Over the past five years, the r/changemyview (CMV) moderation team has spent a large amount of time hashing out the specifics of our subreddit rules. Sometimes these discussions are sparked by an unprecedented case of behaviour that we aren’t sure how to treat, and other times it’s due to a natural drift in our collective understanding of the rules. We are a decent sized team of individuals (24 at the time of publishing) from various parts of the world, with new mods joining every so often, and with communication that is often limited to reddit – the occasional need for realignment is, therefore, to be expected. And while my initial goal for the subreddit may have focused more on the conversational service we provide OPs (original posters), the benefits and culture of CMV have undoubtedly become much more, and the rules must also reflect this.
Some rules are easy to moderate and rarely require realignment. For example, Rule 4, which is split into two parts. The first asks that users award a delta if they’ve acknowledged a change of view. The second prohibits delta misuse/abuse, which is usually clear – if the delta doesn’t represent a view change, it should be removed.
Some are often less clear, however, like Rule 2. It sounds quite simple on the surface: Don’t be rude or hostile to other users. But we’ve held many discussions on it over the years, and this post will detail one of our most recent examples, which was centred around a comment that used the words “That’s bullshit” to describe a view.
First of all, I should clarify that if a comment only said “That’s bullshit”, it would almost certainly be a violation of Rule 5: Comments must contribute meaningfully to the conversation. Our discussion was based on cases where this is contained within a more substantial and otherwise civil comment.
After a discussion that spanned multiple days, we were able to come to an agreement on what to do. I asked six moderators who were heavily involved to write up their perspective and thought process throughout. Before I quote them below, I will summarise the basic problem that most acknowledged in order to avoid repetition:
Rule 2 is fundamental to CMV’s success. Attacking a person’s character instead of their argument by calling them “stupid”, for example, would likely lead to a bad atmosphere and fewer changed views. But calling someone’s view “stupid” also breaks Rule 2, despite appearing to meet the requirement of attacking the argument. This is because we recognise the distinction that a view itself isn’t an intelligent being, and therefore can’t be stupid – only the person holding it can.
Some moderators – myself included – used a continuation of this thinking for the case in question, and I will begin with a mod perspective that shared this sentiment below. Following on from that, I have attempted to list the mod perspectives in an order that tells the story and offers something new each time, ending with what became the popular opinion of the wider mod team.
Where does the statement “your view is bullshit” fall? Is it an attack on the view, or an attack on the person (direct or by proxy)? If we look at the definition of bullshit, it reads: stupid or untrue talk. Well, we already established that “stupid” is off-limits so if the person is using bullshit to mean stupid, then it would fall under the previous rational. However, it could also mean “untrue”. Calling the argument untrue might be also calling the person a liar, but an argument can be a lie even if the person making it is sincere, so it probably is safe to say it’s an attack on the argument.
With all of that said, we can’t look at just the meaning of the words to determine if this is a violation; there is too much ambiguity there. Instead, we must consider the sentiment the words convey. Even if the poster is using the acceptable definitions – untrue – that could be rephrased as just saying, “Your argument is untrue”. If it means the same, then it should convey the same general sentiment, but it doesn’t. Calling something bullshit just seems more aggressive, more combative, more hostile. There is a reason you pick “bullshit” over “untrue” and it has nothing to do with the argument – after all, why try to be aggressive or hostile to an idea? That won’t make the idea any more or less wrong.
No, you want to say something about the person who would make an argument that wrong and that is exactly where is crosses the line. You don’t want to just say the argument is wrong, you want to say that the person making it was being dishonest or foolish in the process. It is an insult masquerading as critique just like calling an argument stupid was. It violates Rule 2.
“Bullshit”, while somewhat vehement (depending on who you ask), is basically saying something is “nonsense”. And “nonsense” is a word that primarily applies to ideas or arguments, not people. “You are nonsense” doesn’t really make sense in English, and “You are bullshit” would be looked on as a very odd English sentence by most people, in my opinion.
Therefore, “bullshit” should be interpreted as applying to the argument, not the person. Furthermore, we have historically considered that telling someone their argument is nonsense does not fall under Rule 2.
Depending on context, it might be something that tips our judgement over the edge, if the rest of the comment is condescending, or otherwise attacks the person (albeit obliquely).
I first drew a couple of distinctions to put aside unrelated concerns and to bring the key issue into focus: that we are concerned with ad hominem attacks, and not general strong language towards external parties; and that we should be interpreting our currently published rule against hostility, rather than formulating some new and draconian rule that prescribes our own ideals regarding positive and productive discourse. Not only are these issues irrelevant to the present one, they are also prime examples of where the cure would be worse than the disease – attempts to introduce changes on either would undermine CMV’s cornerstone of free speech.
I then applied the published rule to determine whether the usage of “bullshit” amounts to hostility. On its face, it attacks an argument by likening it to manure, but makes no express mention of the person, which appears to lead to the conclusion “bullshit” is permissible. To me this was unsatisfactory, because an attack on argument and an attack on person is not mutually exclusive. When one is attacking an argument, one is attacking a person’s thoughts and his/her articulating of them, hence there is always an inherent element of person-specific attack. It follows that the test should be one of substance and greater degree, as opposed to semantics and black and white dichotomy. The need for such a test is further reinforced by the drawing of comparisons between “bullshit” and its counterparts in other languages, all of which achieve the same derogatory purpose notwithstanding variations in literal meaning. Summarising the above I arrived at the conclusion that “bullshit” could be and often is employed for a personal attack.
Interestingly, I realized at the end that the application of a substance-over-form test means allowance must be made for the possibility that “bullshit” may not always be an attack against the person. Although general observations can be made, the immediate context remains the overarching factor. Given the intricacies of communication, a purposive approach in applying the rules is preferable. This made me reach consensus with other mods.
The team has wondered if phrases such as “That’s bullshit” qualify as rude or hostile, with the underlying argument being that it implies one is a bullshitter.
I disagree for several reasons:
- I would not remove a comment stating “That’s false” on the basis that it’s calling a person a liar. Therefore, I would not remove a comment saying “That’s bullshit” on the basis that it is calling a person a bullshitter.
- This extrapolation is implicit in any condemnation on an idea and I’ve no basis for believing “That’s bullshit” is more egregious than “That’s absurd” except that we have a cultural sensitivity to vulgarity and more easily sort this into an egregious category than posher alternatives making the exact same condemnation.
- I’m loathe to bring up the slippery slope argument, which is why I’m raising it third-to-last, but I do think this is an example of a policy without clear demarcation – that it falls too much in the ambiguous “I know it when I see it” territory – and thus is so discretionary as to prohibit meaningful compliance. That is, we have little to no markers we can point to for our users such that they can say “Okay, I understand what I’m not allowed to do” and therefore not do it. Rather, they’d have to index high on not saying something at all, and this would have a chilling effect on speech. If the loss was merely fewer people saying “That’s bullshit,” I’d consider it marginal, but the lack of clarity raises, in my view, a concern that they will not say many other things for fear of running afoul of an unclear limitation.
- What if someone posts “John Maynard Keynes said A” and I say “That’s bullshit”? Am I calling Keynes a bullshitter (because its his idea) or the OP (because he related it)?
- I’m putting this last because it’s overly technical, but if you diagrammed “That is bullshit,” “that” references the implied subject of idea/view (i.e., “That [idea] is bullshit.”)
I have two opinions on this issue, one very narrow and one very broad. My very narrow opinion is that the position which says that “that’s bullshit” should be allowed because it attacks the argument rather than attacking the person is wrong. That delineation is usually justified by comparison to a remark like “that’s moronic” – which obviously does imply an insult to the speaker – and rationalized by pointing out that an argument can’t lack intelligence, only a person can, and so the person has been called a moron. Whereas “that’s bullshit” isn’t an insult because it isn’t calling the person bullshit, or a bull, either of which would be non-sensical.
In my view this line of reasoning is deeply flawed. First of all, it’s completely possible to interpret “that’s bullshit” as an attack on the speaker – they’re being called a bullshitter. Try convincing a cowboy who’s been told “that’s a lie” that they weren’t just called a liar because people can’t literally be lies. Any evaluative statement about what someone said will carry some implication about the someone. The difference – and I agree there is one – between “that’s bullshit” and “that’s moronic” has far less to do with the literalist logic of parts of speech than with the simple fact that the latter makes a much harsher implication. By the same token, I doubt any of us are interested in cracking down on “that’s silly”, even though people can definitely be silly.
My broader opinion is that the above debate, whether I’m right or wrong on it, isn’t particularly important. If another member of the mod team tends to read “that’s bullshit” more softly than I do, that’s completely fine with me, because we shouldn’t be making any hard-and-fast rules about it anyway – it’s not clear-cut enough to warrant any predetermined decision.
I think the single most common trap we fall into when crafting policy for CMV is vivisecting helpful guidelines while trying to make firm rules out of them. It’s understandable – we strive to make our moderation as consistent and impartial as possible, and unambiguous standards are an obvious path to consistency and impartiality. But CMV’s Rule 2 relates to rudeness, and that’s an intrinsically subjective concept. We should absolutely try to define a set of common indicators of rudeness to help keep our individual judgement calls from varying too much – and the attachment of negative descriptors for people to statements nominally about arguments is a strong indicator. But we shouldn’t try to draw hard logical lines between what’s hypothetically acceptable and unacceptable. It’s all context-dependent, and it always will be.
Kal often describes his ideal for CMV as a clinic where a person might go if they want to have their view questioned and possibly changed. I agree with that and the rules ought to foster that kind of environment, but I argue that OPs are only half (maybe less than half) of the story, and that the education of commenters is as necessary as shielding OPs.
In 5 years on Reddit, I’ve posted all of 3 CMVs. I came here to have discussions with willing participants instead of imposing on friends and family, and I’ve stayed because I wanted to learn how to change minds instead of just winning debates – we all know the importance of that distinction.
We know from the academic research done in and outside the sub that changing views is somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on the person. Abandoning a view is akin to letting a small part of you die; you feel loss and pain, you grieve for it – and sometimes, you’ve relied on it so much that you bring it back from the dead. We hold our views tightly, and any participant in CMV knows how hard it is just to move the needle, much less reverse a whole view.
So while we do give posters a place to have their views questioned, I think our greater purpose is giving all users a place to learn the deceptively difficult art of changing someone’s mind. Inasmuch as we give posters a place where they can be wounded without dying, we should provide a place for commenters to learn how to wound without killing.
Which brings me to Rule 2; in particular, the question of how something like “that’s bullshit” ought to be treated.
Many users come to CMV after honing their skills in forums where discussions match the internet stereotype: insults to intelligence, performative outrage, other bad behaviors, and many of the users say and nominally believe these tactics are acceptable because everyone should base their views on the facts. They know they’re right and anyone who fails to recognize it is contemptible – even if recognizing an error would require more sacrifice than the commenter might imagine, and even if they’d be just as defensive if the circumstances were reversed.
CMV offers people like this a rare opportunity: the chance to see their tactics fail while others succeed in the same space. They get to see their prime excuse refuted; by using a phrase like “that’s bullshit”, a commenter can see that acting like an arrogant prick won’t change anyone’s view, and instead can watch as other more reasoned or conciliatory responses have that effect. Allowing this language drives home the point that a commenter can use being right to make the world a better place with careful conversation instead of proving how smart they are to people who already agree with them – or maybe even find out they’re wrong now and then. And every once in a while, maybe a strident callout really is what’s needed; we should never presume that one size fits all, and some people may be more receptive to blunt confrontation.
These opportunities are lost if we prohibit tactics just because they’re generally unproductive or abrasive. Rule 2 should reinforce general civility by prohibiting personal attacks and nothing more. We (the mods) can’t teach users what works and what doesn’t; even if what we say is true, our word will never be as persuasive as OP ignoring you in favor of someone with rhetorical savvy.
Rule 2 is indispensable, but we need to give users some space to use bad rhetoric so they can learn that it doesn’t work.
In conclusion, use of “that’s bullshit” in an otherwise civil comment will likely be approved for the practical reasons expressed by PepperoniFire and etquod, and for the potentially educational reasons summarised by Grunt08. But there is a balance to be found, and we do draw a line when such ambiguity is removed.
Context matters, and due to the concerns raised by Ansuz07 and whitef530, please avoid using the phrase if you wish to have a civil discussion and a better chance of getting through to somebody. Approving a comment doesn’t mean we encourage its approach.