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There is a user on a site I moderate that typically is a very active and follows the rules. However he does not like to be corrected or told he may be wrong about something. When a user tells him he may be wrong, he gets extremely argumentative with the user that points this out and argues his point until the user either stops caring about the topic or agrees with him. Typically it happens 2 to 3 times a week. He is inside the rules of the site, but his constant arguing is bringing the morale of the site down.

Should I interfere with these arguments between this user and other users and warn him these actions are not acceptable or should I just stay out of it because he is not actually breaking any rules?

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According to your description, these activities are harming your site. Your first duty is to your community, so yes, you should step in.

You have rules, which he has not broken, and you probably have disciplinary measures (such as limiting participation) that can be applied when rules are broken. He hasn't broken rules, so I advise against jumping straight to those disciplinary measures -- he'll cry foul over that and won't obviously be incorrect. But you can talk to him, and you can start to lay the groundwork for future discipline, should it be needed.

In the situation you describe, I recommend opening a private communication channel with him (whatever is normal or most effective on your site) and issue a warning -- tell him that this behavior is disruptive and must stop, and if it doesn't you will take further action. Also stress that you value his contributions (if you do) and want to find a peaceful solution. If you have anything like a user agreement or code of conduct that covers these kinds of behavioral issues, remind him of the key points. If he tries to rules-lawyer you, firmly point out that the needs of the site are paramount. Do make it clear that you're not kicking him out; you want to keep the positive but stop the problem behavior.

If you are part of a moderation team, you should consult your fellow moderators first so that you are all in agreement about the plan (including what consequences will follow if he doesn't stop). Since you're stepping a little outside your site's written rules, make sure you don't surprise your peers. But it's expected that sometimes you will encounter situations not strictly covered by your rules, because users will always find new and clever ways to keep moderators on their toes.

I'm a moderator on several Stack Exchange sites, the longest for two years, and I and my fellow moderators have handled some "novel" situations. I've found that if I act with integrity, in a way I could explain in public if challenged, and with a focus on the needs of the site, the community will generally support my actions.

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    Ah, you beat me to pointing out that the community > one user, and you said more than I would have. +1! – El'endia Starman Jul 30 '14 at 3:03
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My approach was: Let the discussion run, however heated, as long as it's still civil. Close the thread and delete the offensive post the moment such one appears. If you miss that point and it devolves into name calling - delete the whole tail of offensive posts, leaving the last acceptable one. I usually replace the content of the first deleted post with a moderator notice about why it was deleted.

This has some benefits:

  • keeps the forum active, alive, interesting. In many cases users like to band up on a lone fool who thinks to know better. You'd only frustrate them if they had to let go.
  • instead of moderator action, which always may feel like abuse of power, you let the community handle the issue. However inefficient it may seem, it's less harmful than trying to use 'moderator's fiat' to break up something that is not against the rules.
  • probably it's the only way to teach the fool. If they become a target of ridicule of the whole community (note: without the community being too rude about it!) they may seriously rethink their point.
  • it leaves the last word to the last well-behaved person. It sends the message that obscenities will not win you the argument. Keep it heated if you want, but keep it cultured and on-topic. Ad hominem is not accepted.

You might need to remind that 'victim' that their freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from consequences - if they say something aggravating, they should expect aggravated reactions and your action to prevent these would be restricting freedom of speech of the others! Essentially, you just look out for not letting the argument degenerate into a row, but however heated it gets - it's only a benefit for the forum as a whole.

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Since it is disruptive, I do feel that you might need to interfere. I wouldn't want to make this too formal though, as in, don't ban/suspend him or interfere in public. Instead send him a private message or better, invite him for a skype/hangout session.

In my opinion, it's best if you ask what's up instead of chastising, compare how someone would react to these examples:

Hey, I notice that you are argumentative sometimes, please stop what you're doing.

vs

Hey, usually you are very active and a big part of this community, but then occasionally you appear to be argumentative, what's up? :)

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