I've been having a rather intense discussion with Kali Tal who is somewhat legendary for being annoyingly right when it comes to gender and racial issues. I am pleased to call her a friend, as much as one can have friends that meet once in 10 years and have periodic talks on the net, but I understand how being on the dummy end of a debate with her feels. I also know what it feels like to be inspired by someone as tireless and fiercely intellectual as she. It's more of the latter which is why I am proud of our association. Part of this discussion was about what is the best way to communicate via internet technologies. She brought up a stellar point. To wit:
Styles of discourse are not natural. They differ from culture to culture, and are a product of socialization. Socialization takes place through institutions--the family, schools, religious traditions, etc. Men and women are socialized to different styles of discourse in this culture (again, I refer you to the voluminous and oft-duplicated research on this question). When women adopt male discursive strategies, they're punished for it (again, see the research on conversational patterns and the disruption caused by women embracing "male" speech patterns, and see both my posts [and other women's posts] to this list). The mechanisms of punishment are engaged automatically, without deliberate or conscious effort on the part of the men in the conversation because that is simply the "normal" reaction to female speech that challenges the status quo. That's the very definition of institutionalized oppression--when enforcement mechanisms become diffuse, naturalized, and automatic, so that no individual needs to take responsibility for keeping another in her place. It just "happens."
I too have long been interested in what silences are created and destroyed when dealing with racial issues in cyberspace - why cyberspace is supposed to be a deracinated place where 'intellectual discourse floats disembodied'. For a time, my entire reason for posting into cyberspace was an experiment in 'post-modern blackness', and so I learned a great deal about what is real and what is not in this communications medium.
Since Kali and I are still in the midst of this discussion, you can imagine my delight when Art McGee found H20, which is precisely the sort of thing that might mitigate against our despairing that the internet might not yeild the kind of environment for real discovery and collaboration between parties whose styles of communication are at odds. H20 offers this wisdom:
The Rotisserie implements an innovative approach to online discussion that encourages measured, thoughtful discourse in a way that that traditional threaded messaging systems do not. The basic concept of the threaded messaging board is to enable broadcast-to-broadcast communication among a group of people, meaning that every participant in the conversation receives every post from every other participant. This mode of discussion inevitably leads to the domination of the discussion by a few very verbal participants and silence by the lurking majority. The Rotisserie breaks this mode by assigning every post within the conversation to another, specific participant for response. The resulting conversation guarantees that every post will be responded to by at least one other participant and that every participant must respond directly to the post of another participant.
This is a stellar idea and a very different way of conceptualizing a solution to this complex problem. It seeks to avoid conflict through enforcement of rules that determine when it is appropriate for contributors to speak which is predictable and orderly. This is completely different than the way I had envisioned managing speech restrictions which, quite frankly, is more oppositional.
This is the first There is one level of peer review. If a particular individual becomes worrisome, he can be filtered in such a way that his comments do not appear to the filtering party. This is done on an individual by individual basis as is widely recognized in major contemporary Web Conferencing systmes.
If a person proves himself to be a bozo of sufficient dimensions, then within a house, this citizen can be Censured. Censure involves a vote of Citizens. Censure is a very strong punishment requiring the consent of 20 citizens of a house. These 20 citizens must be members of atleast 2 unaffiliated Partisan Groups. The result of Censure is that his speaking privileges (ability to write statments) are suspended for a period of 30 days. Any individual who is Censured cannot be Censured again for 60 days after regaining speaking priviliges in the House.
PNG is a bit more serious. It means that a person is essentially expelled from a House. He becomes Personna Non Grata in that House. He may remain active in another house, but the PNG remains permanently on his record. In order to PNG an individual citizen, 25 House members must concur that he be expelled from that House. PNG however requires a 'standing writ'. This means that those Citizens who PNG'd him must remain active in that house for as long as the PNG stands. The standing writ is established by the active status of 10 of the original Citizens who voted for PNG.
In defense of my method, I think it gives participants more control and responsibility for the tone of discourse, but as Kali notes, if there are culturally irreconcilable differences below the conscious level of the participants, it doesn't seem likely that simply lopping off the heads of offenders helps. It might create more silence than it overcomes.
In any case, as work on systems such as these progresses, I believe we are going to find a new world of computer mediated deliberation which will be more productive ways of making decisions across broader populations than our world has ever seen.