe (Muslim Phys. Ed.)

Anonymous said...

Well,its hardly cut and dried what counts as pseudo-science.

We benefit from having the largest possible scope of debate. Crazy ideas sometimes turn out to be true.

But the point of the OP dealt with assholes, not wackos. But I thought the case was well made. Let the dickwads express themselves. They will hang themselves by their own petard (whatever a petard is, never quite got that...)

Anonymous said...

The phrase "hoist with his own petard" comes from Hamlet. Wikipedia nicely provides the passage:

There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

A petard is an old weapon of war -- a bomb used for breaching fortifications. The idea is just that the dickwads' bile will boomerang.

Mr. Zero said...

Dr. Killjoy,

I thought I made it clear that I do not moderate to guard against bile. I was trying to articulate my reasons for deliberately letting the bile through.

Also, perhaps I should point out that one of the most prominent reasons we moderate comments is to protect our identities.

anon 7:30,

You can win an argument with a wacko without convincing the wacko he's wrong. Even if the wacko doesn't learn anything, someone who is skeptical that such wackos exist, or are skeptical that (say) philosophers of Asian ethnicity are subject to vile racism, might learn something.

Dr. Killjoy said...

Mr. Zero,

If the principal reason behind the moderation is to protect anonymity, then fair play to you. If that's the case, however, why feel the need to explain your reasons behind allowing racist personal-attack posts in terms of some specious value claim?

If your policy is more or less: "Fuck it! As long as the post doesn't say 'Mr. Zero is actually So-and-So', let that shit through", then I have no quarrel--just don't try to sell me on the benefits of allowing transparently racist or misogynist anonymous posts that do nothing more than level purely ad hominem invective at actual living, working philosophers.

Mr. Zero said...

Dr. Killjoy,

Perhaps you're saying that I haven't stated any reasons for not filtering out the bile. If that's what you're saying, I invite you to read the post you're commenting on. For in that post, I state two reasons: 1. it demonstrates that prejudice is real; and 2. it demonstrates that the prejudice is unreasoned.

But perhaps you're saying that allowing the bile does not have these effects, or that these effects are not good reasons. If that's the case, perhaps you could articulate your reasons for thinking so. Saying my reasons are specious is not an argument that they are specious.

I mean, look. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the harms associated with allowing racist dickheads to spew bile outweigh the benefits. Maybe there are no benefits. But it seems to me that a lot of people naively assume that these kinds of racism, sexism, and homophobia do not exist in philosophy, and that there is therefore no need for us, as a profession, to deliberately compensate for it. But this argument is specious, because this assumption is false. And (it seems to me that) the most effective way to demonstrate this is to allow the dickheads to do the work themselves.

If that's wrong and I should change my policy, now's your chance to explain why.

Anonymous said...

The benefit of being open and allowing anonymity is that people can say what they really think. This is also the chief drawback.

For this reason I think it is best if there is a mix of sites: some with moderation, some without. This one has been pretty open and I would like it to stay that way. Publish everything except spam.

If someone is wrong or hateful, say so. To be honest, I don't see the problem with publishing hideously racist or sexist comments. What exactly is this going to cause? I don't think it likely that the readership of this blog will be converted to such views, and the response that such views attract does rather warm the heart.

There is probably a point where banning someone is a good idea. Say if someone posts hideously offensive stuff 10 times every thread. But then ban publicly and explain the reasons for such a ban.

Anyway, the day I can no longer slander strangers on the innerwebz is the day give up technology and join the Aamish. So my vote is for openness.

glymoom said...

I wonder how strict your moderating policy really is ... you bastard.

Anonymous said...

New rule: When your name is mentioned in an article in the New York Times, then you're fair game. Otherwise, not.

Personally, I don't think that there have been any racist slurs, just innuendos that there was some tokenism in hiring--which could have been based on race or pedigree. If the pedigree is questionable (given that it took him 18 years to finish, and the average is probably far less than that), then all we have left is his race. Of course, his work could be of exceptional quality, but it just takes him longer than usual to complete it.

Most of us would agree, though, that if you take task X which is integral to doing a job, and if a person does that task in time Y, where Y far exceeds the average time Z that it takes most skilled task-doers, then the person who does it in time Y is considered incompetent (e.g. if it took my plumber 3 years to fix my leaking septic tank, I'd fire him for incompetency and hire someone else).

not a white man said...

The choice to publish racist bile is one thing; the choice to publish racist bile with identifying information is another thing. You are anonymous, and so are your commenters. But the objects of the racist comments are not anonymous. That really doesn't seem fair.

Dr. Killjoy said...

Mr. Zero,

Here's our disagreement.

You seem to think that there is a significant (enough) percentage of the readership who "naively assume that these kinds of racism, sexism, and homophobia do not exist in philosophy" to warrant allowing folks to anonymously post not only racist, sexist, or homophobic rants but also unsubstantiated rumor about or ad hominem vitriol directed towards named (explicitly or implicitly) professional philosophers.

Even were I to buy into your rather dim view of the epistemic and cognitive capacities of your readership, I still would think that fails to warrant allowing anonymously posted ad hominem attacks against professional philosophers (be they racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise).

Do you seriously think that allowing an anonymous poster to call (implicitly naming) a professional philosopher an untalented and undeserving token minority hire does anyone any favor at all, let alone one sufficient to underwrite even in part any sort of defensible moderation policy?

Like I said before, if your concern is protecting anonymity, then I understand (and more or less with you). If your concern is greater then mere anonymity protection (which it seems to be), then at least have the mettle to admit that you shouldn't have allowed that shit through in the first place. Sure, some of the readers are dumbfucks (I occasionally join their ranks), but I sincerely doubt that the cure to dumbfuckery is more dumbfuckery.

If some shitheel Anon wants to rant about the darkies, homos, and ladies stealing jobs, let him/her go nuts. It shouldn't be too much to ask, however, to delete those shitheels who rant that Jane Doe, resident darkie homo at State Univ., only has a job because she is a female, darkie, homo. Any reader for which such a post could provide a non-negligible (let alone trumping) benefit is already an incurable dumbfuck.

As always, Mr. Zero, it has been a pleasure. Most times, I quite like your snake oil, but alas, this time I am not buying.

Anonymous said...

I think the assumption most people on this blog work on is that it's not cool to spew out hatred towards particular philosophers... except for Brian Leiter.

Socrates said...

2.15pm: how long does it usually take to complete exceptional work?! The point is that most tenured philosophers *never* complete exceptional work. Thus if someone completes exceptional work after 18 years then he is doing better than most philosophers.

And whether he happens to submit it for his PhD or not, is neither here nor there.

Socrates said...


Zombie 4.55: I heard that too, so it must be true.

zombie said...

"Most of us would agree, though, that if you take task X which is integral to doing a job, and if a person does that task in time Y, where Y far exceeds the average time Z that it takes most skilled task-doers, then the person who does it in time Y is considered incompetent (e.g. if it took my plumber 3 years to fix my leaking septic tank, I'd fire him for incompetency and hire someone else)."

I don't know that most of us would agree with this. With plumbing, I certainly want a job done in a timely manner. I like to think that the standards for having done a good (or adequate or excellent) job in plumbing are different than they are for philosophy, for writing novels, for composing symphonies, for any number of creative endeavors. This is nothing against plumbers. They do invaluable work. They just don't do the same kind of work that philosophers, novelists, and others who write lengthy tomes do.

It took James Joyce 7 years to write Ulysses, and 17 years to write Finnegan's Wake. I suppose if we were going to judge his competence to teach based on time to completion alone, he would be incompetent to teach writing, while Stephanie Meyer, since she cranks out those vampire books much faster, would be judged very competent. And likewise, the PhD who cranks out a PhD in one or two years is a better philosopher and more qualified to be a professor than one who takes 10 years. Yep, that sounds about right.

I'm not opposed to letting the dumbfucks have their say on this blog. But I do think the line ought to be drawn on letting them slander a named philosopher who did not invite this slander through any deed of his/her own. Just being named in a NYT article (which was actually about another philosopher) shouldn't make one a target of bigoted dumbfuckery.

Mr. Zero said...

Dr. Killjoy,

Even were I to buy into your rather dim view of the epistemic and cognitive capacities of your readership...

Jesus. Look, I bent over backwards in the main post to point out that almost all the comments we get are awesome. But the mere fact that we're having this conversation at all demonstrates that some of the people reading this are dumb assholes. Because we're talking about a comment that some dumb asshole left on this blog.

Do you seriously think that allowing an anonymous poster to call (implicitly naming) a professional philosopher an untalented and undeserving token minority hire does anyone any favor at all...?

For the last time, yes.

Dr. Killjoy said...

Mr. Zero,

Fair enough. I asked because the most charitable reading I could come up with was one of disingenuity, and I hoped that your answer would confirm that reading. Alas.

As an olive branch of sorts, in the spirit of your position, I would like, in my own humble way, to bestow upon the readership the following benefits:

Ken Taylor has a Swastika tattoo on his lower back.

Jaegwon Kim is famous only because he has a Korean-sounding name (his real name is Farquar Lipschitz).

Karen Bennett got her job at Cornell merely by sending the search committee a postcard with two words printed on it: "Woman" & "Princeton".

Mr. Zero's real identity is [REDACTED] and he got this blog only because he is a darkie homo.

You're welcome, everybody!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Killjoy is a prick.

I vote him off the island.

Anonymous said...

First there was philosophy, then there was the profession of philosophy, then there was blogging about the profession of philosophy, and then there was philosophy of blogging about the profession of philosophy. If only there was a Journal of Philosophy of Blogging about the Profession of Philosophy!

Anonymous said...

10.15: I knew it...

Anonymous said...

"If only there was a Journal of Philosophy of Blogging about the Profession of Philosophy!"

Yes, if only. Then some of you would actually publish.

Anonymous said...

That depends on whether or not they accept point-by-point rebuttals of anonymous people.

Filosofer said...

What I like about this blog is the way it brings out the best in people.

Mary Bullstonecraft said...

Do you seriously think that allowing an anonymous poster to call (implicitly naming) a professional philosopher an untalented and undeserving token minority hire does anyone any favor at all...?

For the last time, yes.

Well great, I'm *so* glad that the public degradation of oppressed people is (possibly?) effective at teaching entitled jerks lessons about their entitlement. It would be a damn shame if they didn't get anything out of the deal. And then we might actually have to think about what those lessons cost the people on whose backs they're built.