I’m having a think about the way conversations about contentious topics run, and how to keep them spiralling out of control.

On social justice blogs, I find that the disagreements in comments will often go well beyond the topic of a given post. I don’t mean simply off the topic entirely, like, say, moving from a trans women’s issue to a cis women’s issue. I mean taking a specific conversation and expanding it to talk about a general area. For example, a few weeks ago, I almost put up this blog note here:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have such a great time participating in conversations in the comments here, and I have the best commentariat for which a blogger could ask. So I’m sad and hesitant about making this note, but here goes: over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a lot of comments from white readers explaining what race is and how racism works, or able-bodied commenters explaining what disability is and how ableism works. Readers. I live this stuff. I know. It’s a little annoying to be talked at rather than to. My comments section is the place to comment on the post topics, not play out what you’ve been processing lately. Totally feel free to leave comments, irrespective of your identity, as long as you keep in mind that the on topic rule is there for a reason.

So threads will start to drift. And when a thread moves from, say, the impact of colonialism in a particular region to race in general, or a specific instance of transphobia to puzzling out the nature of transness, there’s a lot more room for people to hash out their semi-related thoughts on a topic rather than the topic itself. It’s using a conversation to bring lots of broader or irrelevant stuff in so that one has somewhere to put it, rather than respecting what should be happening in that space and sticking to the issue at hand.

What I’ve found in my all too substantial experience as a moderator on the Internet has been that making sure people stick to the actual topic makes things clearer, less emotionally painful, and more productive. It’s not about a person in a privileged group asking for all the education, or spouting authoratively on something they don’t know much about, and the arguments to be had can be made point by point rather than lost in side arguments. And it’s a way of diffusing tense situations in a way that’s unlikely to make anyone angry. Offshoots can be discussed at another designated time or place, after all.

Good moderation is in the interests of social justice. On the Internet or off, a lot of the disrespectful content comes when a member of a privileged group tries to make it all about them, or redirect the conversation. Keeping to the topic at hand requires the centring of voices that might not otherwise be heard. That way, people don’t get bogged down in justifying their existence, or in having the same conversations time and again.