On the Difference between Being Nice and Being Kind

I have spend a pretty unreasonable amount of time, in my life, moderating and maintaining a handful of online spaces. I don’t claim to have been perfect at this; if anything, I am pretty ill-suited to it. But I’ve learned a few things, and I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular issue lately: Babies, you’ve got to be kind. But kind is not the same thing as nice.

By nice, I mean specifically civil and agreeable; I mean a set of behavioral boundaries that apply directly to how you interact with others on a one-to-one basis. By kind, I mean a deeper consideration for others; I mean a regard for the feelings and context of others that can’t be reduced to simple rules of discourse or behavior. Niceness is a behavioral judgment. Kindness is an ethical one.

And this is a distinction that gets lost very easily. I used to help moderate a large space that heavily emphasized civility, and nowadays I think civility is a very weak standard to apply. Because the reality is that you can be hurtful, you can be unkind, without being uncivil. And people do this all the time, and moderation policies centered around civility have enormous trouble managing this.

And that same focus on civility makes the damage caused by unkindness invisible. In spaces with civility-oriented codes of conduct, or rulesets that consider “personal attacks” as the basic standard of bad behavior, it’s all but impossible to criticize someone for derailing, for monopolizing space, for making hurtful (but impersonal) remarks, because all criticism must be couched in the language of polite disagreement. So people tend to leave silently or breed resentment instead.

And the thorny issue is: Callouts are mostly bad. Criticizing someone else’s behavior has enormous costs in terms of social friction, and even though I think I don’t do such a thing lightly, others might, and others might not judge my own behavior as kindly. To me, this means that there is an onus on moderators to head off those kinds of situations. And the standard of civility — asking users to be nice — is insufficient to achieve this.

Because the standard of “civil discourse” is inherently one that makes it easy to talk about facts (however false) and opinions (however loathsome), but not feelings and experiences. It makes it easy to talk in dispassionate terms about distant issues and difficult to talk about things that affect one personally. In short, it is a standard of discourse that privileges the discourse of the privileged, and devalues the discourse of the aggrieved, the oppressed, and the marginalized. This is not to say that loud, unfiltered anger is right or appropriate for every space — it isn’t; but it is very easy to apply this standard of civility in a way that creates the illusion of an open forum in a place that is actually a walled garden. Often, what civility really is enforcing is the ability to perform the correct rituals and express the correct signifiers to have one’s speech viewed as polite discourse. I should note that the ability to participate on those terms, to navigate the social rules of polite discourse — born as they are out of early tech and academic communities on the internet, with their own biases and unrepresentative membership — is itself classed, gendered, racialized. English speakers often are unaware that their language has registers; and the understanding of “polite discourse” demands a specific register, a register that is more natural to some than others.

Furthermore, by being decontextualized and rigid, the standard of civility is very trivial for bad actors to game, and it is constantly gamed by bad actors. I have seen more users than I can count, across multiple spaces both asynchronous and real-time, that abused this system of moderation in ways that created negative outcomes, most frequently the silent exit of valuable users.

Those bad users often fit a particular mold — male, white, educated; equipped, in short, to navigate the social world of “civil discourse”. They’re armed with insufficient kindness, some nasty opinions or a tendency to derail, and a dispassionate point of view that allows them to constantly hold the implicit high ground given to the person who cares the least.

This is the classic example of civility standards being a problem, a situation that should be familiar if you’ve tried to apply that standard as a moderator: User A politely expresses an outrageous, bigoted opinion; user B reacts negatively to what they identify as an attack on their identity or humanity. When the civility standard is applied, it is applied against user B. User B got mad; user B got upset; user B made accusations (racist, bigot, transphobe, asshole). User B “lost” the rhetorical game of staying dispassionate and civil, and the cost of losing is at least disregard for their broader societal grievance against bigoted speech, and often also moderator sanctions.

This is exacerbated by the fact that user A can be gaming the system. They might view this interaction as scoring points against political correctness, they might view it as a refined form of trolling, they might view it as getting rid of someone they dislike or disapprove of. It’s further exacerbated by the fact that civility standards often have no concept of derailing, and as a result this interaction can crop up anywhere, turning every discussion into a potential trigger point for the pet issues or calculated attacks of malicious users. The endpoint is that aggrieved users (“user B”) will leave; sympathetic users who see this interaction will leave. It is very dangerous to apply civility standards in that way; one risks creating a “playground rule” that whoever gets mad first, loses. Creating that dynamic is like giving out candy to a certain class of troll. It gamefies bad behavior: How many people can you push into being sanctioned by moderators without being sanctioned yourself?

Civility standards are well-intentioned; they’re a good idea, perhaps. They prevent blatant and loud abuse from happening out in the open, and that’s a laudable goal. But it’s very insufficient. It weeds out blatant trolls while leaving the door open to other forms of negative behavior, and many spaces that implement those standards have an invisible list of people who have chosen to leave them instead of engage on skewed terms.

How do you move past enforcing niceness towards building kind spaces, in practice? I think we need to excise the words “civility” and “personal attack” from codes of conduct, and instead consider fighting words. “You’re an asshole” falls under that umbrella, but so does “respectfully, I don’t think your assertion that you’re a woman is valid” or “my understanding is that BLM protesters are often just criminals looking for excuses.” Inciting a negative situation is not just a matter of tone but of content. And incitement has to be considered when negative interactions happen.

The obvious problem, of course, is that considering content and not just tone requires one to make judgment calls based on ethical considerations. It requires that moderators go into the thicket of politics, society, and social movements and extract from them standards about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t exclusionary, that are predicated on identifying hateful speech and not just angry or rude speech. And a lot of people are, justifiably, afraid of this. But we have to move past notions of neutrality, or ideas that there are universal standards of discourse that can be applied everywhere with positive results.

Yes, this sometimes will come down to silencing or removing people for their sincerely held political beliefs, which I am sure some of you reading this abhor. But every time the words “free speech” come up, you should scream back: For whom? Sometimes, a productive exchange of views can be had between different positions in a contentious issue. Often, it can’t. And oftentimes a dynamic arises where people in marginalized communities are frequently asked to justify themselves, their identities, and their communities in the arena of “polite discourse.” In civility-centric spaces, free speech exists for members of privileged groups who dismiss or question assertions about oppression, but not for people who are making observations about perceived oppression. The reality of our polarizing times is that you cannot amplify all voices equally; if you’re not making a conscious choice about which voices most need to be heard, then that choice is being made for you. And much like the guy holding up an “all lives matter” sign, you’re choosing in favor of the dominant social forces.