Litmus Testing

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be grading my students’ papers. Something happened last week and it has been toying at the back of my mind for days now. What is the role of litmus testing in our online debating?

I ask because I know that I do it. I have often asked commenters to say “one nice thing” about the church before I will continue in a conversation with them. If they cannot bring themselves to that, which they sometimes can’t, they then become a troll in my mind and I have a tendency to read them through troll-colored glasses from then on. In other words, I ignore them and almost everything that they say. They cease to be for me.

At the same time, I feel like I have my limits. I would never deny someone their experience or their testimony. How could I, short of divine revelation? However, in the fora where I participate, I feel a need to regulate conversations and, when I feel that the conversation is entering dangerous or unhelpful territory, to shut them down. So, I have some questions:

1. What do I do when the owners of another forum have a differing level of comfort or a differing set of criteria? What do I do when I find their criteria objectionable? Can I fault them for making decisions case-by-case when I do the same thing myself?

2. Suppose there is a really intelligent, thoughtful, non-malicious commenter on Mormonism who simply cannot honestly say one nice thing about it? Am I right to exclude them from the conversation?

3. Or is my standard too low? Would it be appropriate to inquire as to the status of a commenter’s temple recommend answers? What about their testimony or their feelings about funeral potatoes?

I know that this is a frequently debated topic around these parts. Recent events have gotten me questioning my own suppositions on the matter, so I am taking it to the people for discussion. Please help me figure out my own mind on the subject.

Comments

  1. As Michael said at Phyllis’ wedding, “I say, let them eat cake.”

  2. JDC,

    Since I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, I assume the best about people, initially. Over time, a truer picture starts to emerge, and that is when I decide whether I will continue to participate.

    If a participant in an online forum really is thoughtful, intelligent, and non-malicious, it will soon become clear because he will be willing to examine a range of evidence. When confronted with evidence that contradicts hiw views, how does he react? I can understand people who look at the church with a glass-half-empty approach, but if they insist that there is no water there at all, I can dismiss them as axe-grinders and idealogues.

  3. greenfrog says:

    Is the incentive for such limitation one of probability — i.e., unless Person X and I have some common ground with respect to “One Good Thing,” it’s unlikely that I could learn something useful or that I could provide something useful?

    Or is the incentive fear-based — unless Person X and I have some common ground with respect to “One Good Thing,” I am afraid of what will happen if I engage with Person X?

    Though I tend to think that objectifying people (as ##1 and 2 both do) is entirely counterproductive to the gospel (people are ends, not means), it may be instructive to consider how much of the sentiment is based on more analytical perceptions of disutility vs. more emotional perceptions of threats to something one wishes to shield from analysis.

    In other words, I ignore them and almost everything that they say. They cease to be for me.

    That sounds more than a little ominous, at least in the context of building the City of Zion. I’ve always imagined Zion to be created by welcoming all, not by exclusion.

    …in the fora where I participate, I feel a need to regulate conversations and, when I feel that the conversation is entering dangerous or unhelpful territory, to shut them down.

    What is dangerous? I like Joseph Smith’s aphorism that “Truth shall cut its own way.” Shielding experience and ideas from the light of day seems more likely to produce mistakes than exposing them to it.

    IMO

  4. Greenfrog,
    That’s a nice and pretty picture you create. Not so sure it’s a picture of reality, but it’s nice and pretty.

    I think JDC is talking about lines and how we decide where to draw them (because we ALL draw them). So do we let SPAM though? No. Do we let a belligerent troll through that doesn’t address the topic or say anything relevant to anything and constantly berates those participating? Probably not. How about the person who regularly disrespects the participants and doesn’t add any value to the discussion? Not sure. How about the person who is just regularly disrespectful, but often has interesting things to say? Now it’s getting trickier.

    My personal fuse has grown shorter through time and experience. Those who don’t run blogs usually have much longer fuses (and expect blog administrators the same, regardless of their duty to their blog’s mission).

  5. 2. Suppose there is a really intelligent, thoughtful, non-malicious commenter on Mormonism who simply cannot honestly say one nice thing about it? Am I right to exclude them from the conversation?

    I’m willing to risk the chance of missing on that one really intelligent, thoughtful, non-malicious, yet not-nice comment.

    So yeah, while it’s a theoretical possibility that it exists, exclusion is an acceptable risk.

  6. Scheherazade says:

    In other words, I ignore them and almost everything that they say. They cease to be for me.

    They cease to be for you? Cease to be? That’s fairly stunning.

    I think your question is the wrong one because embedded within it is the assumption that there should be litmus testing and I think that’s problematic. Banning spam is one thing. A narrow unwillingness to engage in conversation with people who (might) strongly disagree with you is another.

    I’ve seen you dismiss Margaret Toscano based on passing comments of others while admitting to never having read her work, for example. If this is representative of your pattern of engagement then yeah, I think you need to reevaluate. I haven’t written you off (you haven’t ceased to be for me) because I think you sometimes say grossly uninformed, biased or bigoted things at times.

    I think you should reflect carefully about what the grounds are by which you decide a conversation is “dangerous” or “unhelpful.” What are the costs of drawing the boundaries in the way you have and do?

  7. Amen and amen to greenfrog. Why isn’t thoughtful, rational discourse a perfectly adequate litmus test?

  8. greenfrog,
    While cease to be may seem strong, in reality I don’t think it is. Since I only know you all via online fora, all this means is that I, over time, stop paying attention to what you say. Since I only experience these people via online communication, they stop existing to some degree for me, much like the Mailman on the Lower East Side or Muhammed the six year old in Myanmar. I am not denying their existence; I am admitting that they are a non-factor in my life.

    Regarding the two possibilities behind my conversational limits, I most likely subscribe to the first. I wonder about my ability to communicate with someone with whom I have so little common ground, at least on religious topics. I am willing, but I don’t know how productive it will ultimately be.

    As to my terms “dangerous” or “unhelpful,” there are topics that I believe are not best addressed in online fora, for instance the nature of temple ordinances. I would consider blog threads on such to fulfill both of the requirements. Not because I (or the church) have anything to hide, but because in the setting of the bloggernacle people mention such things in order to produce angry results. The danger is for hurt feelings and flame wars (which I have overseen in my time). Unhelpful is the definition of a flame war.

    Scheherazade,
    I’m glad that I still exist for you. You do for me. I have done more reading in Margaret’s ouerve since then and I have to say that she still doesn’t speak to me. However, that is neither here nor there.

    Actually, my question is “should there be litmus testing?” first and foremost. My conclusion is that there should, but I am willing to listen to reasons against. In most online fora that I am acquainted with, there are rules (written and unwritten) regarding comportment and topic; so a forum without some kind of litmus test is a foreign idea to me.

    Regarding my “categories of exclusion,” of course I should reflect on them. Hence the post.

    Gary,
    Amen and amen to you, sir. Isn’t it great when we all agree on what is thoughtful, rational discourse?

  9. JDC,

    I’ll take a whack at your questions.

    What do I do when the owners of another forum have a differing level of comfort or a differing set of criteria?

    Well it’s their forum so what can you do? If you like it you can go back. If you don’t, then don’t.

    Can I fault them for making decisions case-by-case when I do the same thing myself?

    Of course you can… (What am I missing here?)

    Suppose there is a really intelligent, thoughtful, non-malicious commenter on Mormonism who simply cannot honestly say one nice thing about it? Am I right to exclude them from the conversation?

    Of course you can. You can ban whoever you want at your own blog for whatever reason you want. There may be consequences of course… like if you are a jerk people might not come back to your blog… but you control conversations at your place.

    Or is my standard too low?

    I dunno. Did you tell us where your standard is yet? And are you talking about at your own blog or at someone else’s blog? You can only moderate at your own blogs — if you think there is a troll at another blog you have limited choices of how to deal with it.

  10. Geoff,
    Fair enough. But since I don’t like to think of myself as a jerk (although it surely sometimes applies) and because I do want to encourage a variety of viewpoints at the places where I do moderate, I run into issues.

    (ps. My current standard is the “one nice thing” rule; so watch it, Johnston, I’ve got my eyes on you!)

  11. HP, I think the answer to your question is that if someone doesn’t live up to my expectations, I publicly berate them, accuse them, then delete their posts and comments entirely and pretend nothing ever happened. So what?

  12. Steve,
    I appreciate your well-reasoned and thoughtful response.
    .
    .
    .
    Please don’t hurt me.

  13. Bruder Evans,
    No-one would do that.

  14. I think that those of us in positions of relative privilege and comfort should go out of our way a little bit to accommodate and include those in relatively worse positions. In Mormon terms, those of us who are considered orthodox and well-behaved enough to receive full fellowship should allow ourselves to suffer a little pain at the speech of those in the less-privileged positions of partial outsiderness. Such people often suffer much more substantial pain — in terms of family stress, loss of societal prestige, and loss of friendship — than that little we experience by reading something we don’t like.

  15. My current standard is the “one nice thing” rule; so watch it, Johnston, I’ve got my eyes on you!

    Hehe. Okay, here a nice thing: I am highly impressed by how many online handles you have, JDC/HP/j. Daniel Crawford/…

  16. Excellent, Geoff. Now we’re BFF! :)

    JNS,
    I think that you make a good point. I don’t know, though, that it is our place to mediate someone else’s pain (nor am I certain that we can effectively do so (without drugs, of course)).

    That said, we do have a duty to listen to those whom we have hurt and to those who have hurt us. Or, at least, I believe that we do. However, I sometimes wonder at other’s (certainly not my own) abilities to take advantage of such altruism.

  17. As a blogger at The Cultural Hall, I think I know what you’re talking about, JDC. I’d like to see more faithful voices commenting. After all, we’re all about making it work as a Mormon when your faith is marginal. But critics are more prevalent there, and we do cut them a lot of slack, because most of us have been there, too. The faithful don’t seem to want to mingle where the unfaithful go, so we don’t see as many faithful voices as I would like.

    If it’s your blog, you make the rules. Those rules don’t need to be clear or consistent. You’re allowed to go with your gut. It’s just blogging.

    You said in your intro to the post that you shouldn’t be blogging – you should be (insert list of important things to do). There are only so many hours in a day. I’ve spent 15 minutes when I should have been working on my weekly status report writing this comment. If something makes you think “I want my 15 minutes back” often enough, then don’t go back.

    Not that this post makes me want my fifteen minutes back.

  18. I don’t know that I have a litmus test, per se, but if someone is consistently beating one certain drum or if they display a level of hostility to the Church that I consider unreasonable, I adjust my engagement with them accordingly. There are times when, based on a past history with a person, I know that the likelihood that the time I spend engaging in conversation will be well-spent is not very high. If there were one easily-identifiable characteristic shared among such commenters, I might make that a litmus test, but I doubt there is one.

    That said, in my mind, someone who cannot say one positive thing about the Church isn’t looking at it rationally. Generally, I would consider engagement with such a person unlikely to be time well-spent. But I bet there are exceptions. I wouldn’t stop paying attention to everything they say, but I would probably think twice before engaging in a time-consuming exchange.

  19. Thanks, Ann. I’ve lurked a bit at the cultural hall and have not often been offended there (that said, it ain’t for everybody). That said, I ought to comment more (or at all).

    I suppose the problem is that, while I accept that people get to make their own rules, when other people apply rules that I don’t agree with, it feels unjust. So, as always, if everyone agreed with me, we would all get along nicely.

  20. Tom, I agree that failure to follow the “one nice thing” rule does probably disqualify one from the possibility of “rational” response. While it is perhaps theoretically possible for such a person to exist, I have yet to encounter one.

    I also like your point about the value of engaging. However, I wonder if sometimes, in fora where we do not have any control over the conversation, it would be better to get involved than it would be to simply ignore it (as I am usually tempted to do; also yes, I am looking at you, On Faith).

  21. If a person can bear testimony of the importance of funeral potatoes but not of green jello, they should not be allowed to participate in the feast. I think that’s fairly obvious.
    Also, nobody gets to come to my funeral who can’t write a good essay about me. They will all be given a checklist including the things each essay must address, and essays will be due and immediately after the viewing. If they fail the essay exam, I don’t mind them listening to the funeral from the nursery. But if they haven’t met my requirements,–heck, it’s my funeral!

  22. I mostly can only remember anything about anyone if I’ve emailed them or IMed them, not just read their posts/comments on a blog.

    For instance, I’m still trying to absorb the fact that HP is also JDC who is also John Crawford.

  23. Crap, Susan. Now I have to come up with another pseudonym. Hmm…how about CDJ?

  24. JDC, I disagree with you on the value of engage vs. ignore. If people with whom you vehemently disagree are commenting on a thread, the best way to lift the tone if you are interested in the topic is to engage the post, but not the comments. If you are addressed directly in the comments in a way that you think is hostile or even just uncomfortable for you, ignore it.

  25. HP/JDC, my comment was an attempt to get at the idea that, when we decide not to listen to someone who’s trying to talk with us, that act in itself produces a little bit of pain for the person in question. So what we’re talking about here is a calculus of pain: do we accept the pain of interacting with someone who is saying things that offend (to a greater or lesser degree), or do we reject that pain by ignoring our would-be interlocutor and thereby imposing some pain on him or her? In making this decision, I think a lot is involved — but the status of faithful folks as insiders in the community shields us from enough other sources of pain that I think it might be reasonable to have some bias in favor of accepting some pain we might otherwise want to reject. Because the act of rejection adds, even if only a little bit, to the other person’s burden.

  26. Scheherazade says:

    JNS,

    I’ve long thought that you are one of the most reflective and reasonable voices in the bloggernacle. Your comments on this thread reinforce that impression.

  27. There are cases where I would (and have) severed relationships with people who revealed a contrary and even antagonistic vision to a project I was heading. If I were in charge of, say, a blog and found someone’s comments continually predatory–meaning there was an overt attempt to hack away at the assumptions my blog was founded on–I would have to prevent their participation.
    If, however, someone wanted to come to my blog “dinner” and brought some kind of offering, however meager, I would certainly allow them to stick around.
    I don’t think there’s much conflict between “be not unequally yoked with unbelievers” (which seems to refer to marriage choices and permanent relationships) and “He deniety none that come unto Him.”

  28. JNS,
    My only question is that in some instances I wonder whether someone is truly trying to talk with me, as opposed to simply getting their point out and publicized. It is sometimes hard to judge between the question or point sincerely given and the shot misanthropically fired. Certainly the nature of this medium makes it harder to judge the intent of a commenter.

  29. HP/JDC,

    Re: your comment #28 – isn’t it better, religiously speaking, that we give people the benefit of the doubt? We can never know their hearts; only God can do that. Better that we should treat any commenter who isn’t completely spiking a thread as sincere, and respond meekly and sincerely ourselves. Often, charitable and open responses help people understand that we’re really interested in engaging them; such understanding helps them ease into real dialogue.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” and all that, too.

  30. I have certainly said nice things about the church in my diverse and difficult-to-search online oeuvre. But if a blog owner said “say one nice thing about the church or you will cease to exist for me,” I would not be in the mood to say anything nice right then.

  31. HP/JDC: I don’t think it is all that difficult to distinguish the thoughtful and rational from irrational rants, so I don’t see a need for a litmus test like the one you suggest. How would you apply your test to new, or infrequent commenters? It may be that a commenter has nothing at all nice to say about the church’s position on a particular topic or set of topics under discussion at a particular blog. Their negativity might cause them to prematurely fade into non-existence for you, even though they may hold the church’s position on other issues in high esteem. I am a habitual lurker but very infrequent commenter. Would the application of your test require me to make some positive, though irrelevant comments, in order to establish my bona fides before you would acknowledge my existence? Or does everybody get the benefit of the doubt until a long history of negativity proves that they have nothing positive to say?

    I can think of a few frequent commenters here and elsewhere who I don’t think have ever said anything positive, but whose comments are usually thoughtful, well considered and rationally expressed and with which I frequently disagree. It would be a shame if they were simpley ignored or excluded.

    Just so you know, for future reference, I think the Church is great!

  32. I think it helps to make a distinction between respond-able and non-respondable comments. In other words if someone says, “the church stinks”, there’s no real way to respond; but if someone says, “the church stinks for the following reasons”, one can ignore the value-label and engage the argument.

    Personally, I’m more prone to let people say what they want as long as they are publicly accountable for it, meaning that the argument is respond-able.

  33. SV,
    certainly it is better to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially newcomers and mostly-lurkers (to answer Gary, too). That said, once people have established themselves, I don’t see why we should continue to allow the malicious and the spiteful to continue to participate in the conversation. I don’t think that you are arguing for that either, though.

    SmallAxe,
    I agree that the distinction you make is a good one. Of course, people who are in pain (physical or otherwise) often make non-respondable arguments and demand others listen to them. What is the appropriate response to them?

  34. I am with you all on the way when it comes to the malicious and spiteful. They poison attempts at reasoned discussion. I just think your litmus test is a weak way to deal with the problem. Malice and spite are bad, even when they come from the mouth of one who occasionally says good things. And people who always say negative things often do so without being malicious and spiteful. So why not just deal with malice and spite directly, instead of indirectly through a litmus test?

  35. Gary, the problem is that acts that I find malevolent, others do not. For that matter, I might find an act malicious and spiteful from one source and from another not so much. So, should I just chuck it all and appear completely arbitrary (which is, admittedly, what I currently do)? Or is there a standard that I should follow that everyone could agree on?

  36. Or is there a standard that I should follow that everyone could agree on?

    No, I’m pretty sure there isn’t. Choose any particular famous disagreement in Mormon blogging. For most such disagreements, any action or inaction that could have pleased some people in such a disagreement would necessarily displease others. We’re stuck with the contention, I guess…

  37. greenfrog says:

    HP/JDC,

    Thinking further about your question brings this to mind: To what extent do you view your blogging to be (1) an unconditional offering of charity to others (making the manner in which it is actually received — gratitude, indifference, or hostility — irrelevant), (2) a conditional offering intended to create an exchange where each receives benefit from the other — and if the offeror does not receive what he seeks, then the exchange is unsuccessful? (There may be other models that I’m not thinking of at this point.)

    Using the “moderation” function (deleting posts, etc.) could be inconsistent with the first alternative.

    Do you engage with others via blogging with the intention of getting something for what you are giving? How would you define what it is you seek? That may lead to an answer to your questions.

  38. I’ve never seen an issue that was black or white. I’m not convinced that one exists when viewed through human eyes. That said, if a proponent can’t find a positive quality in their opponent’s position, they loose credibility in my eyes. They have become partisan and are interested in only advertising their position and selling a product, not exploring truth and finding the best solution given available information. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need salesmen to push Ford’s cars so thousands of people can be employed. Where I object is when they purport to be objective, hide their motives, and mislead their audience.

  39. greenfrog,
    I do it for the fame and fortune. I don’t know that I would accept any other proposed motive at initial face value.

  40. greenfrog says:

    …fame and fortune…

    You’ve found a niche!

  41. 3. Or is my standard too low? Would it be appropriate to inquire as to the status of a commenter’s temple recommend answers? What about their testimony or their feelings about funeral potatoes?

    That excludes me, then. I’ve not been around long enough to hold a temple recommend, and I’ve never had funeral potatoes.

  42. Well, D., I have long considered you apostate, but you’re just so darn nice I’ve never had the heart to ignore you. Sorry. ;)

  43. Of course, people who are in pain (physical or otherwise) often make non-respondable arguments and demand others listen to them. What is the appropriate response to them?

    I think it’s a lot harder if these people are one’s you know personally, because it complicates any measures you could perform, like removing their post. On the other hand, if it is someone you only cyber-relate with, it may be easier to ask them to restate/clarify their feelings with reasons that can actually be responded to.

    I think the deeper issues here are very important–what are the boundaries of community? Who gets to decide what those boundaries are? On what grounds do they assert those boundaries? How much dissent should be allowed before someone is excluded?

    These are important issues not just for blogging but for the church in general (except most members get a lot less say in answering many of the questions).

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