Beyond O’Reilly’s online civility dictum: Fostering healthy debate on the web and internet

The Kathy Sierra incident sparked a global debate on online civility that in turn resulted in the contentious proposal by Tim O’Reilly on a voluntary Code of Conduct for Bloggers. My first response to the proposed Code was to mirror those who said it was an overbearing effort to promote civility online, and accordingly, doomed to fail. In that first post, I noted my own travails with fostering progressive conversations online from a Sri Lankan perspective, from the erstwhile Moju to the present-day Groundviews and VOR Radio.

There was much that was wrong with the original proposal of O’Reilly and many bloggers took him to task for trying to dictate the terms of civility, to which he thoughtfully responded to in a post that acknowledged that he could have done better, but that the essential need to envision ways through which online communications could be made more civil and less vituperative was still valid.

The Statement on Respectful Online Communication was drafted by Colin Rule and accepted by participants at the Fifth International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution – Liverpool, England April 19-20, 2007. The statement was drafted to reflect the interest amongst participants, many of whom did not have any direct experience of being attacked online but had nevertheless read reports of the growing rate of online abuse, to draft a statement that they could all sign up to that avoided the prescriptive and normative pitfalls of O’Reilly’s proposal and could in turn foster progressive debate that explored how and why we could create healthy debate in fora such as blogs, websites and public discussion forums. The last paragraph of the statement is accordingly very important:

We embrace full and open communication and recognize the unique
opportunity for expression in the online environment. We support
freedom of speech and reject censorship. These principles are not
intended to address what ideas can be expressed, but rather the tone
with which communications take place.

Government’s around the world that have little regard for the freedom of expression, and I’ve noted in The limits of online freedom and activism are vaunt to use any code that tries to prescribe civility to their own ends to curtail the right of citizens to say what they want and express dissent to practices inimical to democracy, good governance, justice, the Rule of Law and peace. This must be avoided at all costs, and the Liverpool Statement’s rejection of censorship and emphasis on the tone of communication is fundamental to its understanding of civility in terms of delivery, not content.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to draw up a global standard for civility, respect or progressive communications. All of these are rooted in time, context and place and it is impossible to construct a code that applies, without significant adaptation and revision to fit a particular region or context, worldwide.

Or is it?

The basic premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is that all human beings, irrespective of where they live and what conditions they live under, have the same fundamental and inviolable rights. Clearly, polite discourse, respect and civility may be expressed differently around the world, but universal standards do exist – such as active listening, engaging with the issues rather than abusive personal attacks, acknowledging the other’s right to say and think in the manner he / she does, and recognising that there is always more than one truth and that compromise is at the heart of all negotiations. All these influence the manner in which we communicate if we are interested in fostering progressive dialogue.

There’s another dimension to whatever code proposed to foment online civility – most of what I’ve read, including that which I drew up for Groundviews, is in English. As the latest State of the Blogosphere report by Technorati avers:

In terms of blog posts by language, Japanese retakes the top spot from
our last report, with 37% (up from 33%) of the posts followed closely
by English at 36% (down from 39%). Additionally there was movement in
the middle of the top 10 languages, highlighted by Italian overtaking
Spanish for the number four spot.

The newcomer to the top 10 languages is Farsi, just joining the
list at #10. It has been very interesting to watch the growth of the
blogging world in the middle east, especially in countries like Iran…

There are literally millions of users who primarily communicate in languages other than English, and it’s vital that what we propose as guidelines for respect and civility online are, like the UDHR, translated into other languages.

Finally, there’s a need to stimulate discussions in our blogs on what constitutes acceptable behaviour. For those of us who moderate contentious websites that deal with highly emotive issues in a violent context, it’s something we’ve grappled with for far longer than the recent attention of leading bloggers in the West. However, now that for better or for worse, attention is galvanised by Kathy Sierra’s sordid experience, it’s time we all stepped up to a serious and sustained global conversation to determine how we move forward as a global community of practitioners and theorists dedicated to conflict transformation and online dispute resolution to flesh out a foundation of communications that facilitates progressive debate, and eschews personal invective.

It’s no doubt a significant challenge, and one I trust the thought-leadership of those such as Colin Rule will inspire us to address.

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