Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To moderate or not

The newly-elected Council of my alumni group from the Philippines where I went to university (before studying law in Canada) is embarking on a somewhat perilous journey. They have decided it’s about time to police their chat group by requiring all members who post messages to observe certain rules of comment etiquette.

I say perilous because this is a group of mature and intelligent people who are not easy to moderate. For one thing, it is usually taken for granted that intelligent people normally post comments or messages on-topic and keep their remarks to the subject at hand. It is not that there have been no acceptable parameters of letter-writing in place in the past, but in recent years, compliance has been left almost entirely to the members, while the function of moderation is rarely exercised by the designated person. On a few occasions when moderation was resorted to, it degenerated to virtual censorship, a dangerous and unintended outcome because the moderator started regulating not just the flow of ideas, but their content and manner of delivery as well.

Photo courtesy of Robert McMahon.

When exchanges deteriorate to back-and-forth inflammatory and internecine comments, or when they are laced with profanity or vulgarity, sometimes one begins to doubt the intelligence of the people spouting them. Why did we call them intelligent in the first place when they cannot keep a healthy discourse?

The problem with intelligent people, as some members of my alumni chat group aver, is they tend to think that free speech has no bounds and limits. Other members believe they are more intelligent and morally superior than the rest and would like to restrict messages only to ideas they find agreeable or safe, such as announcements or promotions of future social, sporting or religious events. On the far extreme, however, are members who are so averse to opposite or differing views that they fend off those opposite views on sight, if not totally shut them down. If unsuccessful, they then throw threats to the wind, such as defamation suits even if the latter are utterly ridiculous.

The various exchanges on the Internet are living proof that talk is cheap. Sometimes it’s better to be the village idiot such as resorted to by one member who occasionally spits out dark humour, often of the lavatory type, every time he posts a message. With him, the best recourse is to just laugh and shrug it off, since he knows that everyone knows he is just joking.

The most serious problem about intelligent people (I’m still talking of my co-alumni) is when they resort to personal attacks because they’ve been hurt by certain comments posted that they’ve perceived to be aimed at them. They’ll dig up your private past and present, then whip up invectives of the most virulent form to put you down, even if they are off-topic. This is the time when exchanges reach a boiling point and attempts toward moderation usually deteriorate to censorship.

An ideal situation is where everyone is free to exercise the right to express ideas on anything and about everything: here, self-regulation becomes the automatic braking mechanism to prevent any possible abuse or incendiary outburst. I believe this is the vision behind the Internet with its unwritten code to allow freedom and neutrality. But the world we live in is not a perfect community; some could be more savvy than others and can freely impose their presumed superiority over many of us ordinary mortals.

Governing, whether in the larger world of politics or the smaller confines of an organization like my alumni group, has become a complicated task. Leaders are expected to serve as exemplars of behaviour, not only of excellence of mind that is generally expected of leaders. On the other hand, members are likewise presumed to be models of acceptable social conduct for their peers, both in deed and in speech. But that is a perfect configuration.

Some governments can become authoritarian, others weak with societies that suffer from widespread apathy and malaise. Smaller organizations can be mirror images of their larger political landscape. Oftentimes, their leaders are venerated with fear and awe to the point that criticism becomes downplayed and muted. Those who dare criticize are often ostracized and become lonely voices in the wilderness. It is in this type of situations where attempts to regulate free speech on the Internet becomes really difficult, especially when a chat group, for example, is the only effective medium of communication because meetings among members have become seldom, if not rare.

Moderation of Internet speech is driven by calls for civility. Mere intelligence or simple expectations can no longer be relied upon at present. Deterioration in exchanges habitually happens as discussions heat up because some members believe their intelligence is being compromised or threatened, especially if those lonely voices appear to have seized the chat group as their soapbox. Usually, members who are squeamish about dissent and easily offended by debates would impose their moral standards, their virtues of uprightness. What they don’t realize is the intolerance that their moralistic attitudes breed, an intolerance that could turn out to be one of the worst discourtesies. Thus, attempts to restore civility might be instrumental in curtailing the freedom of expression of others, of their right to space within the organization. It is a delicate and fertile minefield that those entrusted with the powers of moderation must navigate to find the right balance between freedom and regulation.

Civility can be a mask, often open to abuse, when forms of etiquette that carry sanctions are imposed. Sometimes, the better alternative is to trust the human instinct that in the end members will behave well towards others and respect the intrinsic value of the individual and the rights of others to be different. Wars and revolutions have been waged in the name of individual freedoms. Any more attempts from above or from leaders of organizations to impose their will and a form of acceptable social behaviour from their members can backfire and ignite unnecessary division, if not bring back outright censorship.

But practical suggestions to foster etiquette must always be welcomed and should be treated as helpful tips to healthy interactions. Disputes and misunderstandings are common to human nature. If one party feels offended or injured, apologies can be politely requested but not demanded because demanding an apology is almost never helpful and oftentimes even inflames the situation. Apologies must be left to individual parties as a form of ritual exchange, where the primary aim is to strike a reconciliation of differences.
Civility. Photo courtesy of snaulty beans.
While conflict cannot be avoided and is endemic to the human condition, it remains worthwhile to remind ourselves to be civil—tactful and respectful of others—and to employ civility as a means of managing differences. As long as attempts toward civility or moderation do not impose sanctions, they may be our best hope to bridge certain values and perspectives that appear almost mutually irreconcilable. Although there will never be a clear answer to how certain dilemmas should be resolved, at least we can try to find ways to maintain the equilibrium of disparate interests and ideas not only within our smaller organization, but in the larger society as well.

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