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Civility: Lost Art, or Martial Art?

December 29, 2011

Every so often, I’m surfing the internet and I come across a meltdown.  Someone oversteps themselves in communicating via e-mail or a forum post; they bust out with anger and vitriol where none is called for, and before you know it (literally, sometimes), “nerd rage” kicks in, and the armies of internet outrage produce horrific results for the individual in question.  It’s a terrible thing to watch – most often, it results in the offender losing any hope of a good reputation, losing business, and being driven from the public eye.  From time to time, it goes so far as to result in threats of physical violence.  I’m not here to weigh in on the relative morality of invoking the internet’s anger upon uncivil individuals.  I’m more interested in looking at this phenomenon as a symptom of a well-known and quantified difficulty with communications on the internet.  This isn’t going to be news, really… I’m not talking about anything fresh.  I DO think it’s relevant, and bears investigation.

(If I’ve been too obscure, which I tend to do, I’ll name two names as examples of the kind of events that I’ve referred to as “meltdowns.”  I’m not putting these here for any reason other than to give context; these individuals have had “enough,” by anyone’s measure.  You may remember the Cook’s Source scandal that caused Judith Griggs to become the definition of how to not treat intellectual property; much more recently, a one Paul Christoforo defined how not to conduct customer service).

Completely Obvious Point:  Civility seems to be in short supply on the internet.  Personally, I blame the impersonal nature of internet communications and the ability to engage in anonymity.  There’s often very little consequence for being uncivil on the internet, and to some people, it appears to have risen as an art form.  The act of “trolling,” or “griefing” seems to have a particular attraction.  There are those who seem to think that the more people they aggravate with a post, the more internets they win.  To some, this act may seem pointless.  In reality, it’s anything but.

There’s a certain amount of satisfaction from having power over someone, after all.  When you can type some words on a screen and make someone angry, you’ve got a certain amount of power over them.  If that person goes so far as to put time and energy into typing words back, spending hours or days upset about what you’ve typed, then you have even more power over them.  It’s an odd concept, and not everyone enjoys this form of power exchange, but it’s apparently quite the rush.  I don’t think I can explain it better than Brendon Small explained it in his show “Metalocaplypse.”

“You notice how I’m not mad, he gets mad. That’s being a dick.”  –William Murdeface Murderface Murderface Murderface

This kind of behavior isn’t limited to the internet, of course; people have been engaging in this form of power exchange for as long as there’s been spoken language.  Of course, back in “less civilized” times, people who put time into this form of uncivility could legally be challenged to a duel, or dragged into the street and beaten with a stick no thicker than your thumb.  Nowadays, we’re required to answer verbally, if at all, or simply walk away.  People who are very good at this form of power exchange can even seem to be engaging in perfectly civil discourse; it’s only when you walk away feeling somehow cheated in that conversation, knowing that you were correct but being unable to get anything like a point across (apparently) that you know someone has gone out of their way to piss you off, simply because they could.

A key sign of this behavior is visible if you get mad, or call them on the behavior.  The universal response is for them to respond “hey, it was all in fun, right?”

These conversations, on the internet or in person, usually revolve around a subject that you find dear to your heart, upon which you have strong feelings.  Religion, politics, a particular branch of philosophy; if you get that feeling that someone is contradicting you for the sake of upsetting you, you’re probably being baited.  Most often, the person who is baiting you has little or no actual feeling on the subject, but has a set of seemingly well-reasoned contradictions handy.  Their point of view will also tend to shift, when you make well-reasoned statements, to keep themselves at the maximum of frustrating antithesis to your point.

It may seem like civil discourse; it isn’t.  It’s an attempt to make you sound less intelligent, like you have a poor grasp on a beloved subject.  It’s an attempt to make you feel belittled, bested, and like something close to your heart has been devalued.  It’s an attempt to make you feel like a failure.

It’s an attack, targeting your sense of worth.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this a lot… I’ll admit, I’m a soft touch.  If I catch myself in time, I’ll step away from the conversation and cut contact with the offender.  More often than not, I’m drawn into the conversation more than I ought to be; when someone is adept at this form of attack, you may not realize you’re in the middle of it until it’s too late.  By this time, I’ve lost a night or two of sleep and hours of time that I could have spent writing constructively, rather than pointlessly trying to compose a reasoned argument to make a point with someone who will never allow you the satisfaction of making your point.

I’ve found a technique that seems to help, though.  It’s pretty effective.  Thought I’d share it.

Step One:  Maintain a friendly and civil tone, even when you are not met with one.

When it comes right down to it, there’s no actual reason to be anything other than friendly and civil, unless you want people angry at you.  Oh, sure, you might get more votes, you might draw more attention, but you probably don’t want that kind of attention.  A friendly and civil tone has the advantage of coming across as professional.  The more you use a friendly and civil tone, the less likely it is that you’ll get pulled into something negative… it doesn’t give a troll anything to work with.  More, after all is said and done, those witnessing the conversation will certainly remember that you always kept it friendly and civil.

Step Two:  You don’t have to convince anyone of anything.

You know what your opinion is.  One would hope that your opinion has been built out of careful research and/or introspection, so that it stands up to a little shaking.  Still, it’s nice to stay open to alternate opinions, considering them with a grain of salt and an eye towards a solid grasp on subject matter.  If you find yourself forced to defend your opinion, however, there’s no reason not to walk away.  It’s your opinion, and if someone can’t deal with the fact that you feel that way, that’s not your problem. It’s theirs.

Then, my favorite part…

Step Three:  Remember the phrase “It’s interesting that you think that.”

It’s a great way of saying “I’ve listened to what you have to say, and I find it has the value of excrement.”  It’s a friendly little statement, almost completely neutral.  It neither gives nor takes in a conversation.  If you find yourself locked in combat with someone who absolutely insists on attempting to devalue your statements or opinions, this is a nice little blocking maneuver.  Whether a Christian is trying to tell you that your Athiest views have no value, or an Athiest is trying to tell you that your Christian views have no value, (subsitute Conservative, Liberal, Right, Left, Clone, Droid, Cat, Dog, or any other diametrically opposed set of viewpoints as you wish), nothing takes the ammunition out of the fight like “it’s interesting that you think that.”


Please Do Note:  I’m not talking about reasoned conversations meant to genuinely exchange opinions and ideas.  Sometimes, it’s good to talk to people who don’t share your views in an effort to increase your understanding.  Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been with people who don’t share my views.  Those conversations were also marked by a free exchange of information; someone who is as willing to listen to me and my views as I am to listen to them and theirs.

No, I’m talking about when someone is only there to cause grief and strife, under the guise of “only having fun.”  Of course, those people may think that it’s their duty to shatter my world views in order to “save” me, somehow, and discount and discredit my years of knowledge and experience in favor of their own firmly held beliefs.

Of course, it’s interesting that they think that.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2011 11:34 pm

    I prefer to think of politeness as the Aikido of social discourse.

  2. Twisted Joe permalink
    December 30, 2011 8:28 am

    You know, I was going to start my reply with “it’s interesting that you think that”, but you beat me to it by making it the last statement. Damn you!

    On a serious note, the one element you leave out is that unfortunately we are as humans wired to want to “win” conversations about serious subjects. I can’t remember the researcher’s name, but I know there was a study that recently showed that we literally receive physical rewards from winning disagreements. Obviously, it’s not the only thing that rewards us, or else we’d all be locked into doing so, but it does seem to matter greatly to some.

    And I would guess that’s really what leads to trolling in the first place. I actually have a coworker who ultimately is a pretty decent guy, but who also takes great delight at trolling. I fail to understand how or why this matters to him, to take the time beginning arguments he really doesn’t care about online, but it amuses him greatly. For the most part, I try to forget that he does so, as I might otherwise be much less friendly to him than I am, and don’t need to turn a good working relationship into something intolerable.

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