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Friday, May 04, 2007

Speechifyin'


Over at WizKids' website, they have a much trafficked comment forum, and like many such private forums, there are rules as to what you can say and what you can't say there. WK enforces these rules using two tools -- a preprogrammed filter that will not allow people to post a certain specific list of forbidden words, and a team of moderators who scrutinize everything that does get past the filters, and who are empowered to take any of a variety of actions, ranging from editing objectionable words out of a post, to rewriting an objectionable post, to simply pulling the post in its entirety.

On a thread I started a week or so ago, I noticed some fellow had posted a response and within that response, there was a bracket, and within that bracket, there appeared the phrase 'edited for questionable content', followed by a particular moderator's signature.

I'm just like everybody else when it comes to censorship -- I'm absolutely against it when other people are doing it to me, and reluctantly admit that sometimes it is necessary when I'm doing it to other people. Having admitted that, though, I must also admit that, while I do see censorship on the Internet as being sometimes necessary, especially if one is a corporation catering to a customer base comprised of a broad age range, it is something I regard as very much a necessary evil, which should not be done casually or often or without good reason. My reasons for doing it on my own website are generally two fold -- either to prevent flames, or to shut down what I think of as "the morons' echo chamber", which is to say, that unfortunately not uncommon Internet event that occurs whenever someone anywhere on the Internet posts any viewpoint or opinion that is remotely controversial. What happens is, people who disagree with that point post their disagreement in the threads, which is fine as long as they do it in a civil fashion, and then the original writer addresses those points, after which successive commenters ignore the manner in which the original disagreements have been addressed and simply continue to reiterate the same idiotic points over and over again that have already been completely resolved.

This is aggravating, and I don't let it happen in my comment threads. You can disagree with me, and that's fine, and if you convince me I'm wrong, I'll admit it and apologize, and if you don't convince me, I'll respond to your points with my own, generally at length and completely and without taking you out of context. After this, though, if you, or others who agree with you, simply continue to post and repost and repost the very same moronic chants that I've already dealt with, well, I'm going to shut that down. If you don't have anything new to say, I won't let you clutter up my threads reiterating the same bullshit I've already dealt with.

So those are the conditions under which I will censor, and they're pretty clear. I do not edit other people's comments, either they come through as they were originally posted or they never appear at all. And I absolutely do not restrict what words or phrases people can use when they post to my threads. I don't give a fuck how vulgar or obscene you are; if you're putting forward a viable idea or adding something worthwhile to the ongoing discussion, you can drop the f bomb and shout 'cocksucker' and goddamn everything to hell at great and elaborate length.

WizKids, on the other hand, has no such clarity in their own censorship policies. There is a list of words you cannot use, but beyond that, their mods are charged with the mission "keep it clean for kids". And anything a mod thinks might not be 'clean for kids' can be edited out, rewritten, or pulled in its entirely.

So that's the background. I protested, not just on the grounds that censorship always pisses me off when someone besides me is doing it, but also on the basis that a moderator editing words out of someone's post, not because those words are 'objectionable' (meaning a clear violation of objectively interpreted Terms of Service) but because the moderator finds them to be 'questionable' (meaning, the person doing the censorship him or herself doesn't actually know if these words violate TOS or not, but, what the hell, they might, so let's censor just to be on the safe side).

And that's led to this big long discussion, of which I will present several excerpts below:

Exactly where do we draw the line when it comes to 'symbols used to express profanity'? Words are symbols used to express basic concepts, and words like 'heck', 'fudge', 'shoot', 'butt', etc, etc, etc, are surrogates for other, slightly different arrangements of letters that our history and society has deemed to be, for whatever arbitrary reasons, profane or obscene. General access media has long employed such circumlocutions (Milt Caniff once famously coined the phrase "Cheese n' crackers got all muddy!" as a stand in for a much more profane, very common linguistic usage of his time, in the TERRY AND THE PIRATES comic strip).

So, we can employ such shady dodges, always, of course, at the expense of actual verisimilitude of language, and, occasionally, at the expense of the precise, pungent, pithy meaning we truly wish to convey. But now I'm being made aware that while I can speak of kicking butt, darn someone to heck, accuse someone of being full of bullshoot, and advise that I think a certain dial designer has his head well up his asterisk more often than not -- I can employ all of these various verbal dodges -- but the age old 'Beetle Bailey' is right out?

Words are arbitrary strings of letters and/or sounds strung together that form meanings both subjective and objective. They are powerful things indeed. But it seems to me that the distinctions and gradations at least one, if not more, of the mods around here are insisting upon making are moving beyond even the realm of the ridiculous and absurd into the mind bogglingly surreal.

Here's what I'd like to see -- well written Terms of Service that allow little or no subjectivity on the part of moderators. Here's a very specific definition of what we allow. Here's a very specific definition of what we don't. Here's a list of words you can use, here's a list of words you cannot use. Our threads are for discussion of our products; you can discuss other topics if you want, but we do not allow personal attacks on each other, or discussions on subjects not suitable for all ages. And we define 'all ages' as being anything that could appear in a non-restricted, any age accessible Marvel or DC Comic.

There is nothing 'questionable' about these terms. Anyone can understand them; the particular target demographic that uses these boards will especially understand that anything you would need to put in a Vertigo title you can't put here.

I also think there should be considerably less leeway as to what mods can and can't do. Some mods pull entire posts, others go in and edit your words, cutting what they think is 'questionable' and even substituting other phrases they find more acceptable. This puts every person here in the position of basically taking pot luck -- you get one mod reading a thread one day in one particular mood, and your work is fine; get a different mod (or the same one in a less pleasant mood) and your post disappears entirely, get a third one and your post shows up in some heavily pasteurized, skim milk edition. Feh. If we have to have the heavy hand of the law upon us because some of us simply cannot behave as adults, fine, but let's have some regularity, at the very least.

As to my own preferences, I prefer to communicate to other people however I please (I would badly, badly like to add two words after 'however' because it would exactly convey how exasperated I am with this whole idiotic situation, but, of course, I cannot do that here, because such an invocation might conceivably offend some prudish twit's prudish twittering eyes, and we can't have that) and would rather my words weren't edited or censored at all. But if something I post is objectionable, well, I'd prefer to have my entire post pulled rather than have my identifier on something that someone who doesn't write as well as I do and doesn't have any idea what I was trying to say has gone in and helpfully rewritten for me.

And, once again -- if we can use words like 'heck' as a substitute for more pungent phrases, but we cannot use printer's symbols, well, that's just farging retarded.


This seemed reasonable enough to me, but, apparently, not to others, as it drew the following response (among others):

Why some people think that it is perfectly acceptable to say whatever they want, however they want, when and wherever they want is something I just don't understand.

To which I said:

'Some people' think that saying whatever they want, however they want, when and wherever they want is a natural right of all human beings.

For the very very little it's worth, I think that, certainly, every mature person has a responsibility to behave in a civil manner towards other people, and to take their feelings into consideration. However, I do not think 'not having your feelings hurt', or, to be more specific, 'not being offended', is a basic, natural, or universal human right. It can't be. There are far too many people who get their feelings hurt by the most ridiculously trivial things, or who become foolishly offended by nonsense. If such a right existed and any real attempt was made to enforce it, nobody could ever do anything or say anything, ever, at all.

This all gets very complex. But I do know this: People have an absolute right to express themselves. That right is more important than other people's feelings. It is very difficult to respect someone's right to free expression when they are using it in ways that directly offend and/or anger you, but that's no excuse for not doing so. The fact that someone has offended you does not mean they have harmed you. Being offended or angered is not the same as being injured. The fact that your feelings are hurt does not give you any right whatsoever to demand that others give up their right to freely express themselves around you. If you don't like what someone is saying, don't listen to or read it.

I am, honestly, sick to death of reading in threads like this that there is something badly wrong with my communication skills if I choose, or want to choose, to use profanity to express myself. David Milch is a better writer than anyone who uses this board is ever going to be, and every second word of dialogue on DEADWOOD is rank vulgarity and profanity, and DEADWOOD is one of the most beautifully expressive and fabulous dialogued pieces of fiction ever created. Profanity is a valid, legitimate form of written and verbal expression, and censorship sucks, and the fact that people have a 'right' to censor others in their own living rooms, or on their own websites, does not make it intrinsically correct behavior.

This is, obviously, an emotional issue. I've blocked and deleted comments I found offensive on my own website; obviously, I'm in no position to criticize anyone else for doing it here. But when I do it, I do it cautiously and thoughtfully and my grounds for doing so have nothing to do with HOW people express themselves and everything to do with specifically what they are saying. I would never tell someone that if they want to voice an opinion on something, they can use THESE words, but not THOSE words.

I believe I would be being disrespectful to someone in particular if I launched a personal attack against that person in particular. (I've been known to do that, but only in response to someone getting snarky with me first.) But if I want to use profanity to make it explicitly clear exactly how I feel about some object or action or concept or product, well, if that offends you, it is entirely your problem. I don't believe I should have to be told that I can't use a particular sequence of letters and or syllables simply because someone else out there feels that sequence of letters and syllables is troublesome or unacceptable or aggravating to their own sensibilities. Mature adults have an affirmative duty to be tolerant of other people's behavior when that behavior does not cause them harm, and, again -- behavior that offends you does not harm you, no matter how much you may want to believe otherwise.

I have and will continue to use comment moderation on my own weblog to keep comments from juvenile dipsticks that directly attack my friends or family from being posted. That is, to me, a legitimate use of moderation tools; I won't have my weblog being used as a platform for attacking people I care about. I've also used those tools in the past to keep commenters from simply repeating the same points over and over again, long after I've responded to those points in detail (said responses which are invariably ignored by those who continually recycle those same tired, long since invalidated arguments -- you have to read "Hal Jordan is a pedophile!" from a Kyle Rayner nut enough times and it gets really really old, especially after you've explained eighteen times already to eighteen other Kyle Rayner whackos in the same thread exactly why that isn't true and exactly what's deficient about the mentality of anyone seriously putting that argument forward). But, again, if I have to use censorship, I use it for very specific purposes -- weeding out flames, and keeping the morons' echo chamber under control. I do not make any attempt to pick and choose what words, or, for that matter, arbitrary symbols, anyone gets to use.

I think WK has a 'right' to censor the comments on their board. I think censorship is always a dangerous act, though, and I think any and all such acts of censorship should be undertaken with the utmost reluctance, very rarely, and only with extremely firm, very clear guidelines as to what will be censored and what will be left alone, and I think that anyone who has the power to censor should also take that power very very seriously, and accept along with it the responsibility to always, ALWAYS err on the side of the individual's natural right to freely express themselves.

Censorship, like government, law and order, the military, and every other aspect and manifestation of authority itself, may be a necessary evil -- I believe it is, given the general level of maturity and tolerance that exists in our culture and that is reflected by the Internet at this time. But in our culture, nearly all the time, we use that very specific phrase with the implicit emotional assumption that the word 'necessary' is the only important word there. It isn't. The word 'evil' is just as important. Necessary evils may be necessary, but they are also by definition evil, and as such, they should be implemented by just, right minded, well intentioned men and women as little as they possibly can be. And that's true in every context that censorship can occur in. There is no medium or context where communication between human beings takes place that is so trivial or mundane or minor or unimportant that infringing the basic human right to free expression is ever anything less than evil. Necessary, maybe... but evil, still.

Censorship should never be an easy, offhand, casual, reflexive or unthinking action. It should not be frequent, nor should it happen often, and it certainly should not be justified as blithely, as cavalierly, or as condescendingly as I have seen it rationalized at length on this board and in this thread.


All of which seems, again, reasonable and even wise to me. But, well, somebody else had this to say:

Please explain to me when it is appropriate to even use one of the substitute words in a phrase that conveys the same meaning? If you are using such a phrase it is generally to disrespect someone in some manner. It is questionable and objectionable to disrespect someone in that manner...no matter the words you use. Just because a filter catches a certain word doesn't necessarily mean that synonyms are appropriate replacements if the intent of the words is to disrespect someone in a flippant manner. Be courteous and respectful and that will be returned to you...besides, why would one stoop to the level of "cursing" in civil discourse?

To which I responded:

How about "I really gosh darn hate the gosh darn Alan Scott Vet from ORIGIN"? Am I disrespecting someone when I use a term that is a generally accepted substitute for something much more profane, to more precisely and emotionally express my feelings of deep disappointment in a little plastic sculpt and its defining dial? Who would I be further disrespecting if I were allowed to use that much more profane phrase, as I might well choose to? Avert your eyes, ladies, lest ye faint?

Honestly, this is nonsense. If I'm specifically attacking someone with my language, they are entitled to feel offended.

If, on the other hand, I am writing about a product, or the NAAT ruling, or the new policies as regards how many figures will be in a box and how their powers will be defined, and I want to spice my opinions liberally with various colorful phrases that are not in any way intended to be attacks on anyone, well, I simply don't think any reasonable person should be offended by that, and certainly, nobody has a 'right' to assume that their potential offense is more important than my freedom of expression. To err on the side of, as somebody else put it, "the right to be treated with the dignity and respect any human being deserves" is, in this context, quite flatly wrong. That 'right' is real, but it exists in the context of real wrongdoing and actual injury. Speech is not an assault and cannot harm you; all it can do is offend you. Your right to be treated with dignity and respect cannot infringe on my right to speak and write whatever I choose; otherwise, you are infringing MY right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Take that nonsense much further and you end up with something very like Islamic sharia law -- women cannot wear revealing clothing in public because it might potentially offend someone, no one can use certain phrases in their speech or their expressions because those phrases might offend someone (or, you know, Invisible Scoutmaster In The Sky), and the punishment for infractions is death by stoning, or, if you've a more Western bent, death by exposure in the public stocks with a big sign saying BLASPHEMER hung around your neck. Our culture long ago outgrew the murderous impulse to enforce conformity on everyone at the threat of humiliation, disfigurement, and death -- but the impulse still very much lives, as can be seen by the notion that someone's 'right to be treated with dignity' equates to a 'right' to stifle my free expression.

People who favor censorship never favor it for their own speech or their own expression. It's always on someone else that they like to see it done, someone whose ideas, or whose manner of expression, they themselves disapprove of, or find offensive.

What I am saying is that as reasonable, civil, mature human beings, we have an affirmative responsibility to be tolerant of speech and expression, EVEN WHEN IT OFFENDS US. Our recourse is to walk away from it, express our own responses to it , or engage it in further expression of our own and try to modify the behavior that way. But using force or violence to simply make the kind of speech that offends us never come into being in the first place is rarely justifiable, and, certainly, 'the right to be treated with the dignity and respect any human being deserves', when used as a rationalization for this kind of censorship, is exactly the sort of smug, casually condescending, arrogant justification of a perhaps necessary but always evil act that should never be taken so for granted... and should CERTAINLY never, ever be supported in this kind of onerous, egregiously specious manner.

I notice that those who disagree with me are being pretty careful which particular passages of my posts they pull to refute. I'd assume they don't much want to confront the notion that a necessary evil, as nearly everyone agrees censorship is, is not made any less evil by its necessity. But I suspect that's because those who openly advocate and support censorship do not see it as an evil. They rather see the idea of universal free speech to be an obnoxious encumberance on living in the sort of reality they most greatly desire -- one in which they can rise and sleep under a centrally and rigidly enforced blanket of conformity to every ideal and behavior they hold dear, where nothing will ever occur that angers or offends them, and where no exasperatingly different concepts, ideas, or behaviors will ever intrude to annoy them.

They just don't want to admit it out loud, because they know such openly admitted hatred of basic individual liberty is unpopular. (At the moment.)

Make no mistake -- even remotely tolerate the spurious notion that 'human dignity' means I or anyone else is not allowed to say 'frak' or 'shoot' or (for the love of gob) 'go play in traffic', and you're well beyond 'necessary' and way into 'evil'... and your notion of 'human dignity' is a peculiar one that seems to come with a collar and a leash on every neck, and No Child Left Behind, neither. You may not mind the collar and the leash as long as everyone else has to wear them, too, but it is, to say the least, unreasonable and unkind of you to volunteer the rest of us into restraints and harnesses simply because you yourself like the way they feel.

And, you know, it goes on and on and on, but we've pretty much reached the "morons' echo chamber" stage where all anyone is doing is repeating the same opinions, over and over again, while not convincing anyone who doesn't already agree with them of anything.

But, you know, it's something that makes the time go by when you're bored.

2 Comments:

At 11:05 AM , Blogger Opus P. Penguin said...

Bravo!

 
At 8:37 AM , Blogger AaA said...

'Bout sums it up for me.

'Ceptin' Ah like the Moron's Echo Chamber. Let's me hone an argument to the razor's edge, for later usage.

 

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