There are two threads of discussion that I want to focus on, because I'm intrigued by their symmetry:
On the one hand, the FDL front-pagers and loyalists argue that Tom and the FDL dissenters' pleas for them to use less sexually offensive language are part of, or of a piece with, the establishment's desire to use the club of "civility" to neuter them of their rebellious, subversive, sometimes even transgressive passion and anger.
On the other hand (and this is not a counterargument to the first hand, merely a different hand pointing in roughly the opposite direction), the FDL dissenters argue that the FDL community, led by the front-pagers, brutally suppresses dissenting opinions with derision, abuse, and outright censorship. (Full disclosure: I made some comments on FDL which put me closer to this camp, although they're not as strongly-worded as my composite summary here.
UPDATE: I may have not been entirely clear. I meant that I was closer to the dissenter camp in this debate, not one of the dissent-suppressing loyalists. Which is not to say that I never piled on or accused someone of trolling. I did, but hopefully not very savagely or often.)
So, in other words, each side of the debate believes that their right to express themselves is under attack by a more powerful adversary who finds them threatening. I'm wondering if this is simply human nature, or if it's an insecurity inherent to the progressive internets. The Republicans and the corporate media have tried to marginalize and demonize liberal bloggers for at least two or three years now, so we're all a little hypersensitive.
The thing is - and this is why I'm more sympathetic to the dissenters - the power that the FDL front-pagers, moderators, and loyalists have over other commenters is far more immediate. Most non-trolls want to fit in. They want to be accepted by the community, so an attack by a front-pager speaking in The Voice Of God (whether they mean to or not, as Pach has realized, and Jane is coming around to), or by a bunch of regulars, can be a very chilling prospect. The end result is that many of the less thick-skinned commenters, myself included, will either self-censor to avoid another('s) beatdown, and/or become increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed by the disagreements that escalate into screaming matches, until they finally just leave the room. Granted, the latter is not exactly a direct result of intimidation, but it is an indirect and undesirable outcome.
The corporate media and political establishment's power over the blogosphere is similar, in the sense that it can only pressure and not compel, but it is also more tenuous. I really don't think there are very many liberal bloggers who give a rat's ass about whether the media or politicians like them - quite the contrary. But while they may not crave approval, I believe that many do crave credibility, which the establishment is loathe to bestow upon Dirty Unwashed Hippie Bloggers. This allows them to be manipulated with the Carrot Of Civility: the media myth that the only reason no-one takes liberal bloggers seriously is that they use bad words and say mean things, and if they just behave themselves they will attain respectability. I could probably count the number of liberal bloggers this has worked out for on my nose... if I had tertiary syphilis.
Jane, to her credit, sees right through this bullshit, and has pledged never to jump through civility hoops for The Man. I absolutely have no problem with that philosophy, and I say Rock on, sister. Where it gets a little dicey is when Jane and her loyalists project this onto their commenters who take offense to some of the stronger language (or imagery), and treat them as agents of that hostile establishment. They are not. Sure, some of the criticism comes from opportunistic trolls, but most of it comes from regular commenters who, for example, find the "c-word" offensive. But they are friends, speaking on their own behalf, expressing their own personal feelings, and they deserve more respectful treatment than, say, Deborah Howell or Mark Halperin. And with that in mind, viewing honest criticism from a lowly commenter as a form of oppression to be vehemently opposed simply does not make sense. [Warning: Unsolicited advice follows. You may wish to avert your eyes.] Far better to direct the justifiable rage where it belongs, while listening to and nurturing the community of commenters. If a large number of commenters (and some front-pagers, for that matter) are uncomfortable with the c-word, it's okay to retire it. Really. It doesn't mean the bad guys won and you lost. It just means FDL is more welcoming to the people who love it, and that's a net positive.
Yes, you can take this too far and end up declawing yourself, but I think it is possible to weigh a word's utility against its unpopularity or offensiveness. The c-word is very offensive to many people, and it doesn't really convey much beyond hostility. "Whore", on the other hand, does not provoke the same level of visceral reaction in most people, and it conveys an image of someone who has chosen money and power over principle. I would hate to see "whore" go away; it encapsulates the essence of the Republican party and all its enablers, including the Democratic ones. But I would venture to say that there are very few thoughts which are effectively illuminated by the c-word.
But this is veering into an entirely different debate, the one about what language is acceptable and what language should be tossed overboard. There was a lot of juicy, interesting discussion about this, but I don't think I'm qualified to add much to it, so I'm just going to leave that side of it alone and mumble about imbalance of power. I've probably made a big enough fool of myself as it is.