Arts & Media Columns Combating Online Hate Speech Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

To my commenters

Raphael, School of Athens

Over the years that I have been writing Spiritual Politics, first as a blog and now as a column, I have taken the position that commenting should take place as if in an open public forum where pretty much anything goes short of incitement to violence, obscenity, and outright ethnic or religious slurs.

My sense was that if I was going to offer my opinions about religious goings on, readers should be free to offer theirs, regardless of how intemperate or ill-conceived. In part, I was simply interested in learning what was out there in the way of attitudes and opinions on what I chose to discuss.

I have come to feel differently, in large part because the comments section of this column—and, indeed, of the RNS site generally—has been turned into a battleground for a group of religious adversaries to hurl insults at each other. A specific piece serves as little more than a prompt for the warfare to continue.

It could be argued that there’s no harm in this. If there are people who want to engage each other in verbal assault, why prevent them?

I have two answers.

First, it only adds to the ugliness of public discourse in our time. The public square of old was a place where you would have to meet those you disagreed with face to face, where the need to live together in a community would act as a brake on hostility. The digital public square provides no such brake. Indeed, by offering a cloak of anonymity and the assurance that direct personal contact need never take place, it does the opposite.

Second, continuing verbal battle discourages those who would like to engage the author and each other in civil discussion and debate. Why write a comment when the likely result is that one troll or another will rise up to bite your head off?

So from now on, I am enforcing the commenting policy that RNS has established, the heart of which is:

We understand that people feel passionately about religious belief and other topics we report on, and we fully encourage debate and disagreement – including criticism of our articles. But comments are expected to be civil and respectful. We will delete material that is defamatory, abusive, bullying, harassing, racist, hateful, violent, sexually explicit or obscene; we will block commenters who post material that is deemed to be of this nature, and we will remove anything that is itself or is a link to something that is vulgar and obscene. Also not permitted are ethnic slurs, religious intolerance, homophobia, and personal attacks.

Conversations can encompass many ideas, but they must remain on the topic of a story or related issues. And commenters should understand that they may be misunderstood and should make an effort to be clear and maintain a mature and moderate tone.

From now on I will delete comments that disrespect entire religious traditions such as these examples of anti-Catholicism in the comments to my last column:

Most Catholics suffer from the Three B Syndrome, Bred, Born and Brainwashed in their very flawed religion as are all believers in angels , devils, atonement, resurrection and an afterlife.

I do not need to “order” any tracts from a Roman Catholic website in order to grasp what Catholicism really is, for history bears out the egregious behavior and falsehoods that it has propagated.

So glad that I’m not involved in this nutso denomination.

Those who persist in making such comments will be blocked. I will also delete comments that depart from the topic of the column, and block those who persist in making them.

And as of now I am blocking the following commenters: Bob Arnzen, Ben in Oakland, Bob Cariozen, HpO, Givethedogabone, Arbustin, Reason over Religion, Michael Dowd, Rational Conclusions, and jaareshiah. If any one of you wish to be unblocked, you can drop me a line at Trinity College, 300 Summit Street, Hartford, CT 06106 and make your case.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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