Home > musing, news, women in math > Nasty reader comments and blogging

Nasty reader comments and blogging

March 3, 2013

I’m pretty sure you guys know this already, but I love my regular readers and commenters. It’s a large part of why I blog – I feel like I’m having a super interesting cocktail party every morning in my underwear. I’m investing in the quality of the rest of my day, stealing a moment before my family wakes up so I can articulate one single idea. The payoff is, most of the time, dependably good conversation that lasts all day, or even more than a day, as your comments and emails come in.

Of course, there are sometimes nasty people and comments in addition to thoughtful ones. Not everyone interprets me as trying to figure stuff out, they think I’m being intentionally asinine or manipulative. Or sometimes they just don’t agree with me, and instead of explaining their reasoning they just yell. Or sometimes they are just jerks, getting out their aggression on a stranger.

My first rule is to allow comments that disagree with me, as long as the reasons are articulated and as long as the comment isn’t abusive. Rude is ok, “you are stupid” is not ok.

My second rule is to have a thick skin. I can completely ignore the sentiment of an abusive commenter calling me names, because first of all I’ve heard it all before and second I’m pretty sure it’s not about me.

I’m not saying it doesn’t bother me at all, because obviously it’s a pain to have to go through my email and make sure people are being civil.

For example, whenever I get onto the top 10 of Hacker News, which has been a few times now, I’ve noticed a huge wave of nasty comments. Of course this could be a direct result of how many people I get (thousands per hour), but I don’t think so – the ratio of interesting to abusive comments coming from Hacker News traffic is tiny. It creates nasty work for me, which I feel compelled to do because letting nasty comments stay on my blog makes me feel violated and intentionally misunderstood.

This morning I found this article via Naked Capitalism regarding reader comments, and how nasty ones make subsequent readers evaluate the message differently, and in particular, more negatively. In other words, my intuition was right – it’s super important to curate comments.

My experience with Hacker News has also given me sympathy for Izabella Laba‘s position that she doesn’t accept comments on her blog (read this post for example). She puts herself out there, with strong opinions, and many of her posts are important and thought-provoking. And by the same token people can get pretty threatened by what she has to say. I can well imagine what her experience has been. What if every day was a Hacker News day? What if a majority of comments contained ridiculous and personal attacks? Yuck.

Makes me even more grateful to have you guys.

Categories: musing, news, women in math
  1. March 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

    you are stupid!

    .
    .
    .
    .
    Joke … the enticement was just too big, as you’ve written it =)

    Cheers

  2. Helen
    March 3, 2013 at 8:12 am

    We all have to deal with idiots from time to time, and if you’ve enraged someone enough to leave comments on your sight, well I’d take it as a compliment quietly while giving them a proverbial middle finger and delete their comment. I’m not statistically intuitive by nature but I value your blog when I have time to read it. So thank you, and ignore the morons.
    Cheers

    And swet, don’t be a pillock ;)

  3. March 3, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I saw the NYT piece last night and it struck a chord…this last week I “self-deported” myself from the comment section of my favorite econ-ish libertarian-ish blog for making a personal attack (lame by anyone’s standards, but my own). I am a big proponent of ‘free thought’ but I think ‘free speech’ sometimes goes too far…in that the wielder of words forgets the responsibility that comes with that privilege. I absolutely loved the wide ranging conversations in that blog (massive sociology experiment), but I did not enjoy being compared to Stalin for being pro-immigration, or being called out as an example of why women should not have gotten the vote, or being viewed as a bad parent because I thought ‘we saw your boobs’ song was a poor opener to the Oscars. All of those people got civil replies from me, but that kind of atmosphere is poison, even for the people spewing it. It’s too bad, because blogs are such a unique place to bring people together to discuss and learn.

  4. March 3, 2013 at 8:39 am

    I wonder if incivility in blogs affects incivility in other forms of communication? Are people less civil in e-mails today than they were ten years ago? My students seem as civil as ever, but it could be that the students communicate less with me now (because I look older, and because they are less engaged).

    Isn’t there a way to block comments from anonymous commenters? I think Peter Woit does that sometimes on his blog. You could use a downvote system, where after some number of downvotes by “certified” readers a comment sinks to the bottom of the list (i.e., distribute the moderating among readers).

  5. Karen
    March 3, 2013 at 11:04 am

    There’s a recent study put out by HBR regarding the high cost of rudeness at work. I thought it was as interesting piece. They really showed how we have become more rude to each other. Yes, this was in the workplace but one statement that stuck with me was that they felt that perhaps rudeness was increasing because of the level of aggression that is protrayed towards each other on tv. No this could not be proven but have you watched reality tv lately? lol Everything is a screaming, cursing argument and then almost ends up in a fist fight. Is this relevant to this discussion. It’s a similar theme that I am hearing and seeing over and over in all forms of media, etc. I am in agreement to cut it off. It just deteroriates the conversation. If they want that, let them go turn on the tv.

  6. March 3, 2013 at 11:18 am

    This article from less wrong also makes a similar point very well.

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/c1/wellkept_gardens_die_by_pacifism/

    Don’t feel bad about keeping hostility off of your blog.

    • mathematrucker
      March 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      An interesting recent test case is Donald Trump vs. Bill Maher. Does Trump’s persisting with his birther nonsense warrant him and his parents being nonsensically referred to as a family of orangutans by a popular comedian in a comedic forum? (Answer: Y) What about David Crosby going around calling GWB a chimpanzee several years ago? Warranted? (Answer: Y) Was Rachel Maddow’s calling Antonin Scalia a “troll” the other night on Stewart warranted? (Answer: Y)

      Nowadays anyway, “civility” might as well be lumped right in there with pacifism as a risky principle to adhere too strongly to.

    • mathematrucker
      March 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      (Oops the above was really meant to be a standalone comment. It started out as a direct reply to rrenaud and contains vestiges of a direct reply, but anyway, now that I’m here directly replying, that’s a great blog reference. I would up-vote installing a karma system for mathbabe it it’s feasible to do.)

  7. alagator2k13
    March 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Cathy, perhaps you should publish a MBabeTrolls bestiary ala Noah…just sayin’

    http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/econotrolls-illustrated-bestiary.html

    • March 3, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      That! is! brilliant! Your link made my day. I almost want to start a blog just to illustrate a bestiary.

    • March 3, 2013 at 11:01 pm

      YES! Bestiaries rule!!!

    • griznog
      March 4, 2013 at 11:43 am

      This was all very funny until it pegged me as a Marxist.

      • March 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm

        Griznog, don’t take it to heart. Noah doesn’t get everything right. He had me taped as an MMT apologist. I’m not, I’d just had too much to drink.

  8. March 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I would take a hard line with obnoxious commenters if I were you. It’s not censorship, since you’re not keeping anyone from venting on their own blogs or on twitter, facebook, HN/Reddit comments, or dozens of other places. It’s just keeping your own blog and actually interesting comments or conversations from being crowded out into something that just wastes everyone’s time and energy.

  9. March 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    It’s odd that you found the civility article on Naked Capitalism. Yves’ ad hominem attack on Steve Waldman appeared just a few days ago. Steve is a nice bright thought provoking person and it was depressing to see his views on financial opacity misrepresented wantonly on a kindred financial blog.

    The comments on her post were even more depressing. I felt like I was watching a kid get kicked while lying on the ground. I guess most of us learn at an early age not to intervene for fear of getting beat up ourselves. We just enable on-line bullying when we convince ourselves we’re being neutral when we’re really just scared.

  10. March 3, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Zizek paints a picture of the person ensconced in front of their monitor as being duped into thinking s/he is face to face with the “Big Other” – that sense of power and order in the universe that our subconscious yearns to engage with (but that he, following Lacan, portrays as an illusion). The comments we make are our footprint, our way of asserting our perceived insignificance on that supposed order. Your analogy to an interesting cocktail party is spot on.
    And if that is the game, the best option to my mind is a set of simple thumbs up/thumbs down/report abuse buttons where participants can choose to rate each others responses. This is the equivalent of moving away from the party bores and towards the more interesting and sparkling guests, or just making a dash for the bathroom or the bar.
    If the bores get too persistent and obnoxious, spoiling the others’ fun, the blogger should just show them the door. It’s her party after all.

  11. March 3, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Hi Cathy,

    This is my first comment on your blog. I’m sure it won’t be the last,as I greatly admire your work.

    I learnt a while ago that it was necessary to control comments on my own blog. This is for two reasons – firstly for my own sanity, as I don’t have a particularly thick skin and I find insults and smackdowns demoralising, and secondly (and far more importantly) because persistently abusive comments are off-putting for other readers. I have two rules regarding comments: 1) sticking to the topic of the post 2) politeness to me and to other commentors. If someone breaks either of these rules, I warn them, and if they persist then I delete. I also occasionally close comments from people when they dominate comment threads to the exclusion of others. I’m interested in fostering debate, not grandstanding.

    • March 4, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Yes I forgot the “sticking to the point” rule. I have that too. There’s one person who is never abusive but just leaves random rants about his or her own issues. Not cool! Start your own blog!

      Thanks!

  12. March 3, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Funnily enough brain pickings address this too this morning:

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/02/26/vi-hart-on-comments/

  13. Phil H
    March 4, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Hi,

    I discovered your blog recently, and think it’s superb. No doubt I’ll continue to read it as long as it’s around.

    But, I did come across one entry (“On Being An Alpha Female”) that disturbed me a bit, and have been meaning to write you about it. I profoundly disagree with,some things you either say directly or imply in this particular entry, and wanted to explain why.

    But, I was apprehensive that you might not like what I had to say, and therefore had been debating with myself about whether it was prudent to send you my comments. I was afraid I might come across as too harsh, something I didn’t want to do.

    I’m appalled by the quality of the comments I see on the pages of (for example) Salon and the Wall Street Journal, which are often mean-spirited, filled with name-calling, and at at times even vile. I try very hard to avoid that sort of thing. Nonetheless, I feared that if I came across too strongly, you might not run my comment.

    But then I read your current post, and felt reassured. You say:

    “My first rule is to allow comments that disagree with me, as long as the reasons are articulated and as long as the comment isn’t abusive. Rude is ok, “you are stupid” is not ok.”

    Since the last thing in the world I want to be is abusive (or even rude), this comment convinced me that you would welcome civil disagreement, even if it’s strong.

    So, let me tell you what my problem is with your “alpha female” piece.
    I am a male by the way, but certainly not an “alpha” male. I’m not too impressed with that quality actually.

    You say:

    “About 8 months ago I found out I’m an alpha female. What happened was, one day at work my boss mentioned that he and everyone else is afraid of me.”

    “I went home to my husband and mentioned how weird it was that people at work are afraid of me, and he said, “No, it’s not weird at all. Don’t you realize that you’re constantly giving people the impression that you’re about to take away their toy and break it??”. No, I hadn’t realized that – and that sounds pretty awful! Am I really that mean? Then he told me I was an alpha male living in a woman’s body.”

    Then, a bit later:

    “Over the past 8 months, I’ve been slowly observing my alpha femaleness, and at this point I can honestly say I’m comfortable with it. I own it now. It’s kind of fun to know about it, because of how people react to me, without me intentionally doing anything”.

    Well, I have a problem with the idea that having a personality that “scares” people is okay. And you clearly seem to be saying that when you say you are now “comfortable” with your “alpha femaleness”.

    Of course, what I’m talking about is a matter of values, not logic. It’s not that I think you’re “wrong” to think it’s okay to scare most of the people around you. It’s simply that I think the world would be better off with less of that sort of personality in it. Psychologically better off that is.

    I’ve read that everyone was afraid of Bill Gates, and he obviously has done great things for the world (and, he seems to have mellowed with time). But, consider Steve Jobs. A great man in a sense, but, he never did “mellow”, and he scared everyone so much that I actually think the world on balance might have been better off without him. I guess that’s debatable, even to me. But certainly (from my viewpoint), if someone lacking Steve Jobs’ ability to do good things for the world scares people the way he did, the world is definitely better off without him/her.

    I do think it’s a good thing to have the *capacity* to scare people. I mean, every once in a while one runs into a real asshole, and I think it’s great for a “scary” person to be able to “deal” with such a person. But, I think one should use this “power” on relatively rare occasions. I think I actually have that power, but am happy I rarely have to use it.

    I’m very interested in math (I have a Masters degree) and had a career as an actuary. I’m now retired, and have had a very successful second career tutoring high-school students in math. One of the things that helps this career is that I do not have a personality that scares people. This is important when tutoring math to teenagers, because the subject itself is intimidating enough, and if on top of that I had a “scary”, authoritative personality, I would have been a total flop.

    I simply feel (and I emphasize that this is simply my personal value) that radiating a warm, accepting aura is more conducive to good human relationships than radiating a scary, authoritative one. And, one does not have to be a “wimp” to do this.

    And what disturbed me about your piece is that you don’t seem to feel that way. You seem to think that the idea that your boss and everyone else around you is scared of you is cool. You feel “comfortable” with it.

    Well, that attitude demoralizes me. I think it causes a lot of problems in the world.

    It disturbed me because your thoughts are so interesting, and you obviously have a lot to offer the world. Why would you want to scare people? It simply alienates them from you. What’s the point?

    In the comments section of your piece, someone put up a video of you giving a presentation, and said (in effect) that it was a good example of your “scariness”. It was. It put me off, even though I found your presentation interesting intellectually. One reason (although not the main one) is because you used the word “shit” in your presentation.

    I think one of the commenters lauded you for that. But, I have a problem with it for the following reason: while I’m personally not offended by your used of the word, I am at the same time aware that many people *are* offended by such language. Therefore, out of consideration for their sensibilities (as silly as they are), I would not use such language. Why offend people unless compellingly necessary… which I don’t think it was in the context of your lecture. Why?

    You said in the piece that you had recently realized you were an “alpha female” when someone told you that he and everyone else was afraid of you. As a person interested in the psychology of human relationships, I was amazed that someone of your obvious brilliance had failed to realize such a fundamental thing about yourself until that day.

    So, let me ask you: since you scare “everyone else”, what about your children? Do you think it’s possible that you also scare them? If so, would that be a good thing? If you don’t think you scare your children, perhaps you’re wrong. After all, you grant that you didn’t realize until recently that you scared “everyone else”. Maybe you don’t yet realize that you scare your children.

    Well, I believe that if it’s not a good idea to scare your children (and I realize that not everyone shares my value system on this point), it’s also not a good idea to scare “everyone else”. As I said, I believe that scaring people is simply not good for human relationships.

    What I wish you had done in the piece is to relate how, after finding out about this quality you have (scaring people), you were embarrassed to learn that you affected your fellow humans this way, and that you were going to make an effort to modify it. That you were going to keep it in reserve for those who “deserve” to be scared, i.e. the real assholes of the world. Then, from my point of view, this ability to scare people would perhaps do some good. But to routinely make “he and everyone else” afraid of you is problematic, at least for me.

    I realized a similar thing about myself about 45 years ago, and felt I needed to do something about it. I had been in the habit of intimidating people with my intellect, especially if they said something I thought was “stupid” (or, what you might call “bullshit”). When I was in basic training in the Army, I had a bucket of cold water dumped on me in the middle of the night as I was sleeping. My fellow trainees had gotten fed up with my attitude, and had taken action.

    Well, that humiliating act somehow “got through” to me. I analyzed the situation and finally realized that intimidating people was not good… for them or anyone else, and especially me. So, I made a conscious effort to change. I tried to be more tolerant of people. If someone said something “stupid”, rather than try to “put them down”, I tried to understand their point of view, and to try to gently show them mine.

    At first, I felt like I was acting. And, I suppose I was. On an emotional level, I sometimes still felt like showing them how “stupid” they were. On an intellectual level, however, I knew I no longer wanted to do that. After a while, I began to get positive feedback from people I would never have deigned to bother with before, and from that point on, I wasn’t acting. On an emotional level, I now wanted to be as decent to people as I could. And this has made an incredibly positive difference in my life.

    Of course, I still know how to handle the occasional asshole who crosses my path. Including the “alpha male” ones.

    Sincerely,

    Phil H

    P.S. Please don’t ban me from your wonderful blog!:-). But, please ban any commenters who resort to calling me names (subtly or otherwise) for having expressed myself here.

    • March 4, 2013 at 12:31 am

      Bravo Phil, a very nicely written response wrt Alphaness – of either sex. I had to cringe a little, because as a woman in a male dominated profession a few years ago I also felt the need to be scary and to be honest, nasty, but as you point out, it is not necessary. But finding the balance within yourself, so you can radiate it outwards is a life long task. I think some of it comes from self-esteem issues, some of it comes from struggling to be taken seriously, some of it comes from deeply ingrained patterns from how we were parented and taught and who we thought were the right role models. But awareness is a good first step.

    • March 4, 2013 at 4:19 am

      Dear Phil, I really appreciate your thoughtful share, so thank you!

      As for Cathy and the word “scare”, is it possible that it’s meant differently in the article? I understood it as saying that people found her intimidating, but not because she wanted to tyrannize the people around her.

      Rather, like Gulliver washed up on alien shores, people aren’t used to brobdingnagian minds in their midst, nor the fearlessness in employing them when needed.

      There’s a whole spectrum of fear that the single word “scare” doesn’t quite do justice to. One
      yearns for languages wherein love alone gets 60 words all to herself!

    • March 4, 2013 at 7:07 am

      Phil,

      Thanks for your thoughtful (and long) comment, I may have sacrificed my post this morning in order to read and respond to it! And yes, I would never delete this kind of comment.

      First, I am absolutely warm to people (who I think are nice). I do *not* terrorize people (ever). And even so, people are sometimes afraid of me, and yes I’m okay with it. Let me explain.

      My kids adore me and love arguing with me. They want to spend time with me because I’m fun and I love hugging and kissing them and I love Star Trek marathons. Well actually my 12-year-old could use less of the hugging. I make pancakes (or waffles, or crepes) every Sunday morning for my kids and for the neighbors because I’m so motherly. I don’t think my alphaness comes out for them except when outsiders threaten my kids. Well, in one way: if I ask my kids to do their chores, they do them. I’ve heard that’s unusual, but not in my house. And their chores are reasonable.

      Update: I asked my kids this morning “am I scary to you?” and here are their answers. My 4-year-old: No, mommy, that isn’t a scary shirt. I think it’s pretty. My 10-year-old: No, mom (hug). My 12-year-old: Yes, I sleep every night with one eye open and a dagger in my hand (cackle).

      As for other people, I am not comfortable with scaring people exactly, but that’s how some people react to me. It’s not something I do, so I don’t feel responsible for it.

      Many people don’t react that way, of course. I have lots of very old, close friends who are as amused as I am by the way some people react to me.

      I have a theory about when people will react with fear to me and when people will like me. Namely, if someone is threatened by me or by my ability to expose bullshit, then they’re more likely to be scared of me. So for example if I’m working at a company that’s afraid I think (and will expose) that our entire business plan is based on a modeling assumption that doesn’t hold, then it tends to contain people who are afraid of me. Is this something I should be trying to avoid? Actually, I don’t think so. I think the question of whether our assumptions hold is something we should constantly re-examine, even if it’s hard.

      Similarly, if someone is threatened by me because we’re somehow competing for resources or status, then I often engender fear. Especially when people rely normally on process or on titles, which I ignore, this deeply disturbs their world view. But it’s not only with respect to hierarchy; I’ve noticed this recently in the capacity of girlfriends with their boyfriends. Girlfriends often perceive me as a threat when their boyfriends are talking to me. Is this something I can deal with? I’m not sure it even makes sense, because addressing it directly would be even stranger than ignoring it. Instead I try to talk to the girlfriends in equal measure, but that often doesn’t help.

      Here’s one thing we can both agree on: it’s important to understand the effect I have on people and to, where reasonable, compensate for it. I do this intentionally now. I don’t enjoying putting people under stress when it’s needless.

      Thanks, Cathy

      • Thads
        March 4, 2013 at 11:24 am

        I think you’re terrifying. But not stupid!

    • kt
      March 5, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Sometimes people are scared because you’re different or they have incorrect assumptions about who and what you are. I think this important to realize and also important not to over-react to. I am a woman in math with a PhD. Sometimes people are “scared” by me because they are not used to women who have gone through a lot of education, because they assume I will disrespect them because of my education, because they are afraid of feeling stupid, being made to feel stupid, or someone trying to make them feel stupid. Sometimes people are afraid of me because of the simple fact of my achievement — they are afraid it will be used against them somehow. Or because I often don’t wear makeup, and that must be a condemnation of their shallow ways. Or because I do other things that don’t follow social codes.

      This is not worth over-reacting to. It is not really that important overall for me to put lipstick on, or wear pantyhose, or decline to talk about math in public, even though all three of those things make some people feel more comfortable. I can just be my pleasant and respectful stuff and they can get over their hang-ups. We can all learn about each other.

      One should not try to scare people unnecessarily; at the same time women (people) should not be always responsible for not scaring people. Grow up and don’t be scared.

      • pbhact
        March 6, 2013 at 12:16 am

        In reply to kt

        Hi kt,

        Thanks for your comments to my post.

        “Sometimes people are “scared” by me because they are not used to women who have gone through a lot of education, because they assume I will disrespect them because of my education, because they are afraid of feeling stupid, being made to feel stupid, or someone trying to make them feel stupid”.

        No doubt there are people like you describe here. And of course, you are in no way responsible for such irrational responses from such people. But often, even with such a person, a little kindness will dispel such fears. So, why not offer that?

        The sort of “scary person” I had in mind in my post is not simply someone who scares some insecure people because they are afraid of feeling stupid, etc.

        Rather, I’m thinking about the sort of insensitive person who (in most cases because of their own insecurities) project an aura of “authority”, and who have a need to make others feel inferior to them. We’ve all seen people like this, and *most* people (not just those afraid of feeling stupid, etc.) are afraid of them in a certain sense.

        I have a real problem with such people. However, I would not say that I am “afraid” of them. But they do make me uncomfortable, and I don’t like being around them. Nobody does.

        And, the reason I’m not particularly afraid of them is because I have found that such people usually don’t have much psychological insight, and that makes them very vulnerable to someone who does have such insight, and who makes the decision to stand up to them. About the best they can do under such circumstances is to leave the room, because they are not prepared to respond to a deep psychological “attack”. They just don’t know what to do or say.

        These people are only truly scary when that have power over you. If such a person happens to be your boss, your choices are limited. You can demolish them psychologically and then have to get another job, or, you can put up with their s**t and suffer. A famous example of such a “scary” person was Steve Jobs, as well documented in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

        Fortunately, there are actually very few people like this.

        I tend to assume that if you have a person whom *everyone* is afraid of, then we are talking about the type of person I’ve just described, and not an office full of people like those you describe (insecure, and afraid of feeling stupid, etc). Very few offices would have such a high proportion of such people.

        “This is not worth over-reacting to.”

        Yes, I totally agree. Anyone bothered by your education or the fact that you don’t wear lipstick has a problem. But… that sort of thing is definitely not going to lead to an office full of people in which “everyone” is afraid of you. In that case, I would assume there is a problem with the person everyone is afraid of.

        “I can just be my pleasant and respectful stuff and they can get over their hang-ups. We can all learn about each other”.

        That’s exactly right. And if you you are such a pleasant and respectful person, you will never find yourself in the position of being universally feared. This is exactly the “kindness” I mentioned above, and it works most of the time. Sure, there may be a few people who have the “hang ups” you describe, and which persist no matter *what* you do. But, being pleasant and respectful (i.e. decent) is indeed about the best anyone can do. But that is exactly what the sort of person I’m talking about *doesn’t* do. And most people (“grown up” or not) *understandably* fear and feel uncomfortable around such people.

        “Grow up and don’t be scared”

        I think this is a bit too harsh. “Grown up” people can certainly be intimidated by the sort of person I’m talking about, especially if such a person is their boss. And even if the person is intimidated by someone who is not his/her boss, many decent, “grown up” people do not enjoy the sort of confrontation it is going to take to put a stop to the intimidation. The type of “scary person” I’m talking about is, after all, insensitive and psychologically shallow. It will take a lot of energy to deal with such a person. And it will be very unpleasant. In my own case, I would do it anyway. But, I recognize that many people simply aren’t up to that.

        • Phil H
          March 6, 2013 at 12:20 am

          To kt

          My reply listed me as pbhact. I was listed under my name (Phil H) in my original post. Sorry for the confusion. I am new here and am not yet sure how everything works.

        • kt
          March 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm

          Overall I agree with you, Phil.

          However, the original post is about nasty comments on the internet. They’re not there because Cathy is a mean and insensitive boss; they’re there because Cathy is an opinionated and intelligent woman.

          Our world is full of terrible stereotypes and pressures to conform to the status quo. When I say “grow up,” I really do mean it: it is the height of enlightenment to not be threatened by your insensitive and psychologically shallow boss because we are all human beings who live and die together united in the tao of life. It is incumbent on all of us to examine ourselves if we feel fear when a black man sits down on the bus with us at the end of the night, or if we feel like telling a blogger to shut up when she is telling us an unpleasant truth about how people treat women, or when we see each other being uncivil in a conversation about spousal hiring. You are talking about bad bosses — but how does that relate to Cathy getting hate mail when she gets featured on Hacker News?

          You approach this nastiness as a response to bad behavior, which can easily be addressed with a bit of enlightened kindness. I am all in favor of enlightened kindness, but I’ve reached the point in life at which I realize that for me it will solve no problem permanently, because there are more people to influence than problems I can solve.

        • Phil H
          March 7, 2013 at 12:27 am

          Hi kt,

          “Overall I agree with you, Phil.”

          And overall, I agree with your comments here too. You are of course correct when you point out that Cathy’s original post (March 3, 2013) was about nasty comments on the Internet. And you ask me:

          “You are talking about bad bosses — but how does that relate to Cathy getting hate mail when she gets featured on Hacker News?”

          If you go back and re- read my original post, I think you’ll see that my comments were primarily addressed to a post Cathy had written on June 16, 2012, entitled “On Being An Alpha Female”. Here’s what I said before I began commenting on that piece:

          “I’m appalled by the quality of the comments I see on the pages of (for example) Salon and the Wall Street Journal, which are often mean-spirited, filled with name-calling, and at at times even vile. I try very hard to avoid that sort of thing. Nonetheless, I feared that if I came across too strongly, you might not run my comment.

          But then I read your current post, and felt reassured. You say:

          “My first rule is to allow comments that disagree with me, as long as the reasons are articulated and as long as the comment isn’t abusive. Rude is ok, “you are stupid” is not ok.”

          Since the last thing in the world I want to be is abusive (or even rude), this comment convinced me that you would welcome civil disagreement, even if it’s strong.

          So, let me tell you what my problem is with your “alpha female” piece.”

          So, as you see, I was commenting on the “alpha female piece”. Specifically, I was responding to her statement

          “About 8 months ago I found out I’m an alpha female. What happened was, one day at work my boss mentioned that he and everyone else is afraid of me. I looked around and realized he was pretty much right (there are exceptions).”

          Her March 3rd piece served only to assure me that Cathy was open to civil, reasoned comments.

          You say:

          “However, the original post is about nasty comments on the internet. They’re not there because Cathy is a mean and insensitive boss; they’re there because Cathy is an opinionated and intelligent woman.”

          Absolutely right. Such comments are despicable, and often are there only because the writer has a degree of anonymity. And, they’re not directed only at women.

          The best way to deal with such comments is a very interesting and important question, but not the one I was addressing in my post. I may have something to say about it later.

          “When I say “grow up,” I really do mean it: it is the height of enlightenment to not be threatened by your insensitive and psychologically shallow boss because we are all human beings who live and die together united in the tao of life.”

          But, what precisely do you mean when you say “grow up”? If you work for a boss who enjoys intimidating people, you might very well understand that it would be “better” if you could somehow stand up to him/her. But one’s emotions are often just as powerful as the intellect, and can not always be controlled by the intellect. Especially fear.

          Someone may say to you “don’t let this horrible boss bother you”. But, what people who say this usually never say is exactly *how* you are supposed to go about doing this. If one is afraid, it is not so easy to simply say, “I’m not going to be afraid any more”. Especially if you’re in a job you can’t afford to lose.

          So, what does someone actually do to “grow up”, in the sense you’re talking about?

          Concerning nasty, irrational Internet responses (which, as I say, I wasn’t discussing), I think it’s probably better simply to ignore them. Although, I have found that it sometimes helps me to clarify a point in my own mind by responding to a person on that level of perception in a strong, yet civil manner. I have found that logic seems to be so ingrained in our minds that even people who are not very good at it are affected by a strong logical argument.

          “It is incumbent on all of us to examine ourselves if we feel fear when a black man sits down on the bus with us at the end of the night, or if we feel like telling a blogger to shut up when she is telling us an unpleasant truth about how people treat women, or when we see each other being uncivil in a conversation about spousal hiring”.

          I absolutely agree. But, keep in mind that what I was talking about were the implications of Cathy’s statement about scaring almost everyone at work.

          Sincerely,

          Phil

  14. Phil H
    March 4, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Hi Cathy,

    I was gratified to see your reply. Of course, I was trembling a bit when I saw it had arrived:-)

    I don’t have the energy to write a detailed response right now, so I’ll simply say thank you for taking the time to interact with me.

    And, here’s a few not-too-organized thoughts:

    What I didn’t mention is that I’m a very “intense” person. This quality is positive in most contexts, but particularly so when I’m teaching math. Then it comes across as enthusiasm, and people seem to respond positively to that.

    But, as I’ve gotten older, this intensity has sometimes gotten me into trouble, even with “lifelong” friends. Especially when we are discussing a “controversial” topic on which we disagree (like, say, the legitimacy of the Iraq war). Sadly, I actually lost a very close friend because he was unable to accept my position on certain topics.

    I place friendship over ideology. Certainly there are some limits on this tenet of mine. But I don’t know any slave owners or child molesters, so it has always applied in my relationships with my friends. I don’t really care if someone views reality differently than I do, as long as they have what I call a good “spirit” (as a totally non-religious person, I still ascribe meaning to that term).

    Anyway, over the years, I have come to have an “ideal” about how people (and especially friends) should communicate with one another when they are discussing ideas on which they might tend to disagree. I have a vision of a “detached plane” on which people interested in understanding reality can meet in a spirit of respect and friendship and talk about *anything*, with the understanding that we are all struggling to understand the meaning of our existence, and we’re coming together on this plane to help one another figure out what the f**k is going on. And when we finish talking, no matter how much our respective visions vary, we are still friends if that was what we were when we arrived, and we are still at least friendly acquaintances if that’s how we began.

    A “mushy” and, unfortunately, not realistic vision, I know (as I learned when I lost that close friend). But I’m quite serious about it, and always try to apply it In my dealings with people. Also unfortunately, I’ve not met many people who see this vision quite the way I do (including people I love).

    Another aspect of this “vision” is this: I like the idea of being able to keep discussing an idea until both participants have a clear understanding of the differences in what I call their “fundamental assumptions”. I’ve found that this is not easy for most people to do. They become “upset” before that sort of understanding can emerge.

    Unlike the situation in math, most disagreements (between rational people) occur because of differences in these “fundamental assumptions”. Well, I think it’s important to understand precisely what they are . Then, ideally, you can have a meaningful discussion about them.

    It’s too bad the political “talk shows” don’t focus more on these “fundamental assumptions”!

    Anyway, I think your response to my post indicates (among other things) that you understand what I mean when I talk about this “detached plane”. And I deeply appreciate that.

    Sincerely,

    Phil

  15. ed
    March 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I’m mildly curious in your justification (to self) of moderating my comments on the food/calorie discussion.

    • March 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      Sure. You were consistently posting comments that were off-topic to the post. The topic of the post was the smell test for claims made by data scientists. You kept giving dieting advice, which wasn’t the point (plus I warned you before deleting your next comment). So I put you into a list of people where your comments will come to me to moderate before being displayed. It doesn’t mean I will never let your comment through (obviously, since I just have) but that I don’t feel I can trust you to be reasonable.

  1. March 4, 2013 at 9:06 am
  2. March 5, 2013 at 7:10 am
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