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!
Our students will go out into the world and will be exposed to many things but, if we have done our job well, then they will not just be pushed around by the pressure of the events that they witness, but they will be able to hold their ground and perceive what is really going on, to place their own stamp on the world.
I don’t tell my students how to think, although I know that it’s a commonly held belief that everyone at a Uni tries to shape the political and developmental thought of their students, I just try to get them to think. This is probably going to have the side effect of making them thoughtful, potentially even critical of things that don’t make sense, and I realise that this is something that not everybody wants from junior citizens. But that’s my job.
Here is a list of five things that I think I’d like a thoughtful person to be able to perceive. It’s not the definitive five or the perfect five but these are the ones that I have today.
- It would be nice if people were able to reliably tell the difference between 1/3 and 1/4 and understand that 1/3 is larger than 1/4. Being able to work out the odds of things (how likely they are) require you to be able to look at two things that are smaller than one and get them in the right order so you can say “this is more likely than that”. Working on percentages can make it easier but this requires people to do division, rather than just counting things and showing the fraction.But I’d like my students to be able to perceive how this can be a fundamental misunderstanding that means that some people can genuinely look at comparative probabilities and not be able to work out that this simple mathematical comparison is valid. And I’d like them to be able to think about how to communicate this to help people understand.
- A perceptive person would be able to spot when something isn’t free. There are many people who go into casinos and have a lot of fun gambling, eating very cheap or unlimited food, staying in cheap hotels and think about what a great deal it is. However, every game you play in a casino is designed so that casinos do not make a loss – but rather than just saying “of course” we need to realise that casinos make enough money to offer “unlimited buffet shrimp” and “cheap luxury rooms” and “free luxury for whales” because they are making so much money. Nothing in a casino is free. It is paid for by the people who lose money there.This is not, of course, to say that you shouldn’t go and gamble if you’re an adult and you want to, but it’s to be able to see and clearly understand that everything around you is being paid for, if not in a way that is transparently direct. There are enough people who suffer from the gambler’s fallacy to put this item on the list.
- A perceptive person would have a sense of proportion. They would not start issuing death threats in an argument over operating systems (or ever, preferably) and they would not consign discussions of human rights to amusing after-dinner conversation, as if this was something to be played with.
- A perceptive person would understand the need to temper the message to suit the environment, while still maintaining their own ethical code regarding truth and speaking up. But you don’t need to tell a 3-year old that their painting is awful any more than you need to humiliate a colleague in public for not knowing something that you know. If anything, it makes the time when you do deliver the message bluntly much more powerful.
- Finally, a perceptive person would be able to at least try to look at life through someone else’s eyes and understand that perception shapes our reality. How we appear to other people is far more likely to dictate their reaction than who we really are. If you can’t change the way you look at the world then you risk getting caught up on your own presumptions and you can make a real fool of yourself by saying things that everyone else knows aren’t true.
There’s so much more and I’m sure everyone has their own list but it’s, as always, something to think about.