A polite way to put it: Xpress issues civility challenge

THE CIVILITY CHALLENGE: Xpress is challenging our readers to strive for more civil, respectful discourse in the online comments on our site.
THE CIVILITY CHALLENGE: Xpress is challenging our readers to strive for more civil, respectful discourse in the online comments on our site.

Do rude comments on articles and letters posted on the Mountain Xpress website deter greater participation among our readers? That’s the sense among staffers who follow these online exchanges.

That’s why we’re challenging our readers to strive for more civil, respectful discourse in the online comments on our site. To be sure, discourteous comments are not a new phenomenon or one limited to Xpress. Other news organizations have struggled with the same issue — some of them eliminating online comments altogether, shunting them to Facebook or otherwise limiting the discussion.

Here at Xpress, however, we still see value in providing this platform for the public to discuss the issues we face as a community. In fact, an essential part of Xpress’ mission is to strengthen democracy by promoting thoughtful dialogue.

It’s a balancing act, to be sure, since readers often express strong — and varied— opinions on a number of topics. But we want to encourage folks to express those views civilly and respectfully, in a way that fosters greater participation and propels the conversation forward.

Xpress already has a policy in place defining what is impermissible on the site, including personal attacks, inflammatory and off-topic remarks, and libelous comments. We also have a system to address those issues by deleting problematic comments, moving commenters to moderation and — as a last resort — banning particular accounts.

Effective immediately, Xpress editors intend to firmly enforce those rules to maintain the spirit of civil, respectful discourse. As a reminder, you’ll notice a new message at the bottom of online articles and letters to reinforce that point.

Are Xpress readers up to the civility challenge? We certainly think so.

As always, please let us know your thoughts. Politely, of course.

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Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

79 thoughts on “A polite way to put it: Xpress issues civility challenge

  1. John Penley

    I understand your reasoning for doing this, but I also understand that we live in a political environment that has severely divided the country and comments that you censor and the fact that you have made a choice to do that will not change the reality that we are divided. Lets face facts, I have not seen the country so divided since the Vietnam war, especially here in North Carolina and it will get worse so censor away because we are , in my opinion, having what is close to a Civil War where neither side plans or wants to be Civil and you cannot change reality but you can control the comments on your articles.

  2. The Real World

    Civil discourse? Fair enough and much welcomed. But, I can tell you why things sometimes go off the rails.

    1 – Because there are a lot of closed minds commenting on this website. A LOT of them. Primarily the ones who think they aren’t.

    2 – Clearly, they don’t care about learning of other points of view because rarely do any clarifying questions get posed. More often, viewpoints get assigned to other commenters. (Is this 6th grade?)

    3 – Most are not solution seekers. They’re more looking for boogie men to beat up so they can feel better about whatever unhappiness they have. (It apparently doesn’t work b/c some have remained cranky for years)

    I envision a good add-on commentary to this one where Mtn X, in some fetching way, addresses the issues above and encourages people to seek to understand and to solve. That would be monumental.

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      Regarding #2, I agree (not that I don’t agree with the others). Sometimes it seems like all it is around here is weaponized talking points and ad hominem attacks..

    • Huhsure

      In this new era of civility, perhaps more attention will be paid to corralling the paid shill who stalks this forum on behalf of our Republican colleagues and representatives.

      Truly trying to foster civility? Investigate who is behind that, and I’ll believe it.

      • Peter Robbins

        I can’t speak to the factual basis of Huhsure’s comment, but the point it makes is sound. The Xpress wouldn’t knowingly run a letter to the editor without noting that the author was paid by a political party, a political operative or a special-interest group. Why would the comments section be policed otherwise? This matter seems to me much more serious than concerns about tone.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        What does party affiliation and (supposed) paid status have to do with civility? Civility is showing tolerance and respect, and being non- abusive. And if you are possibly referring to Mr Peck, I think he shows outstanding civility in spite of all of the mud slinging and abuse he incurs.

        • Lulz

          And yet the guy is rumored to be running for mayor. An admitted hater of white males. Think long and hard about that because then you are in fact being represented by a racist.

        • Peter Robbins

          Civility — in the sense of civilized discourse — requires a certain amount of respect for the intelligence of the reader. Furnishing background information that might color a comment falls within that definition. If you insist on anonymity, could you at least assure us that you are not the gentlemen whose name you have placed in nomination for Mr. Congeniality?

          • luther blissett

            “Assume good faith until proved otherwise” is a useful starting point. If someone shows up in a thread in a provocative way, then dances around saying “oh, you’re making this thread about me” when people are provoked, then that should count as proving otherwise.

  3. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    Kudos. I’m up for it. If there is disagreement, I suggest we all strive to find fault with the viewpoint, and not the person.

  4. Phil Williams

    Best of luck in this endeavor. Some folks, whether they be named or nameless, tend to get mighty bold and mighty ugly from the safety of a computer screen. And some, without actual profanity or overt aggression, can be infuriatingly snide and smug. My only course of action for these commenters is to just disengage and let them have the last word….I have noted with interest that a certain nom de plume has lately been conspicuous by his absence – has “The Rocker” been banned??

    • Lulz

      Define ugly? Shall we go and pull up Bothwells ugliness directed at “old white guys”? Plenty, and mean plenty of examples are out there.

      • Phil Williams

        Ugly as in disrespectful or needlessly uncivil. I never said anything regarding at whom ugliness is directed – although I am definitely aware of the double standard that you refer to. Whether said ugliness comes from a progressive or conservative or nihilist source, it is still ugly.

    • Peter Robbins

      No one has any comment on the exchange to which I linked? I take that as a confirmation that the exchange — though sometimes caustic, sarcastic and personal — passes the civility test in a world of sharp-elbowed discourse.

      • Huhsure

        The whole “Wikipedia isn’t a valid source” schtick is tired, I’ll say that.

        • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

          Anyone can edit Wikipedia. There are many authors and there, is no chief editor, so at best it is a hodgepodge of information. It is a great place to go to fish for new ideas (to be researched elsewhere), but a horrible source for comprehensive understanding. It is completely voluntary, so if one viewpoint has more interest in the subject than an opposing viewpoint, the info will be skewed towards the former. I created a Wikipedia page on a subject about which I am arguably the primary authority. Yet anyone can edit it and even delete what I wrote. If I don’t maintain it, I’ll never know. And I don’t care because the whole thing’s a hassle and I have my own webpage devoted to the subject where I can completely control its content.. That in itself undermines the integrity of Wikipedia. The paradigm is interesting, but flawed.

          • Peter Robbins

            That’s all irrelevant. Do you think the things you said to me were uncivil?

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            IT may be irrelevant to you, but it certainly wasn’t to the person’s comment I replied to. So you really only speak for yourself.

            Since you seem to have an axe to grind by having dredged up that old thread, why don’t you point out any perceived incivility?

          • Huhsure

            “Flawed” is in the eye of the beholder. Wikipedia does what it aims to do. It doesn’t claim to be a definitive source. People who cite it don’t claim it as a definitive source. And there’s something to be said to having infinite curation, which allows pages to be fact-checked in realtime, refined based upon new reporting, and issues like bias can be addressed by those with enough interest. Something that cannot be said about standard encyclopedias.

            Not definitive != not valid.

          • Peter Robbins

            True enough, Huhsure. But the topic is civility, and I am trying to establish a baseline for analysis. Do you, Mr. Snowflake, think the things you said to me were civil? For instance, was it uncivil for you to imply that I am not intelligent. Was it uncivil for you to imply that I am gay? Was it uncivil of me to suggest that the opinion expressed in your comments was on the fringe?

          • Huhsure

            Didn’t mean to derail… I’m curious to hear snowflake’s answer, too.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            It’s not a matter of what I think. You’re the one who dredged up an old LTE for some reason. So since you’re the one who has some kind of issue, what do YOU think? That’s being honest about the matter.

          • Peter Robbins

            Maybe we’ll hear from some of the other Civility Warriors.

          • Phil Williams

            I reckon the biggest thing I have learned about civility/incivility is that insults and name calling cause opponents to pretty much shut out everything you have to say and become even further entrenched in their own opinions and positions. And in the online medium, it seems more difficult to control the “tone” of remarks – a lot of times, going back and reading what I have written, I could see how the intent could be completely misinterpreted, or how one ill-chosen comment or word pretty much set a negative tone for the entire conversation.

            Several folks have good points – I can see points in favor of and against aggressive moderation and disabling comments after they become a monotonous back and forth. I don’t believe that intellectual honesty must necessarily be abrasive, and I can generally tell when words and thought are being expended in vain and it is time to retire from the field with a bit of dignity.

          • Peter Robbins

            I always enjoy your comments now, Phil, even when I don’t agree with them, which is always.

          • Phil Williams

            Dear me, I do believe I’ve been paid a left-handed compliment….I actually do agree with you sometimes, Mr. Robbins – and even when I don’t, you do actually force me to think – and sometimes, even to re-think my original position, so my hat is off to you.

          • Peter Robbins

            No, no, no. It wasn’t meant to be left-handed. It was meant to be cheerfully ironic. Really. A left-handed shot would have stung.

          • Phil Williams

            In that case I stand corrected, and I thank you kindly. As I said earlier, it is often easy to read the wrong things into written comments.

          • Peter Robbins

            Yeah, that’s true. If it’s any help, early Mike Royko is my role model. I don’t often get there, but who does?

          • Phil Williams

            Well now, there is a bit of common ground! I always used to enjoy reading Mr. Royko’s column, may the Lord rest his soul, even when I didn’t agree. If I ever get to Chicago I want to visit the Billy Goat Tavern if it is still there! Don’t know if you remember Asheville restauranteur Tom Naomi (who ran the hot dog emporium, Tom’s Grill on Patton by the Kress Building until he was 100 years old) – but Mr. Tom reminds me of the short Greek guy Mr. Royko described who ran the Billy Goat Tavern….

          • Peter Robbins

            Billy Goat’s Tavern is still there, but it’s gotten kinda touristy. Come to think, so has Asheville.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            “Tom’s Grill”

            Was that on the southeast corner of Patton and Lexington.?

        • Phil Williams

          I can remember Tom’s being in 2 different locations – when I first went there in the late 70’s it was right behind the Pack Square Cigar Store on Patton – right before you got to the square. Sometime in the mid-80’s he moved to the little space right beside the Kress Building which would have been on the NW side of Patton/N Lexington but not on the corner – the business on the SE corner of that intersection was the Star Bootery for many years. Mr. Tom also owned the Dutch Boy diner in West Asheville near where Apple Tree Chevrolet is now.

  5. Grant Millin

    Unfortunately what civil discourse looks like has to be taught. Not everyone studied the subject in college. But it is worth it if MX were to set the bar higher by hosting an event on the subject once a quarter at least. Get some UNCA professors, politicians, nonprofits that do civic engagement projects, etc. to attend.

    Next, ban anonymous postings. Folks need to publicly own what they are saying. The anonymity trend around here is awful and actually would seem to effect at least one important recent news item.

    • Lulz

      Why ban anonymous postings? Why Millen, then that’s nothing more that censoring people for fear of retaliation. What will you do, protest their businesses? Harass their children? Are you prepared for the consequences when someone is railroaded out of town? And there will be. Only so much of this left wing crap that can go on.

    • luther blissett

      A bunch of discussion forums moved across to Facebook (e.g. the Citizen-Times) some years ago in the belief that “Real Names” would make a difference in civility. It doesn’t. What does makes a difference is active moderation and clear policies enforced consistently.

      https://gigaom.com/2012/01/10/pseudonyms-trolls-and-the-battle-over-online-identity/

      Discussions go off the rails when people head off into their own source bubbles. If you think the annual city and county budgets are fake news, then there’s no way to have a sane discussion about it. If somebody claimed that the basements of new hotels in Asheville were connected by underground passages to a top secret federal prison, I’d hope we’d laugh at it. If the claim were made about another city on omgwhattheyarehiding.com, ought we to be “open minded” about it?

      There are certain topics that MX does not handle well, in part because they touch on different parts of the area economy that coexist (and buy ads) in bumpy ways. Doctors vs alternative medicine has been a thing since people started coming to the mountains for rest cures. “BBQ aficionados vs vegans” will attract lots of clicks but won’t convert anyone. Disable comments on that stuff.

      • Huhsure

        Hear hear. Turning off comments should be an option, and one they should choose frequently.

        Comments make money, but choosing to not make money would be a very civil act indeed.

        • The Real World

          Hhmmm, this is suggesting that Mtn X assume responsibility for the unwillingness of commenters to write thoughtful, open-minded posts. They can turn off the Comments section on some subjects if they want but, why should they have to? Do adults not want to assume responsibility for their own behavior? You need someone else to edit your options for you?

          That is scary-land.

          People, they need the clicks and the eyeballs, that’s how it works. They have a business to run. I vote to not close off Comments on anything.

          • luther blissett

            “this is suggesting that Mtn X assume responsibility for the unwillingness of commenters to write thoughtful, open-minded posts.”

            Not really. It’s accepting that if you’ve had 27 angry “vegans vs local meat producers” threads that follow the exact same pattern, you shouldn’t expect the 28th to be anything different. It’s especially frustrating if the MX produces a long, well-reported piece that barely gets acknowledged because everybody shows up for a fight. Direct the eyeballs at the piece instead.

          • The Real World

            “27 angry “vegans vs local meat producers” threads” — yes, the regulars get tired of all that. But, Mtn X likely gets new and occasional readers every week who haven’t experienced the joy ;-) of those threads.

            We should be self-regulating and just not read them if we don’t want to. I’m not a fan of censorship.

            One of the smartest things Mtn X does on their website is have that little purple button that depicts the number of comments on a piece. I maintain that that is what gets readers to open more articles/letters (and some will then read the contents) than they otherwise would. Readers value the feedback and varying views; although some are just looking for a fight. Ashvegas doesn’t have the purple button and, consequently, I often don’t open articles there, just skim. (Plus they’ve been known to not post some comments that contain viewpoints they don’t agree with. That = bad.)

          • luther blissett

            “I’m not a fan of censorship.”

            Neither am I, but this isn’t censorship.

            https://xkcd.com/1357/

            Enabling comments is a privilege that the MX extends to readers on its terms. The C-T generally doesn’t do so on sensitive topics, and I think that’s the right call.

        • Huhsure

          I’d say Luther was prescient, above, when he said ““Assume good faith until proved otherwise” is a useful starting point. If someone shows up in a thread in a provocative way, then dances around saying ‘oh, you’re making this thread about me’ when people are provoked, then that should count as proving otherwise.”

          But you validated it for him in this very thread.

          Until the mods pre-moderate you for your incessant trolling, or tag your posts with a note regarding your shilling, these forums cannot begin to be civil.

          • Huhsure

            The above is not placed properly. It is in response to Tim Peck’s trolling comment, “Is that a personal attack or your muddy idea of civility?”

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            “Until the mods pre-moderate you for your incessant trolling, or tag your posts with a note regarding your shilling, these forums cannot begin to be civil.”

            I think you’ve identified one source of incivility – your intolerance when MtnX doesn’t follow your ultimatums.

          • Peter Robbins

            A suggestion is not an ultimatum. But intemperate exaggeration is one of incivility’s godmothers.

  6. willc

    Bring back the MX Forums! That was a place for people to cut loose and get the discourse going, with few holds barred, yet it was still moderated enough to keep it fun and lively. It also sat tucked out of the way, where the casual MX reader wasn’t likely to go. All the comments on letters and articles were much more tame as a result.

  7. WAVL

    I think this is great, and am curious to see how it plays out. Things get ugly fast, but something would be missing without these comment sections. Looking forward to being and seeing more civility and genuine exchanges of ideas.

  8. Davyne Dial

    Personal attacks, smear campaign, internet lynch mobs and defamation has been allowed to flourish on Mtn Xp’s comment section. I was the victim of this and subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against the person spearheading the attacks. Mine was a precedent setting case and with a good attorney others who have been attacked and bullied might take note. Results are here https://davynedial.blogspot.com

    • Able Allen

      We don’t agree that any of those things have been allowed to flourish. The purpose of this civility initiative is to take additional action to shut out trolling and disrespectful comments.

  9. bsummers

    In fact, an essential part of Xpress’ mission is to strengthen democracy by promoting thoughtful dialogue.

    As one of the longest-serving yakkers on this site, I firmly hope that Xpress understands that the mission of some of your regular commenters is to prevent that thoughtful dialogue. Some (not all) folks on the right have embraced this mantra, as evidenced by one persistent banner on the NC Tea Party-affiliated website, the Daily Haymaker:

    “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”
    http://dailyhaymaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/images-2.jpeg

    A genuine thoughtful dialogue, free of lies, fake news and insults, doesn’t get them where they want to be.

    I also believe you’re not done with the issue of anonymous accounts. Whatever the above-board reasoning for allowing this, it’s clear that some routinely abuse it. Those of us who post under our real identities are accountable for the things we say – and I think that strengthens the concept of a ‘thoughtful dialogue’. Posting under pseudonym allows people to say outlandish, false or insulting things (calling everyone who disagrees, a “loon” comes to mind) without fear of consequence.

    First thoughts… more later perhaps.

    • dingo

      Yes. Disable anonymous posting and enable force SSL on all of your pages, especially account logins.

      • bsummers

        enable force SSL

        What is that, and what would it accomplish relative to this discussion?

          • Peter Robbins

            What would hijacking an account enable the hijacker to do?

          • At a minimum, if a person hijacked an account, they could post here as the person who’s account was stolen. At worst, they could compromise that person’s email account if they had used the same password they did on this site. Or, if it were an account with privileges to edit this website (MX staff), they could do those things.

            SSL is important.

          • Peter Robbins

            Thank you. That is good to know. One more question, if you know the answer: Could one person use multiple identities — say a real name and multiple fake names — to post on this website and create the illusion of support for his comments?

          • Able Allen

            You are describing “sock-puppetry.” It is possible for on person to make multiple accounts or even comment under several email addresses, but it is against the terms of use for this site and we monitor for it, and we delete such comments and moderate users who try to do this.

          • I should point out that that is possible on any website with comments, even Reddit.

          • Able Allen

            One commenter replied in this thread making a point about anonymity. In making the point, they also called a well-known, local pair of people “a-holes.” We on the editorial staff debated the comment and we decided to remove it. Our reasoning had nothing to do with defending those individuals. It is not about “A-hole” being a bad word (it pretty much isn’t), and in the old paradigm, we probably would have allowed it. However, our thinking is this: Just saying “those a-holes” is a lazy way to say what you mean, that has a strong potential to be disrespectful and uncivil.
            The point of establishing the new tone here is to move past that. And it would serve the situation and even the point better if the commenter used descriptive language that might cause others to come to the same conclusion that these individuals deserve strident criticism.
            I hope this serves to help everyone better understand where we are going with this challenge.

        • dingo

          That should have read “enable forced SSL.” What this does is encrypt communications between you and the MX website, so that when you log in or post comments, all information is encrypted. This prevents people from stealing your account credentials when you log in, for example.

          Right now, unless you intentionally choose to go to the https version of the website, anything you submit, including your username and password, is sent cleartext over the wire, meaning it is easily snooped and stolen. Forcing SSL on visitors will help prevent this.

      • The Real World

        Y’all don’t understand how the internet business works. I can tell you it’s likely from MtnX’s point-of-view what you’re suggesting is disadvantageous to them. It would limit visitors and traffic. That’s bad.

        There are commenters on this site who harp about the usage of anonymous names (which often seems to occur when they feel they’ve been out-debated. Sad!) but it’s of no relevance. Mtn X can ban anyone they want; problem mostly solved. They can block their IP address. Yes, the rogue could go to a friends or the library and post but it’s not likely most would go to the trouble.

        Many people, intelligently, do not want to be keyword-searched under their given name and have everything they post be accessed by anyone. Please tell me that doesn’t need further explaining. And there is at least one regular here who uses human first and last name but it’s a nom de plume. So, good luck getting people to use their actual names if they don’t want to.

        Here’s a theme emerging in this thread: several people seem to want Mtn X to limit or censor things they don’t like and otherwise want them to be their nanny. Geez, seriously? It’s time for folks to act their age and take responsibility for themselves.

        • Huhsure

          “Here’s a theme emerging in this thread: several people seem to want Mtn X to limit or censor things they don’t like and otherwise want them to be their nanny. Geez, seriously? It’s time for folks to act their age and take responsibility for themselves.”

          Boy, for a thread about civility, you guys sure know how to set an example.

          • The Real World

            “Boy, for a thread about civility, you guys sure know how to set an example.” — thank you.

            It is very unfortunate, however, to have to remind adults that maturity is part of the package and they should be their own keeper and not expect others to do their work for them.

    • Peter Robbins

      I hope Barry continues his line of reasoning. Good stuff.

      For myself, I think the internet has been the defining development in contemporary public discourse — for good and ill. For good, the internet makes it possible for a novice to quickly acquire expert opinion and documented facts, and relate them to a discussion. I try to do that, and often get criticized for lacking a viewpoint of my own. For ill, the internet makes it possible for a novice to just as quickly acquire a treasure trove of crackpot alt-facts and use them to hijack a discussion. And when that lightweight is a troll dedicated to an ideological agenda, the results can become dangerous for democracy.

      Civility is all well and good, and, in a free society, I suppose it must be tolerated. But let’s not get so passionate about it that we lose all standards of excellence. Not everyone in a discussion deserves a trophy just for participating.

      • Huhsure

        I’d be curious to see Mountain X’s markup of the printout of this thread. What they find civil/uncivil.

  10. I have argued against anonymity since I was Managing Editor of the Xpress 15 years ago.
    If people won’t own their opinions they are clearly not interested in civil debate.
    I would make an exception for whistle blowers or threatened parties who should be permitted to post letters to the editor or editorials – but again, not in any comments section.

  11. Bright

    Are Xpress commentators up to the intellectual challenge of divorcing productive thought from emotional outbursts…THAT is the big question.

  12. Chris Moe

    You people should all meet for a potluck and put a face with a name. That would be something to see for sure! Maybe Mountain Xpress can host.

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