One Million Robbers at Your Door

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131 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I knew this story (from Quillette 😉 but hearing it again is not fun. I think it all comes back to this regressive idea that certain opinions should be attacked with every weapon available. This kind of stuff was horrible when the religious right was doing it and it’s horrible now.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      I think it all comes back to this regressive idea that certain opinions should be attacked with every weapon available.

      This is true, but it’s also not an explanation, because that idea has always been pretty popular. One reason I wanted to write this piece is I wanted to go a bit beyond the underlying motive of the people harassing Alexander, and get at what makes them seem so much more potent than they are now.

      My thesis (which obviously I didn’t manage to formulate this clearly until after I sent the piece off to Will) is that viral outrage spreads knowledge of opinions people object to all over the world, and then a very similar dynamic to the one that made people upset about the Culture War Thread in the first place ensures that there are enough malefactors to cause real problems for people offline.

      In other words, you can’t explain a variable with a constant.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        The issue is not whether people hate us, or even how many; the issue is what they can do about it. Like, it wouldn’t matter that a discussion board for people who wanted to talk shit about Scott Alexander had 2000 users if those 2000 users couldn’t post bad reviews on Amazon and Yelp, if they couldn’t learn where he’s attending conferences and make bomb threats, if they couldn’t find anywhere that he tried to have a conversation online and fill up the thread with garbage.

        As you point out, it’s not so much that outrage spreads virally as it is that viral outrage can now directly attack its subject.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:

          I believe the two phenomena exacerbate each other in ways that make them much worse together than either would be on its own.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck says:

            It wouldn’t matter if 2000 people wrote one-star reviews for my book if Amazon didn’t assume that every one of those reviews was just as valid as any other person’s review.Report

            • Avatar pillsy says:

              Absolutely. It also wouldn’t matter if 2000 people didn’t have an inclination to review bomb someone.

              Probably worth thinking about how to address both problems, though you think by now Amazon might be able to get a handle on the review-bombing thing.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

        Like a lot of people, I have never been able to get my head around the idea that in times of war average people can get whipped up to do terrible things. I think the internet functions in much the same way.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:

          That’s one thing I disagree with and am trying to argue against. Like, sure, being annoyed at a guy and remembering that you’re annoyed at him and mentioning it in an unrelated forum is one thing, but the worst stuff? I don’t think so.

          One person out of the (probably thousands) that really dislike Alexander, “called the clinic where I worked, pretended to be a patient, and tried to get me fired”. That shows a really unusual commitment to being an asshole, and in the absence of any of the factors that (AIUI) drive average people to commit atrocities during wartime.

          But if hundreds of thousands of people know about you, the chance of getting one unusually committed asshole who wants to make your life hell is pretty high.Report

          • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

            I think about all of the people that went after Covington Catholic. Actual paid ‘journalists’ were saying gross things. They received lots of death threats, going after families, etc. I don’t want to try to estimate the number, but it was enough that it adds to my pile of concerns.

            I absolutely think Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. I see it on social media from people I have known to be rationale for years, I see it in family members and I see it on this site. I think we have some real unpleasantness on the horizon and I just hope it doesn’t turn as violent as I fear it might.Report

  2. Avatar Pat says:

    We are all politicians nowReport

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Infohazards, man. You start not minding when other people are exposed to infohazards, you shouldn’t be surprised when people who actually care about Social Hygiene show up and try to impose some standards.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Warren Ellis said something like “the modern internet is an experiment where you can push a button and a stranger in a room far away will feel pain”, and I’ll extend that–what we’re learning from this experiment is that most people will push the button every now and then, and some people will push the fuck out of the button, and that nobody imagines that they’ll ever be the stranger in the room.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Perhaps we should start working to identify the people who will ‘push the fuck out of that button’, and take away their internets.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        That seems difficult, and a bit fraught.

        I wonder if focusing on the part where most people push the button now and then, and maybe just get them to realize they’re pushing the button, would be more profitable.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Speaking of Scott Alexander, we might be in a “Conflict vs. Mistake” situation.

          Getting “mistake” kinda people to realize that they’re pushing the button is likely to eventually have them change their behavior once they realize that they are making a mistake.

          “Conflict” kinda people? They know what happens when they push the button. They want the behavior that makes them push the button to stop. They want to not *HAVE* to push the button. And if Scott Alexander won’t stop doing what he’s doing, they’ll have no choice but to keep pushing the button.

          Why are you defending him, anyway?Report

          • Avatar pillsy says:

            I’m defending him because I just kinda like the guy, in terms of his writing style, the kind of way he starts writing the problems, and in a weird way the way he expresses things I rarely see expressed that I identify with.

            That doesn’t mean I don’t have a list of objections to his positions and general ideological bent: it’s as long as your arm as long as you use a fairly large font. But part of that is the way he’ll tend to pull back from natural conclusions of the ideas he’s exploring. It’s not unique to him by any means, but his prolixity and constant anxiety over being misunderstood make this unusually obvious, and fascinating as well as frustrating.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              (“why are you defending him” is a reference to a common internet attack line, not an actual question for you)Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I wrote, and then erased, a comment where I said that that was insufficient and I’d need him to list out his objections and I’d tell him when he could stop.

                But we’re probably going to get there organically so I figured that my comment would be extraneous.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                To what end?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                To what end? In the hopes it would help provide antibodies.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:


                I think I’m going to need you to unpack that metaphor if you want me to understand it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Eh, it’ll work better in retrospect.

                Just keep at it in the rest of the thread and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:


                You’re being extremely annoying.

                I’m interested in your opinion, but not so interested that I’m gonna solve a rhetorical Rubicks Cube in order to figure it out.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                My opinion is that you are operating in a “mistake” paradigm and you think that if you argue your well-founded points well enough, against people who argue their well-founded points well enough, eventually you will be able to see where a mistake has been made and someone involved will change their minds now that the mistake has been laid bare… because that’s what you do when you get new information like “I’ve made a mistake”.

                But there are people out there who are not operating within this paradigm. They are, instead, operating on a conflict paradigm. If they make mistakes, it’s in service to a higher cause. Pointing out their mistakes is tantamount to treason given the stakes. Why would you focus on the relatively minor errors that I may or may not have made instead of operating in service to the higher ideal? The very fact that you’re cavorting around with people that have been established to be bad is bad enough. Now you’re defending them and attacking my mistake instead of serving the greater good? And so on and so forth culminating in a “you are who we thought you were”.

                And if you enjoy getting elbows deep into the effort to root out and eliminate mistakes with someone who is, instead, trying to win the conflict, you’re going to find yourself attacked as an enemy sympathizer.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                That is a false dichotomy. After all, there are errors of fact, which we all might want to know about, contrasted with moral failings. They are not the same thing. Trying to map this into a binary error/mistake is missing the point that different things are different.

                Sometimes you can reason with people who hold bigoted ideas. For example, often a bigot has built an edifice of rationalization for their hate. However, if you can get them to inspect their underlying disgust response, and then say, “Hey, maybe that is inside your head and not in the world,” sometimes they can break out of it. People can sometimes see their own rationalization at work.

                Sometimes. Maybe. My point is, however, these kinds of “errors” seem rather different from not understanding a math theorem or having naive view of some historical fact. They aren’t a mistake regarding facts. They are mistakes regarding values and judgement.

                Of course, some people, even when their underlying values are exposed, just double down on their hatred. They exist.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, I suppose I now get to put my opinion to the test and see if I have reason to change it at the end of the day.

                They are mistakes regarding values and judgement.

                Huh. I suppose I suffer from having been raised in a fairly Fundamentalist Christian environment and so I read this statement as being similar to the hundreds of other times I’ve heard it.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                ” some people, even when their underlying values are exposed, just double down on their hatred. They exist.”

                You mean they might see disagreement as resulting from Conflict, rather than a Mistake?Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                I know, but I still thought it would be worth answering.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          As with most such misbehavior, we should not begin attempting to correct bad behavior with bullets and bombs.

          But we can’t correct such behavior without first knowing who is misbehaving.Report

          • Avatar pillsy says:

            I have a hunch that large fractions of people are behaving a bit badly, and a much smaller number of people are behaving really badly, and the mild and common bad behavior does a lot to obscure the worse behavior while making it more harmful.

            I should probably write another article on that someday.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Thinking about this.

              The worse behavior also does a great job of reframing the mild and common behavior.

              Someone disagreeing isn’t merely disagreeing. They’re setting up for the 1-2 punch. The mild/common is the 1.Report

              • Avatar JoeSal says:

                Rule by force premise starts the argument at 2, beyond that there is only conflict.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:


                Possibly true, but when you get right down to it, for most people, during most social interactions, the likelihood that it will boil down to rule by force is pretty remote.

                This can, of course, lull people into a false sense of security, and folks with what Maribou calls “marked identities” [1] are probably closer to (and more aware of) that line.

                PS: OK, I googled “marked identity” and got some hits (including to Wikipedia), but the stuff that came up didn’t immediately say where it’s from. Maybe linguistics?

                [1] I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else, but I like the term and assume it’s common in literature I’m unfamiliar with.Report

              • Avatar JoeSal says:

                I haven’t seen liberals that have a political end of argument that doesn’t lead to laws and eventual enforcement.

                It may be glossed over as ‘good policy’ or ‘good governance’ or certain ‘rights’, but in the end when I ask if this is to be deployed without rule by force the unwavering answer I receive is that no, it is to be deployed by force.

                At that point, it’s starting with bullets.

                Maybe the leftwards here will correct this if I am seeing it wrong, but the answers I have been getting lately have been consistent.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                Great point.

                Mildly bad behavior can be a way of boundary testing to see if you can get away with worse behavior, and people recognize/pattern match on that. I also think this may flow into a lot of the anxiety that people feel in the face of changing norms.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          I have a feeling that this is one of those things that we’re probably going to have to evolve away from over the course of about a decade. As in companies, organizations and governments are going to become enormously more jaded about outraged complaints originating from online in general and from cesspools like Reddit and Twitter especially. I have a suspicion that when the media finally dies or transforms into whatever the internet is turning it into that might also assist the process as the desperate “sensationalize and publish the story now now now!!!” philosophy seems inherent to how it operates currently much as flailing one’s arms is inherent to drowning people.

          I console myself by thiking about how, in the early aughts, spam mail and scammers were a global menace and were going to destroy the internet/take over the world (Futurama even did some episodes about it). In the end people just got more cynical about messages they received by email and spam filters were beefed up and now spammers and scammers are a nuisance instead of a plague.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    You know, this conversation reminds me of a young man I got to know on Google Plus (It officially died yesterday, may it rest in peace). His ideas, when we got down to it, were not that far off of mine, but he carried so much anger that his manner of expressing himself often alienated people who are to the left.

    I found him interesting. I found him persuadable. We were having a discussion one time when some other people jumped into the thread and told us all what a terrible person he was, and we shouldn’t ever talk to him. I was super irritated by that.

    It turns out he was a Google employee and had made some statements on internal message boards that had hit some people the wrong way.

    One of my beliefs about social media is that it is strongly subject to the tragedy of the commons. Unregulated discussion groups will quickly fall to the lowest common denominator. In fact, some users will actively be deliberately offensive as to push away people they don’t like, so they can dominate and claim the space as theirs.

    But back that anger he carried. We carried on discussions, and eventually he told me stuff that led me to believe that he had been sexually abused as an early teen by an older woman, and did not recognize that what had happened was sexual abuse. But it seemed to me to color his attitude toward women a lot. I think he was probably also spectrum. Eventually he stopped using G+, which I consider a good decision for him, and got into therapy (also a good decision).

    There are so many people out there, right and left, who think that the way to do politics is to demonize your opponent, characterize them by association with the worst possible people. I don’t endorse this, I don’t think that’s any way to live.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Yeah the internet also enables marginal or unbalanced individuals to connect to thousands of people and enables the obsessive or deranged ones to cause actual harm whereas before their reach was confined to the walls of their basements.

      But on the other hand the internet allows marginal or atypical people to connect to thousands of people and find belonging and community.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:


        “But on the other hand the internet allows marginal or atypical people to connect to thousands of people and find belonging and community.”

        This. It’s the best argument, IMO, against banning/deplatforming/etc someone who says problematic things. I think tolerating those opinions, engaging them in good faith and refusing to take the low road is the best way to keep a misguided person from become a radicalized person.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      It turns out he was a Google employee

      Dude, he was on G+. He was either a Google employee or a Google employee’s dog.Report

  6. Avatar KenB says:

    The chinese robber problem was about the invalidity of generalizing a characteristic to an entire population based on even a large number of anecdotes — i don’t see how that’s related to the Reddit issue. SA wasn’t suggesting that a small number of people can’t cause a lot of harm.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      It’s related to the problem because the other side of the Chinese Robber problem is that, with a large enough population, you can find a large enough number of bad actors to provide the anecdotes you need. But those bad actors don’t just provide anecdotes, they also act badly and cause harm.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Scott Alexander is something of an acquired taste because he allows his thinking to take him to some heterodox places across the entire political spectrum and has a very wide ideological spread among his commentariat ranging from infamous anarchy-capitalist David Friedman to standard millennial liberals. Freddie De Boer posted there on occasion so Slate Star Codex had at least one hard leftist. What really got him into trouble with the Internet liberals was his article Radicalizing the Romanceless. Since he did not support the orthodoxy concerning love, sex, feminism, and nice guys people hated him.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I haven’t read Slatestarcodex for more than a year probably. I think LeeEsq has it right. He is one of those people who took things to what he saw as their logical, consistent conclusions and this created a very eccentric viewpoint that had something to offend everyone. Plus he is one of those people who seemed to have a high bar of tolerance for right-wing whackos and racists. I don’t think he agreed with them but he tolerated them saying very vile shit and this is going to turn off a lot of people.Report

  9. Avatar veronica d says:

    The basic problem: Scott Alexander is a dipshit. It’s really that simple. He’s spineless, clueless, and hyper-analytical in the way that leads “too smart” people to be dumb as fuck. Furthermore, he’s utterly wrong about the actual political tenor of the “culture war” thread. His chosen method to gauge its politics was to “randomly sample posts and then make a personal evaluation.” However, the weight a post has in a community cannot be measured that way, nor does it tell you who the thought leaders are, nor how the various opinions exist in the network of discourse, nor how the various preoccupations of the community cause certain topics to always be “in play.” Regarding the latter point, what is questioned has as much political content as what is said.

    That said, doxxing him and contacting his employer was going too far. By contrast, if his forum makes him unpopular, well people should judge your character.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      As George Orwell said “There are somethings so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” Scott Alexander is clearly very intelligent but he allows abstract thought to override what should be common sense. Lie many intellectuals he gets offended when the common sense but not overly analytical solution is the correct solution.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      ‘ the weight a post has in a community cannot be measured that way,”

      hey that’s awesome imma let you finish but do us a favor and remember this idea the next time someone points out some dumb thing a liberal says and you tell us that it’s just cherry-picking and that person isn’t really important and there’s tons of posts that weren’t that one and we’re just “part of the screenshot crowd”Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      Like I said, I like the guy, but I can’t really disagree with most of this.

      I didn’t want to get too deep in the weeds of what I thought about the “culture war” thread [1], but he actually came up with a good argument for why it was a bad idea here.

      Of course, he also does a lot of insisting that he really doesn’t mean to say anything bad about Charles Murray, which is one of the most toxic shibboleths of the Rationalist and Anti-SJ sets that he usually hangs with.

      [1] In part because doing even a completely half-assed job was unlikely to be useful while making me very annoyed.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      I have only occasionally dipped a toe in over there, but I totally got the sense of “hyper-analytical in the way that leads “too smart” people to be dumb as fuck.” This is why I have never spent more time there. I know this phenomenon well, and find it mostly tiresome.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      What do you mean by “The basic problem: Scott Alexander is a dipshit”? Is the problem the doxxer or the doxxee? Scott Alexander may have created a situation where he was disliked, but we can’t consider that the basic problem, at least without changing some fundamental rules about society.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        He definitely shouldn’t have people calling his work, particularly when they do so dishonestly. Regarding being “doxxed,” the term can mean different things. It’s trivial to find out his real name, so that ship kind of sailed. (In fact, I know people who know him in real life. It’s not a secret.) Regarding his being “harassed” in real life, the details matter. As I said, calling his boss and lying, that’s bullshit. Telling him in person you think he’s terrible, hmmmm. When is that okay?

        Anyhow, when I said “the basic problem,” I meant the basic problem with Scott. He’s a dipshit.Report

  10. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    On the topic of doxxing, I made the decision very early in my internet career, over twenty years ago, to use my real name. It would be trivially easy to find my real address. One reason I went this way is that it encourages me to only write on the internet stuff that I would be willing to say in real life. I can’t say that it has completely prevented me from writing something I later regretted, but it has kept my worst tendencies in check. Of course this only works because my views are not, for the most part, outre. If I were, in my heart of hearts, a fascist who wanted to write about the proper treatment of Those People, this policy could be unduly stifling.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      Ditto to all this.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      I maintain a pseudonym which is just there to dissuade the most casual griefing.

      Way back in the mists of time a USENET neo-Nazi tried to get me kicked out of college for some mix of being pro-choice and being Jewish. It was hilariously inept at the time, but as I’ve grown older I decided to take a few steps to prevent that sort of thing from being trivially easy.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      In case anyone is thinking that only loud, well-known eccentric people get this kind of treatment:

      I’ve been doxxed, twice (though by individuals, not by GIANT SWARMS ON THE INTERNET). The first time was back in the days when we were still mostly all on VAX terminals. I’ve been cyber-stalked and cyber-harassed, emailed all kinds of filth. I’ve been sent credible death threats. I’ve also been real-life pranked by anonymous internet people in ways that I found funny but which they may or may not have intended to be a threat given that it involved pointing out they knew my real info and were willing to prank me…

      Many of my friends who are similarly non-notable have had that kind of negative attention, also, in completely different circumstances.

      You don’t have to be outre to get a lot of negative attention on the internet. (At least, I would definitely class myself as dull rather than outre if those are the two boxes.) In the cases where it happened to me there was nothing viral going on, at least not as far as I know – just a lot of assholes out there who sometimes happen to notice I exist, not all at once or anything. And I know I occasionally get combative around here but that is literally the most combative I have ever been on the internet, and I got more negative attention back in the early 2000s than I have at any point since other than the year I spent moderating the site. I really wasn’t doing much of anything in the early 2000s other than existing on the internet at the point at which it was suddenly loads more accessible to lots of people than it had before…

      Some people think it suffices to get perceived as any kind of marked identity to get those kind of responses, but I think it’s actually more widespread than that, it’s just that people don’t (as a matter of policy I don’t usually either) talk about it because they don’t want to feed the trolls.

      It’s not like I bother to keep my pseudonym more than flimsy – it’s pretty much deliberately see-through at this point – but that’s a conscious choice that balances a lot of factors, not paranoia on my part. It cuts down on the casual griefing, as pillsy says, but doesn’t shut out people I have no interest in shutting out (or might actually want to be able to find as much about me as they would like to).

      I’m not saying *you’re* assuming that pseudonyms are all for dumb reasons, but a lot of people who have made your choices for your reasons do assume that. And I can’t tell one way or the other from your comment what you think about it.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      I’m sure every white guy stopped by a cop thinks that if he just calmly and rationally explains what was going on then he’ll get away without a ticket because, after all, he’s normally a very careful driver, and he’s certainly going to speak in a quiet and respectful manner, and that ought to count for something, right? After all, he’s not like those other assholes you see on the news all the time.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      I chose to start using my own name to force myself to be honest in my writing and to (hopefully) avoid my worst impulses. I would say it has been 100% successful on the writing front and maybe 75% successful on the commenting front. To the latter end, it’s amazing what walking away from your keyboard for 10 minutes and talking to a real human being that you like will do for the tone of your rebuttal.Report

  11. Avatar pillsy says:



    OK so I circled back around to the “Conflict vs Mistake” essay you linked and… um… I don’t think it’s one of his best pieces of work,[1] but it’s not entirely useless either. I’m willing to roll with the dichotomy here.

    Now, one thing I believe about Ordinary Times is that the culture here leans heavily towards the “Mistake” approach. So does Alexander.

    But… this place drives me up the wall pretty frequently because I often take the “Conflict” approach.

    So I didn’t really write this piece for people who take the “Conflict” approach. Why would I?

    The very fact that you’re cavorting around with people that have been established to be bad is bad enough. Now you’re defending them and attacking my mistake instead of serving the greater good?

    Yeah and why do you think I answered your question?

    It’s because IME it’s quite frustrating to have people get into a dudgeon at the mere suggestion that the question might be relevant, or split 11 000 hairs in their attempt to justify defending someone while never actually admitting they’re defending that person.

    Neither inspires trust.

    [1] His conflation of the “Conflict” approach with (especially Left) populism is a major flaw.

    EDIT: Haha I was able to go back and fix some irksome word choice outside the standard five minute edit window. I will try not to go mad with my newfound power.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      You are getting very very VERY confused by the way Jaybird put a paragraph break before “Why are you defending him, anyway?”

      Try pretending that isn’t there. Re-read the post. Does it seem different?

      Jaybird isn’t speaking in his own person, he’s quoting, and he’s quoting a sort of reasoning that I find it very hard to believe you’ve never seen anywhere.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        Yeah I get that he was quoting “Conflict” people. I was just pointing out that if someone took that line of argument with me on the basis of this piece [1], that is, in fact, how I would address it.

        I think that it is, in fact, a good way to address it based on my experience with both being asked that question and asking it.

        [1] Which, BTW, I’d be surprised to get here in the OT comments.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          You weren’t supposed to respond to that question.

          You’re never supposed to respond to that question.

          Because the point is not to seek a response. If the person asking thought you were making a Mistake, they’d ask something else. If the person asking thought it was a Conflict then they aren’t interested in your dumbass wrong stupid opinion; they’re suggesting that there is already and answer, and the answer is obvious, and it’s “because you agree with his horrible opinion because you are a horrible person as well”.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            By responding to it, he successfully flipped my affectation away from conflict back fully to mistake, though.

            So it wasn’t a bad play.Report

          • Avatar pillsy says:

            Yet I have actually answered that question, and had good results, in analogous situations.

            “Conflict” people see motives as important! That’s the whole thing, right? They view the argument as a conflict between people or groups with incommensurate values (which many arguments actually are FWIW), so discussing your motives and values provides them with information that may ease their mind and allow them to see that there’s commonality there.

            Is it a sure thing? No. But sometimes it works.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              You do, sometimes, find people who are confused about whether they’re following Conflict or Mistake rules.

              “Conflict people see motives as important!”

              Sure, but your motives are easy to derive from the fact that you’re disagreeing with them.

              “discussing your motives and values provides them with information that may ease their mind and allow them to see that there’s commonality there.”

              If they felt like commonality was possible with you then they wouldn’t be arguing with you.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                They have imperfect information; sometimes they know it and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re willing to admit it and sometimes they aren’t.

                And if you’re willing to turn the conversation into one about your motives, it’s entirely possible to transform a “Conflict” conversation into a “Mistake” conversation.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                My favorite part of the Conflict vs. Mistake essay (which I did enjoy) was this excerpt right here:

                What would the conflict theorist argument against the Jacobite piece look like? Take a second to actually think about this. Is it similar to what I’m writing right now – an explanation of conflict vs. mistake theory, and a defense of how conflict theory actually describes the world better than mistake theory does?

                No. It’s the Baffler’s article saying that public choice theory is racist, and if you believe it you’re a white supremacist. If this wasn’t your guess, you still don’t understand that conflict theorists aren’t mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect.


              • Avatar pillsy says:

                That struck me as one of the weaker parts of the essay. I couldn’t understand why Alexander thought the piece from The Baffler had been written in the first place.

                Also, just as a warning if you haven’t followed the link already, the piece is… pretty bad.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I imagine he had been percolating on conflict vs. mistake in his backbrain for a while and it moved slowly to the forebrain and he was out and about on the ‘tubes and encountered that article and yelled “THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED FOR AN EXAMPLE!”

                Serendipity, baby.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                That’s remarkably similar to what I imagine. Which is a shame, in a way, because I think he glossed over an important issue.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              Is it a sure thing? No. But sometimes it works.

              This is the problem with low cost*, low yield tactics, it becomes a default tactic.

              *low cost for the person employing it, not always so much for the person on the receiving end of it.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                I’d be delighted if people started just giving straight answers as a default response to, “Why are you defending ${BAD_PERSON}.”Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                to me it feels like that nerd who replies to “I know you are but what am I” with “well, good sir, I know precisely what you are, and I shall tell you, in exacting detail…”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “We ain’t gonna play your game, we’re going to play my game” is a great play.

                I mean, if you like to play.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                And, of course, sometimes the game the other guy is playing is “watch you flail”, and the only winning move is not to play.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                If a persons default is that everyone is engaging in Conflict, rather than Mistake, because they get it right sometimes, then they are engaging a low risk, low yield tactic. It costs them little to make that assumption, and it hits paydirt from time to time. In a way, it’s like carpet bombing a place. Bombs are cheap, they will probably take out the enemy fighters, and everyone else along the run.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                That’s may be why people do it, but the thing about default tactics is that they’re predictable, and you can often defuse the bombs as a result.

                OK, I slightly warped that metaphor, but I think you get my drift.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Metaphor still works… ish.

                Thing about bombs is that defusing them takes effort. A person will only want to defuse so many bombs before they say to themselves, “Switzerland is nice this time of year, right?”Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:


                True. But any kind of debate or engagement can be tiresome, and more trouble than it’s worth. This is actually one of my problems with the, ah, Alexandrian approach in general.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                But any kind of debate or engagement can be tiresome, and more trouble than it’s worth.

                This exactly. The point is, I don’t want to have to re-argue the same dumb things again and again versus transphobic assholes with an axe to grind. But they’re there, welcome members of that community, and they’ll spout transphobia every chance they get because they’re preoccupied.

                “So rationally debate them.”

                I have! Ad nauseam. It’s tiresome.

                “So ignore them.”

                I can, to a point, but only to a point. They’ll mix their bullshit into the general conversation. Yeah, I can ignore it, but only to a point. I’m human.

                Furthermore, this isn’t addressed by “mistake theory.” Bullshit. These people know exactly what they are doing, and exactly how they can (in a sense) “hack the discourse norms” of spaces such as SSC.

                Trust me on this. I know these people. I’ve been around them long enough. I’ve seen them say many things in many contexts. They know the game they’re playing.

                Scott should know it. He’s smart enough. The fact he fosters such a space reflects his own nerd trauma and his lack of a spine.

                Hence, he’s a dipshit.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Obvs. But if, before I can engage the effort of debate, I have to defuse a bomb? Man, I gotta really want to debate with that person, and if they are someone who is always going for Conflict and questioning motives, because it’s a reflex at this point, that’s gonna get old, quick.

                It’s one thing to resort to Conflict as a quick and dirty filter, but you can’t keep it up if you want to engage in discussions. You have to be willing to trust or no one will want to talk to you.

                Even hereabouts, where I trust most people, there are some who are so quick to resort to Conflict over certain topics that I don’t even bother, because Switzerland is kinda nice this time of year.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:


                Man, I gotta really want to debate with that person, and if they are someone who is always going for Conflict and questioning motives, because it’s a reflex at this point, that’s gonna get old, quick.

                Yup. Sometimes you will have that investment. Often you won’t. If you don’t, honestly, it’s probably not worth the trouble, but is it really going to be worth the trouble in any instance?

                You have to be willing to trust or no one will want to talk to you.

                Sure, but trust isn’t built in a day. I mostly trust the people here now, but it took a long time for a variety of reasons.

                And some people are just touchy as hell about some issues. Actually, my working hypothesis is everybody has one or two such issues.

                Anyway, talking about those issues generally requires a lot of trust, and a lot of time those people should maybe be opting out of the conversation and stepping away for 10 minutes instead of continuing.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      His conflation of the “Conflict” approach with (especially Left) populism is a major flaw.

      A flaw it may be, but I imagine that it’s based in his personal experience of who has called for his head and why. Lee remembers “Radicalizing the Romanceless” above (and you can see an example of Ordinary Commenters discussing the topic here).

      I’m sure that, in another era, he would have found The Right to be far more hostile to him and his. (Creationist dogpiles, maybe.)

      As it is, his flaw seems to spring from his own personal experience.

      Even as I recognize it as an error, I see it as one that is exceptionally easy to make and exceptionally difficult to overcome.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        I was objecting as much to the “populist” aspect as the Left/Right aspect for what it’s worth. Especially in foreign policy conversations, “Conflict” type arguments can carry a lot of weight with educated establishment folk.

        Anyway, I accept that the error would be hard for Alexander to avoid given his experiences, but I have more than enough trouble with the mistakes it’s easy for me to make without also making mistakes that are easy for other people to make.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:

          Oh another example where “elite” types tend to eagerly fall into “Conflict” mode is when the subject of NIMBYism comes up. It’s just assumed (not implausibly) that everything the NIMBYs bring up is a stalking horse for not wanting to live near poor people, preserving property values, et c.

          And for that matter, the whole thing that seems to have kicked off Alexander’s line of thought, public choice economics, is a close cousin, since it’s all about people who you can’t trust on account of their motives.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        Sometimes I think that veronica is using this board as therapy for all the things she knows she can’t say at work.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Let’s not speculate on the mental states of others.

          Jeez louise, that sort of thing was the problem in that thread, I tell you what. “Only people who are bad would notice things!”


    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Why do you frequently take the Conflict approach?Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        Absence of trust, usually. Another flaw with the Alexander piece is he never addresses why people who take the Conflict approach might do so, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might. A lot of the time “Conflict” style debates are really just what he’d call “Mistake” style debates, but the mistake in question is a mis-perception of one party’s motives or values.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          Thanks for that.

          Did you read the whole piece? The last quarter is literally all about how he had previously been too uncharitable about why conflict theorists are conflict theorists, and that he needs to update and loosen his judgement of them for that. He basically says that was in fact the basic impetus for the piece.Report

          • Avatar pillsy says:

            OK yeah that’s a fair cop.

            Probably closer to my issue is that he doesn’t get what Conflict theorists might get out of debate/argument. He (not unreasonably) gives Marxists as an example of people who hold to Conflict theory, but Marxists argue with each other all the time, rather notoriously.Report

  12. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I freely admit there were people who were against homosexuality in the thread (according to my survey, 13%), people who opposed using trans people’s preferred pronouns (according to my survey, 9%), people who identified as alt-right (7%), and a single person who identified as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it).

    I mean, what percentage, by mass, of the water in a pool has to be turds, before it’s fair to call that pool a cesspool?Report

    • Avatar KenB says:

      I think this is actually an interesting and important question, though you may have just been speaking rhetorically.

      First we have to decide if it’s really necessary to come up with a single judgment on the whole group, instead of dealing with the real diversity that’s there; then ideally we would come up with a rule that we could apply equitably across all groups, whether our attitude toward them is negative, positive, or neutral.

      E.g., if we just change “neo-Nazi” to something more like “hostile to Jews” and then gather these same percentages from the group “Muslims”, I’d be willing to bet they’d be higher in each case, but you might be a little more hesitant to apply the same sort of judgment to that population.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      The best response to this line of argument is buried in a Tumblr post from a few years back which has stuck with me and may well have subconsciously influenced what I wrote here. There are a lot of reasons people might want a space like the thread in question, and some of them, while not aligning to any impulses I share, also seem plausible and sympathetic:

      Or (and here’s the example I am scared to share) I’m gay. And sometimes I wonder, ‘would the world be a better place if gay people didn’t exist?’ Telling me ‘wtf is wrong with you’ is really not helpful for enabling me to work through that question. And if I ask it in my campus LGBT center, or on tumblr, it is likely that my need to have that conversation is going to have a big painful collision with someone else’s need not to hear questions like that entertained seriously.

      I need people who will think about my question and give me honest answers, to the best of their ability. I won’t be able to get over this question until someone reaches out to me with a genuine spirit of respect and curiosity so we can talk about the answer.

      I’ve had enough issues with anxiety and rumination in my life that I find it hard to begrudge someone something that they say they need. But of course this isn’t for everyone, and the author readily grants this. For people with those needs I see why a thread like the “culture war” thread would be useful, but I’d still stay the fuck away from it.[1]

      Still, if you’re going to provide a space like that, I think on some level Alexander’s tale should point to some things you maybe should consider. For one thing, I’m not sure why such a space for discussion needs to be public (and thus easily searchable and easily linkable).

      [1] I’m much more of the, “People who discuss whether I should exist make me extremely angry no matter how calmly and superficially politely they say so,” persuasion.Report

  13. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I’ve no idea who this guy is, but I have been thinking lately that employers really need to start thinking about how to respond to these types of doxxing efforts. Most of the managers at my work are nearing retirement age and are accustomed to dealing with every complaint with sweet talk and half-assed inaction. I have no doubt that, were they to get phone calls claiming I’m a panda-molesting hatemonger from someone incensed that I didn’t like the last Star Wars film, they would have no idea how to respond.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Alexander is so prolix that I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through any of his posts. The ones I’ve read most of (e.g. I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Out-group) seemed to justify Veronica’s assessment, which is another reason I lost interest partway through.

      Doxxing and harassing him is of course reprehensible.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        I like the prolixity.

        There’s a frustrating thing where he gets 90% of the way to figuring something out and gives up on the last 10%[1], but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there.

        [1] Perhaps because it would compromise his ability to have a bunch of NRx weirdos in his in-group or suggest that the feminists have a point.Report

        • I do too. I remember the first time I stumbled onto his blog and it just kept going and going – and every word was pure gold. I understood a very obscure concept completely, whereas many times I read a shorter piece and don’t really grasp the nuances. I think the length works in favor of helping people understand things they might not otherwise.Report

  14. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    This is a test comment. Sorry if it’s a distraction.

    This should be in italics.

    This should be in bold.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David says:

      Sir Cain, if I may be so bold, but is there any way to get a list of HTML code that works on this site? Alas, my old code does not seem to play nice with WP.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        I’ve already noticed that it uses EM tags rather than I.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Last night I installed a patch so that the <i> and <b> tags work again. Two reasons for that: minorly, for people like me where the i and b are pretty much muscle memory, and majorly because the site has a database full of comments formatted that way. <em> and <strong> will continue to work.

        <a> tags should continue to work as before for links. Too many links in a single comment kick it into moderation; I don’t remember off the top of my head how many in this current site incarnation. <blockquote> tags work.

        From seeing people using them, YouTube URLs are still properly caught and automatically rewritten appropriately.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Detta ska vara på svenska.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Aaron David’s original question is non-trivial. Among other things, all of the WordPress core, the site’s theme, and assorted plugins are heavily dependent on CSS — where a one-character typing error can (silently) have really significant effects.Report

  15. I just now saw this OP, Pillsy. It’s a really good piece. I haven’t read the comments yet, but I will say that the fact I could be doxxed or if not doxxed, then at least retaliated against in some way, makes me chary of saying certain things. (I’m referring to some things related to my job and my workplace.)Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      Thanks, Gabriel! I’m glad you like it.

      A lot of the stuff I don’t say is directly related to my job, too, even though I am pseudonymous.Report

      • Yeah. There’s one topic in particular I used to comment on a lot. It wasn’t one of my hobby horses, just something that either came up or that was so related to whatever was being discussed that I thought it relevant. But then, my job changed so that what I do is now pretty directly related to that topic and it would be impolitic for me to opine on it.Report

  16. Pillsy, I think this piece stands beside your opinions on beer and duck cartoons as a trifecta of awesome. Thank you so much for writing it, thanks to the Gods of Luck for having you write it right when I particularly needed to read it, and it was among the best things I’ve read on here.Report

  17. Avatar Jaybird says:



    I think I have to work for him now.Report

  18. Avatar pillsy says:

    It turns out Jesse Singal wrote a piece that has a similar theme as the “Conflict vs. Mistake” article, this time splitting calling the relevant impulses “rightside norms” and “accuracy norms”. This all came out of a kerfuffle involving Erik Kain, who is evidently a former OTer.

    The piece IMO shares some of the flaws that Alexander’s piece does, and is even more one-sided, in no small part because the underlying controversy seems to be completely ridiculous, where someone claimed that Kain is one of the founders of the alt-right for, evidently, no reason at all, and a bunch of people ran with that.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      In particular, I’m really skeptical of this paragraph:

      If, at a friendly real-life dinner consisting of people who spend too much on Twitter, you claimed Erik Kain is a founding member of the alt-right, your dinnermates would either look around uncomfortably or gently push back — “I didn’t love his coverage of GamerGate, sure, but isn’t that a bit different from the idea that he founded a hate movement?” You’d be hit with that feeling of having said something members of your group disagree with.

      Well, maybe.

      But consider what would happen if you had this conversation with people who are not Extremely Online: they’d probably believe you because you’re their friend and they’d extend the basic degree of trust that you aren’t crazy or just making something up whole cloth, and they’d have absolutely no clue who Kain is. This is even true from a lot of Twitter folk, because most of them have no idea who he is either.

      This means when someone states something outrageous about Kain, on or offline, the reaction will likely be fixed entirely by one’s opinion of the person making the statement. If you’re inclined to trust them already, that increases the trust, and so on and so forth if the people spreading the claim are also people you trust.

      This is often wildly inaccurate, of course, as it was in this case.

      But I Singal immediately views it in terms of people’s social status in a fairly useless way because he doesn’t really consider why such a set of norms might arise outside of their bad results.

      And norms can be bad even if they often have good results or frequently lead to people correct assumptions.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        Good comments. Don’t take any of the below as disagreeing with the comment I’m replying to, more as a tangent, please.

        Just so you know, and for the sake of anyone skimming comments
        1) Erik’s not just a former OT’er, he’s one of the original founders of the site and former EIC – he put a lot of work in over the years…
        2) As one of the very leftmost people on the site, a) I consider that charge laughable to the point where if someone brought it up to me at dinner I might fall out of my chair before I expressed my shock and dismay that they could think that, b) I hadn’t even heard of this until now, although i’m quite fond of Erik in an internet acquaintance I’d love to buy a beer way, which relates back to your original point about how 2000 people all hating on you is a mindblowingly intense experience whereas it is *also* a tempest in a teapot in internet terms of absolute numbers (was that one of your points? it’s something i filed away in my head after reading this article, anyway…. apologies for being a lazy commenter and not rereading it now)Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      I agree with him that an argument over a factual statement should stick to the facts. Of course, no one owns the entirely of a conversation, nor how a topic drifts, and when one person brings up a factual statement, other people might not care about that specific fact and wish to discuss other things.

      So is Kain a “founding member of the alt-right”? — sure that’s a different question from if he was a defender of gamergate. Either position, however, makes someone a dipshit, although the former seems worse than the latter.

      Then there is fucking Jesse Singal — who is indeed a terrible person. I fully understand why he doesn’t like these kinds of discourse norms, because he is a flaming bigot who would like to float above criticisms of his flagrantly dishonest reporting — just as many alt-right fuckheads would like to “compartmentalize” their racism. They want to burn crosses on the weekend, loudly hating blacks, and then go to work Monday morning and have no one judge them for what they are.

      Why should we let them?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Eh, defenders of Gamergate are thick on the ground… depending on the definition you’re using.

        I mean, this all depends on who gets to define what “Gamergate” is. There are definitions of “Gamergate” that make me see Gamergate as the worst thing that ever happened. Well. This century, anyway. But there are also definitions of Gamergate that make me a supporter of Gamergate.

        It depends on how we’re defining it.

        For the record, I am certain that I am not a defender of whatever it is that invites questions like “are you saying that you are a defender of Milo? Of the people who attacked Zoe Quinn? Of the Las Vegas Shooter?!?!?” No. I am not.

        I’m pretty sure that I can define Gamergate in a way that would get you to say that you aren’t opposed to that sort of thing but THAT’S NOT WHAT GAMERGATE ACTUALLY WAS!!! It was actually about (something that I don’t agree it was about).

        And then we’re off to the races to see whose definitions are stickiest and who does a better job of making their own fierce moral clarity into something that casual bystanders wish to emulate.Report

        • Avatar veronica d says:

          If someone wasn’t part of the attack on Sarkeesian and Quinn, then why would they even want the label “gamergate”? Did anyone honestly believe it was about “ethics in gaming journalism”? — because I was around back then, and if you spent any time on the -chans or Reddit’s KiA, then you saw what actually drove the energy: aggrieved, entitled rage nerds.

          So why do people defend it, but who don’t want to own the misogyny? What’s up with that?

          I think I know.Report

          • Avatar pillsy says:

            Did anyone honestly believe it was about “ethics in gaming journalism”?

            Sometimes people believe lies, and in the early days quite a few people believed that one honestly. Foolishly, yes, but still honestly.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Yeah, see? It’s all about who gets to define what.

            (For what it’s worth, I think the “ethics in gaming journalism” was exceptionally over-the-top as a descriptor. If I were to describe “gamergate”, “gaming journalists” would come into play, but not because of their lack of “ethics”.)Report