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A 30-day comment sabbatical at TheMennonite.org

6.14. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 2,468 Times read

Hannah Heinzekehr is the Executive Director for The Mennonite, Inc. 

There’s a saying that gets bandied around on the Internet a lot these days: “Never read the comments.” From bloggers to journalists to general social media users, this phrase is turning up more and more in the digital media feeds I see these days. In fact, in a recent blog post on this very website, Malinda Berry identified a phenomenon she refers to as “Internet Stage Fright.” Malinda describes ISF this way: “my body’s psychospiritual response to what I fear will meet my words, thoughts, opinions, concerns and fragile hopes for meaningful connection that will transform the seemingly interminable conflict that has a hold on MC USA. Like I said, I seize up. I can’t get my words out. I run and hide. I dismiss the belief that anything I or anyone else can say will bring peace when there is no peace.”

And Malinda is not alone. Over the course of the last month alone, as I’ve approached individuals and asked them to write for The Mennonite, I’ve been turned down five times by people of all ideological bends who feel fearful about putting their opinions out there on our site because of the inevitable comment debates that will ensue.

The Mennonite is not the only publication wrestling with how to address Internet comments. Several recent articles in prominent publications, such as The Washington Post and The Guardian, have examined the potential toxic effects of comments, the ways that comments tend to lead people to feel angrier and more resentful of an author, and the ways comment sections end up being spaces where racist, homophobic and sexist statements occur at a much higher incidence than in other online conversation hubs. In fact, large publications, including Popular Science, The Chicago Sun Times, Reuters, Mic.com and many other sites have made the choice to completely disable comments on most if not all articles. Other Christian publications, such as Christianity Today and Sojourners, have done away with comments on some articles or moved comments to a separate field that you have to click through to get to.

The Mennonite is certainly not immune from these realities faced by other publications. Over the course of the last month especially, we have noticed the following trends:

  • Content moderation is taking increasing amounts of staff time. We recently published a new comments policy, adapted from one that Mennonite Church USA staff have been using for several years. However, due to an increased volume of comments recently, it has taken more and more staff time to monitor comments that come through our website. We are a small staff of four people, and comment moderation is only a small part of what we do.
  • Most comments are coming from a small pool of people. Increasingly, comments on most articles are coming from a shrinking pool of people. In fact, in the last month, we estimate that 75 percent of our comments have been generated by five individuals.
  • A lack of constructive conversation. Part of our function is to provide a “forum for diverse Mennonite voices.” Comments have been one space where we hope this conversation between diverse voices can play out. However, increasingly, comments on our articles have devolved into name calling; second-guessing other commenters’ motives or faithfulness, or vitriolic, one-off statements. In addition to providing a forum for diverse voices, our mission is to “help readers glorify God, grow in faith and become agents of healing and hope in our world.” Are our comment sections helping us advance this mission?

Given these realities, we are implementing a 30-day sabbatical from comments on our website, starting tomorrow, June 15. We’re not seeing this as a permanent move but as a time to take a breath and assess where we are. This will also be a time for our staff to step back and assess the ways comments are set up on our website and to think through best practices for comment moderation.

In his recent op ed piece, another TM blogger, Tim Nafziger, critiqued complaints from Mennonite leaders about conversation on social media. Tim emphasized that social media has provided an important platform for communication that is outside of institutional control. There is something inherently liberating about the open and public nature of social media and internet conversation, and we don’t want to lose these elements of free speech at their best. We don’t want this comment sabbatical be seen as a way to shut down hard conversations or avoid conflict. Conflict can be generative, and hard conversations are often some of the richest.

So during this comment sabbatical, we want to be sure to provide other places for you to give feedback to us and for diverse voices to contribute to conversation at TheMennonite.org.

There are several ways you can send us feedback and engage this conversation:

After 30 days, we’ll reassess and report back to you publicly what we’ve heard. How did the lack of comments on our website change the experience? What did we miss? What did we gain? What should online comments look like moving forward?

Thanks for engaging with us as we work at the best ways to live into our purpose online.

The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled; readers are encouraged to comment on new articles via The Mennonite’s Facebook page. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review. Comments that were previously approved will still appear on older articles. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments, and comments don’t appear until approved. Read our full Comments Policy before submitting a comment for approval.

19 Responses to “A 30-day comment sabbatical at TheMennonite.org”

  1. M. South says:

    Thanks for the opportunity to speak out for the other side, while that was possible.

    I would make a last comment that the preponderance of articles on The Mennonite website since this past summer has been generally positive towards adoption of the LGBTQI agenda, whereas the promotion and defence of the historical belief perspective is seldom if ever the subject of articles, only occasional and seemingly token at best, mostly in comments. Perhaps this reflects editorial preference, but it’s not balanced as to the situation actually occurring in the church. If only one side is printed in articles, responses that challenge those assumptions will certainly no longer produce any conflict if they are no longer allowed.

    You are right about fear, but mostly from the side of historical belief; I myself was terminated from my own job in a company that employs many church members and refused references. Our own family’s official church membership records were “lost” when some of the pages mysteriously disappeared, and it was asserted we had no right to speak because we weren’t members.

    My experience, and those who’ve contacted us through the website, has been that we are put down, marginalized, called bigots, haters and worse, who have no right to express our opinions during “discernment.” And essentially, shunned and our reputations smeared in the wider community, as activists try to have us fired or boycotted. This from folks that you thought you shared Christian brotherhood with!

    I am sure I can’t imagine what you’ve had to deal with the past few days and the comments you may have rejected that were truly egregious; but you need to realize that a preponderance of articles on certain subjects where there is no agreement, but that take one side only, that call those who continue in the same historical faith to be equivalent or encouraging mass murder are inflammatory in themselves.

    I would rather have the comments allow open questioning, rather than just printing what appears to many of us as one-sided propaganda. If that process is ended, it makes a mockery of freedom of opinion and open discussion during “discernment, ” limiting the voices to one side only.

    I would say wider public social media like Facebook or Twitter, which compile, analyze, distribute and sell content to third parties, are quite dangerous for expression of our views. There is a concerted internet mob mentality that immediately arises to destroy people that are judged as holding unacceptable opinions on there, which routinely engages in doxing and activist pressure to end employment, careers and reputations, and even in some cases, calls for violence that are somehow justified by the “dangerous” and “sexualized violence” of those standing for the orthodox Christian faith.

    In conclusion, again, I appreciated the opportunity to speak for the traditional and historical faith position, if only in comments, while it lasted.

  2. This is classic passive-aggressive behavior. An editor who opens her publication’s pages to polarizing rhetoric shuts down the opportunity for readers to respond because their comments do not “help readers glorify God, grow in faith and become agents of healing and hope in our world.”

    • Valerie S. says:

      Berry – I interpreted this approach as a positive, assertive way to reflect on how we interact with others online. If engaging deeply with the articles with others is important for you over this next month, how could you facilitate such a discussion? Are there others in your area you could invite to an evening conversation, and then feedback how that went vis-á-vis the quality of online conversations?

      • Yes, Valerie, there are other forums where I participate, some face-to-face (such as my congregation) and others via print (my local newspaper, the websites of MCUSA and Mennonite World Review.). Are you saying those are appropriate places to discuss the editorial bias of The Mennonite’s executive editor?

        I have reached out to editor Heinzekehr, TM’s governing board and to the MCUSA Executive about the harm this editor’s judgment is inflicting on our church. I will continue to do that.

        Meanwhile, can we agree that an editor sets the tone for a publication, not the persons who comment on what it written? And can we agree that this editor has opened the pages of TM to views that are hostile to the leadership of MCUSA and to the views of many within its member conferences?

  3. Dave Schroeder says:

    I am NOT one of the 5 individuals who generate the majority of your comments. I am a public school teacher and as a result I am VERY careful what I post online as content or comment. I have seen colleagues lampooned for voicing an opinion someone else disagrees with and have seen them attacked to the point of nearly losing their jobs over an innocuous comment. The very verbal minority who frequently comment online and on social media frequently try to bully anyone who oppose their views into submission. Comments rarely change hearts and minds. I would agree your staff’s time could be put to more constructive use than refereeing the virtual sandbox social media has become. All I would ask is to continue to try to examine issues objectively presenting all facets of the controversy while still representing our Mennonite faith. Your work is greatly appreciated.

  4. David Jost says:

    I sympathize with your decision. It strikes me that comments on Facebook can be a really good way to communicate good arguments to one’s allies and to check one’s own ability to reply to arguments posited by those who disagree, but that on news sites, those advantages are muted since multiple participants can’t participate as effectively in a conversation and comments are usually either 1-off or a long and likely polarizing debate between two people.

    I am occasionally guilty of participating in not-worthwhile comment spats on this site and on Mennoworld, and I see the sense in severing comments (though on Mennoworld there seems to be a bit less of the concentration on a couple commenters that you mention).

    • M. South says:

      It doesn’t seem an improvement, to have to submit to Facebook’s secular corporate agreements and reduce interaction to “friending,” “unfriending” and “likes” and “dislikes.” Nor are short, dumb-downed and truncated “tweets” going to allow either nuance or sophistication, but not much more than sloganeering.

      Everything that could be called negative about the ability to post to articles directly, is likelier amplified on corporate controlled sites which have as their aim monetizing of user content for themselves. What is for sure, is that offering canned Facebook or Twitter as the venue, instead of direct response, will certainly reduce the comments. If they are not considered valuable to the editorial purpose of The Mennonite, that is a viable decision. I will not be getting a personal Facebook or Twitter account, which Facebook and Twitter require to communicate with their The Mennonite sites.

      It’s pretty clear that what’s provoked the new no comments allowed policy has been well argued and reasoned critiques of “progressive” articles. It’s only since that phenomenon recently began that the comments have now been considered a problem. As long as the comments only echoed the radical authors, a kind of “dittos” emulation, there was no problem with them.

      So we are seeing a kind of shutting down of discourse by preferred viewpoint – the articles’ preferred advocacy views will continue to be printed, but the excluded principled discourse that doesn’t always agree, no longer will.

      • Hannah Heinzekehr says:

        M, the hope is not to shut down conversation, but to see if there are ways of having a better conversation. As I mentioned above, this is a 30-day test and anyone, including you, is welcome to submit feedback through any of the above channels, not all of which are on Facebook and Twitter.

        I should also note that comments across an ideological spectrum were problematic and violating our comment policy; not just from any one worldview.

        • M. South says:

          Hannah, I did hear through other sources that there were large numbers of comments that were problematic in their expression, and that my own comments were vehemently opposed to being allowed, but that this opposition was from sources ideologically aligned with the opinions of the article authors that several of us differed with. I was told the crux of the problem faced is that it’s tough to incur the pressure from those we may be sympathetic to when they get out of line; in that case the safest thing to do politically rather than being accused of censoring allies is to just shut it all comments down, as difficult as such a decision must be. It’s a hard place to be, sometimes, to be an editor.

  5. M. South says:

    Moreover, those commenting on Facebook and Twitter should be aware that employers often routinely require access to prospective and current employees’ social media accounts, where their opinions and comments will be vetted. Anything considered controversial will negatively impact employment, income, promotions or could trigger termination. Such consequences occur every day. There is a reason that corporate managers post nothing. As noted by Dave Schroeder, even public employees can have their livelihoods and reputations destroyed, even by innocuous and innocent statements by those anxious or quick to take offense. Such sites can hardly be considered safe spaces where people are free to express themselves openly without fear of retribution on controversial issues important to the church.

  6. Chuck Friesen says:

    I like the idea of a 30 day break.

    Here are ideas that might help us all.  Consider them and other suggestions:

    1.  Only one response per person to an item.  This item already has 4 responses from one person. Far too many!!! We do not need multi-threaded dialogues between 2 people.

    2.  Have a word or character limit to posts.  This will help us focus on what we really want to communicate.  If we “break the rules” on length, state up front that it will NOT be published.  You do not have time to edit our submissions, nor should you!   It is easy for us to do a word count to any contributions we submit!

    3.  Do not post any responses for x (say 4?) days following a post.  (This could help us read the article, collect our thoughts, reread the article, choose our limited words carefully, and then respond.)   Accept responses for x days, close the discussion, and then post ALL of the responses to THE ORIGINAL BLOG, OPINION or ARTICLE.  All of them at once!  These are then original, independent contributions focused upon the published document.   After all we should be responding to the original post and not so much to each other.  I think this would help us focus on the main topic and not wander into personal agendas so much.  This would also keep your readers coming to your site more frequently because there is a timeliness aspect to this.

    I welcome your changes in the future.

    • M. South says:

      One of the problems is that when a comment has been made, it just doesn’t always end there. Instead, someone else decides to address what was said in the comment and either ask questions or assert something new that calls for followup.

      Thus, the conversation itself isn’t any longer between the author, the commenter, and the quiet readership, but among people bringing new ideas to the table that provoke further thought and comment.

      For it to be otherwise, there would have to be a rule that surely would be unenforceable, not to respond to anything a commenter writes about other comments.

      Moving back to the edited and carefully chosen “Letters to the Editor” gatekeeper style of the previous dead tree journalism means abandoning all the positives that Tim N. pointed out for empowerment through a fairly safe space version of Mennonite social media that this has been. Not completely, because I too have been informed by others that it’s just too dangerous to post their thinking on any social media, The Mennonite included. I can understand, as I personally have just been threatened by email with being called out publicly – whatever doxxing that would entail – for what I’ve written here, if I don’t mend my ways appropriate to the correspondent’s agenda.

      What has to be realized, is that if empowerment is truly sought, then it can’t be preordained what viewpoint comments are allowed and which aren’t, unless the purpose is to become advocacy of one side only – which is a possibility, and which some venues legitimately do and state openly.

      The Mennonite, if it is to become that, even if it isn’t explicit, it will become obvious that it is.

  7. Frank Lostaunau says:

    A very significant and insightful decision to shut down! I strongly recommend the length of time be 1 year.

    It seems to be the only way to protect the Menno LBGTQ community from the Mennonites who promote continuous HATRED.

    THANK YOU.

    • M. South says:

      That’s called “no platform” – term those who disagree “haters” who have no right to communicate with others. Convenient when the case being made isn’t sufficient, when effectively challenged, to convince others’ hearts and minds.

  8. Scott Smith says:

    I’m not concerned about a 30-day moratorium on comments to this website. I do, however, regret the current moratorium on resolutions to amend/abolish the Confession of Faith and the Membership Guidelines. As a supporter of these two documents in their present state, I wish the only resolution on this topic presented at Kansas City had been the Just Church Resolution calling for change. Furthermore, I would have no problem with it being proposed at MC USA delegate assemblies until it passes. That would give us a far clearer picture of the state of the denomination than our current situation and would help many of us better understand our future with MC USA.

  9. M. South says:

    I do hope for a moratorium on the sorts of articles for 30 days that blame our church and its leadership for the crimes committed by a person who was completely unaware of Mennonites, our opposition to participating in war and violence, or our history of martyrdom and persecution for opposing and not participating in such violence.

  10. Chris Travers says:

    I am not a Mennonite. I arrived at a controversial page because of outsider discussion. In light of this post I wanted to leave a few comments about civil discussion and controversial issues. I was raised as a Quaker and Quakers have had a long history of deep respect for Mennonites due to a shared pacifist tradition, a shared rejection of secularist consumerist culture and the like. It is my hope that this comment here helps provide some room for discussion on a often heated issue. I also watched this issue sweep through Quakerism and the damage it caused, and so I feel compelled to offer some thoughts.

    One of the things I have always respected about the Mennonites (as with the Quakers) is the willingness to stand on the threshold of society and yet decline to cross that threshold and enter the mainstream. We are now in a position in greater society where those of us (myself included) who believe that family should be an economically productive organization, organized across the generations, can no longer cross that threshold into the mainstream either. I am sure most of you know, following the outcome of Conastoga Wood (consolidated with Hobby Lobby), that the political Left has no respect for the Mennonite community, and that Mennonites are not welcome in the political mainstream so unless you are willing to give up on religion and focus on secularism the mainstream offers you nothing in return for the trendy agendas except the destruction of your own communities.

    This being said, I think it is a mistake to forget that gays, lesbians, transsexuals etc also inhabit such a threshold position in modern society and that in fact the whole rhetorical basis for the gay rights agenda is that “they” are “fundamentally other” and therefore must have equal rights. Modern society has effectively come to argue this issue in terms of an ontological distinction between a birth defect and willful bad behavior.

    That exclusion I think means that such communities may also develop larger social critiques that are sometimes worth listening to. Engagement at arms length is not a bad thing and a fundamental larger question is how does a just community relate to those on the threshold?

    These aren’t easy questions and those who see them as easy have a potential to cause a lot of harm in the world. For this reason there is one group that really should not be listened to, namely the hordes of straight “allies” who have picked this up as a cause of the day, and who, because they lack an experience of being on the threshold, held at arms length by society, lack any capability of nuance on this topic.

    • M. South says:

      Ryan, as I’ve posted elsewhere, my own experience on the threshold has informed my own nuanced stance, but which is still within the precedent of all of two thousand years of Christian teaching. You point to lack of experience contributing to proper understanding, that occurs when the inexperienced accept statements of propaganda vigorously and personally expressed, complete with emotional appeals, without the verification of experience. In my own case I have had that personal experience, before salvation. It is in my opinion, unfortunate, and destructive to any genuine discernment, when the emotional vehemence of asserted victimhood succeeds in shutting down a dialog which some fear as counterproductive to their agenda.

  11. The Mennonite says:

    Test comment from Hannah.

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