The Virtues of Ham-Handed Moderation

As you’ve probably noticed, Cross-Currents has been very active these days. More content from a wider variety of writers, touching on some of the most timely issues of today, means more traffic — and more comments. I think it’s time again to make a comment about comments.

As most of you are aware, I share (and try to do more than my part) in the task of comment moderation. Usually it’s a short task – more recently, that has not been the case.

Responses flowed in to Rabbi Rosenblum’s latest on the Atzeres Tefilah. Initially, he thought to approve them all – until he had the opportunity to review them. At that point, both he and I felt that with entirely too few exceptions, the commenter had missed the point, didn’t know recent Jewish history, and/or was simply looking for an opportunity to bash Charedim. The signal to noise ratio was unacceptably low.

Comments ranged from “Are you really comparing Jewish knesset members with Hitler & Haman?” to “There was also the famous rabbis’ march on Washington. Were these gedolei hador also guilty of angering Hitler, yimach sh’mo, chas v’shalom?” Seriously now.

Is Rabbi Rosenblum really to be tasked with explaining, at a third-grade level, the difference between rallies and mock trials of Hitler in the early 1930s (which caused reprisals against Jews and Jewish businesses across Germany) and a march on Washington when the death camps were operating at their most brutal level? And honestly, if a person cannot distinguish between the use of a Nazi-era example to study the efficacy of protest and equating another target of protest with the Nazis, then I don’t see how that commenter could get through the analogy section of the SAT.

Similarly, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld penned what is for him an extraordinary essay, about a political issue. Now we know that the Beit Shemesh elections are a “hot button” topic, having been major news throughout Israel for the past several weeks. But a cogent English-language presentation of how Charedi residents perceived the issues and the election was sorely lacking, and his perspective added what was previously missing — a second side to the story. The point of presenting this article was not to rehash every position or reignite the firestorm, or invite comments which stereotyped one side or the other. We even received a comment about the multiple mikva’os in Beit Shemesh, and this just isn’t the venue for that.

Comments are supposed to provide an opportunity for further discussion of the topics raised by the author. To say that we don’t invite critical comment is to have not read the comments — but we have never set out to provide an unmoderated free-for-all, nor do we wish to. Cross-Currents intends in part to dispel negative impressions of Orthodox Jews and Judaism, as stories “which misrepresent us are frequent fare in both the Jewish and secular press.” Our comments section is not intended to provide more of the same.

Aspiring commenters are invited to read (or reread) our published guidelines. We’re not looking for a comment that takes up a full page. It’s certainly not appropriate to make statements such as those above that are long on ridicule and short on reason. And if you’re going to be critical of the position taken by any other writer, you’ll be taken much more seriously if you’re willing to use your name. Rabbi Adlerstein previously quoted from Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch:

Any replies written anonymously or signed with a fictitious name will not receive any consideration from me. One who lacks the courage to sign his true name to his views must be aware that what he is saying is meaningless and that he therefore cannot expect others to take notice of it.

Let the anonymous gnats buzz happily in the sunny meadows. I certainly do not want to spoil their pleasure.

We will often accept an anonymous comment that simply adds to the discussion, and rarely accept an anonymous comment that expresses sharp disagreement. Among other reasons, that’s the situation in which Rav Hirsch’s critique is most applicable.

Personally, I also don’t think it’s worthwhile to phrase a comment as questions to the author, essentially demanding that he or she respond. Rather than approve the comment and leave it unanswered, we may simply wait until we think we have time to answer — which, of course, may be never. Ask the same questions “openly,” and you’re more likely to get the comment printed and see replies.

Unhelpful comments are, of course, the reason why Rabbi Shafran has left comments closed on almost everything he has written, and they are also why some writers have chosen to simply write less often. They are detrimental to Cross-Currents as a journal and to real dialog, even when they don’t appear.

When there are a flood of such comments, the likelihood that even the best will get through is reduced, simply because we have to sift through a large queue and make snap decisions, including whether we think we’ll have time to reply to even the most well-meaning of commenters when we feel they have misread something and a response is required.

We celebrate the breadth of opinions among us, referring to both regular Cross-Currents writers and guest contributors. Different editors and contributors decide how narrowly or broadly to interpret our posted guidelines about comments. Each Cross-Currents writer gets to employ his or her own judgment as to what constitutes “shrill language, attack words, excessive negativity and cynicism,” as applied to comments on his or her own posts. We have to give our writers leeway, because we want them to contribute more often, not less — and all of us are volunteers.

So, please use your best judgment. Comments that demand a long reply, are demeaning of another commenter, writer, or community, or are submitted behind an anonymous pseudonym or first name, are much less likely to be approved.

If, however, you used your real name and believe that your comment should have been favorably considered, you are invited to write to editor *at* Cross-Currents *dot* com. We will unfortunately not be able to respond to all inquiries, but, to the best of our abilities, you will get a considered second hearing.

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26 Responses

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I wish you’d ban all anonymous comments. It’s easy enough to block those in WordPress.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  2. Surie Ackerman says:

    I’ve asked this before, but I guess it bears repeating: Could you add to your guidelines that people should please spell out things and not use so many abbreviations that aren’t always immediately familiar to readers?

    Some people’s comments look like such an alphabet soup that their point gets lost. And I’m sure there are many readers who really don’t understand what’s being referred to.

  3. Dovid Rosenfeld says:

    Might I add that someone, when criticizing my post, insisted on spelling the term “gedoilim”? I almost can’t think of a better example of crossing the line from respectful disagreement to outright mockery (of more than just my post). Needless to say, his comment was rejected out of hand.

  4. Gil Student says:

    Well said. Readers and commenters often don’t understand the time and frustration of dealing with malicious or sloppy commenters.

  5. dr. bill says:

    anonymous comments allow the author to maintain an identity not linked by google search.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I would like to express a vote of confidence in the editorship on the moderation of comments. I try to be reasonable in my comments and I don’t recall a comment which was rejected. The discourse at CC is head and shoulders above the vast majority of comment forums that I have encountered in various contexts in the world. The way you do the moderating is pretty seamless and that is good. Ham-handed is not a good word. That would imply that someone could catch you being a klutzy tinhorn tyrant, which is not the case. Keep up the good work. I also would hope that R. Avi would reconsider and trust the moderation or do his own rather than shutting out dialogue entirely. Maybe he feels he would be too ham-handed. I won’t say anything against him. He has published in the Forward and Haaretz where the climate is much less forgiving. Maybe he needs to be reminded of the difference.

  7. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    So please explain why Rav Hirsch wrote his 19 letters under the fictitious name of Ben Uziel.

    Unfortunately our society does not tolerate a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Uniformity of certain beliefs and views is almost expected, Someone who bucks the trend is often considered strange and an outcast if not worse.

    Therefore, in our close knit society a need for anonymity exists so that people can express their views freely and have them judged on the merit of the view alone and not on the basis of who said them.

    [Rav Hirsch himself gives the answer, by differentiating between writing a new document (his 19 letters) promoting ideas, and entertaining anonymous replies to something he had written on a contentious issue. That is why “we will often accept an anonymous comment that simply adds to the discussion, and rarely accept an anonymous comment that expresses sharp disagreement.” The former is when ideas can stand on their own merit (or because you don’t want Google searches on your name to wander outside your chosen profession). The latter — to challenge/criticize an author writing under his own name, from behind a moniker — is inappropriate and even cowardly. As I’ve written earlier, we have frequently seen anonymity and nastiness go hand in hand. — YM]

  8. Yoel Fullstein says:

    The problem, of course, is that you selectively choose among the comments and post either those that make your argument in a convincing way, or that make the opposing argument in an unconvincing way.

  9. David F says:

    I largely agree with Yehoshua Friedman comments. The dialogue here is vastly better than most other places and I too, wish that Rabbi Shafran would reconsider even if it meant that he was ham-handed. I wish others were too. There are a number of commenters here who consistently write things that I can’t ever understand how they get published. Much of their writing can be classified as rambling and doesn’t meet the high standards that the majority of commenters adhere to. One vote for additional ham-handedness.

  10. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Rav Hirsch’s 19 letters did not just promote ideas, it also expressed sharp disagreement, challenged and criticized the opinion of others such as Polish Torah Teachers, Moses Mendelsohn and a great Torah figure no less than the Rambam himself.

    [Did it debate and attack the positions of a living person, who would be expected to reply to the anonymous challenge? — YM]

  11. Joe Hill says:

    One thing I’ve frequently noticed about the commenting policy here is that while disagreeing with or criticizing the author of a CC article from a perspective coming from the left-flank of the author (thus placing the commentator to the left of the author) will frequently be published [and often even responded to by the author], if a comment is submitted that disagrees with the position of the author of a CC article from a more right-wing perspective (thus placing the commentator to the right of the author), it is often that the submitted comment is not approved.

    [Since you don’t know which comments get canned, you can’t possibly know this. But if we are getting criticized from left and right, that’s a good sign that we’re actually doing a good job. — YM]

  12. Yisrael Asper says:

    Yoel Fullstein:”The problem, of course, is that you selectively choose among the comments and post either those that make your argument in a convincing way, or that make the opposing argument in an unconvincing way.”

    You either haven’t seen the comments he has published or else you really don’t think the comments have been very good from his opponents.

  13. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I would like to add further praise to this august forum. In other places I sometimes write things that I am not particularly proud of because I can, or because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Here we are conscious of the standard, and I believes it makes us better when we write. If I ever wrote anything here that was rejected, you were probably right. The result of the process is that it makes us feel not like guys off the street but like respected members of the CC community and behave accordingly. Yasher koach!

    [Yehoshua, in letting this through, I want to respond to your earlier comment. The truth is that we (and perhaps more particularly I) stand accused of being a “klutzy tinhorn tyrant” on roughly a weekly basis. So the reference to “ham-handed moderation,” while tongue-in-cheek, was apt. –YM]

  14. Doug Gershuny says:

    I don’t think that it’s fair or accurate to say this forum “selectively choose[s] among the comments and post either those that make your argument in a convincing way, or that make the opposing argument in an unconvincing way.” I have seen well argued postings on this forum both agreeing and opposing the positions taken in articles under discussion.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    If the commenter wants the comment to stand on its own merit (sometimes it has none, but he thinks it does!), what is added by putting a name to it, unless the reader really needs to connect the comment to an earlier body of work, a known personality, or the like? If the comment is unworthy, it won’t get posted here in any event!

  16. Joe Hill says:

    YM – Thanks for the feedback. You’re correct, I can only know which of my own are not approved – and those typically are taking a more rightwards position than the author. But I still stand by my original comment because I do see a relatively overwhelming amount of posts coming from the left of the authors position getting approved and posted, while precious few criticism from the right make it to the comment section. Now it is entirely possible that the internet readers of this site tend to the left and thus the phenomenon that I am reporting. Indeed I strongly believe this is the case. Nevertheless, I don’t ever submit any out-of-bounds comments. The ones that are not approved are simple disagreements I voice coming from a more rightwards viewpoint. And, most importantly, they are not any more over the border than many of the leftwards comments that are approved on the very same articles.

  17. Tal Benschar says:

    On a lighter note, perhaps “ham-handed” is not the best metaphor for the title of this post.

    [Now that we have a second person making a similar remark, I’m letting this through (though funny, it probably fails to “add to the discussion” per our guidelines). The other writer wondered if ham-handed is similar to being “pig-headed.” It most certainly is! — YM]

  18. ELebowicz says:

    I do see a relatively overwhelming amount of posts coming from the left of the authors position getting approved and posted, while precious few criticism from the right make it to the comment section. Now it is entirely possible that the internet readers of this site tend to the left and thus the phenomenon that I am reporting.

    For me, I find this site to be superior to any of the other blogs on the net, not because of the left or right leanings of any participant, but because of the open-mindedness here, where people can express a point of view that’s intelligent and thought out without being judged, leaving readers to be able to comfortably consider a point of view different from their own. Once the bashing starts, defensiveness comes to the fore, and then there’s no exchange of ideas. As to left and right, you know that idea that anyone that is frummer than me is farchnyuked, and anyone to the left is an apikores. It seems to me that CC allows many points of view through, as long as it is said with mentschlikeit.

  19. Benshaul says:

    As someone who has posted under a pseudonym, I confess that i do so because of my current position and role. There are statements that i have made and explanations to issues that i felt would threaten my ability to comment freely if used my name. However Rabbi Adlerstein IS aware of who I am (so i don’t get to attack him anonymously -as if i would dare :).)

  20. Baruch B. says:

    I second Joe Hill’s sentiment. While not provable, I did show my non-approved comments to others who did not understand why they were not approved.
    The one thing they all had in common was a tilt towards the right.

    [Did you submit left-leaning comments and have them get through? –YM]

  21. Daniel Weltman says:

    This is the second time I am submitting a similar comment:

    In the interest of maintaining impartiality, a good policy would be one in which the author of an article is excluded from the moderation board for that article. Too often it seems clear to commenters that their posts are denied simply because the author felt their points were too powerful.

  22. Jon Baker says:

    Interesting to see Joe Hill and Baruch B’s comments, since discussions arising from this post elsewhere (on FB, mostly) seem to indicate that the more left-wing comments are the ones which are rejected. Now, I don’t know what the tone of most of those posts were, and C-C does reserve the right to moderate for tone. But I have seen some such lefty comments reprinted on FB after being rejected (or before), and they don’t seem to me to fall afoul of respectful dialogue.

    I wonder if it’s like the NY Times. Jews look at it and see a pro-Arab bent. Arabs look at it and see a pro-Jewish bias. In reality, it’s probably about balanced, if both sides think it agrees with The Other. There have been studies on similar bias questions, e.g. by political party, and it was found that the number of articles favoring each side was about even.

  23. Jewish Observer says:

    “I did show my non-approved comments to others who did not understand why they were not approved”

    – I am not finding enough of my jokes getting through

  24. Sholom says:

    If Cross Currents is interested in dialogue and healthy debate on its website, its moderation policy needs to be quickly and consistently applied.

    It’s very hard to have a conversation when you don’t know if or when anyone will hear what you have to say.

    I’ve made sharply critical, sarcastic comments that have been posted. I’ve made completely benign comments that have not. Sometimes I’ll ask a question, which is posted, but the follow up question to the response is not.

    Overall, I think the moderation policy is very discouraging to someone like me who is inclined to debate the points made in the articles. And I think that’s reflected in the relative paucity of comments this website receives, especially given the frequently controversial topics covered and what I’m sure is the large number of readers.

  25. Steve Brizel says:

    Excellent article! I realize that many commenters hide behind anonymity for a variety of reasons in our small world, some of which are legitimate and others of which allow for irresponsible comments.

    Let me suggest an approach that may defuse many controversies about whether a post should be banned-write the moderators and explain the reasoning behind your post. You will learn that agreeing to disagree is a much better approach than sulking or writing elsehere that your posts have been banned at a certain blog.

  26. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Rav Hirsch did attack the approach of living people when he reffered to certain forms of yiddeshkeit as mummified Judaism etc.

    I believe that Rav Hirsch’s positions can be reconciled in a different way than proposed above. He was OK with anonymity in a public forum such as book writing (and by extension would be ok with anonymous blog posts) but was opposed to anonymity when writing private letters to an individual or author. The distinction makes sense because the justifiable needs for anonymity is greater in a public forum than in private.

    [We can make diyukim about why he took different positions in different situations, but as I wrote last year, and as Princeton President (now Emeritus) Shirley Tilghman said in an entirely different context: “Anonymity invites candor, to be sure, but it also invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite.” Anonymity means the words stand on their own, yes, but the other way to say the same thing is that when you’re anonymous, you don’t have the burden of owning your words. — YM]

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