If we’ve learned anything from recent Internet debates that have become almost Lovecraftian in the way that a single word uttered in the wrong place can cause an outbreaking of chaos, it is that the establishment of a mutually acceptable tone is the only sensible way to manage any conversation that is conducted outside of body-language cues. Or, in short, we need to work out how to stop people screaming at each other when they’re safely behind their keyboards or (worse) anonymity.
As a scientist, I’m very familiar with the approach that says that all ideas can be questioned and it is only by ferocious interrogation of reality, ideas, theory and perception that we can arrive at a sound basis for moving forward.
But, as a human, I’m aware that conducting ourselves as if everyone is made of uncaring steel is, to be put it mildly, a very poor way to educate and it’s a lousy way to arrive at complex consensus. In fact, while we claim such an approach is inherently meritocratic, as good ideas must flourish under such rigour, it’s more likely that we will only hear ideas from people who can endure the system, regardless of whether those people have the best ideas. A recent book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier, looks at how supposedly meritocratic systems in education are really measures of privilege levels prior to going into education and that education is more about cultivating merit, rather than scoring a measure of merit that is actually something else.
This isn’t to say that face-to-face arguments are isolated from the effects that are caused by antagonists competing to see who can keep making their point for the longest time. If one person doesn’t wish to concede the argument but the other can’t see any point in making progress, it is more likely for the (for want of a better term) stubborn party to claim that they have won because they have reached a point where the other person is “giving up”. But this illustrates the key flaw that underlies many arguments – that one “wins” or “loses”.
In scientific argument, in theory, we all get together in large rooms, put on our discussion togas and have at ignorance until we force it into knowledge. In reality, what happens is someone gets up and presents and the overall impression of competency is formed by:
- The gender, age, rank, race and linguistic grasp of the speaker
- Their status in the community
- How familiar the audience are with the work
- How attentive the audience are and whether they’re all working on grants or e-mail
- How much they have invested in the speaker being right or wrong
- Objective scientific assessment
We know about the first one because we keep doing studies that tell us that women cannot be assessed fairly by the majority of people, even in blind trials where all that changes on a CV is the name. We know that status has a terrible influence on how we perceive people. Dunning-Kruger (for all of its faults) and novelty effects influence how critical we can be. We can go through all of these and we come back to the fact that our pure discussion is tainted by the rituals and traditions of presentation, with our vaunted scientific objectivity coming in after we’ve stripped off everything else.
It is still there, don’t get me wrong, but you stand a much better chance of getting a full critical hearing with a prepared, specialist audience who have come together with a clear intention to attempt to find out what is going on than an intention to destroy what is being presented. There is always going to be something wrong or unknown but, if you address the theory rather than the person, you’ll get somewhere.
I often refer to this as the difference between scientists and lawyers. If we’re tying to build a better science then we’re always trying to improve understanding through genuine discovery. Defence lawyers are trying to sow doubt in the mind of judges and juries, invalidating evidence for reasons that are nothing to do with the strength of the evidence, and preventing wider causal linkages from forming that would be to the detriment of their client. (Simplistic, I know.)
Any scientific theory must be able to stand up to scientific enquiry because that’s how it works. But the moment we turn such a process into an inquisition where the process becomes one that the person has to endure then we are no longer assessing the strength of the science – we are seeing if we can shout someone into giving up.
As I wrote in the title, when we are self-righteous, whether legitimately or not, we will be happy to yell from the rooftops. If someone else is doing it with us then we might think they are loud but how can someone else’s voice be heard if we have defined all exchange in terms of this exhausting primal scream? If that person comes from a traditionally under-represented or under-privileged group then they may have no way at all to break in.
The mutual establishment of tone is essential if we to hear all of the voices who are able to contribute to the improvement and development of ideas and, right now, we are downright terrible at it. For all we know, the cure for cancer has been ignored because it had the audacity to show up in the mind of a shy, female, junior researcher in a traditionally hierarchical lab that will let her have her own ideas investigated when she gets to be a professor.
Or it it would have occurred to someone had she received education but she’s stuck in the fields and won’t ever get more than a grade 5 education. That’s not a meritocracy.
One of the reasons I think that we’re so bad at establishing tone and seeing past the illusion of meritocracy is the reason that we’ve always been bad at handling bullying: we are more likely to see a spill-over reaction from the target than the initial action except in the most obvious cases of physical bullying. Human language and body-assisted communication are subtle and words are more than words. Let’s look at this sentence:
“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”
You can adjust this sentence to be incredibly praising, condescending, downright insulting, dismissive and indifferent without touching the content of the sentence. But, written like this, it is robbed of tone and context. If someone has been “needled” with statements like this for months, then a sudden outburst is increasingly likely, especially in stressful situations. This is the point at which someone says “But I only said … ” If our workplaces our innately rife with inter-privilege tension and high stress due to the collapse of the middle class – no wonder people blow up!
We have the same problem in the on-line community from an approach called Sea-Lioning, where persistent questioning is deployed in a way that, with each question isolated, appears innocuous but, as a whole, forms a bullying technique to undermine and intimidate the original writer. Now some of this is because there are people who honestly cannot tell what a mutually respectful tone look like and really want to know the answer. But, if you look at the cartoon I linked to, you can easily see how this can be abused and, in particular, how it can be used to shut down people who are expressing ideas in new space. We also don’t get the warning signs of tone. Worse still, we often can’t or don’t walk away because we maintain a connection that the other person can jump on anytime they want to. (The best thing you can do sometimes on Facebook is to stop notifications because you stop getting tapped on the shoulder by people trying to get up your nose. It is like a drink of cool water on a hot day, sometimes. I do, however, realise that this is easier to say than do.)
When students communicate over our on-line forums, we do keep an eye on them for behaviour that is disrespectful or downright rude so that we can step in and moderate the forum, but we don’t require moderation before comment. Again, we have the notion that all ideas can be questioned, because SCIENCE, but the moment we realise that some questions can be asked not to advance the debate but to undermine and intimidate, we have to look very carefully at the overall context and how we construct useful discussion, without being incredibly prescriptive about what form discussion takes.
I recently stepped in to a discussion about some PhD research that was being carried out at my University because it became apparent that someone was acting in, if not bad faith, an aggressive manner that was not actually achieving any useful discussion. When questions were answered, the answers were dismissed, the argument recast and, to be blunt, a lot of random stuff was injected to discredit the researcher (for no good reason). When I stepped in to point out that this was off track, my points were side-stepped, a new argument came up and then I realised that I was dealing with a most amphibious mammal.
The reason I bring this up is that when I commented on the post, I immediately got positive feedback from a number of people on the forum who had been uncomfortable with what had been going on but didn’t know what to do about it. This is the worst thing about people who set a negative tone and hold it down, we end up with social conventions of politeness stopping other people from commenting or saying anything because it’s possible that the argument is being made in good faith. This is precisely the trap a bad faith actor wants to lock people into and, yet, it’s also the thing that keeps most discussions civil.
Thanks, Internet trolls. You’re really helping to make the world a better place.
These days my first action is to step in and ask people to clarify things, in the most non-confrontational way I can muster because asking people “What do you mean” can be incredibly hostile by itself! This quickly establishes people who aren’t willing to engage properly because they’ll start wriggling and the Sea-Lion effect kicks in – accusations of rudeness, unwillingness to debate – which is really, when it comes down to it:
I WANT TO TALK AT YOU LIKE THIS HOW DARE YOU NOT LET ME DO IT!
This isn’t the open approach to science. This is thuggery. This is privilege. This is the same old rubbish that is currently destroying the world because we can’t seem to be able to work together without getting caught up in these stupid games. I dream of a better world where people can say any combination of “I use Mac/PC/Java/Python” without being insulted but I am, after all, an Idealist.
The summary? The merit of your argument is not determined by how loudly you shout and how many other people you silence.
I expect my students to engage with each other in good faith on the forums, be respectful and think about how their actions affect other people. I’m really beginning to wonder if that’s the best preparation for a world where a toxic on-line debate can break over into the real world, where SWAT team attacks and document revelation demonstrate what happens when people get too carried away in on-line forums.
We’re stopping people from being heard when they have something to say and that’s wrong, especially when it’s done maliciously by people who are demanding to say something and then say nothing. We should be better at this by now.
I’m working on a longer piece on how student interaction on electronic discussion forums suffers from the same problems of tone as any on-line forum. Once people decide that how they wish to communicate is the de facto standard for all discussion, then non-conformity is somehow weakness and indicative of bad faith or poor argument. But tone is a difficult thing to discuss because the perceived tone of a piece is in the hands of the reader and the writer.
A friend and colleague recently asked me for some advice about blogging and I think I’ve now done enough of it that I can offer some reasonable advice. I think the most important thing that I said at the time was that it was important to get stuff out there. You can write into a blog and keep it private but then no-one reads it. You can tweak away at it until it’s perfect but, much like a PhD thesis, perfect is the enemy of done. Instead of setting a lower bound on your word count, set an upper bound at which point you say “Ok, done, publish” to get your work out there. If your words are informed, authentic and as honest as you can make them then you’ll probably get some interesting and useful feedback.
But there’s that tone argument again. The first thing you have to accept is that making any public statement has always attracted the attention of people, it’s the point really, and that the nature of the Internet means that you don’t need to walk into a park and stand at Speakers’ Corner to find hecklers. The hecklers will find you. So if you publish, you risk damning. If you’re silent, you have no voice. If you’re feeling nervous about publishing in the first place, how do you deal with this?
Let me first expose my thinking process. This is not an easy week for me as I think about what I do next, having deliberately stepped back to think and plan for the next decade or so. At the same time, I’m sick (our whole household is sick at the moment), very tired and have come off some travel. And I have hit a coincidental barrage of on-line criticism, some of which is useful and developing critique that I welcome and some of which is people just being… people. So this is very dear to my heart right now – why should I keep writing stuff if the outcome risks being unpleasant? I have other ways to make change.
Well, you should publish but you just need to accept that people will react to you publishing – sometimes well, sometimes badly. That’s why you publish, after all, isn’t it?
Let’s establish the ground truth – there is no statement you can make on the Internet that is immune to criticism but not all criticism is valid or useful. Let’s go through what can happen, although is only a subset.
- “I like sprouts”
Facebook is the land of simple statements and many people talk about things that they like. “I like sprouts” critics find statements like this in order to express their incredulity that anyone could possibly enjoy Brussels Sprouts and “ugh, they’re disgusting”. The opposite is of course the people who show up on the “I hate sprouts” discussions to say “WHY DON’T YOU LOVE SPROUTS”? (For the record, I love Brussels sprouts.)
A statement of personal preference for something as banal as food is not actually a question but it’s amazing how challenging such a statement can be. If you mention animals of any kind, there’s always the risk of animal production/consumption coming up because no opinion on the Internet is seen outside of the intersection of the perception of reader and writer. A statement about fluffy bunnies can lead to arguments about the cosmetics industry. Goodness help you if you try something that is actually controversial. Wherever you write it, if someone has an opinion that contradicts yours, discussion of both good and questionable worth can ensue.
(Like the fact that Jon Pertwee is the best Doctor.)
It’s worth noting that there are now people who are itching to go to the comments to discuss either Brussels Sprouts or Tom Baker/David Tennant or “Tom Baker/David Tennant”. This is why our species is doomed and I am the herald of the machine God. 01010010010010010101001101000101
- “I support/am opposed to racism/sexism/religious discrimination”
It doesn’t matter which way around you make these statements, if a reader perceives it as a challenge (due to its visibility or because they’ve stumbled across it), then you will get critical, and potentially offensive, comment. I am on the “opposed to” side, as regular readers will know, but have been astounded by the number of times I’ve had people argue things about this. Nothing is ever settled on the Internet because sound evidence often doesn’t propagate as well as anecdote and drama.
Our readership bubbles are often wider than we think. If you’re publishing on WP then pretty much anyone can read it. If you’re publishing on Facebook then you may get Friends and their Friends and the Friends of people you link… and so on. There are many fringe Friends on Facebook that will leap into the fray here because they are heavily invested in maintaining what they see as the status quo.
In short, there is never a ‘safe’ answer when you come down on either side of a controversial argument but neutrality conveys very little. (There’s also the fact that there is no excluded middle for some issues – you can’t be slightly in favour of universal equality.)
We also sail from “that’s not the real issue, THIS is the real issue” with great ease in this area of argument. You do not know the people who read your stuff until you have posted something that has hit all of the buttons on their agenda elevators. (And, yes, we all have them. Mine has many buttons.)
- Here is my amazingly pithy argument in support of something important.
And here is the comment that:
Takes something out of context.
Misinterprets the thrust.
Trivialises the issue.
Makes a pedantic correction.
Makes an unnecessary (and/or unpleasant) joke.
Clearly indicates that the critic stopped reading after two lines.
Picks a fight (possibly because of a lingering sprouts issue).
When you publish with comments on, and I strongly suggest that you do, you are asking people to engage with you but you are not asking them to bully you, harass you or hijack your thread. Misinterpretation, and the correction thereof, can be a powerful tool to drive understanding. Bad jokes offer an opportunity to talk about the jokes and why they’re still being made. But a lot of what is here is tone policing, trying to make you regret posting. If you posted something that’s plain wrong, hurtful or your thrust was off (see later) then correction is good but, most of the time, this is tone policing and you will often know this better as bullying. Comments to improve understanding are good, comments to make people feel bad for being so stupid/cruel/whatever are bullying, even if the target is an execrable human being. And, yes, very easy trap to fall into, especially when buoyed up by self-righteousness. I’ve certainly done it, although I deeply regret the times that I did it, and I try to keep an eye out for it now.
People love making jokes, especially on FB, and it can be hard for them to realise that this knee-jerk can be quite hurtful to some posters. I’m a gruff middle-aged man so my filter for this is good (and I just mentally tune people out or block them if that’s their major contribution) but I’ve been regularly stunned by people who think that posting something that is not supportive but jokey in response to someone sharing a thought or vulnerability is the best thing to do. If it derails the comments then, hooray, the commenter has undermined the entire point of making the post.
Many sites have now automatically blocked or warped comments that rush in to be the “First” to post because it’s dumb. And now, even more tragically, at least one person is fighting the urge to prove my point by writing “First” underneath here as a joke. Because that’s the most important thing to take away from this.
- Here is a slight silly article using humour to make a point or using analogy to illustrate an argument.
And here are the comments about this article failing because of some explicit extension of the analogy that is obviously not what was intended or here is the comment that interprets the humour as trivialising the issue at hand or, worse, indicating that the writer has secret ulterior motives.
Writers communicate. If dry facts, by themselves, aligned one after the other in books educated people then humanity would have taken the great leap forward after the first set of clay tablets dried. Instead, we need frameworks for communication and mechanisms to facilitate understanding. Some things are probably beyond humorous intervention. I tried recently to write a comedic piece on current affairs and realised I couldn’t satirise a known racist without repeating at least some racial slurs – so I chose not to. But a piece like this, where I want to talk about some serious things without being too didactic? I think humour is fine.
The problem is whether people think that you’re laughing at someone, especially them. Everyone personalises what they read – I imagine half of the people reading this think I’m talking directly to them, when I’m not. I’m condensing a billion rain drops to show you what can break a dam.
Analogies are always tricky but they’re not supposed to be 1-1 matches for reality. Like all models, they are incomplete and fail outside of the points of matching. Combining humour and analogy is a really good way to lose some readers so you’ll get a lot of comments on this.
- Here is the piece where I got it totally and utterly wrong.
You are going to get it wrong sometime. You’ll post while angry or not have thought of something or use a bad source or just have a bad day and you will post something that you will ultimately regret. This is the point at which it’s hardest to wade through the comments because, in between the tone policers, the literalists, the sproutists, the pedants, the racists, TIMECUBE, and spammers, you’re going to have read comments from people where they delicately but effectively tell you that you’ve made a mistake.
But that is why we publish. Because we want people to engage with our writing and thoughtful criticism tells us that people are thinking about what we write.
The curse of the Internet is that people tend only to invest real energy in comment when they’re upset. Facebook have captured this with the Like button, where ‘yay’ is a click and “OH MY GOD, YOU FILTHY SOMETHINGIST” requires typing. Similarly, once you start writing and publishing, have a look at those people who are also creating and contributing, and those people who only pop up to make comments along the lines I’ve outlined. There are many powerful and effective critics in the world (and I like to discuss things as much as the next person) but the reach and power of the Internet means that there are also a lot of people who derive pleasure from sailing in to make comment when they have no intention of stating their own views or purpose in any way that exposes them.
Some pieces are written in a way that no discussion can be entered into safely, without leaving commentators any room to actually have a discussion around it. That’s always your choice but if you do it, why not turn the comments off? There’s no problem with having a clearly stated manifesto that succinctly captures your beliefs – people who disagree can write their own – but it’s best to clearly advertise that something is beyond casual “comment-based” discussion to avoid the confusion that you might be open for it.
I’ve left the comments open, let’s see what happens!