Rebirth of Reason


SOLO In Review, Part 2: Principles Of An Objectivist Forum
by Joseph Rowlands

SOLO was announced as a Free Radical project, and hosted on the Free Radical web page.  It consisted of an introductory page, the Credo, a list of articles that captured the spirit of SOLO, and some music and movie reviews.  And of course, the forum.

The original forum lasted for a little over a month.  The forum began as completely unmoderated, allowing anyone to post.  Since Lindsay Perigo is from New Zealand, SOLO was originally based there (now in the United States), although it was always international.  We had people from all over the world posting within the first month.  The quality was high caliber, and it showed a real need for this kind of discussion.

The benefits of moderation quickly became clear.  A group of fascists decided to try to impress us with their intellectual abilities by shouting obscenities and death threats.  Foreshadowing a theme made by most of the later insane people, they tried to win arguments by posting as often as they could.  That's easy to do when you're not stymied by trying to be intelligent or holding down a job.

The old software package was too slow and didn't allow for proper moderation, and the fascists had thoroughly vandalized it.  No moderator could keep up with their persistence.  In May of that year, SOLO went to a Yahoo forum based on the availability of Yahoo, the pressing need to get rid of the Nazis, and the desire of the moderator at the time.

But with the power of moderation came great responsibility.  When exactly do you moderate a post?  And when do you decide to take the big step of banning someone?  To answer these questions, it's important to ask a more fundamental question: What is the purpose of the forum?  And what principles should guide us?

A forum is a place for people to discuss ideas, learn from each other, explore new thoughts, and enjoy the companionship of like-minded people.  An Objectivist forum in particular should be set up to encourage critical thinking and rational discourse.  We don’t want blind acceptance of ideas, but an intelligent grasp of the material.  We must also remember that Objectivism is not the conventional worldview, and participants will have varying degrees of understanding.

So the first principle that should guide the forum is that it should be open to disagreements.  We don’t ban people because they have ideas we disagree with.  We don’t hide behind our philosophy, afraid to examine and discuss contradictory views.  In fact, there is some benefit to having people around with opposing points of view.  By arguing against them, you can learn to refine your own arguments, better integrate your knowledge, and flesh out your understanding.

The benefits from these opposing points of view are not unlimited though, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are.  That's the second principle.  Non-Objectivists are guests.  If someone is making an honest effort to learn and understand Objectivism, they should be encouraged to stay and work it out.  But when someone shows up making wild assertions, and is unwilling to discuss them intelligently, then they provide no benefit to the forum.  For those people committed to an opposing worldview and unwilling to learn, they provide value only to the extent that people can and want to use them as a debating foil or sounding board.  These people are guests who participate by permission, not right.  They are expected to be on their best behavior.  They are held to a stricter standard and should act appropriately.

In keeping with the idea of openness in a forum, there shouldn’t be any topics that are taboo.  That's principle three.  No banning of topics.  There are lots of reasons why other people ban particular topics.  Some groups might ban a topic because they’re afraid of it.  Objectivists have no fear of opposing ideas.  Others might ban it because it’s unpopular.  We prefer the system of letting our participants ignore topics they’re not interested in.  Some topics are banned elsewhere in an attempt to ignore certain people.  There are "Objectivist" forums that won't let you mention particular people, or you'll be accused of being a "Tolerationist" and banned.

The final reason some people ban topics is that some topics always manage to make some people angry.  Discussions of past Objectivist schisms or how people have been treated by organizations are two such topics.  Others may be about current politics, anarchism vs. minarchism, or any number of other topics with fierce disagreement.

This leads us to the fourth principle.  Not everyone is going to be happy.  There will always be people who dislike certain conversations.  There will be people who don't like another participant.  There will be people who don't like someone's writing style.  There will always be complaints.  It's a fact of life.  We don't try to fix it.  This site is huge.  There are tons of topics to pick from, and you can start your own.  So when you get bored with a thread, stop reading it.  And better yet, start your own that you do find interesting.  We give people an opportunity here, not a guarantee of happy results.

Another criticism that comes up often is thread hijacking, or tangents.  A topic can start one way, and lead to another.  Usually that's not too much of a problem.  Occasionally, it can be annoying.  If you want to move the topic to something radically different, we recommend you move it to a different thread out of courtesy for the original participants of the thread.  If you think your thread is hijacked, you can start a new one, or ask the others to.  But it happens sometimes, and we're not going to try to force people to behave.  A forum is a very flexible thing, and we're not going to be control freaks.  And that's principle five.  Let the forum be flexible.

In my experience, this is usually only a problem anyway when non-Objectivists with a particular philosophical fetish try to get every thread to talk about their own topic.  We may deal with these attention-seekers, but the best thing people can do is ignore them, or at least move the discussion to another thread.

Principle six says that we should promote self-governance by the participants.  It's preferable for the people actually participating to work out any issues themselves, instead of having to rely on the moderators.  You can see this in action all the time.  When someone is unjust in attacking another person, other participants come to the defense.  When someone is boring and long-winded, people mention it to them or just stop responding to them.  If a thread is going off-course, participants take it to a new and dedicated thread, or ask that others do.

If the participants don't step up to the job, the owners can go to principle seven.  Ask nicely.  Most people will respect the property rights of the owners.

Of course, sometimes that doesn't work.  And so we have principle eight.  Don't be afraid to moderate.  We have the ability to put people on moderation, to delete posts, to not let posts through the moderator queue, and to ban people outright.

We rarely reject posts in the queue, and then primarily because they're just blatant insults with no content.  We do put some people onto moderation, so their posts have to be cleared, and this can be for a variety of reasons.  We very rarely use the big hammer of outright banning someone.  There are a few instances where we have, and it helps to understand the lines we've drawn.

One type is the person who contributes nothing but insults.  When there is even a façade of rational discourse, we often permit it anyway.  Also if the insults become very personal.  There's always some rough and tumble in a forum where people discuss ideas fundamental to their lives, but personal attacks are not appropriate.

Vendettas are also forbidden.  Occasionally we'll find someone who gets angry in one thread leaping from thread to thread, hurling insults and trying to move every conversation back to that one.  This sometimes manifests as random insults towards a person who's not even participating in that thread.

These are just a  few of the principles that guide our actions as moderators.

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