Wednesday, September 14, 2016
It was good to see an article about the difference between discussion group moderation and censorship that said mostly correct things about the difference between the two. The author draws the following analogy after using an XKCD cartoon to explain that what some call "censorship" is actually just a showing-of-the-door to someone who has made himself unwelcome:
It can help to think of your audience as a unique subset of people within a larger city, and your site, a neighborhood cafe where this community can assemble. Laying down some "house rules" and enforcing them effectively will make your core community members feel safe and welcome every time they step across your digital threshold. Imagine a group of friends who like to discuss comic books at your cafe. What are you doing to ensure they feel safe and happy? It's reasonable to assume that this group should not have to tolerate some jerk behind the communal couch throwing bagels at their heads. You would likely kick that bagel-flinging assailant to the curb as quickly as possible. Simple as that.So far, so good, but I find myself having the same thought as when I first encountered the title, which read, "When Does Moderation Become Censorship?" The thought? "When the government steps in."
Just like in real life, there are behavioral rules for public spaces like a cafe.
Wondering why I thought this, I looked back at the above passage and a few of the comments, and noticed (1) the adjective, "communal" being used to describe a couch the proprietor was letting his customers use, and (2) a commenter rightly describing instances of moderators using their power to silence opposing views (rather than enforce decorum). I think both issues would become clearer with a more explicit mention of property rights. The reason a cafe (or discussion forum) owner may eject customers or guests as he sees fit is because he owns that cafe or forum. There is nothing "communal" about either, and the prerogative of moderating is an application of the individual's right to property, not some allegedly holy aspect of some woozy "community."
Both the government and an anti-intellectual moderator can silence discussion on a forum, but only the government (with its monopoly on the use of force (which is properly only retaliatory)) can force this on an entire society (in fact or via threat of precedent-setting examples). Thus, even an abusive moderator is not a censor: his victims are free to move to better forums and tell others about the abuse.
The failure to mention property rights thus left the issue less-than-clear and opened the door for commenters to make confused remarks like the following:
[T]hey are just petty closed minded individuals who use their position to discriminate against a point of view. It's censorship and saying it's not does not change it. [grammar edits]No. The petty-mindedness of a proprietor does not negate his property rights. The solution is to move to another forum or start one of your own. In addition to sowing more confusion about the source of a moderator's power, this omission also distracts from a real concern: Some moderators may indeed sometimes have doubts about when a decision might appear to be directed against a point of view rather than a violation of etiquette or forum rules. I think the article addresses this issue reasonably well, but could have headed off such confusion by clarity on how property rights apply to forums where people express their opinions.