Having thought long and hard about h2g2, the recent lifetime ban, the BBC, rights, responsibilities, freedom of speech, censorship, all that jazz; I find that some of my opinions have changed.
How asterisking embarrassing is that?
The BBC own the site
Hoovooloo has put forward a coherent and persuasive case that the BBC owns the site, (posting 131 in the 'Lifetime Suspension' thread), and it is therefore their moral as well as their legal right to decide what is and is not allowed to happen here. We are all just their guests, with no more rights than that.
In the same way, if I invite you into my home, I am entitled to enforce my house-rules (in my house these are: no shoes, no smoking, no - ahem - spitting, no dissing).
In this context, the only rights we have in this sandpit are the rights that the owners grant us.
I really wish I had not had to type that.
There is another view: that the relationship between the researchers and the BBC is a contractual one: the BBC provides a playground in exchange for articles and other writing. We are therefore not guests, but citizens with rights, responsibilities and duties. This was put to me by one of the recently departed researchers, and although I find that argument morally seductive, I also find it legally unconvincing.
BBC - image and reality
I remember posting a long rant a while ago about the difference between the image and the reality of the BBC. The image of the BBC is that of a fearless independent proponent of free speech; magisterially aloof from the political melée; even handed, responsible, and wise; able to 'walk with kings and keep the common touch'.
What gave me the willies when the Beeb took over h2g2 is my belief that all of the above is b******s.
So, if this is their sandpit, and they make up the rules - where does that leave us?
Freedom of speech in a sandpit
Well, I do still believe passionately in freedom of speech. To quote Voltaire yet again:
'I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'.
There are points at which I wonder if this is wise. I am uncomfortable about the right to say things which are racist, which incite violence or hatred, and with some pornography, for example.
But at what point does that become a curtailment of freedom of speech?
The BBC did do a very interesting interview with Larry Flint a couple of years ago, which touched on the relationship between freedom of speech and pornography. Flint claims that the political struggle is more compelling for him than the dirty mags. I wanted to know which had come first for him: the politics or the pornography. If he lived in a country such as Japan which is fairly relaxed about pornography, but very up-tight about other things, would he be a pornographer, or would he have chosen a different medium in order to make the political point? Alas, Peter White, who is a sensitive and talented broadcaster, missed the chance to ask that question.
And like it or not, the BBC perceives itself as having a duty of care to its audience. In this case, presumably the audience are visitors to the site who choose not to become members of the community. Hence the disclaimers all over the place.
Unfortunately this has brought about a noticeable dumbing down and blandification of content.
But if you want a site with absolute freedom of speech, it has to be run by someone with deep pockets, who is prepared to fund liability issues relating to libel, breach of copyright, and incitement to racial hatred, and who does not have a constituency which includes children and middle England.
This is clearly not the BBC.
Unfortunately we are left with the practical question: 'where should the boundary be set' and not the moral one: 'should a boundary be set at all'.
My flippant remark is your blasphemy
This issue of boundaries is irresolvable. What I think is a rational statement of the atheist point of view is for you a direct flame on deeply held religious convictions. And my flippant response is your blasphemy. And so on.
The BBC simply cannot undertake to protect everyone's feelings. It is actually impossible. Unfortunately, it seems to think it can.
This is very important, and deserves debate. The implication of a lot of the recent postings about the yikes button, and the meaning of 'otherwise offensive' is that if something offends someone then it is offensive and may be removed.
Well, everything is potentially offensive to someone. Taken to its logical conclusion, any individual has a power of veto over any content. Please tell me that is ridiculous.
And here comes the element of judgement, and with that the cultural and personal perceptions of those judging.
What does make a difference is if this censorship is discussed openly. There is a difference between a site which cannot bring itself to include a how-to article on cunnilingus, and a site which will not even debate such an article. Thankfully h2g2 does still host such debates.
But in my opinion it over-protects supposedly delicate sensitivities.
Acts of immoderation
Given that I now have to accept the BBC's right to moderate the site, I am still very unhappy about how this is done.
This is absolutely NOT the fault of the individual moderators; the same rules which are unclear to us are unclear to them. The moderators see snippets out of context, and many work alone without the benefit of colleagues to bounce decisions off.
However, the moderation of content on this site is unacceptably uneven. There have been posts moderated away on grounds of 'taste' (ie 'otherwise offensive'); and there have been threads of astonishing explicitness left unmolested. People who have read the rules are still unclear what they can and cannot say. The response is 'moderators are human, and interpret the rules differently'; but that is sidestepping the question, and not fair to the users of the site.
Moderating language using asterisks is physiologically self-defeating. The eye is drawn to a line of s***s. If the eye is deemed to be too sensitive to witness the unadorned anglo-s***n, then using the l****r x is much less obtrusive than using asterisks. It is like the difference between b***ping over a sxxxr wxxd, and simply cutting it from the track in a film.
It is also psychologically self-defeating. Don't think of a purple elephant. Ignore its orange wings. And whatever happens, forget the pink tutu. The mind has to s**p and decode a r*w of asterisks. But it just reads the b*****d swear words and moves on. With standard spelling there is no mental or visual hiccup.
But my basic premise here is that I have reluctantly come to accept that the BBC is entitled to moderate. But I still think that the way in which they moderate is uneven, unnecessary and stupid.
What a painful and delicate subject.
I am not prepared to get specific here. But what has happened three times can happen again. So the following is hypothesis based on recent events.
The site includes researchers with a wide variety of personal circumstances and personal history, and a large number of us deviate from the middle of the bell-curve in terms of mental health (whatever that may be). Some are more vulnerable than others. For many, h2g2 is a shining light of in/sanity in an in/sane world.
However h2g2 is not a therapy group. There is a balance to be struck between the health and well-being of an individual, and the health and well-being of the group of which they are a part. This is why a ship would be quarantined if there were an infectious disease aboard.
Expulsion is a very aggressive and demeaning act. Sophocles for example preferred death to exile. Sending someone to Coventry (ignoring anything they do and anything they say) is an incredibly effective way of undermining their self-esteem. Practiced consistently it can bring about suicide. Silencing someone is not a trivial thing to do.
We all have different pain thresholds. Some of us assume the best of people, and are only insulted if there is a clear and explicit intention to insult. Others are touchier and have rules about what is insulting ("don't call me 'love'") and what constitutes an attack. And individuals who have been abused or assaulted are more alert to the possibilities of repeat attacks than those who have not.
And we all deal with assaults in different ways. Some of us hide, some deflect, and others take the view that the best form of defence is attack. This probably is the most effective, but is also the most destructive.
Things can go from flippant to thermo-nuclear in three seconds flat.
A lot of people say 'think before you post, and then stop and think again'. But this is what has brought about the creeping tide of blandness.
I would also say 'think before you cry, and stop and think again'. This may be a comment of crashing insensitivity - but very few researchers intend to offend. I would beg those who are offended to ask again and again what the intention was behind the posting.
If the individual is damaging the group - what then?
This depends on your role in relation to the individual and to the group. If you are a mother, you will defend your child if it is being bullied at school. This is as it should be: protection is one of the things that mothers are for.
But if you are paid to protect and nurture the group, your duty as an employee is very clear. The health and well-being of the group comes first.
If you are a member of the group then you have to make a more complex call. Is your loyalty to the individual or the group?
This site has some very clear terms and conditions. The grey area is 'material which is otherwise offensive'. But most of the rules are clear, and if they are transgressed, then the people who participate in the site have actions open to them in proportion to their responsibilities. Researchers can 'yikes'; moderators can delete; editors can expel.
I can think of no occasion where the editors have taken an action which they were not permitted to take by the terms and conditions of the site. Whether or not they over-reacted is another issue.
The question then comes - were they morally right? Well, the italics' directive is the good of the community as a whole. Most of us at some time have had to do things in one role which we would not do in another role. The classic example is the executive who has to sack a friend. The legal system acknowledges these kinds of dilemmas - a wife is not asked to testify against her husband.
So I regretfully conclude that they were right, specifically in their role as italics.
And I continue to grieve for the site and for the individuals involved.
Victim or witch-hunt?
In many respects we create our own world. I think it is Aesop who tells the tale of a man journeying from Athens to Thebes. He meets someone on the road who says 'the people of Thebes are dreadful, they lie and rob and cheat - what are the Athenians like?' 'You will find them much the same', says the man. The next day he meets another traveller who asks about Athens. This traveller says 'I will really miss Thebes; the people are honest, helpful and cheerful; what are the Athenians like?' 'Oh, much the same', says the man.
So much of what happens to us in the world comes about as reaction, rather than action, and it may not be wilful or malicious.
And there is also what happens when an individual's head rises above the parapet. More than 20 years ago I was an under-matron in a private boys boarding school for 8-13 year olds - grubby little buggers. There was a boy who was playing me up, and I ended up picking on him. It was not deliberate. It was because I watched him more than the others, so of course I saw him play up more than the others. I thought I was being fair. But I wasn't.
Groups deal with non-conforming members in a variety of ways. The nazis put homosexuals and gypsies to death. The roman catholic church excommunicates (which is more than expulsion, having spiritual consequences for the believer). The army court-martials and can execute. The options in a web community include flaming, suspension and expulsion.
When a group are watching an individual, a mob mentality can develop, and when that happens the cruelty snowballs. There is a difference between a witch-hunt and a mob. A witch-hunt suggests a conspiracy with some level of organisation and an agenda. A mob is a different and more unpleasant animal all together. The attacks on paedophiles in the south west of England a couple of years ago were mob-actions, whipped up and directed with glee by mob-members and by the tabloids.
I would have liked to come to a nice tidy conclusion here. But in so many situations there are no victims, and there are no guilty parties; there are just human beings with widely different perspectives on the world, and widely differing pain thresholds.
I still grieve for the damaged, whoever they may be.
It's their party and they can cry if they want to
So, I have come to the conclusion that this is the BBC's site; they make up the rules, and are morally and legally entitled to do so.
And the italics are tasked with the well-being of the community as a whole. If rules are broken, then the italics have a duty to act on that.
There are two remaining questions, and I am not prepared to discuss them here: were rules in fact broken, and were the actions of the italics in proportion to breaking of the rules?
I thought that this was an issue of freedom of speech, and now I have come to think that it is an issue of ownership and citizenship; roles, responsibilities and duty.
As I said at the beginning: How asterisking embarrassing is that?