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Personal Attacks

Tue, 11/13/2012 - 23:16 -- Richard Damon

We strive to maintain a civil atmosphere for discussion on the Arlington list. One of the cornerstones of civility is the expectation that you can say controversial things and not be attacked personally for them. So the list policy is that personal attacks are never allowed.

What is a personal attack?

A personal attack is a message, posted in the context of an argument, in which the poster makes unfriendly remarks about another list member instead of addressing the specific points made by that list member.

A personal attack often takes the form of a comment such as, "you have no idea what you're talking about," an insult such as "based on your postings I can see that you're incompentent," or a rhetorical question such as, "how hypocritical can you be?"

The "no personal attacks" rule is intended to apply primarily in the case of messages and responses on the list. Personal attacks on someone not known to be a list member, such as the proprietor of a local business or a public figure, are similarly discouraged, but are not specifically part of this policy.

Similarly, attacks on the list as a group, such as "you're all a bunch of nincompoops on this list," are discouraged, but not specifically part of this policy.

OK, what should I do instead?

Here's the scenario: someone's made a provocative statement on the list, and you're trying to find the right words with which to rebut it. "You fool!" No... "You idiot!" No... Then what?

You will never go wrong if you stick to the rule, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." If someone posts something that makes you really angry or upset, try if you possibly can to give them the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps there's still the possibility that there's something to be learned from them. Try asking questions designed to help you understand them better. If you're sure you understand them, at least try asking questions designed to lead them toward the contradictions that are so obvious to you.

If you're ready to give up on seeking to understand, you might consider simply ignoring them. Perhaps you feel you can't bring yourself to let a provocative statement "stand unchallenged." But the readers of the Arlington list know better than to assume that everyone agrees with an unchallenged provocative statement. Often the person making the provocative statement is just hoping to get a rise. You don't have to take the bait.

If after all you feel compelled to write back to them, at least make sure you address their specific comments. Quote the relevant portions of their message, and address their comments directly. If you must respond, "This is a crazy thing to say" is a lot better than "you're crazy."

What are the consequences of posting a personal attack?

If you post a personal attack, you may receive a message from the list manager titled "No personal attacks", which will quote your message and ask you to refrain from making personal attacks. Such a message from the list manager will always be private, never copied to the Arlington list; public humiliation is unseemly and ineffective.

Please note that under normal circumstances the list manager does not see messages before they are delivered, and can only deal with personal attacks after the fact.

Also please note that the list manager doesn't always have time to read every message posted to the list, and doesn't always recognize a personal attack even when it's in front of his face. So some personal attacks may not result in a follow-up email from the list manager. List members are always encouraged to point out to the list manager anything that they feel is a personal attack.

How come my posting was singled out for a "no personal attacks" follow-up email from the list manager?

Since all follow-up emails are sent privately, there's no way for you to tell whether others on the same thread are getting follow-up emails. Please assume that you're not being singled out based on whether the list manager agrees with you or not. The "no personal attacks" policy is enforced as fairly as possible, and in particular a "no personal attacks" follow-up email does not mean the list manager is taking sides in the argument.

What should I do if I get a "no personal attacks" email from the list manager?

First and foremost, please try to take it in the spirit in which it was intended: as part of an ongoing effort to keep the list civil. It doesn't represent any sort of judgment against you personally.

Some of the terms in the definition of a personal attack, such as "argument" and "unfriendly," are obviously subjective and open to interpretation. So a thoughtful and considered reply to the list manager is always welcome. In particular, if the list manager's explanation of why your message was considered a personal attack doesn't satisfy you, you're always welcome to ask questions.

What are the consequences of posting repeated personal attacks?

In the past, the list policy was "three strikes and you're out." This rule has been abandoned in an effort to discover if civility can be maintained without threats. So other than increasingly stern warnings, there are currently no other consequences enforced by the list manager.

However, you can easily destroy your reputation on the list by posting repeated personal attacks, and it won't be long before few people are reading any of your postings.

Note: the above applies only to messages signed with the poster's full, real name. Anonymous personal attacks may result in banning without warning. See Anonymous Posting for more information about anonymous posting.