It’s easy to miss the point in the debate about Online Opinion‘s loss of advertising revenue. As Kim at Larvatus Prodeo points out, the debate isn’t really about free speech — it’s not as if publishers have a right to corporate funding. The important point is about how online communities deal with differences of opinion over moral and political issues.
According to publisher Graham Young, the Online Opinion model was shaped by the the Pauline Hanson controversy of the 1990s. Rather than engaging with Hanson many commentators made it clear that they believed her opinions were unacceptable, that she was a bad or stupid person for holding them, and that she should shut up. In a December 2010 post Graham Young wrote:
I saw Hanson as a symptom of a problem in society, not the cause of it. And the problem was that people refused to engage with people with whom they disagreed, and worse, denigrated them and denied them the right to hold their opinions … On Line Opinion was an attempt to level the playing field, at least in one corner. Our underlying proposition has always been that no matter how wrong it might be, you are entitled to hold a particular opinion, and to personal respect, even if the opinion might be seen by many as objectionable.
For Graham, this approach implies a set of norms for dealing with disagreement. One of the most basic is that you should not attempt to step out of the debate and try to silence your opponents rather than engaging them in argument. If someone argues for view you find objectionable you should not call their employer and try to have them sacked, mau mau their advertisers into withdrawing support or try to have them arrested.
It’s the norms of debate that we ought to be arguing about. It seems to me that Graham’s norm of respect for opponents is similar to an attitude I once labeled ‘deep civility‘. We’re not treating someone with respect when we act in a way that says that who they are or what they believe makes them worthless or contemptible as human beings. But as a norm for debate civility of any kind can only work if it’s reciprocated.
If so, this raises a number of problems. One is how to treat people who make it clear they do not respect their opponents or believe that they have a right to their opinions. With these disputants the debate constantly returns to claims about the bad character of opponents and their hidden agenda. Where this is combined with crude stereotyping, it’s impossible to have a civil debate.
Another problem is when deliberately hurtful attacks are smuggled into debate as if they were sincerely held opinions. It’s common to use words vindictively to arouse shame, guilt or anxiety. For example, a person might make exaggerated claims about being worried for the safety of their children if left unattended in the presence of their opponent. They might say that people who believe (or disbelieve) certain things shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers or child care workers.
The need for reciprocity in civil debate raises questions about what to do with people who refuse to respect the norms. On blogs this often surfaces as the problem of moderation — deciding which comments to delete and which commenters to ban. And this is where critics like Gregory Storey say that Graham failed.
Both parties in this dispute — Graham and his critics — believe the other failed to do what the norms required. But perhaps there’s no shared understanding about what the norms are.