Ostracism and EbL

The launch of Jeff Miller’s Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens was marked with discussion threads on academia.edu and Equality by Lot (EbL). Whilst the debate on the former was (on the whole) polite and informative, the latter quickly degenerated into claims that the author was “mistaken”, “confused” and “self-contradictory”, before going off on a tangent. Although EbL (launched in 2009) was the first blog dedicated to sortition, we are currently languishing on the ninth page of a Google search for the term and are struggling to find new posters, commentators and readers (of the 8,423 “followers”, most are on twitter and very few have signed up to the WordPress site). We clearly need to take a long hard look at why this blog is, frankly, a catastrophic failure.

EbL was launched on 14 December 2009 by Conall Boyle, Peter Stone and Yoram Gat, the blog being intended for

  • Academic papers, especially in draft, pre-published form for discussion.
  • ‘Think-pieces’ by group members, preferably which have been published elsewhere.
  • News items about the use of randomness (lottery) in both governance and distribution

But there was also another (paranthetical) goal, namely a “a ‘shop-window’ for our ideas”, which has increasingly been viewed as a consciousness-raising opportunity for sortition activists to encourage the masses to revolt against “electoralism” (which is denied any democratic provenance). This is compounded by an antipathy to academic expertise as just another example of “elitism”, even when the sub-discipline (democratic theory) is of direct relevance. This being the case, most academics (including two of the aforementioned founders) have little or no truck with EbL. What makes matters worse is that differences of opinion have degenerated into vituperative personal attacks, and this is extremely off-putting for new participants.

However, the interpersonal unpleasantness is a consequence of two divergent perspectives on the blog. For my side, I’m all for the three original bullet points but worry that the blog has become a consciousness-raising vehicle. This is particularly problematic when combined with eccentric definitions of democracy and sustained attacks on academic and other forms of expertise.

How should we fix this problem? One of the chapters of Jeff’s book calls for a reintroduction of ostracism, to protect the polis against domination, and I propose that we adopt this policy for the internal problems of EbL. Members of the blog might choose to indicate (by appending a comment to this post) who they wish to ostracise and the “winner” would be (morally) obliged to leave. No anonymous votes will be accepted and a minimum of (say) ten votes would be required for the ostracism to be put into practice — this should ensure that at least 10% of the core (WordPress) participants would be included in the vote.

Although I have spent hundreds of hours posting and commenting on this blog over the last ten years, I would leave if I was selected for ostracism, although it would cause me considerable personal grief. But sortition is vitally important to me and I don’t want to participate any longer in a forum that is bringing it into disrepute. If anyone else came to the top of the poll, whether they chose to honour the decision of their peers (or disparage it as “electoralism”) would be up to them.

27 Responses

  1. Hi Keith

    I haven’t been around on this blog for a while for precisely the reasons you describe above, I dropped in today after reading the headline on the WordPress generated email.

    I have observed with pain and sadness some of the conflicts that took place in the comments threads and posts on this site over the years, pitching you and Yoram against one another. I tried but failed to moderate things in my tiny way, possibly in too low-key a manner to be effective. I then withdrew from all engagement because the amount of time and effort involved didn’t seem worth it.

    I’m not that excited by ostracism so would not vote for either of you to be ostracised, not least because to do so would be to take sides, which I don’t see as being useful in this instance.

    It is in the nature of blogs to run their course and to be superseded by other fora or media in their turn – perhaps that is the lot (no pun intended) of this one.

    For you and Yoram, I am truly fond of you both, despite never having met either of you, and admire the intellectual and emotional engagement of you both in trying to improve the quality of our common political structures. This quality of sustained service to others is rare enough, one to be treasured. It’s sad that your sustained clashed has undermined your respective efforts – for yourselves and others.

    I’d humbly point you towards a peace-generating practice that I’ve used quite a lot in both my personal and local community life – inspired by the engaged buddhism of the Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. You can read about it here – https://plumvillage.org/articles/begin-anew/

    I won’t spell it out to you – or offer to moderate it on your respective behalfs – I’ll leave it up to you two to do with it as you will.

    I wish you both all good fortune and success in your respective efforts in this field – with or without EbL.

    All the best.



    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for that Patrick. Unfortunately the personal attacks are symptomatic of an underlying disagreement as to the purpose of this blog — the three bullet points are at odds with the “shop window for our ideas”. The former involves nothing more than an open enquiry into the democratic potential of sortition, whereas the latter supposes some sort of party line — somebody has to decide what to put on display in the shop window, especially if the sub-text is the need for consciousness raising in the masses. When someone new comes to this blog they receive a warm welcome, but followed by increasingly strident criticism if their perspective fails to adhere to the party line (based on an eccentric definition of democracy, and the in-principle claim that preference elections has no part at all to play). So I think we need to decide what the purpose of EbL is and that will involve personnel changes. This deeply saddens me, as both Yoram and myself have put enormous effort into this blog for many years.


  3. Patrick,

    That’s a wise and magnanimous comment. I’m a newcomer here and not full witness to the long running conflict, but it does trouble me.

    For my part, I repudiate this attempt at ostracism and promise to continue to interact with the target, whoever they might be.


  4. A better solution

    The problem is not in the posts, but in the endless back and forth between a handful of us in the COMMENTS that often stray far away from the original post and into oft-repeated disagreements. To be clear, I am fully guilty of this, though I think I successfully avoid personalizing. Keith, in particular, seems to feel the need to have the last word in any debate and sometimes submits a majority of the entire list of comments to posts.

    My proposal is that a committee of volunteers rotate an editing task, and that no commenter be allowed to make more than 25% of the comments following any post. Further that the editors have discretion to decide if, and assure that, the comments relate to the material in the initial post rather than a tangent between a couple or a few commenters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Terry, but it’s not just a question of frequency of posting. I’m more worried about new participants on the blog who are challenged because their work on sortition does not fit into a model that precludes election as a democratic mechanism as a matter of principle. This puts us beyond the pale with the democratic theory community, so I don’t want to remain part of a forum that takes such a line.


  6. As an illustration, when Peter Stone, Dimitri Courant, Brett Hennig and myself presented at the Political Studies Association meeting in Glasgow a few years ago, the majority of participants concluded that Brett (author of The End of Politicians) was completely bonkers. Yet the moderator of this blog views political science and philosophy as an elitist discourse that fails to reflect the interests of “the masses” — I just don’t want to be associated with that any longer.


  7. I like Terry’s idea. I have been on the receiving end of a great many bombastic posts from Yoram, including some ad hominem attacks from him. I’ve tried to respond forcefully but respectfully, though I’m sure I’ve missed the mark a few times.

    I don’t think ostracism is the solution. I like Terry’s suggestion. I also think we should consider turning off the comments altogether. Let it be a dialogue of full posts. If what you have to say doesn’t merit a full article, then maybe it’s not worth saying.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I like Alex’s suggestion, but I still think we need to decide whether this forum is intended as investigative or the proselytising arm of the “sortition movement”. The trouble with the latter is that there is no agreement what that should look like, as we are in the pre-paradigm state, and that generally requires discussion to progress it.


  9. As always, here too Sutherland manages to squeeze a lot of falsehoods and absurdities into a short text. It would be a heroic effort to attempt to refute them all, but here are some points about his text and the comments:

    1. This proposal by Sutherland is typical of his authoritarian mindset, seeking to muzzle people with disagreeable opinions – and especially those who do not show enough deference to established authority (such as those with “academic expertise”).

    2. Just as one sample of Sutherland’s carelessness with the truth, contrary to Sutherland’s claim the comments thread Sutherland is pointing to does not contain the claim that Jeff Miller is “confused”. (It does contain the claim that the terminology that Miller is using “creates confusion”, which is a very different claim.)

    3. More generally, the notion – implied by Sutherland’s complaints about the critique made to Miller’s ideas – that contradiction or intellectual conflict is a problem for a discussion forum is of course silly. It is quite the opposite. A forum where anything goes is much less valuable than a forum where ideas are critiqued substantively but vigorously.

    4. Sutherland’s assertion that EbL is a “catastrophic failure” is of course silly as well, since he does not make it clear what his criteria for success are, much less why these criteria should be used. Such off-handed dismissal of this forum is of course disrespectful to all those who read it or contribute to it, but is in fact typical of Sutherland’s obnoxious style. Indeed, it is Sutherland that is the main source of offensive, non-substantive comments on this blog.

    5. While, of course, muzzling is unacceptable, I am in favor of preventing loudmouths from taking disproportional space on this blog. (Again, Sutherland is the prime example – insisting, for example, on inserting himself into conversations where he is clearly not addressed.) If there is a workable mechanism for doing that and if there is wide agreement that it should be used, I’d support that.

    6. By now I am not surprised, but I am still disappointed, that many commenters still try to take “a neutral stance” regarding Sutherland and his supposed feud with me, pretending there is some sort of a symmetry in this situation. In fact, no such symmetry exists. Even if we ignore Sutherland’s incessant lying (as demonstrated above), it is an easily verifiable fact that in the large majority of cases I ignore Sutherland comments while he insists on responding to my comments (which are addressed to others). Thus, there is no feud between us. There is an aggressive obsession on Sutherland’s part. The fact that this simple truth is ignored or even implicitly denied by many of the commenters is not to their credit.

    7. Alex Kovner: Your claim that “I have been on the receiving end of a great many bombastic posts from Yoram, including some ad hominem attacks from him” is baseless. Either substantiate it or retract it and apologize.


  10. (The notion of turning comments off is also of course authoritarian and laughable. Anyone who is unhappy with the fact that on EbL people can say what they want in posts and in comments would have to remain unhappy – this is not going to change. There is enough censorship in our society as it is – this is a democratic forum.)


  11. I went back and read the comments under the Democracy and Crisis post, thinking i might have missed something. And to be honest, I really don’t see what Yoram’s transgression is supposed to have been.

    Keith, you say the conversation degenerated in the comments. What actually happened was that Jeff posted some of his thoughts in the comments, Yoram welcomed him and offered some criticisms (using some of the words you count as degeneration.) Then Jeff answered some of those criticisms, and Yoram replied. This is the free and open exchange of ideas we’d want from academic discourse. There were no insults on either side. It was considerably more polite than many of your comments recently (and many of mine! I can’t claim to be above it all).

    So what is the problem here? Was Jeff offended by the criticism or tone? This is not a rhetorical question. You’ve spoken to him after the fact, it seems. If he has, if there’s clear evidence that someone has been driven away, then maybe there is something that needs to be addressed — but it’s much better done openly than by trying to drive a commenter away.

    You’ve said before you’re worried about potential new readers being put off because of arguments. Consider the perspective of someone new coming to the blog to skim right now. What would they see in the top four posts? A post by you talking about “vituperative personal attacks”; a post by Yoram about a presentation on sortition; another post by Yoram talking about sortition in Vox; another post by you talking about an “mudslinging” in the comments. Which of these four posts are most likely to repel someone who just wants to learn about sortition?

    As a relative newcomer here, I’d much rather talk about sortition in particular and democracy in general. It’s already got me thinking and helped me clarify some of my own thoughts on the matter. And yet lately, so many of the discussions have been unpleasant accusations about personal conduct. They absorb time and effort that would be better put to talking about ideas. And all of them have involved you.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Yoram:> “7. Alex Kovner: Your claim that “I have been on the receiving end of a great many bombastic posts from Yoram, including some ad hominem attacks from him” is baseless. Either substantiate it or retract it and apologize.”

    You said in a previous comment, ‘The “Sutherland-Kovner camp” is committed to authoritarianism…’

    This is a direct attack on me. You could have claimed that our ideas will lead to authoritarianism, and then argued the case. Instead you chose to condemn me and Keith as people.

    I got into this pursuit because I loathe authoritarianism with every fiber of my being, as I am sure everyone else on this site does. Donald Trump’s election shocked me, and I came to understand how dangerous the terrible US constitution really is. My whole thought process is about how to eliminate authoritarianism from our political structures. No matter how much you disagree with my approach, that is my goal and my guiding principle.

    Just talk about the ideas.


  13. Yoram:> “(The notion of turning comments off is also of course authoritarian…”

    This site isn’t a government. We are a self-selected group that chooses how to interact.


  14. Yoram’s latest diatribe has disabused me of any hope that the appeals for moderation might prevail, so I hereby cast my ostracon into the sorting hat (blockquotes used in the forlorn hope that anyone might notice this in the sea of verbiage):

    I nominate Yoram Gat for ostracism from EbL

    I would encourage others to cast their own ὄστρακα, but if nobody bothers then will drink my cup of hemlock in a couple of days time.


  15. Alex,

    > You said in a previous comment, ‘The “Sutherland-Kovner camp” is committed to authoritarianism…’
    > This is a direct attack on me

    “Authoritarian” is merely a factual description of the proposals you are making. If you think it is wrong, that’s fine (there are many assertions made on this blog about my positions that I believe are wrong) but it is not “an attack”.

    In any case, even if such a substantive description could be construed as being “an attack”, this single adjective is clearly a far cry from the “great many bombastic posts” which you claim I have directed toward you. I actually went back to your posts and found, unsurprisingly, that I rarely responded to them. In fact, there was, as far as I could find, exactly one prolonged exchange between us (5 comments by me).

    It seems the bombast if all on your side.


  16. I am shocked, shocked to discover that Sutherland wishes to muzzle me. Who would have thought?! Such a nice and learned man!

    To make things explicit: I have no intention to stop posting or commenting. All those who feel that under such circumstance they do not want to be associated with this site are welcome to draw their own conclusions.


  17. Yoram:> “Authoritarian” is merely a factual description…

    You didn’t characterize my proposals as authoritarian. You characterized me (and Keith) as authoritarian. That’s a personal attack.

    Also, it is your opinion that my proposals are authoritarian, it is not a fact. ‘Bombastic’ is a matter of opinion as well, but in my opinion, characterizing one’s opinions as fact is bombastic.


  18. Keith:> I nominate Yoram Gat for ostracism from EbL

    You’re a good friend, Keith, but I’m going to leave the broken pottery on the soil of 4th century Attica where it belongs. But please stay away from hemlock.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Alex,

    Afraid my EbL suicide looks as inevitable as that of Socrates — an appropriate parallel, seeing as we have both been caricatured as opponents of democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Keith:> Afraid my EbL suicide looks as inevitable as that of Socrates — an appropriate parallel, seeing as we have both been caricatured as opponents of democracy.

    But not corrupter of the youth! You can hold your head high on that score.


  21. Hmm, not sure, you once asked me if I had murdered Yoram’s kids (as you were so shocked by his vitriol), although I think it was a rhetorical question.


  22. Sweet Jeebs! Who needs The Real Housewives when we have front-row seats to this self-induced meltdown of a train-wreck? Not gonna lie…this is freaking hilarious :-) How do you think this shit looks to those on the outside who are genuinely curious about sortition? You look and sound like fucking children. And you expect anyone to take your ideas seriously? I cannot help but wonder: would you behave this way if you were selected for an assembly? Or would you bother to conduct yourselves with some modicum of maturity? Some semblance of sanity? #DrinkTheGoddamnHemlockOrKindlyShutTheFuckUp


  23. Absolutely. I’ve been trying to reform this blog for a long time, and have now given it up as a lost cause. I guess that puts me in the same place as Dominic Cummings


  24. King Mob:> #DrinkTheGoddamnHemlockOrKindlyShutTheFuckUp

    It’s with a heavy heart that, after hundreds of hours of posting and commenting, I have to say goodbye to this blog. I submitted a valedictory post to the site moderator (Yoram Gat), but he has censored it. I’m going to miss my exchanges with members of this blog — especially Terry Bouricius, John Burnheim, Yoram Gat (sic), Nick Gruen, Hubertus Hofkirchner, Oliver Milne, Paul Nollen, Andre Sauzeau, Ahmed Teleb, Simon Threlkeld and many others over the years — from whom I’ve learned a great deal. I would like to say I wish you all well, but my view is that the 1970s student politics style of this blog is causing immense damage to the sortition movement, so I will be relieved to see it slip further and further down the google rankings on the way to total oblivion.

    The irony of course is that, absent the despised electoral method (or ostracism), there is no way for members to hold the moderator to account. If the shenanigans on this blog are anything to go by, a full-mandate voluntary sortition body (without external constraints) would quickly degenerate into domination by charismatic orators and mud-slinging between opposing factions.


  25. Well it’s sad that certain people conform to the stereotype of political activists as those preoccupied with reforming the world because they haven’t got their own house in order. It seems obvious to me that the style of internal discussion among us should try to err on the side of generosity towards others and even where there is genuine dislike, not endlessly scratch the itch. Alas some people on this site are obviously not up to that standard.

    Because I don’t much like being vague about such things, I’ve certainly witnessed Keith transgressing against that standard and now Yoram does so egregiously here. And both have plenty to offer.

    Yoram, I’ve had dealings with Alex K and he’s been fine. I suggest you put less effort into proving that you’ve been right all along and a little more into acknowledging where you have been intemperate.

    Natural language is such that it is usually possible to find some way of asserting one’s own rightness even when one has plenty to feel bad about — often one does it precisely because of that fact.


  26. Fair call Nick.


  27. It’s very easy for people who believe in something passionately to mistake a comparable passion in their intellectual opponents for moral or character flaws. But my principal concern is what the purpose of this blog is — an open discussion regarding the political potential of sortition (broadly conceived) or an exercise in consciousness raising aimed at a mass audience. It’s because I don’t think the two goals are compatible that I’m withdrawing.


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