Moderation and the politics of gender and sexuality

There has been some controversy on the pages of Liberal Democrat Voice over the past few weeks about articles on gender and sexuality issues, and especially in terms of how comments have been, or not as the case may be, moderated. It would be fair to say that our decisions have not met with universal approval.

And, from the perspective of a member of the Editorial Team from a rural community somewhat lacking in diversity, such debates offer up a real challenge.

Yes, judgements are pretty simple where the comments policy is obviously breached – there are some of our readers who really cannot grasp the fact that their tone and language is offensive to a reasonably tolerant person, or who simply cannot resist the temptation to be gratuitously offensive.

But, where either context or subtext are less “mainstream” – and I can’t say that I’m comfortable with that word but am struggling for an alternative – moderation becomes more multi-layered. I may not be offended by something, but an element of our audience might be, and if a lack of awareness or knowledge prevents me from appreciating that, my decision on how to moderate is likely to be imperfect.

The debates about transgender people fall into the heart of that zone of uncertainty. If someone is asking a question, is it a genuine attempt to elicit information, or is it sealioning? How do our transgender readers feel about having what they see as basic rights questioned and challenged? Can I, indeed should I, as a moderator, presume the best or worst in people when the debate is so emotive?

There are, if you like, default positions in moderation which arise from your personal political philosophy, which can be more or less laissez-faire, depending on your lived experience. If, for example, a close friend or family member is transgender, you might be more protective in how you manage comments. If, on the other hand, you have little knowledge or personal experience, you might be more permissive.

Whilst not wanting to speak for my colleagues, whereas putting difficult or challenging posts into automatic moderation acts as a means to cut out unpleasantness, the Editorial Team are left with the rather more labour intensive job of managing a selection of comments which probably wouldn’t be picked up by our moderation software. And, if you’re trying to walk a line between encouraging debate and respecting those whose rights are under attack, you’re probably going to get it wrong from time to time.

For many in this debate, mostly men, the issues are theoretical, whilst for others it is a matter of basic rights and freedoms that impact directly on them in their everyday lives. It is, if you like, deeply personal to them in a way that it can never be for others. My personal sense is that, in that situation, I should lean towards protecting those who feel that their right to live their lives is being challenged by those who would rather restrict groups en masse rather than deal with errant behaviour by individuals within that group.

That will doubtless mean that I reject comments out of a sense of caution – I may reject a comment because I distrust your motives. That is, I freely admit, subjective and thus imperfect, but given that we don’t believe in the freedom to abuse, we will continue to moderate as best we can.

Some readers will doubtless cry “censorship” – which tends to be a word used when people are defending the right to be unpleasant to others. We don’t censor – you’re free to comment anywhere else that will have you – but we will adhere to our comments policy as best we can.

That said, anyone who doesn’t like our moderation decisions has the right to argue their case as to why we should alter our initial decision. You will note that I use the word “argue” – it astonishes me that some people think that abusing the Editorial Team is an effective ploy in terms of persuasion. But don’t expect quick decisions, as we are a volunteer collective rather than a rigid professional hierarchy.

I hope that, in writing this piece, a light is shone on the issues of editorial decision making and moderation policy. As I note above, there are competing pressures buffeting our choices, but by offering an insight into my thought processes, it enables readers and contributors to reflect on what the likely impact of their choices are, and helps everyone to get the most they can from participating.

* Mark Valladares is the Monday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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  • Catherine Jane Crosland 27th Sep '21 - 2:07pm

    Mark, thank you for this article. This is a subject that requires very great sensitivity, and I can see that it must, at times, be difficult for the editorial team to decide which comments to allow, and which not.
    I have read the recent articles on this subject with interest, and have considered making comments, but have hesitated to do so in case I somehow, unintentionally, said something that might be misunderstood, and might just possibly give offense, although this would have been very far from my intention.
    I am very glad that the party is standing up for the rights of trans people. I would hope that all liberals support the right for every human being to live their life as they choose, and to be free to be their true selves, openly and without fear, and that no-one should be “enslaved by conformity”. If you support this, then you support trans rights.
    It is a pity that some people seem to be arguing that the party should not be talking about this issue, but should instead be talking about the things that “ordinary people” supposedly want to hear about. I find the phrase “ordinary people” annoying and patronising. What is “ordinary”? Everyone is unique. And anyway, these days, most people, “ordinary” or not, will know someone who is trans, and will know that trans people are “ordinary” people too, wanting the same things from life as everyone else does. Trans rights should concern us all. And if a liberal party does not prioritise trans rights, then who will?
    Freedom of speech is also important. People do need to be able to ask questions, and people should not be vilified for what may be, in some cases, a lack of understanding, or a genuine concern about some “hard cases”. It will not really help the cause of trans rights to pretend there are no “hard cases”, or no difficult questions. Discussion should be possible, and questions should be allowed. Free speech may be a right, but the fact we have a right to speak, does not mean we necessarily should. This is an issue where we should always stop and ask ourselves whether the comment we have in mind might do more harm than good? Or if we do feel it needs to be made, then could it perhaps be expressed in a more sensitive, kinder way?

  • Paul Barker 27th Sep '21 - 2:12pm

    We all owe the LDV Team a vote of thanks for their work & patience.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th Sep '21 - 2:24pm

    @ Nigel,

    Then you’re not really being censored, are you? You are perfectly at liberty to publish and be damned. You decide the policy and accept or reject comments as you see fit. As long as you’re content to handle the consequences, then go right ahead.

    Because all actions have consequences, positive, negative or neutral, sometimes directly personal, sometimes in their impact on others who were never consulted or otherwise considered. And the latter might be hurt or damaged, and if one proceeds on the basis that your personal liberty trumps theirs, then you really don’t believe in liberty for all.

    And it may be that where there are competing freedoms, you have a more relaxed attitude as to how they might be balanced, or not, as the case may be.

    I’ve chosen to express my thought processes here because it helps our readers to understand how I might react in a particular set of circumstances. Call it transparency, a liberal principle rooted in my personal beliefs and informed by nearly four decades of Party membership and the influences of people and views I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

  • Jayne mansfield 27th Sep '21 - 2:38pm

    @ Mark,
    A moderators job must be a very difficult one.

    I think the subject matter that caused such problems , does so because whether one is straight,,gay or transgender, we are not, as sometimes treated homogeneous groups who because of a shared characteristic think alike, there are in group differences of opinion.

    David Evans said something important in the thread you refer to, ‘Never underestimate the power of the uncommitted’,

    My belief that argument that remains within existing laws should always be permitted stems from when I found this belief tested. I struggled with the idea of allowing the hateful `Nick Griffin on Question Time. The outcome as the powerful and brilliant Bonnie Greer who reduced him to an obsequiousness jabbering mass, did more to dent his image than one could have hoped for.

    No platforming etc., in my view , just leads to the polarisation we are seeing at the moment, because it results in resentment and does nothing to reduce grievances or persuade. And I am afraid evidence where it is available, is important..

    I still wouldn’t like your job.

  • I won’t criticise you for your editorial position Mark, but I will say I was surprised to see you use that ridiculous term ‘sealioning’. It’s nothing more than a way for someone to deflect away responsibility from having to actually explain or provide evidence for their own claims. The first time I came across the term, I genuinely thought it was supposed to be a joke.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th Sep '21 - 3:32pm

    For the benefit of Alexander, and any other recent participators, I draw attention to our comments policy, which explains what one should do should they wish to challenge a moderation decision.

  • Jayne mansfield 27th Sep '21 - 4:32pm

    @ Mark,
    I wouldn’t challenge your moderation decision. It is not my place. But I think there was a missed opportunity.

    By asking a poster for evidence of an assertion, if there is evidence, I think that the majority of people are decent human beings and would be empathetic because no one should feel that their existence is threatened.. In my opinion,It would likely lead to people taking up the cudgels against those who hold such a view. . If no compelling evidence exists, then it ought to reassure the person that such a fascist desire is not held by anyone other than a few fascists. And fascists threaten the existence of so many of us simply because we challenge their arguments.

    In my social and working life, ( admittedly now severely restricted) , I genuinely have never heard anything hateful spoken about transgender people . I think the poster should hang on to that., because I believe that is true of the majority of people..

  • Chris Moore 27th Sep '21 - 4:35pm

    If there is another possible outlet, then censorship hasn’t occurred?

    You really need to think about that again!! JS Mill would be highly amused.

    Censorship is censorship; it may be justified but be clear about what you are doing.

    Your line about censorship was what I was told back in summer 2019, when I had several posts about the flaws of the Remain Alliance strategy removed from this (and one or two other party websites.)

    Btw the contents of my posts are now completely uncontroversial, perhaps even received wisdom.

  • Jenny Barnes 27th Sep '21 - 4:42pm

    Thank you for this well thought out description of your moderation decisions. I had not realised that “sealioning” was a thing, although of course I have encountered it. Good to learn something.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th Sep '21 - 4:47pm

    @ Jayne,

    You make an interesting point and, in the generality, I might not disagree with it. In this instance, however, I refer you to the article, acknowledging that my decisions might be, from time to time, “gut instinct” rather than science.

    To some extent, I’m obliged to consider my perception of an individual contributor’s track record – are they frequently unduly or inappropriately combative, for example. Some of our “regulars” do test the limits of courtesy more or less often than others…

    And, of course, I am but one member of the Editorial Team, on duty predominantly on Mondays. Thursdays, for example, are somebody else’s problem, and their domain. We are, after all, all individuals.

    @ Chris M,

    We have a comments policy, and it’s our website – not your’s nor the Party’s either. We have the right to set policy as we see fit, and readers can either accept that, or go elsewhere in the marketplace of ideas.

    But if your comments were rejected by more than one site, presumably acting independently of each other, did you consider that the problem might have been with the manner in which you expressed yourself (bearing in mind I have no recollection of the comments themselves)?

  • In my view, the task of a moderator is to prohibit and exclude material that uses abusive and unacceptable language.

    The Speaker of the House of Commons does this every day, assisted by Parliamentary conventions. That is why MPs cannot call each other “liars” or use certain other excluded terms.

    Conversely it is not the role of a moderator to exclude the expression of views, if those views have been put in language that is not abusive or unacceptable. That applies regardless of how much those views might upset some people.

    To take an example outside the gender and sexuality debate, everyone has the right to say things like: “I do not accept that the Quran came from God, and consider that Muhammad made it up himself from available Jewish and Christian sources.” They are free to say that regardless of how much some Muslims might complain.

    On the gender and sexuality issue, no moderator should exclude a comment like “In my opinion, biological males should be absolutely prohibited from playing in competitions which have been organised for biological females only”, again regardless of whether males who identify as women may be upset by such a viewpoint.

  • Hi Amin

    I’d agree with all of that, including the right to make comments that might offend others, but with one caveat, namely that it is equally the right of a private individual (or group of individuals, in fact volunteers) running a website to decide whether or not they want to publish a particular comment which they judge to be offensive.

    Mark and his colleagues do a great job as volunteers. I know I’d struggle to find the time or the motivation to run this website, so I’d be inclined to be generous about the rules and rulings which they make.

    PS – nice to see a couple of fellow tax professionals (you and Mark) on this site. We might even have exchanged an email or two twenty-plus years ago!

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Sep '21 - 6:03pm

    @Mohammend Amin
    “That is why MPs cannot call each other “liars””

    I believe W S Churchill got round this by using the expression “terminological inexactitude”

    Is there a fixed number of comments one is allowed to make daily before being caught in the trap and told to wait some hours before posting any more comments? If so what is it please?

  • Jayne mansfield 27th Sep '21 - 6:10pm

    @Mohammed Amin,
    Easy to say, but when one of the posters is someone who is vulnerable and sees alternative viewpoints as a challenge to his or her existence, hard to do.

    There are many people being hurt by this issue, as to whether primacy should be given to sex or gender.

    Although the vulnerability of one poster was all too apparent, it may be that the vulnerability of others was equally felt but less apparent, gays who feel that same sex attraction and love are being invalidated, and the hard fought battles that have brought acceptance both social and legal change are being undermined. by any attempt to give he to gender, Similarly, women who feel that the law on safe spaces should remain. because of the indisputable male violence directed at women, and their fear if it..

    It is a minefield. for any moderator. I say this as someone who had three posts rejected.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 27th Sep '21 - 6:11pm

    @ Mohammed,

    I think that Dominic has rather neatly expressed our general position – it’s lovely to hear from you, Dominic, and I trust that all is well with you!

    @ Nonconformistradical,

    The “flood protection” element of our moderation software is a bit of a mystery to me – I’m not a regular author or commenter on this site, more an administrator/editor. It’s designed, as I understand it, to allow some oxygen to those who are more occasional visitors.

    I ought to find out how it actually works really but what I do know is that it impacts on a rather small percentage of our readers.

  • Jayne mansfield 27th Sep '21 - 7:34pm

    @ Martin,
    It is a trap, but in this case, I think it was a human reaction to prevent further harm to someone perceived as vulnerable. I think it was wrong, but showing humanity isn’t the crime of the century.

    I would still like to know, who put it into the head of the vulnerable poster that her existence was being questioned. I would still like to know the evidence for what is asserted, and contributed to the poster feel so vulnerable.

    I would particularly like to know who is feeding this idea to already vulnerable individuals and what evidence they have for what they are asserting. Again, hardly the crime of the century.

  • Jayne Mansfield 27th Sep '21 - 8:21pm

    Sorry, his/ her. I have no idea of the gender of the person, the name is unisex, and I would always refer to a person by their preferred gender.

  • Gordon Lishman 28th Sep '21 - 7:38am

    I note that references to Mill tend only to quote the “harm principle” and the quotation above about free speech. Two other relevant themes are “the tyranny of thought and opinion” and the “tyranny of the majority”, both of which are exacerbated by social media.

  • Thanks for the explanation @Mark Valladares. The whole issue of sexual identity is a very difficult and emotive topic, and I really don’t envy you guys having to make the judgement calls you do, and then deal with the fallout.

    As a general point, I have noticed that when posts get rejected, there seems to be no notification of that. I’ve occasionally had a post rejected, but the only way I can tell is if I look at the thread again after sufficient time has elapsed and see that my post is not there. It would be nice to be notified, even if it’s just an automatic mail that lists one of several pre-set reasons for rejection. Or is the not-sending-emails a deliberate decision in order not to inflame people who might get angry at being told their post is rejected, but who might not even notice if they don’t get told? 😉

  • Jackie Pearcey 29th Sep '21 - 8:37am

    It is instructive occasionally to post a comment on this issue in social media. The issue is not so much the individual comments but the scale of the pile-on. A little research shows that many of the commentators seem to do so on this area in a way which borderlines obsessive. Now I’ve been around long enough to disengage once my point has been made, but people who are in a vulnerable state might find the sheer scale of comments hard to take. These comments do not represent a social majority. In Manchester we recently lost a friend who, when she was going through a very difficult time ended up with a social media barrage of comments telling her that she had to right to live and why is she still alive at all? She is no longer with us.

    One message denying somebody’s existence can be shrugged off, when those messages number in the hundreds then it becomes an active danger. Volume does matter and it is entirely reasonable for moderation to ensure that a point is made, but not amplified many, many times by repetition.

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