beauty and ethics (part 3)

What Would Miss Manners Do?

Back to one of those rules, about posting on boards: the “off topic”

What happens on MUA is a case study in the limits of free speech. What counts as “off topic” is related to the ban on discussing religion, politics, etc. Here’s why. And why it can be a problem. On the Skin Care Board, many questions are more or less of the form

Is [product X] good?

Does [X] work?

So an on-topic answer would answer it: yes/no, yes but no but. Often, this includes requesting futher information: what do you want to use it for (oooh er anti-chafing gel…), what are you using currently, what kind of skin do you have, and what sorts of products do you usually use, like, prefer. For whatever reason. Now, that “for whatever reason” can be where things go off topic.

The main and most obvious way a board post can go off topic is, as in Q&A-sessions and discussion in other arenas, tied to the questioner’s and answerer’s intentions. A question may be loaded: not a simple request for information, but an open question that attempts to trigger discussion (ex. the regular polls, “what are you using right now?”) or a cheeky question (can be good, if interpreted openly) or a question that’s intended to incite, in a destructive manner. The less smart kind will immediately break MUA rules (and, depending on how controversial the statement, any of those old-fashioned rules of common decency and suchlike). The smarter sort acts as a red rag to a bull, to trap other members into getting their responses flagged up as inappropriate (and deleted). How the flagging process works:

  • not all MUAers have flagging powers. (This is partly so that a troll can’t have their account deleted, return under a new name, go around flagging, get deleted again, and so on–perhaps even several times a day…)
  • if a comment is flagged a certain number of times, it will be deleted “by the MUA community” (though the moderators have a hand in it).
  • if a member has their posts thus flagged a certain number of times (and I have no idea what the process is, though I assume there is one. If there isn’t, or it’s sketchy, do leave a comment…) their account will be deleted.

It looks to me as though the deletion rules aren’t any more clear-cut than that, precisely so as to permit flexibility, benefits of the doubt, leniency, and so on. (In an ideal world, with good moderators, when it works, etc., etc.)

The other sort of “off topic” slips into banned topics of religion and politics. If someone asks “is X good? does it work?” and they receive an answer that might or might not answer their original question, but starts out with WWJD / decent women don’t wear makeup / you should shave your hair off and wear a wig/headscarf / etc.–that’s both irrelevant and talking about religion or politics. Doubly rule-breaking. Doing this every time, keeping on hammering/yammering on about it, may count in other circles as preaching, proselytising, missionary activity. But it doesn’t for good discussion make–not in those other circles either–and it’s not exactly a very effective conversion-tool. It’ll work, sure, for preying on the weak, easily led, stupid, deluded. But it won’t work in actual reasoned discussion. The best it will do with rational people is annoy them. Also, on a non-religious (or political) site, IT’S TROLLING. OK, call it troll-lite, rather than fully-fledged:

Q: What is a troll and what to do when you spot one?

A: A troll is basically one who posts messages intended to insult and provoke. For each person who responds, the poster (the troll as a person) will consider that person 5 easy rules: (1) Don’t read posts from or about trolls; (2) Don’t read email from or about trolls; (3) If you can’t resist reading, don’t respond; (4) If you can’t resist responding, do so by email, not by posting on a public forum; (5) If you are compelled to post a response, if you just can’t stop yourself, at least do the rest of the readers the favor of adding the troll’s nick to the subject line, so they can avoid reading that post.

But where do ethics fit in? We can talk about aesthetics, and individual taste. That involves judgement. But we can’t talk about other matters of choice and judgement: ethical especially, also–indeed–political and religious. Why’s that? The best rule would surely be: “act politely and responsibly.” Or: “Discretion is the better part of valour.” Or what the rules already say:

Please use common sense and good taste when posting.

It’s less a matter of “right” to free speech than it is one of “responsibility” for what one says. If all members could be trusted to behave responsibly–saying the right thing at the right time, avoiding saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, behaving like what I like to call CIVILIZED ADULTS IN POLITE SOCIETY. The same “polite” as in polis and “politics.” There’s no avoiding politics: as soon as you are dealing with groups of individuals–groups of three or more–you’re talking a society, a community, a political entity. And the rules of engagement and conduct, theoretical abstraction about how the thing works, why, and so on–that’s politics.

So my main criticism is: barring “politics” from MUA discussion is a mistake. It shows ignorance or misunderstanding of what “politics” and a “community” are.

But, heck, that’s just theory.


Back in the real virtual world, let’s put principles to one side for the minute. Let’s try to be practical and pragmatic.

As it is, I realised recently (d’oh, you might well say) that I am often guilty of the same sort of misbehaviour on boards. I’ll often start a reply with a variation on “buy ethically / intelligently” and/or “what you’re using / considering buying is wrong (unethical, stupid).” Usually a somewhat more tactful variation. On the Green and Café boards, the only parts of MUA where ethical discussion actually takes place, the rules are somewhat different. Phew–thank goodness for some safe havens. I like the Green one, more freedom of movement, let your hippy-dippy hair down, be Bolshie. Anyway: starting out responses that way would irritate people. Even if tiptoeing around. And, damn it, it counts as trolling.

Yes, I may be right. Any other intelligent right-thinking person might think so too. That’s not the issue here. It would only be the issue if the original question had been “is X ethical?” or “do you think I’m acting ethically here?” Answering anything else is not answering the question. It’s irrelevant. Rightness or wrongness of superfluous statements has no bearing on their relevance. Further: keeping on doggedly answering that way is the exact same sort of repetitive irritating behaviour as religious, political, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or any other sort of trolling. They all think they’re right too. The same goes for constantly touting your favourite product: mineral oil, Crème de la Mer, retinal, AHA, BHA, glycolic acid, mandelic acid; my cleanser, the multi-purpose oil, certain sunscreens. We’re all trolling: it’s not the idea at stake, nor its value or virtue, that makes one thing trolling and another thing not. It’s the behaviour. 

That behaviour: part of it is style, presentation, rhetoric. The same thing can be said in more than one way. And produce quite different responses. So I’m changing my own policy on how I answer posts.

1. I will ingore even more than usual. That’s going to include people asking questions that would be answered by doing a board search, i.e. lazy people who can’t be arsed doing their own damn research.

2. If something annoys me, especially if it’s rankly ignorant, stupid, selfish, etc.–then I’ll rant about it on here (see previous item for an example). Not on MUA. That’s not what the boards are for.

3. If and when I do comment on boards, I’ll no longer start off the post with the irrelevant ethical stuff, legal-style. It’ll go into caveats, provisos, footnotes, other apparatus. At the very end. Come to think of it, I might just link to the relevant section on my MUA notepad–simple solution.

Adopting a new pose: the elegant faux-fur shrug is warmer and more protective than lacy versions; also better at retaining hot air, for the mutual benefit of all.

Image at top: Best Hand Knitting


  1. mej5s

    Love the trilogy of beauty and ethics but there is one reaction that is not accounted for directly (and the one that ultimately lead to my harassment and subsequent departure from the boards) and that would be the phenomenon of the “M ou Madame Je-sais-tout” Although rarely the intent of the poster, some members of the esteemed (and I say that very lightly) community decide that those with a surplus of relevant knowledge are clearly only sharing said knowledge for the purposes of self-aggrandizement or to somehow perpetuate annoyance. I naturally find this perception on behalf of those parties to be a) illogical b) erroneous and c) non-productive but aha!….b) erroneous is based purely on opinion, in this case, mine.

    Any community that allows the persecution and vilification of sources of knowledge will rapidly experience an exodus of its smarter members or a curtailing of participation by these members which begets (again, in my opinion) a degraded level of dialogue.

    Fact without opinion, esp when speaking of a topic like skincare where science meets vanity, provides an incomplete picture of a product.

    • gingerama

      ITA. Massive problems:

      1. the inability to distinguish
      knowing something and wanting to share it with others–virtuous, philanthropic–
      knowing something and showing off

      2. assumptions that knowing something and saying so
      = showing off
      = an expression of superior power-position compared to another
      = complete misinterpretation of what that whole “knowledge is power” business was *actually* about (Bacon, et al…)

      3. the assumption that someone knows stuff because their parents were rich and paid for them to have a better education. Therefore knowing something signals elitism. Yes, this may be true in parts of the world; but it’s not universally true.
      Nor is it necessarily true.
      (a) One of my grandfathers left school at 14 to go out and work. He spent much of his spare time in libraries and going to free public lectures. By today’s standards, over the course of his life he’d educated himself to at least BA-level (and often MA-level) in getting on for a dozen subjects. He also learned how to use computers in his 80s (and not just how to click “send”: was starting to get into programming when he died…).
      (b) All of my education has been free: grants, scholarships, fellowships all the way through to end of PhD. (Not all of them at all times: no kindergarten fellowships. Alas. Maybe being a “fellow” when a small child is taken for granted?). Wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

      4. a broader social problem: poor education. In a just world, there would be equal access to good education for all.

      5. the conjunction of socio-economic + educational divides leading to ignorance, fear and loathing of the educated (and intelligent–the two don’t always go together…), an anti-intellectual culture: best seen in anti-science and in scientific illiteracy (and parts of the first world, heaven help us, where science is only taught in schools as one alternative option). But also on plain common sense, critical thinking, and reasoning. Which anyone can do. It doesn’t involve learning stuff off by heart. Just applying brain. But this is where we get an inability to distinguish fact from opinion, belief, etc.

      6. there’s a further distinction: argument =/= opinion, feeling, etc. Arguments–that is: the expression of ideas in statements, propositions–are governed by rules of logic. They are true or not true. They are the other absolute source of truth (besides from facts; belief falls outside this system, as even a Catholic theologian who’s a classic on the topic like Aquinas will say). Statements that are not thus true/not true (putting predicate logic to one side for the moment…) fall outside the arena of rational thought and its expression.
      So your “erroneous” isn’t opinion and thus irrelevant. Error, in this context, is relevant as part of the whole argumentative, reasoning process.

      7. Unless it’s actually referred to in the question, I’m not mentioning other criteria, apart from having a standard caveat at the end of every response: YMMV + your choice (see NP for mine). I’m going to be absolutely flat-footed and literal in playing by the rules. I shall, of course, see where and how they can be bent and their limits pushed. It would all be a bit boring not to do so…

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