What should we do about hectoring?

A flurry of hectoring[1] comments has appeared both on the main ELU site and also here on ELU’s meta. I seek clarification on the following questions three:

  1. What is the SE policy — and in particular, our own moderators’ collective position — on hectoring?
  2. How should normal users respond to hectoring?
  3. At what point does hectoring merit moderatorial intervention befitting any other persistent troll?

Please understand that I am not referring to long comment chains in which many different posters keep going back and forth as though this were a conversation in some forum or chatroom. For those cases, an obvious solution exists: move the comment chain to a chat room where it belonged in the first place.

Rather, I am talking about what to do when some user acts as though it were their God-given right and point of personal privilege to hector and harangue every user in sight about anything even vaguely tangential to their posting.

This not only creates unbalanced comment chains, it makes it feel like specific posters are being picked on by a bully who just won’t move on. Whether one calls this anti-social behavior targeting, bothering, badgering, haranguing, pestering, or hectoring, it still smells as foul.

For example:

Notice how unbalanced those all are. Further examples are easily demonstrated.

However, sheer numbers aren’t the main problem. Rather, it is the hectoring tone and tenor of these insistent comments. They are prickly demands for personal responses as though the persistent hectorer were somehow entitled to such. But no such entitlement exists on any SE site, whether ELU or elsewhere.

It’s like coming into a chat room and intentionally pinging everybody you find there, trying to pry an answer from each and every one of them by pestering them until they give in. This is a breach of etiquette and of common sense.

Now and then — and more often of late — one finds comments on the main site which have the chutzpah to “demand” a reason for a down vote or a close vote. Some of these questions I can understand, but many others are at best borderline rude. No one “deserves” anything, and to keep forever pushing and poking for an answer is no longer commentary: this is abuse.

New users coming to this side are at risk for believing that abusive behavior is tolerated here. Repeatedly aggressive behavior comes off as rude, and it makes this look like an unfriendly place. And that’s just the new visitors. The worst thing is that it makes the users targeted by this hectoring uncomfortable: just read their responses, especially their valedictory ones.

At best, this is non-constructive hectoring picking on individual users, singling them out with unrelenting demands for undeserved explanations. This makes those singled-out users feel bad.

At worst, it is trolling whose only intent is to bully individual users into pointless argument and debate. Like any other troll behavior, i’s a waste. It seeks to unjustly bully every possible user to justify each and every possible nuanced reason behind each and every action that user has taken or failed to take.

As can be read in the final comments from not a few users who have been picked on in this way, they have had enough of it. This unrelenting and irrepentant hectoring creates a negative environment that detracts from the site. It draws us down and makes us look bad; in some cases, it may even drive others away.

I would like to know what the policy is regarding this type of behavior so that appropriate action can be taken and hapless users not driven away.


What should we as regular users do with these hectoring comments?

  1. Should we just stop answering the hectoring bully?
  2. Should we flag the entire hectoring comment chain as a candidate for deletion?
  3. Should we flag individual hectoring comments as non-constructive?
  4. Something else?
  5. All of the above?


What should our moderator team do with these hectoring comments and with the hectorers themselves?

  1. Delete their individual hectoring comments.
  2. Delete the entire chain, including the hectoring comments and the few responses alike.
  3. Move the chain of hectoring commentary to a chat room.
  4. Notify the user that hectoring other users is not constructive and not allowed.
  5. Monitor the hectorers once notice has been given.
  6. Other possible actions not necessarily suitable for general discussion, up to and including suspending the hectorers for unwillingness to comply with moderator instruction duly delivered.

Those are just a few possibilities. Other constructive suggestions for how this community might usefully deal with this sort of abusive hectoring are welcome.

     1. See Wiktionary’s entry on hector, both noun and verb, for more about this classic term.

  • 3
    As a user, I've adopted solution #1, though I confessed I tipped to the trolling a bit late. In that vein, can I suggest an alternative to the "moderator" solution: the specific user in question appears to want to get the "last word" in at any cost, even when he has nothing new or material to add, which tends to lead the discussions in enervating circles (as other users respond to his materially-identical responses by referring to previous comments). Perhaps we should consider trimming the conversations to the "last new idea" presented? – Dan Bron Nov 10 '14 at 16:03
  • Does 'hectoring' just fall under 'generally annoying behavior'? – Mitch Nov 12 '14 at 13:26
  • 1
    @Mitch: it certainly counts as such, but has enough unique features to consider separately. Specifically, any individual comment would not qualify as annoying: ity is the totality that constitutes hectoring. – TimLymington Nov 12 '14 at 13:41
  • Different user, slightly different situation, but EL&U specific meta.stackexchange.com/questions/242598/… – Ellie Kesselman Nov 13 '14 at 7:20
  1. Hectoring is A Bad Thing.
  2. Individual users should avoid responding to hectoring at all.
  3. Hectoring requires moderatorial (what a great word) intervention when it damages the site.

Now that's out of the way (and those answers are no more foolish than the questions), can we have a reasonable discussion please?

Though in theory anybody annoyed by a comment should just ignore it, in practice there are just too many users here for that to work; eventually somebody new to the question will respond to the provocation, and another 20 comments obscure the real answer and the original question. Note that I said 'provocation' without taking a position on whether the commenter is deliberately trolling or merely unable to function socially in a Stack Exchange context; anybody trying to shift the focus of the site to a discussion forum is going to fail, requiring and expending much effort and irritation in the process.

I favour swift action in a case like this, partly to reduce the mod time wasted in considering each new argument, and partly to stop actually valuable users being driven away by one annoyance who may or may not prove worthwhile. The ideal solution for a poster like the one under discussion would be a (short) ban, and an invitation to discuss the matter in a special chat room, with a list of relevant invitees who may or may not wish to join the discussion. Given that the two halves are incompatible I would recommend the second, combined with a warning that if the poster does not avail himself of the invitation, but instead continues to spatter both meta and the main site with content-free complaints and demands, he will be banned. I concede that this is likely to lose a possibly valuable contributor (and most of us have been objectionable at one time or another); but ELU is not now at a stage where we should devote vast efforts to retaining one user, and certainly not if his buzzing is driving away others.

I also want to disagree with those who have suggested that each new point a user puts forward should be considered separately, without being tainted by previous posts. Stack Exchange explicitly requires a build-up of reputation before you can fully take part in the site: it is an attempt to attract experts. As such, every post you have made can and should be considered by anyone responding to your latest. If that history shows thoughtful and helpful contributions, your views gain weight; if the opposite, they lose it.

Finally, I agree with FumbleFingers in trusting the moderators to take the right action without protracted discussion. This is a representative democracy, not a referendum-led ochlocracy, and I for one entirely trust the Computer- I mean the mod team.

  • 3
    +1 for "Without taking a position on whether the commenter is deliberately trolling or merely unable to function socially in a Stack Exchange context". I can't tell either. – Dan Bron Nov 10 '14 at 21:32
  • +1 for discuss the matter in a special chat room (with at least one mod present, I would assume). I agree with the many other good points made here, but that seems the most constructive. – FumbleFingers Nov 10 '14 at 21:50
  • +1 for that wonderful new word: ochlocracy. Well, new to me, at least. But how is it pronounced? Oops, nevermind, found it here: howjsay.com/index.php?word=ochlocracy – Cyberherbalist Nov 18 '14 at 19:12

All three of the linked examples are from the same user, so as with the recent kerfuffle over mods reopening their own questions, it's almost impossible to address the issue without referring to the relevant specific individual.

In this case, the relevant user has asked 31 questions (not including anything that may be deleted) in 12 months on ELU, only two of which have negative net vote totals (about a third are closed as duplicates or for other reasons). Which suggests to me that most of the questions themselves are welcome, even if not the user's attitudes (six of his nine meta posts have high net downvote totals).

Personally, I've never noticed any "bullying" element in this user's comments (though I have noticed numerous exasperated/dismissive comments levelled against him). I know that sometimes it can get annoying when a child replies to your every "answer" with "Why?". You end up wanting to scream "Because I say so!" and end the discussion.

But this user isn't a child. If you think he's deliberately raising provocative points and/or refusing to accept "common-sense" explanations just to get a rise out of you, bear in mind that nothing forces you to respond. And there can be huge variation in how even intelligent/educated people think; just because someone else doesn't understand/accept your point of view doesn't mean they're being wilfully uncooperative.

TL;DR: I don't see a big problem with even the specific user here, let alone more generally, that would require any kind of coordinated site response. A very few times in my entire time on ELU I've asked the mods to delete hostile comments (sometimes, but not necessarily, directed at me). That's always worked, so I see no reason to change established practice.

If the mods decide (collectively, I'm sure) that some particular user offends too often in this regard, my instinct is to have faith that they'll make the right decision without there needing to be a meta post where everyone upvotes an answer saying "We want to ban or otherwise discipline this user".

  • You’re not looking at all them — and you should. Here’s another, this one with 10 insistent comments. If it will please you, you can always write a SEDE query that counts up postings by comments owned by the OP, or a ratio or some such. Patterns in patterns, sir. – tchrist Nov 10 '14 at 19:29
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    @tchrist: I don't want to get bogged down in seeming to defend that particular user. Partly because my heart wouldn't really be in it, but mainly because (as implied by my first sentence) I feel there's something rather distasteful about singling out a specific user to "attack". Having said that, although I didn't read every single comment in your first three links, I have just checked all 28 comments in your latest link here. And it's as I said above - I see other users getting irritated (and sometimes rude), but the OP himself never comes across to me as "bullying" (or even "hostile"). – FumbleFingers Nov 10 '14 at 21:35

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