Wednesday, 7 August 2013

"Derailing," "Concern Trolling" and the Pessimism of Argument

So Zak S got banned from rpg.net and this made me think a lot of how people argue on the internet and  what the hell they think they're doing. You can read the full text of the ban here, but I'll focus on this excerpt:
The Numenera thread is by no means the only one, and the post I've chosen as an infraction is just an example: Insisting that this one monster is Definitely Sexist because it doesn't meet an arbitrary definition of sexism you came up with, asserting that anyone who disagrees has to produce scientific studies about elfgames (that work with your definition of sexism) which have been mysteriously absent from your sexism thread derailing posts up to and also beyond this point, waving around your G+ followers as an army of faceless posters who totally have your back on this, and passive-aggressively insinuating that people who disagree think all women are alike, are the real sexists and need to do their research. That is the kind of un-chill posting we are talking about here.
I'm not even going to discuss whether these descriptions are a correct summation of Zak's posts in the discussion. From what I can see, the posted guidelines about derailing at rpg.net are less narrow than the ones the mods seem to use. But because these standards are coming from moderators, who are supposed to provide ground rules for civil discourse, we might presume that their reasons are valid rules that govern any kind of argument, right?

In fact, the same assumption is not made in the apparent source for this decision, the internet literature on "derailing" and in particular this bit. The "Dummies' Guide to Derailing" critiques specific rhetorical moves by privileged group members. The same rhetorical moves, presumably, are OK when used by non-privileged group members. At least I can't imagine rape statistics that support a feminist point of view being criticized as "intellectualizing," and so on. I wonder if the derailing guide is presented in that sarcastic, "Screwtape Letters" mode because it would just be a little much to come right out and say "The more privilege you have on a demographic basis, the less you are allowed to use these rhetorical moves in discourse."

So back to RPG.net. If we are to take these as universal guidelines for what is acceptable then:
  • Nobody should be able to use an "arbitrary standard of sexism that they came up with", implying that all allowable references to sexism at rpg.net should be annotated with a reference to a non-arbitrary definition of sexism and which other person is, acceptably, responsible for that. (They aren't.)
  • Nobody should assert that someone who disagrees with them should come up with scientific proof, especially if their own posts have been previously lacking in scientific proof. (This means it is not allowable to challenge, for example, a claim that female cranial sizes make women less intelligent than men, by using the scientific evidence that speaks against it.) At the same time even if Zak had, as requested, produced scientific evidence that was lacking in his previous "thread derailing posts," that would have been disallowable as a form of thread derailing - intellectualizing - under the Dummies' Guide.
  • These games are silly things not worthy of scientific study - "elfgames." (Then why take them and their representations so seriously?)
Oh, I can't go on, but you get the picture.  It's particularly choice to say in effect "We are waiting for the good people who make the points you want to make but in a nice way," as if that's never used to shut feminists up.

I actually think a lot of people are arguing in bad faith because they have a model of how people's minds change, that has been drummed into them by a society and educational system, but that is profoundly out of touch with reality. They will try at all costs to pretend that they are working from this model, when they are working from another, and people's minds actually change yet another way.

The standard model is like a nice high school debate. People state point and counterpoint, present evidence and examples pro and con, sum up their piece, and the most convincing side wins.

But the standard model only works if everyone accepts certain things as true, certain ways of knowing as reliable, certain values as worth pursuing. This is precisely not what happens with gender debates on the Internet. This is why so much rhetoric is devoted to labeling and name-calling. People sense, somehow, that they belong to one of two mutually intolerant tribes, who at the base of it believe very different things about how the world is set up.

And right you are to exclude people who are not on the same planet from your discussion. I'm not being sarcastic. This is a social fact. You can't have a meaningful discussion about what the best role-playing game is, and include everyone who believes roleplaying games are evil or pointless.

The name-calling, argument labeling, "passive-aggressive" and "shaming" and "Tipper" and "white knight" and "mansplaining" are all terms of emotional warfare to push and exclude and claim a safe space. "Concern trolling" is often a term used to claim an even narrower space - to exclude not just people who disagree with your ends, but also the people who agree with your ends but disagree with your preferred means to achieve them (see definition 4 in that link).

We fought that battle, we maintain this armed perimeter, so we can play ball on this field.

It's honest to admit that. It's not honest to pretend that anyone can come play ball, and then require them to play without the same kind of equipment available to the home team.

So this is pessimistic. I think most people who put their heart and soul into arguing on the internet (including, evidently, me) are hoping to actually change minds on fundamental issues. How does that really happen? I have a suspicion, and I might write on that next post.

35 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. I've poised my fingers at the keyboard a few times to try to say something along these lines, but it was nowhere near as cogent and coherent.

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  2. Without having read the thread or knowing anything about the forum or Zak's behaviour on it, that ban notice really paints the moderator in a bad light. It juxtaposes what appears to be a calm and reasonable post by Zak with an apparently unrelated accusatory tirade by the moderator.

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    1. The tirade seems very much related if the person being banned has a history of making that conversation toxic through the same bad faith arguments.

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    2. Maybe, but one would expect the post the moderator chose to infract to be exemplary of the charges that got him banned, which it isn't by itself. Taking it out of context like I'm doing, it makes Zak look in the right. I make no judgement as to the actual state of affairs, except that they probably should have picked a different post to infract.

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    3. "Without having read the thread or knowing anything about the forum or Zak's behaviour on it...."

      How, then, can you possibly have an opinion on the matter?

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    4. @Justin:

      "... that ban notice really paints the moderator in a bad light."

      "I make no judgement as to the actual state of affairs"

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    6. I agree with you, John - one would expect that a moderator writing a permaban notice would post behavior exemplary of the reasons the permaban was necessary.

      Instead, he posted exemplary behavior.

      I think that it would take extremely nefarious behavior indeed to counteract the intelligent, respectful, and openminded discussion displayed in the quoted text.

      The entire purpose of a ban notice is to allow people to understand the context and rationale behind the ban to those who haven't read the entire thread, so people are educated about the rules and can follow them better in the future. A poor ban notice, such as this one, is a poor ban.

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    7. @Jack
      If you think I ever did that then, it's simple: quote me.

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  3. Great post. I used to think that when I argued on the internet (and in real life) I was trying to change minds, but now I realise I am partaking in a kind of sport - I am showing off how much I know and how quick my mind is. This was pointed out to me on many occasions by a regular sparring partner at work (one of the things about being an academic is that this sort of thing is not confined to the internet, but something that confronts you on a daily basis in your personal life too).

    I now take the view that arguing on the internet is probably just an extension of the human (mostly male) urge to show off how wonderfully talented and brainy you are as a way to attract mates. That we have ended up doing this primarily on nerd forums on the internet is amusingly ironic.

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    1. @noisms

      That ignores the value of such conversations for onlookers who may have no (or weak) preconceived opinions about the subject at hand. For example, that was the position I was in when I returned to tabletop RPGs in 2011 after a 10 year hiatus and discovered the OSR. At that point, I only had much knowledge of 2E AD&D and White Wolf games. So, I can personally vouch for the value of what may seem like flamewars with no hope of changing minds to the direct participants.

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  4. And having made that statement, Noisms, you've just discounted any possible sincerity in anyone believing anything passionately and wishing to state it.

    A convenient view if you don't want to change your mind.

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    1. Not at all. It's extremely easy for a person to believe they are doing something while subconsciously doing something else. You can quite earnestly believe something passionately and wish to state it, while acting on an ancient biological impulse that you are entirely unaware of.

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    2. Yet, Alexis, when you write that kind of answer on your own blog : " I get it. I challenged your academic prowess. You must defend your academic prowess. You must prove how far you can piss", aren't you expressing exactly the same idea?

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    3. Sincerity and unconscious motivations are not mutually exlcusive. In fact, I suspect its much easier to sincerely believe something you are otherwise being rewarded for.

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    4. cf. Weber's "elective affinities," right?
      Your behaviour is rewarded practically, and a conviction that this is right follows easily.

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    5. I seem to recall reading many years ago (and I bet there is a professional or 2 in the audience who could find something about this) that men argue more loudly and more aggressively when they have an audience, and even more so if women are in that audience.

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    6. You are accused of derailing when it is clear you are repairing a train wreck.

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  5. Roger, I've seen Zak do every one of those things personally, particularly the set of calling on invisible friends and particularly women who conveniently back his claims whenever he is ready to claim them. Right, wrong, no matter; as a master of making people mad at me, even I can recognize a rational effort on the part of exhausted moderators to put an end to it.

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    1. If you wanna pretend the girls don't exist then maybe I should make a...

      what? photo? video? podcast? Reference to the girls' own blogs?

      OH WAIT, ALL THOSE THINGS EXIST.

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  6. I've watched you do that repeatedly also, Noisms. Applying cognitive bias, as though it's possibility describes every issue necessarily is exactly the sport you claim to recognize. Once again, so very, very convenient.

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    1. Really? I've done this repeatedly? Where have I alleged it "describes every issue necessarily"? Are you denying cognitive bias exists?

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    2. Also what did my previous comment have to do with bias?

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  7. Who is this Zak S.? I've seen a few mentions if this which is more than I'd expect if he were just some random dude.

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    1. Runs this much-read blog through which I found out about the OSR three years ago.

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  9. 17 YEARS ago when I was a resident, I would explain to the medical students –
    " there is a difference between humans and animals … If you are patient, if you do the same thing over and over again, with enough trials, animals will LEARN from their mistakes."

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  10. rpg.net sucks.

    Can we talk about games now?

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  11. The only rule of RPGnet: If you are a person of goodwill, never post in an RPgnet trap thread. Trap threads can be identified by references to sexism, racism, and related matters in the thread title.

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  12. I've come to the same conclusions from the standpoint of being a working political scientist and real political consultant. Each team has it's own field and it's own rules and these are based on separate, shared realities. One man's troll is another man's prophet.

    This is the draw of political blogs- even ones which purport to tell unbiased news (especially those). Everyone wants to argue. There are even people who go to argue in good faith!

    But there are varying perceptions of reality out there. You will never convince a fish that it's all wet; there's no way for a fish to even have a concept of what that means.

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