Sunday, November 16, 2014

Your mileage may vary on certain internet discussion memes

I do consider myself to be an advocate of equality for all, of feminism, and of inclusiveness. However, when reading controversies around these issues on the internet I have to admit to finding myself somewhat alienated by the behaviour and culture of some of the people who aim to promote those very same goals.

The problem is that at least some activists for Social Justice, as apparently for some strange reason equality is called these days in some parts of the internet, appear to have embraced a set of, for want of a better word, memes that carry the risk of inoculating against even legitimate criticism and argument, or which at a minimum can be very two-edged swords.

Again, I am mostly on board with the actual aims: slurs should not be used; under-represented groups should be made to feel welcome, and their representation should be increased; there should be no unearned privileges; everybody should be able to feel safe, everywhere. Really all that stuff should, of course, be obvious. It is what is generally known as "being a civilised person" and "not being evil".

But all of us make mistakes, all the time, and if we are not careful we may find it hard to admit them and instead dig ourselves in. It is thus important that we avoid deliberately equipping ourselves with a set of mental tools that make it even easier for us to deflect criticism without even listening to it.

In addition, any group of like-minded people runs the risk of developing its own memes, or other forms of coded language, that are opaque to outsiders. This allows for easy identification of ingroup members but can be counter-productive in that it makes it harder to convince those who have not already adopted those memes and language.

In particular, I am feeling somewhat uncomfortable when I run into the following:

Intent is not magic. The way this is most likely originally meant is that if one did something that turned out to have a bad effect, not having intended to have that bad effect does not absolve one of all responsibility. This is, for example, how it is explained in this post: if somebody feels hurt, the right reaction is to say, sorry, I will try not to hurt you again, instead of saying that the other person has no right to feel hurt.

Fair enough. However, what a lot of people who throw the phrase "intent is not magic" around seem to overlook is that one does, indeed, have a severely reduced responsibility if one did not intend the bad effect. It is fairly clear that if, to use an example also from the first linked post, I stepped onto somebody's foot by accident my victim has the right to only a lower degree of offendedness than if I stepped onto their foot deliberately. So yes, intent does make a big difference, and if somebody says, "I didn't mean it", then that is a relevant piece of information and already an indirect admission that they have now understood that they did something bad (otherwise, why would they say that?).

It has also been pointed out that there are lots of cases where people overreact by any reasonable standard. It is instructive to contemplate some examples. If James uses the slur "retard" in a conversation with John, and John is hurt because he has, unbeknown to James, a mentally disabled son, then James' excuse of not having wanted to hurt John is quite hollow because, well, it is a slur that should not be used among civilised people anyway, and the use of that slur merely betrayed what James really thinks of the mentally disabled.

If, however, a religiously conservative John considered it a personal insult that James wears a T-shirt with a slogan in support of gay marriage, then one would probably reasonably conclude that John shouldn't be allowed to decide that something that is objectively not offensive should be seen as such just because he says so. If we went by the interpretation that intent doesn't matter, that it merely matters whether somebody subjectively feels offended or not, then the only intellectually consistent solution would be for nobody to say or write anything any more, because you never know what might offend somebody. And this is not an idle thought experiment; there are lots of people in the world who are truly offended by somebody stating plainly observable facts that conflict with their religion or ideology.

Shut up and listen. The idea here is that it is impolite and tedious of people who are not affected by some kind of discrimination or other problem to lecture at and condescend towards those who are. Instead, they should first learn to respect the experiences of those who are affected and try to understand their situation. So far, so good. The problem is that if one is not careful, this meme can be used to ward off any unwelcome arguments: somebody who does not agree with me has obviously not bothered to listen, otherwise they would agree with me already. Consequently I can always tell anybody who disagrees to shut up. Eh voilà! I don't ever have to listen to anybody who disagrees.

A meme that also exhorts the opposite side to do their homework but that takes a very different approach to it is it is not my job to educate you. It describes the observation that marginalised individuals do not have the responsibility to explain their situation to the privileged, especially over and over again. As the linked essay argues, this has several reasons (although the number 21 appears to be reached only through some repetition), the most important of which would probably be that nobody can be expected to talk about very personal and potentially uncomfortable issues on demand, and that people have a responsibility to do some research themselves. There is, after all, Google, and it is annoying if somebody jumps into the middle of a long-going discussion and demands that stuff be repeated for their benefit that was already dealt with at its beginning.

However, the risk here is that it is used as a magical formula to ward off any legitimate challenges. Whoa, that is a serious claim, do you have any evidence? I don't have to provide evidence: it is not my job to educate you. I don't believe that really happens, can you give specific examples? I don't have to provide examples: it is not my job to educate you. If used like that, it means that any crazy claim can be made and the burden of evidence placed on those who are justifiably sceptical. At a minimum, if an issue is really important one should perhaps have a link in the back of one's hand to direct doubters to a helpful summary or FAQ; that doesn't take a lot of effort.

Then there is tone trolling. Again, there is the reasonable use of the meme, which would in this case be to keep people from derailing a serious conversation by making it about how somebody on one side said something nasty. This is especially relevant if the misbehaviour of a small minority is used to discredit the aims of an entire movement.

However, there is the obvious danger that the meme can be used to protect those who regularly use insults as an argumentation strategy in itself. In particular, one can observe discussion boards or comment streams on the internet where several members of a group will hurl insults at anybody who disagrees with the group consensus (instead of addressing their arguments). When the outsider starts to complain about their treatment, they can be dismissed as a tone troll.

Finally, in the words of Michael Nugent, "there is a strange online meme called ‘tone-trolling’, whereby some people who are rude and abusive to you will complain if you ask them to be polite. Now there is a new turbo-charged version called ‘sea-lioning’, whereby they will also complain that you are being persistently polite yourself."

This meme is very young, apparently created by this comic only last month. In the comic, a woman says "I don't mind most marine mammals. But sea lions? I could do without sea lions." She and her husband are then badgered over the next five panels of the comic by a superficially polite but rather intrusive sea lion who insists she provide a justification for her dislike.

This is the weirdest meme of all, and thus I am rather surprised to already have seen it used in all seriousness. The problem is, to the degree that the sea lion is the bad guy in the comic it is only so because the situation is comically exaggerated beyond anything that would occur in real life. The sea lion invades the couple's home, even their bedroom, to demand an answer.

But the comic is meant to parody the behaviour of people on the internet. The closest an annoying person on the internet would usually come to the sea lion's intrusiveness is by commenting on somebody's blog or by e-mailing them, activities that are significantly short of sitting in their bedroom and that can be forestalled by blocking or ignoring them. Instead, what would usually happen is that somebody has claimed something or said something offensive in a public forum - a blog, a discussion board, Facebook, Twitter, etc. - and the supposed sea lion challenges them in that public forum to justify their claim.

Once that becomes clear, it is rather hard to see the sea lion as the bad guy here. In a realistic real life scenario, the woman in the comic would have publicly said something like "but black people? I could do without black people", and the sea lion's mistake is then to call her out on her public display of racism but staying polite himself while the woman is unwilling to either justify her racism or apologise for it. It thus seems rather odd that anybody would consider the sea lion's behaviour to be unacceptable and the woman's to be fine (once the hyperbolic home invasion is subtracted). In fact the only real life use of the 'sealioning' meme that I can think of would be as a magical formula against having to provide evidence for an outrageous or offensive statement; in other words, a magic formula for the evasion of responsibility.

This last one is therefore the odd one out because, again, the others all have their justification under the right circumstances. The problem is that all of them are prone to misuse under slightly different circumstances. And that is why I feel uncomfortable if these terms and phrases are used to short-circuit conversations, even if I find myself agreeing with the person who uses them. There is no alternative to figuring out what is actually correct and what is actually incorrect on a case by case basis.

No comments:

Post a Comment