Discourse Norms: Justify or Retract Accusations

One dis­course norm that I think is re­ally im­por­tant is that of hav­ing to ei­ther sup­port or re­tract ac­cu­sa­tions if challenged. If you say some­thing nega­tive about an­other per­son, their work, etc. and they ask you to ex­plain your­self, I be­lieve you are com­pel­led to ei­ther jus­tify or re­tract your state­ment. This cre­ates a strong bar­rier against un­jus­tified at­tacks and gos­sip, while still al­low­ing jus­tified crit­i­cism.

Here are some ex­am­ples of what this norm might look like in ac­tion:

1. Alice posts about her thoughts on an is­sue; Bob, who dis­likes Alice, re­sponds with snarky in­sults about Alice’s mo­ti­va­tions. Alice asks Bob to ex­plain his ac­cu­sa­tions, and he doesn’t do so or replies with more in­sults. Moder­a­tion in­ter­venes against Bob.

2. Carol posts a brief com­ment say­ing a pro­ject is in­com­pe­tent. Dar­ryl replies ask­ing her to provide more de­tail or re­tract. Carol links to a post that ex­plains her cri­tique in more de­tail.

3. Efren posts a state­ment crit­i­ciz­ing an event that will soon be held. Faye asks Efren to back up his crit­i­cisms. Efren de­cides that his claim was ac­tu­ally more emo­tional and less grounded than he first thought, so he de­cides to re­tract his origi­nal state­ment.

Now, some­one might ask “why try to make it more difficult to be crit­i­cal of some­thing?” The an­swer is that mak­ing fun of things is easy [1], and in gen­eral norms on­line of­ten trend too much in the di­rec­tion of low-con­tent mock­ery rather than rea­soned de­bate. Hold­ing norms that re­quire peo­ple to back up or re­tract con­tro­ver­sial state­ments can be a good step away from that failure mode.

[1] Full dis­clo­sure: I wrote the linked post un­der my old user­name.