Seeking comments about comments

Two comments made by readers on a previous thread (by Ken and Tmesis) raise competing but valid points about what sorts of limits (if any) should be put on freedom on speech when comments start straying into vilification, or become just plain offensive.

Tmesis says:

I am concerned that sometimes the adamant protection of the concept of free speech can be at the cost of protecting certain groups from the harm speech can cause. (I.E Allowing neo-nazi and white supremacist opinion to be in public discourse on the premise of protecting the right to freedom of expression.) I think we need to realise that speech can be just as harmful as action, and should therefore be regulated in the same ways.

Ken’s view is:

one’s most dangerous opponent / enemy is the one you can’t see. Distasteful as it may be, its better to let all morons have air time and let their arguments stand or fail than be blocked (because the prevailing group- who gives anyone the mortgage on rightness anyway) might not agree. Free speech as long as I agree with you is not free speech at all.

I’ve been pondering precisely this question recently, following some of the comments made on this site in the last week or so.

Some comments have been in the category of what I would call vilification, and I don’t wish to be perceived in any way as tacitly condoning that or being an unitended facilitator for it. Perhaps more importantly, if comments get too bile filed, it may put off some readers who won’t come back – thus defeating the purpose of open expression which the comment facility is meant to encourage. I know some people go by the adage that ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’ as a justification for being as aggressive as they like. While I can cope fine with that, I don’t won’t others to be put off expressing their views for fear they may cop a bucket of bile in response, or even worse, people not bothering to read the comments at all.

However, I think it is also valuable – especially on a site like this that seeks to encourage and open up political debate and questioning – for everyone to be able to see what views are out there, however unpalatable or uncomfortable they may be.

It’s promoted me to work on developing a more formal comment policy, and I’d be interested in the views of readers on what approach they feel is best for a site like this one. The wider topic of balancing the right to freedom of speech with the right to freedom from vilification is also very current at the moment, with different views about laws dealing with so-called ‘seditious’ speech and racial or religious vilification.

NOTE: Just for the information of readers, I have always retained the right to delete any comment from this site that I think is excessively abusive, inflammatory, defamatory or flagrantly vilifying (especially about others rather than myself). So far I have leant very much towards enabling free unhindered expression of views – given this site is specifically intended to encourage greater participation in political debate – unless it becomes clearly irresponsible. I’ve only removed one comment from the thousands that have been posted during the 16 months I’ve been blogging (which was just a gratuitous racist spray which was not even related to the topic under discussion). However, there are very few rights that are 100% absolute and that don’t have to curtailed in at least some circumstances by a competing right or responsibility – the question is what balance to strike.

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32 Comments

  1. An interesting question and one that will probably always be open to discussion as to where the limit would be.

    In general, I agree that you need that power to delete, Andrew, but it is good you are able to avoid using in a dictatorial fashion. (It’s also good that you have the guts to run this forum – I wish more politicians would do it!)

    It would be nice if we were all polite and debated according to our beliefs and reason without resorting to insults and threats, but it may be difficult to enforce such a thing while otherwise not hindering people’s ability to post.

    As far as vilification goes, it would be nicer not to have oppresive laws in this area. The Victorian example shows to me that such legislation can easily be different in practice to what was promised. Would the new sedition laws also suffer this?

    Unfortunately in this current climate it may not be possible to have liberal posting guidelines due to the risk of someone crying foul.

  2. Just do what all the other lefty blogs do and delete any comments that don’t follow the standard left-wing talking points. It keeps your lefty readers happy and we’re not going to change your mind anyway, so why bother with the hassle?

  3. It’s interesting that the UALM see nothing racist about the recent violence and their comments are fairly directed at the small minority of Lebanse Muslim youths who stand around shopping centres and beaches insulting and abusing our wives/sisters/girlfriends.

    However the massive cringe factor amongst the pixies at the bottom of the garden mean you contine to shout racist, racist, racist. No wonder the PM won’t use such a devalued term. Everything is racist as long as it comes from white anglo-saxon Australians. Lebanese Australians who appear misogynist and sexually retarded are evidently not being racist with their hatred of Australia culture. For people who are strongly pro-womens rights as I am, you are strangely silent on this issue. Perhaps when you are personally exposed to it you might reconsider.

    Meanwhile you are damaging our society with your constant childish mantra of ‘racist, racist, racist’.

    Andrew Bartlett, you are a absolute disgrace. Thankfully, you will never hold an executive position in an Australian government.

  4. Hello Peter,

    Do you honestly think the white thugs at Cronulla were feminists??? The “culture” (read: behaviour) they were “defending” was as anti-women and anti-social as their perceived grievances with the other thugs.

    They were clearly defending “yobbo culture”, which in the 21st century has come to mean anti-intellectual, anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-foreigner. I bet if two gay guys had of walked into that riot and kissed they would have received the same treatment as the other innocent victims.

    And anyway, how can you argue those people on the beach weren’t racist? They were standing there yelling “We hate lebs and wogs”.

  5. “They were clearly defending “yobbo culture”, which in the 21st century has come to mean anti-intellectual, anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-foreigner.”

    You are absolutely full of shit.

  6. Hmmm

    So is this a demonstration series of comments to give people a real-life example of some of the issues to consider in responding to the question posed in my original post, or has it just somehow escaped from one of the ‘Cronulla’ threads?

  7. Hmmm is a good comment! These sample comments have caused me to sit back and think. My head tells me that free speech should be valued always. However, some of the comments are detracting from the discussion, and certainly not moving it forward. I guess it is the way in which a comment is expressed that is worrying me – it is the lack of respect for other comment makers (including yourself) that disturbs me.

    Please keep your blog going. Delete what is really offensive, but keep deletion to a minimum.

  8. I think that the policy of not removing any comment unless it is spamulicious is a good one. Even those which are infalmatory, offensive or otherwise horrible serve a purpose, in my opinion. One comment in 16 months is a good record; stick with it, I say.

    Oh, and to add my two cents to the discussion, let’s just clarify about racism. Yes, there are bigoted horrible mysoginistic people who feel the need to insult everyone they see, threaten and even carry out violence. I do not deny that. Nobody does. These are called gangs. Calling them “Lebonese Gangs” is adding to the misconception that these people represent the Lebonese community. So yes, there are racists in Sydney. That doesn’t justify the violence that is meant to be part of a reprisal system. It doesn’t change the fact that those people claiming to be part of an “Ethnic Cleansing Unit” are not racist. So rather than saying “they’re bad and that means it’s ok for others to be too”, let’s try to rise above it, hey?

    Damnit, I wasn’t going to get involved…

  9. If there are “expletives” – delete.

    If the only point to the comment is to say another commenter is a moron – delete.

    The exception to that is if the person is a public figure. say if the real Prime Minister John Howard posted on your blog and said you were “an Fn Moron” – that’s something I’d leave up.

    I can say from experience when I was looking for political blogs, I came across Tim Blair’s whose posts and commenters was full of nothing but expletives and it was a turn off. People that talk like that never have anything valid to say and on the off chance that they do have a point, their point is lost in their random expletives. They’re the I’m right, you are wrong, crowd. I don’t have to prove it, I’m better than you are. Not worth their salt.

  10. I think the intent in using a word is of more significance than the word itself. eg I should be able to say “Me and my Aussie mates” but not “You Aussie scum”. Similarly the word “Wog” is bandied about willy nilly in recent years as if it is somehow now acceptable. I can assure you I get personally offended often when I hear this word as it brings up past memories (and now recent ones). Just because Nick Giannopoulos used it in his movie title doesn’t make it any more acceptable than me referring to a black person as a “Nigger” is no more acceptable just because Snoop Dog and other rappers use it in their lyrics. Some words are almost always offensive. I challenge anyone to use the words “Nigger”, “Lebo” or “Abo” in a sentence in a non-vilifying manner.
    Having said this, I don’t thing you should censor those that use these words, vilify or use profanity because then they will just go to more accomodating forums and have their views further reinforced. At least if they are here they may learn something. The best way to let a poster know their comment is totally reprehensible is to ignore it as if nobody had read it. This would really get up their goat.

    PS we must also be aware of bad attempts at sarcasm (like mine in the past) that may be misconstrued as bigotry etc.

    PPS does any one else find it weird how shit-scared racists are of being labelled racist? I’ve been visiting some neo-nazi websites of late (know your enemy) and even they claim not to be racists. I suppose it’s not surprising given that the PM believes someone with “Ethnic Cleansing Unit” painted on their T-Shirt is not a racist.

  11. Looks like the people who trekked mud all over your carpet, Andrew, aren’t going to clean it up. Me, I know what I’d do. And I can recommend the virtual version of my new Hoover Cat n Dog Cleaner.
    Once upon a time, I would have argued firmly that ‘net communication took place in a public space, but this space is different, it’s your right to do what you think best for you. Mind you,
    I would be careful not to confuse trolls with constituents.

  12. Andrew, perhaps you ought to construct a charter for your blog. It might include a couple of statements about the rights extended to posters on the blog.

    States pass laws which are full of absolutes, which then must be interpreted by judges having regard to those laws and past cases, but also regard where there is doubt to the intentions of those authorities.

    In the end you make some decision regarding the comments: allowing them to remain is a decision by inaction.

    If a searching examination of a post with reference to the charter finds it has trammelled the rights of other posters, while not contributing to the aims and intentions then it can be deleted.

    Value can be constructed in some anarchistic way for almost anything – but this is a particular effort, surely it has particular goals?

    I dont think having valueless and harmful content allowed to lie in a public forum headed with your name is a good thing for you or what you believe in.

  13. While I favour free speech in all but the most extreme circumstances, that isn’t really the issue here.

    The right to free speech means the government shouldn’t be able to punish you for expressing your opinion. It does not mean that anyone is required to provide a platform for publishing your views. That’s a distinction which is often missed.

    It’s Andrew’s blog, he pays for it, and he gets to decide what’s on it.

  14. A fair distinction EP.

    Still, I would appreciate views from people as to what sort of balance is best for a blog such as this to make it as useful as possible. I don’t want to sound too overblown about the potential benefit of a blog like this, but given that it does chew up some time, I may as well try to optimise its usefulness.

    and as a related question, as well as for the wider debate, can you give me a hypothetical example of what might constitute the sort of “extreme circumstances” you refer to?

  15. Hi Andrew, I think Vee and Sarah Smith have touched on a couple of important points:

    Firstly your blog must have its purpose, some sort of clearly defined goal?

    I think comments that at first glance appear pointless, aggressive and represent the: “I’m right, you are wrong, crowd. I don’t have to prove it, I’m better than you are” mantras still have value to them.

    Yobbo for example, has posted his viewpoint in a particular fashion. The difficulty I have with it is I don’t fully understand his viewpoint due to the language and rhetoric and attitude with which he has approached the topic. But I still think this person would have an important point to contribute – if only we could see it.

    Perhaps, if you were to create a charter for the blog, as Sarah Smith suggests, it could include the requirement that, if a post appears not to contribute constructively, and is slipping into value-less attack mode, then it is a condition of engagement with this platform that the blogger explain their viewpoint more clearly –

    Effectively making one of the goals of your blog the encouragement of self-examination, critical analysis and the ability to communicate a viewpoint in a way that allows a real dissection of the issue.

    I imagine commentators like Yobbo will think this pinky, leftist ‘bull-shit’ – That’s fine, but I would like Yobbo to explain WHY and offer suggestions for an alternative –

    My apologies to Yobbo, but your comments were a great example, and I think your posts lead to another important aspect of the question – not all contributors will choose the same language/discourse in this space. But I don’t think they should be shunted out of the debate for this reason, rather encouraged to flesh out their point and make great contributions, as a condition of this blog.

    P.S There are times when non-PC language such as ‘leb’ and ‘nigger’ are appropriately used by the members of the minority group themselves. However, in a public space such as this, I don’t see why people need to use this language when there is a vast array of alternative words that will not offend people.

  16. I go along with Tmesis – I think some sort of guidelines or protocol would be a good idea, stated on the website, so long as all opinions still get expressed (including yobbo and evil whatsit). It might need a Blogmaster to keep up with it all though. If people aren’t on the subject or just being abusive, or are using the site to promote their particular group or product, delete them. However, allow all views.
    Roger Callen

  17. Andrew — You have shown exemplary tolerance in your treatment of comments containing points of view contary to your own. I doubt there are very many individuals, let alone politicians, who would put up with being called an ‘absolute disgrace’ on their own blog. That even handedness does you credit.

    That being said, I agree with Evil Pundit that this is your space/platform and you set the rules here. I think Sarah is right too when she suggests articulating those rules in a charter as that will give you a basis for dealing with ‘valueless or harmful’ content while still being seen to treat differing points of view fairly.

    Ultimately I guess it is up to you to decide what kind of tone you want these comments to have. Talk-back Radio? Coffee shop chit-chat? Academe?

    One thing I think you should consider in any charter or set of rules, is requiring comments to be ‘on topic’ with your post, or at very least with the flow of conversation within the comments. I think that in itself, will rule out a lot of the ‘valueless’ content that people might be inclined to post.

  18. I apologise for the language in my earlier comment and that it wasn’t really constructive.

    But come one, how many times should I be expected to reply in good faith to people who simply label a large majority of society as bigots?

    He doesn’t deserve a real debate. I’m not going to waste my time debating someone who thinks I am “anti-intellectual, anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-foreigner”

    What would be the point?

    I’d rather read a comment that uses bad language than a comment like dodgyville’s that attempts to simplify a complex and important subject down into “all white people are bigots”.

    If you’re going to criticise comments like mine that use bad language, you should also criticise noodlehead comments like the one who brought it on. Otherwise you’re only punishing the retaliation.

  19. Its easy to sound severe. Very easy. Its also easy to pick what is a plainly nasty personally targetted attack. There is no necessity for the use of nastiness when debating what are often only moot points.

    You don’t want your blog to look like the grafitti in a public loo (as has been noted by others before). So delete what you think seems like outright nastiness or is simply too vulgar for your own sensibilities. As for expletives, if they help to emphasise a point. I’m all for them!

  20. What a society we have become when seemingly clear thinking and articualte people propose the answer to a perceveid problem of discussion in a public place can be solved by a regualatory system and / or bureaucratisation of the process. I agree with Link

  21. Australian Democrats of course tend towards giving everyone some space to air their views, even when those views are crazy. It’s something that distinguished them from the crazy people themselves. I think its up to the moderator to see if racist/sexist/homophobic or offensive comments are being dealth with by people reading the site – if they are just lingering around serving no purpose and simply offending people, then they should prob. be removed. Sometimes its educative to see crazines refuted. Othertimes it becomes tedious, like rolling with a pig in mud – we all get covered in it, but only the pig is enjoying.

  22. I think that spam, bad language, threats, personal attacks and similar should be deleted. Beyond this, I think that most things should be allowed. To a large extent, this includes things that I would regard as homophobia, sexism, racism and vilification, because I prefer these view points to be out in the open, debated and smashed.

    I think we should enforce a cordial standard of debate that welcomes and encourages discussion. Arguments should then succeed or fall based on merit.

  23. You used to be able to use the word ‘wog’ to mean mate but its not a word I personally use often.

    What is wrong with the word ‘leb’, its an abbreviation of lebanese, what is wrong with the word ‘nigger’, its the corruption of the word negro, some people even find the word ‘black’ offensive. The word itself has no intent, it is only intent that is inferred by those that read those words which would suggest that the person offended has some form of complex. If those words had the F word, or “bloody” precede them, then intent could plausibly be found by the poster but it could also be in good humour.

    Bring back the comedy and satire, Australia is taking itself way too seriously.

    These words are not necessarily racist, they celebrate diversity.

  24. Vee, come to the USA and say “nigger” and see what response you get. I have seen people nearly beaten to a pulp for saying niggardly, despite it meaning something completely different. If you think back a few years at the logies when Bert Newton said “I like the boy” in response to something Muhammad Ali said and Ali’s response, that would be nothing to what you would get from blacks, whites or any other person in the USA now.

  25. As soon as you start deleting comments you no longer have a free and open debate and consequently the debate becomes worthless.

  26. AB: can you give me a hypothetical example of what might constitute the sort of “extreme circumstances” [which would justify punishing free speech]?

    I think these would include

    * Direct incitement to violence (Words that are wilfully and knowingly intended to cause a violent act)

    * Criminal defamation (an example that springs to mind is a case where a small businessman printed and distributed leaflets that accused a trade rival of being a paedophile)

    * Systemic abuse (covering things like spam and viruses, which destroy the system that provides free speech for everyone).

    I’m also undecided about speech that would help the enemy in a time of war. I think that may depend on the severity of the threat at the time.

    Of course, all of the above is my opinion about the limits of speech in society generally — not commentsry on blogs.

  27. Yes, that’ll be the response in the USA but it will not be what it meant and on the logies front that’s Muhammad’s fault not Berts. He should have an understand of the australian cultural context of the comment, not just assume its the same thing as the USA.

  28. Incidentally, I think you should change the name of this blog to “The Bartlett Files”. I can’t stop reading it that way when I look at my bookmarks. You know it makes sense. :)

  29. Thank you to everyone for their input on this (and all other comments as always).

    I’ve drafted and put up a comments policy, (which hopefully isn’t too bureaucractic looking), and people should be able to access it via a link which should appear at the beginning of the comments section for each post.

    One can’t legislate for good behaviour of course, but hopefully it shows the principles that are being followed and the intent of allowing all but the most objectional and destructive things to stay.

    If you want to make further comment on the comment policy, feel free. (I’m still thinking about the suggestion of changing the title of the main page to the ‘Bartlett Files’ – it’s not really a diary in the proper sense of the word, and too many people still don’t know what blog means – it’s harder than picking a name for my band.)

  30. Hello Andrew.
    It totally amazes me,the amount of denial in this country ref racism.I remember as a child growing up in Adelaide in the late fifty’s and sixty’s,hanging around the pubs in the city with my mates,Aboriginals were rounded up like lost dogs and herded into paddy wagons to be taken out and dumped in the bush.Any dissent was met with a crack in the head with a police baton.
    (But of course Andrew I am lying to you)

    One of my first jobs leaving school was in the Opal fields of Coober Pedy this place gave a new meaning to the word racism.I have seen Aboriginals beaten to with an inch of there life for eating in public.An Aboriginal women give birth to a child in a burnt out car and people walk past in indifference as if she was a cow.,giving birth to a calf.I have seen many white men chase Aboriginal women down the road with a bottle of wine under there arm to curry a sexual favour,who if were not in a state of sexual arousal wouldn’t piss on them.
    (But of course Andrew I am lying to you)

    I played in a rock band for years,one of the musos was you guessed it an Aboriginal,comments like I didn’t know niggers played the guitar,does he play well pissed were not unusual.
    (But of course Andrew I am lying to you)

    The last overt racial attack I have experienced was approx 15 yrs ago in the country town of Collie W.A. my mate who is Anglo Indian was refused service at a hotel because they thought he was an Aboriginal the shit hit the fan that day.we got free drinks for a couple of hours for the obvious reason.
    (But of course Andrew I am lying to you)

    Oh yes racism is alive and well in Australia and it has been for two hundred years.Nobody can lecture me about racism I have seen it all,I have a chip on my shoulder from as I feel as a white for the shame,I cannot imagine how it feels to be an Aboriginal or other ethnic minority who have shared the same experiences.But I do know why they are angry and I understand it.
    Phill

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