Arguing on the Internet

•29 March, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It’s been about four months since I last blogged. I suppose that, as much as anything else, that’s a sign that my life has been a bit of a wreck since January – I often drop the things I actually like doing in favour of procrastination when things are on top of me. It’s one of the reasons I’m trying to wean myself off facebook – it’s a particularly wasteful procrastination tool. The second key reason that I’ve reduced my facebook presence is that the way it’s programmed no longer suits my purposes as a communication tool. But really, I want to talk today about reason number three. Normally I keep myself to a 500 word limit on here, but I want to talk in full about a few issues right now, so my next few posts are likely to be a bit on the long side.

One of the big motivators for me getting off facebook has been simply the way people argue on the internet. For a guy like me, these arguments are starting to become exhausting. I like to learn, and I feel as though I can learn from other people’s point of view. At the very least, even if they’re wrong in their information or at least their interpretation of it, I can learn why they believe what they believe. I am also very opinionated (as my long-time readers are doubtlessly aware). It makes putting forth my own thoughts a hard temptation to resist.

The down side is this: most people who argue on the internet have no desire to learn. They only want to win. Nothing you can say will convince them to change their mind and any attempt at reason or rationality will only result in more bad behaviour from them.

Academic ways of arguing

I have a postgraduate qualification in a text-analysis and interpretation subject from a very good faculty in a very good university. I have been taught by some of the most intimidating and respected people in their field. And I have surrounded myself with similarly educated nerds. We disagree vehemently about some things, but we tend to argue in one of two ways.

Way one is the way we have learned to argue professionally. When asked to by our professors, we produce anything between 2,000 and 20,000 words with each fact or borrowed argument sourced and referenced. Take it from captain last-minute who used to pull all-nighters to produce essays: even if you know what you’re talking about in detail, gathering source material will take several hours, and the writing process with proper referencing will take approximately 6 hours per two thousand words. There is a reason that as academics we do this strictly for course credits or, if employed in academia, to further our research agenda and argue with people whose opinions actually matter. People who will put down an equally well-researched counter argument that we will learn something from ourselves.

Way two is how we argue casually. How we debated on LiveJournal back when we were all on it and how we have debated at pubs and parties when academic types got together. It comes from the tacit acknowledgement that both parties understand what we’re talking about and are capable of understanding what the other is talking about.

One will state an opinion. The other will state a counter-opinion, usually with their reasons. The first will either start to probe the reasons for logical/interpretative flaws or give the conflicting information that they had. Through discussion of the sources, each party will work out who has the better information. Arguments and interpretations will then be dissected and several things will be found: areas of agreement, areas that will have to be left until someone decides it’s important enough to research more thoroughly, areas where the parties will have to agree to disagree, and areas where one of the parties has changed their mind due to new knowledge. Nobody gets called names or has their morality, parenthood, or sanity questioned during this process. I’m stubborn as all fuck, but I do climb down on points in these kinds of discussions with my peers.

Needless to say, argument style One is impractical on the internet. You would have to give a day’s work to each stage of the argument, and the debate would take at least a fortnight (assuming each side only has one day in the week they can give to a political debate on facebook) as each party presented their essays on the subject. It might be worth it if, like in an academic setting, you could be sure that someone who disagrees with you will change their mind if your argument really is that good.

Social media argument styles

It has been noted in the last few years that most people create a bubble for themselves on social media – a bubble of opinion similar to their own. It’s inadvertent: facebook and even google searches track what you respond to in order to tailor content to the things you interact with. But as most people don’t really engage with the implications of that (if they even realise it’s happening in the first place), they fall into the trap of believing that everyone thinks like them because all they ever see in the content-rich environment of their internet experience is confirmations of their opinions. This means that when they encounter a counter-opinion, to their mind the person expressing it must be thinking aberrantly. As an opposing reality threatens the reader’s construct of the world, what matters when they engage with that counter-opinion is not the exchange of facts and interpretations (or even the deconstruction of each other’s information) but rather the assertion of one’s world view. And this is accompanied by the textual equivalent of the shouting and table-banging you would expect from the obnoxious mouthy bloke people get fed up of hearing in the pub.

In the last three months, I managed to get myself embroiled in three rather pointless exchanges on facebook, and they were all eye-openers. Much as I’m tempted to screen-shot them and deconstruct them comment by comment, this post is going to be long enough as it is, so I’m going to reduce to description and paraphrase for the sake of brevity.

Demanding rigour to silence the opposition

The first was kind of amusing. It was a US Army grunt who is known to one of my cousins. The guy called me an idiot because I forgot to specifically fact-check that a single occupation in the US had a gender pay gap. Apparently there are one or two professions where the discrimination legislation is holding up well enough to eliminate the problem. What this guy was doing was arguing pedantic points to avoid the actual point of my original comment – that the original post was a straw man argument.

I decided to keep my interaction with this guy to a minimum because he had already ended up in a set-to with three other parties in the hours between my posting my first comment and my next checking facebook. His attitude was that he was the smartest guy on the planet because he googled things. When I explained that my point was concerning straw man arguments, he even helpfully googled me the definition of a straw man argument, thus demonstrating that he didn’t actually understand what he had read in the original post or my original comment. Or how the definition of a straw man argument fitted with the discussion so far. You can lead a grunt to google but you can’t make him think.

The issue I took with him, and the reason I only commented further in order to tell him that he wasn’t worth any more of my time, was that he was in the course of his conversation with others demanding that they don’t use angry and provocative language, and demanding academic rigour from them that he was failing to adhere to himself. This is reason #1 that most social media debators are not worth my time – demanding rigour as a silencing tactic. They are not trying to raise the tone of the debate; they are making demands on you so that arguing with them takes up more of your time and effort. This increases the chance that they’ll feel like they’ve won because you either decide not to write that fully referenced academic essay and keep arguing point by point, or give up entirely.

(The reason I found Grunt Boy so amusing, by the way, is that he shared his SAT and ACT scores with me, evidently thinking I’d be impressed with his intelligence. Isn’t he adorable?)

The most recent of my three interesting exchanges was in the same vein. I’d written a critique of an article concerning problems that Britain leaving the EU is going to create for the European Parliament. Point by point, I went through the 13 (I think) points the article made and, given that the context of the sharing was among a vocal Remainer’s friends, I critiqued them from the point of view of whether they’re really anything the UK should be concerned about. I’m a Remainer, but I appreciate that the European Parliament’s problems aren’t necessarily our problems.

The truly daft thing here was that another Remainer, who had even commented, “Try having a sensible discussion about this with a Leaver,” proceeded to insult me then demand more rigour from my critique while failing to provide any sort of counter-thought himself. This despite another commenter telling him he was in the wrong for behaving this way. The irony of this guy’s position was clearly lost on him.

What even is evidence? Or argument, for that matter?

The second of the three exchanges told me a lot about the nature of evidence in internet debates. The other two at least had some sense of what academic rigour looks like, even if they’re just trying to use it as a silencing tactic. This other guy, a retired dude who has relatives working in a local hospital, was arguing nonsense about immigration in the UK and the strain it puts on the NHS.

Over the course of the exchange, he demanded evidence from me. I gave it to him. He had said that he voted to leave the EU because of immigration, then denied that he had said that when it was written in black and white. When I said that what he was doing was lying about what he said rather than giving me counter-evidence, he said I was accusing his family member (whose anecdote he had used earlier) of lying. He then even said that he has an anecdote whereas I just have paper.

So this is evidence to this kind of guy. Hearsay is more important than academic studies and fact-finding reports. Worse still, the guy could lie about what he had written mere hours and a few viewable centimetres ago. And then twist my words unsubtly to try and goad me onto the back foot. He also suggested I was a drunk, but that’s by the by.

And so…

This is why I’ve given up arguing on social media. Many who get into these arguments either don’t have the tools for the debate, or they think they have the tools but are using them to beat you about the head with rather than to construct an argument. And all the while they insult you whilst tone policing you if you allow yourself to stoop to their level.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking about three emotive current issues: Brexit, Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. I expect that people will have something to say, and I welcome people sharing their opinions and debating. However, this is my blog. I set the rules, and they apply equally to the comments thread under the automated facebook shares on my profile.

The rules are as follows:

1. Be respectful at all times.

2. I am the only tone police. If someone is being insulting, don’t call them on it, just feel free to ignore their comment. It will get deleted tomorrow anyway. Furthermore, you do not get to decide if someone else’s comment sounds “angry”.

3. Do not twist people’s words.

4. Do not use demands for rigour as a silencing tactic.

5. Do not lie about things that you have clearly written in previous comments. (See the main body of this blog post as to why this even needs saying.)

6. Anybody disobeying the rules above will have their comment deleted as soon as I’ve read it.

7. Any comment that looks like the commenter has not thoroughly read or understood the original post or the comment they are replying to will be deleted.

Oh Dear

•14 November, 2016 • Leave a Comment

A few years ago, I took it into my head to start going to professional wrestling shows. Local shows. Indie shows. My first proper experience of pro wrestling had been at a caravan site near Scarborough, and I think I always enjoyed it more live than I did on TV. Certainly, I was eyeing up posters for local shows while I was at university, a good three years before I started watching TNA Impact on Bravo (as it was when I became a wrestling fan again). I went to a show or two alone before I started finding that I could drag friends along with me – initially Shaz and Ian. And then a guy called Matt Bayliss (Indy Corner Podcast listeners may remember him) became my boss and suddenly my wrestling posse became a rotating cast of characters including friends of friends, work mates, and old university mates.

Nearly two years ago, Tom Pratt, who I’d known from my master’s degree course, introduced me to an internet friend of his, Niko Adilypour. We three rapidly became partners in crime at wrestling shows, drinking before and after cards, often with Shaz and others in tow. Bad jokes, twisted humour and intellectual discussion made (and continue to make) these pub sessions a lot of fun. And one day we decided to share the love.

Everyone thinks they can make a podcast. Everyone with two pennyworth thinks they should make a podcast. Tom and Niko had once had the “let’s make a podcast” discussion. And if you’ve got a mad-bastard plan, I’ve got the will to carry it through. Heck, if I could cat-herd a rock band through three-plus line-ups, I could get three guys into a room with a voice recorder. And, essentially, that’s how Oh Dear was born. The title came from our responses to each other’s worst jokes (and we find ourselves saying it a lot during recording), and the subject matter became wrestling because it was the only sphere of knowledge all three of us had (general comedy being a saturated market in the podcast world).

We made two pilots (which will probably never see the light of day) so as to settle on a format and get our heads around technical issues. I had aimed for our tone to be similar to The Last Leg, but we soon found that our analytic/journalistic instincts started to come out so much that we seem to be closer to Top Gear. More serious content, but still fun – I could live with that.

So here we are. Six episodes in. Success is not a high bar – we just want it to pay for itself. We’ll see if that happens in a year. If it doesn’t take off enough, no biggie. My life in wrestling’s been a hell of a ride so far, and I don’t think it’s going to stop being that just because of a podcast. Somehow, I think the maddest part of the ride’s still to come…

On the Dole Again

•7 November, 2016 • Leave a Comment

So I may have mentioned a couple of weeks back that I’m on the dole again. Furthermore, I’m on the much-heralded Universal Credit system, Iain Duncan-Smith’s brainchild that has been at the centre of controversy for early technical difficulties and IT botches. In fact, if you were at a bad Jobcentre, being on benefits could be hellish under the coalition. I got lucky last time, insofar as the manager there wasn’t one of the ones hell-bent on a sanction regime.

The thing is, of course, (and this point may have been lost while social media commentators were busy bashing the Tories for anything rather than making actual analyses) this sanctions nonsense was happening to people on Job Seekers’ Allowance, not the UC pilot cases. Which leads me to present an alternative conspiracy theory, because although I may have been a card-carrying Conservative on and off, I’m still very much a cynic.

Universal Credit is meant to be flexible. If you’ve got a job, you still get money up to a point. The housing side is paid with the rest of your allowance, so you don’t run into the situation where doing 16 hours of work in a week cuts off your JSA and sweeps your housing benefit out from under your feet with it. You also continue to be on the system for 6 months after you get a job that dries your Universal Credit up, so that if it’s temporary you don’t end up with a lag when you finish because a rapid reclaim (as they used to have with JSA) still takes time. And UC is tracked with your PAYE taxes while you’re working in that six month period, reducing paperwork. Furthermore, the system is amenable to moving appointments to sign on. I never had a bad experience of JSA, but Universal Credit feels like a relief.

So what’s my conspiracy theory? Well, nobody likes change. People get up in arms about upheaval, however well-meaning. Universal Credit does seem to hit the 2010 manifesto pledge of removing the situation where one can’t take a job because one would be worse off in work. So if it’s the Department of Work and Pensions’ aim to beat job seekers with sticks, why is UC so cuddly? Actually, I think the draconian JSA regime as UC was being rolled out wasn’t just the Tories trying to reduce the benefits bill (although I’m sure that aspect pleased George Osborne no end). I’m willing to bet that the real reason was to make damn sure that everyone claiming Universal Credit was as relived as I am to be on the new system, thus avoiding horror-story publicity for the scheme from the likes of the Mirror.

Seeing the system from the inside, it does make me wonder, therefore, whether Duncan-Smith was Captain Hook all along, or whether he was a well-meaning Mr. Smee, made to do the Chancellor’s dirty work as he claimed.

(The answer, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle.)

The Changing of the Guard

•31 October, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Last week, I promised to dish the dirt a little on what happened to the last Harlequin’s Kiss line-up. There isn’t really any ‘dirt’ per se to dish, but as this is my personal blog, I can at least go into more depth than was seemly for the announcements I made on the Official Harlequin’s Kiss News Blog.

Chris Parry, our previous drummer, was a metal musician by trade. An insanely talented guy, he was a very good guitarist with an excellent ear. And we discovered during the recording sessions for Playing Rough that he could sing, too. Bastard. He’d been with us for about a year, when he dropped a quiet bombshell on us in the aftermath of a gig we played in June.

Really, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t his thing. I’d questioned that he was satisfied playing with us, given that rock drumming is a lot simpler than he’d like, but his personality meshed well with us and he seemed happy. Until the day that he stopped being happy. What he said to us was that he just felt out of it because he wasn’t as into the music he was playing as the rest of us clearly were. Furthermore, he wasn’t entirely happy about the musical directions we were taking. Very professionally, he agreed to stick around for as long as it took us to find a new drummer. Most other musicians would have just left on the spot and their band in the lurch.

Drummers can be hard to come by. Good drummers even more so. It can take months to find a drummer at all, and Chris was apparently gearing to that. We were expecting a situation where we spent our practise sessions auditioning drummers while pulling Chris in for any session preceding a gig. As it happened, we had a rare stroke of luck.

As we were loading the gear for our July show at the Gunmakers Arms, Ed the bassist spotted an ad in Robannas Studios by a drummer looking for a band. We sent him a text and arranged an audition in short order. Giulio Tarantino (for it was he) met me at the pub while we had a chat about expectations before we took him though a couple of songs that we’d asked him to prepare, then threw some other material his way to see how he coped.

Giulio wasn’t as experienced as Chris, and I had a few reservations going in, but he picked up our material very quickly. He was away for August, leaving us to do one last gig with Chris before we took a live hiatus in September while we trained Giulio up. I’m pleased to say that he fell in so quickly that we’ve been able to do two gigs with him across October. Losing a drummer could have been a devastating blow, but instead we’ve had a good chance to set ourselves going again and build momentum. Harlequin’s Kiss live and you’ll see us soon.

Out of the Darkness

•24 October, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Oh dear. I haven’t written a word on here since July. Well, I’m alive, so there’s that, I suppose.

Given that I do blog about my depression anyway, I may as well admit to some of the things that have prevented me from fulfilling my old aim of five hundred words per week. My last job, at a company whose name and industry shall be given no mention, was difficult. The work itself was fine and dandy, maybe even easy, but there were some truly awful human beings on my team and they made life hellish for me. I never really recovered from the nervous breakdown I had back in 2011, and my current home life is not conducive to my mental health at the best of times. And now there are further tangible problems there that I am not at liberty to discuss. I didn’t claim that newfangled Universal Credit thing immediately after I finished my last job as I needed some time to put my head back on straight. And, of course, I refuse to put Harlequin’s Kiss on hiatus over my mental health.

So what have I done since July? Chris Parry, the drummer, quit the band and we spent time training up his replacement, Giulio Tarantino. Somehow we still managed a couple of final gigs with Chris and a couple of shows in October with Giulio. I’ll tell you about all that in a separate post. I’ll also be telling you over the next few weeks about my new project, a pro wrestling podcast called Oh Dear. It’s into its third episode and we’re learning every week. I’ve also bought a new laptop, which has given me the chance to play with Fedora 24. If you’re mad enough to enjoy my superficial tech blogging, I’m sure you’ll enjoy that, too. And, I suppose, I may as well tell you about my experiences with the Universal Credit system.

A friend of mine once told me that I seemed to blog when I’m in a good place. I’m not, but the fact that I’m in front of a keyboard right now should perhaps be taken as a small sign of improvement. If nothing else, I know that one or two of my readers are friends who use this as a way of keeping in deeper touch than facebook. And I’d hope that the rest of you are at the very least well-wishers. I hope that my reappearance is reassuring, whoever you are. And if you’ve only just stumbled across this blog, please do try the “Breakdown” categories links on the right – I’m not normally this self-absorbed.

So here I am, open for business once again. I can never promise that I’ll manage to keep a long run going (and making that promise always seems to be a guarantee that I’ll disappear sooner rather than later), but I can at least catch you up to today before sinking back into my pit of despair. Probably in time for Christmas…

Whither Democracy

•11 July, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” – attributed to Winston Churchill (but probably apocryphal)

I’m going to drop a bombshell. And the thing that really surprised me about this is that it’s going to be a bombshell to most of you.

What if I told you that we have never, ever, in the history of ever, elected a Prime Minister?

Apparently even people who think of themselves as politically aware, perhaps even savvy, don’t seem to appreciate this. So here is British parliamentary democracy 101:

When you put a cross in the little box on the ballot paper, you may have noticed that there is a person’s name next to it. That person is the person that you are voting for, out of a list of people that are volunteering to represent your views to Parliament. Your vote counts only for an election of a representative in your constituency. When all the constituencies have returned a representative to Parliament, a group of them will get together and their nominated leader will ask Her Majesty the Queen if they can form a government. You do not, and never did, get a say as to whom the leader of the political party is.

I appreciate that this probably doesn’t make you feel any better about the Tory leadership turning into a no-contest. I also appreciate that, if you’re a Labour supporter (official or not), this won’t make you feel any better about the Parliamentary Labour Party’s attempt to oust Corbyn. What I’m about to say here will not provide comfort either.

If you have used the phrase “unelected” over these last few days in relation to Mrs May possibly becoming Prime Minister, you are part of the problem. You are the reason that the parties get away with parachuting preferred candidates (i.e. the ones who have played internal politics the best) into safe seats. Constituents blindly voting for Labour without consideration of who the candidate actually is have certainly created the Labour Party’s current mess. They wanted a socialist Prime Minister, so they voted for any dickhead in a red tie in their constituency. As a Labour voter, unless your MP (or failed candidate from 2015) is an open Corbyn supporter, you personally have made this mess. The Scots got it right: Labour needed a damn good drubbing at the last election so that they could purge, reform and rethink. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and expecting different results, then the Parliamentary Labour Party are mad. Infighting lost them the last election, and it looks set to lose them the next one.

As a cold comfort, I can give advice for 2020: vote local. Actually look at who your preferred party’s candidate is. And if they don’t represent your views, vote for somebody else. When the division bell rings, you’re better off with a rebel from the other bench than a toady from your own. And when Parliament is full of members who truly represent their constituencies, maybe then they’ll choose the Prime Minister you would have elected.

Further Thoughts

•26 June, 2016 • 1 Comment

In these days of social media we are bombarded with our friends’ opinions. Many people succeed in making sure that those opinions match their own and delude themselves that everybody believes the same thing they do. Somehow, I’ve managed not to create an echo chamber. What I have succeeded in doing is surrounding myself on facebook with people that can argue civilly, for the most part.

One result of this is that my Brexiteer friends have been mostly silent. I’ve heard reports from other quarters that people of the racist/xenophobe type have become emboldened by the referendum result and are now really happy to sling their vile views about Johnny Foreigner around, but I’m lucky enough to have seen none of that. The majority of people I know have voted for thought-out reasons and have been classy enough not to crow. In fact, they’ve been mostly classy enough to stand back while the Remainers let out their collective wails of despair as the economy started tanking as a result of the turmoil.

Why am I writing this? Well, a lot has now been said by Remainers and Leavers on my Timeline over the last couple of days, and I’ve responded to it. So I’d like to gather together some of the things I’ve said to various parties in one place. Much of what I’ve said has been clarification of procedure and predictions of the future. If nothing else, it will be interesting to look back in two to five years and see whether or not I’ve been right.

There is one key thing to remember: the vote is advisory, not binding. In practical terms, what that means is that it’s up to the government whether and when they invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which is the EU legislation for a country’s exit.

As for predictions: the first item is the economy. One Leaver has said to me that Friday’s complete tanking of the pound (where it hit its lowest against the US dollar in 30 years) was something we’ll recover from. Well, put simply: we won’t. The evidence is already in as I write on Saturday night. There was a bounce back from the early Friday trough and it looked like things might swing back up quickly. However, things have settled and the pound has still firmly lost ground. It’s evened out at about $1.37 to the pound for now. Moody’s (one of three international banks that set countries’ borrowing rates) is suggesting that our credit rating is likely to go down, increasing the cost of national borrowing. And this is all down to uncertainty. An uncertainty that has been prolonged by Cameron resigning. We’ve got 3 months before we even know who’s running the country. After that, we don’t even know if or when the incoming leader of the Conservatives will trigger exit. According to Aticle 50, there is a two year timetable of exit negotiations even after that. And that can still be extended by any given other EU member state putting blocks in the process. And even after that, we won’t have the EU’s international trade deals and will have to renegotiate everything. This could take years – and we will be in an economic depression for that whole period, I have no doubt. No wonder the EU is demanding that we begin negotiations as soon as possible – we’re a big economy and our status will create uncertainty for the entire common market.

Are we leaving? We’re certainly acting like it. There’s an exit committee. Bizarrely, Nigel Farage feels snubbed that he’s not part of it. He’s not an MP and his party has one seat in the Commons. He’s an irrelevance to the process. He may try to throw his weight around the European Parliament, but I’m not convinced he’s got enough political weight to actually throw around. But really the decision rests with the government. And we haven’t technically got one.

Now that Cameron has resigned, a lot of things are up in the air. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that it’s very unlikely that an election will be called. It would need the agreement of two thirds of the Commons. So we’re getting whoever the Conservatives decide as Prime Minister. Clearly, judging by who jumped ship to the Leave campaign around Johnson, Boris is a serious contender with support within the party. But the party don’t necessarily choose the most logical candidate. The Conservatives live in a bubble and only their internal machinations matter. Given that he’s been the policy driver for some years, Osborne could be in a good position to take over the reins. Osborne and Johnson may even make an alliance (although my biggest fear right now is Osborne continuing as Chancellor, so I bloody hope not). The by-elections triggered by the electoral finance investigations (which I believe are ongoing) could leave the Conservatives as a minority government. This could cause legislative floundering for the next three years, and an actual exit from the EU would be defined by that context.

If Johnson does end up as PM, he indicated right at the beginning that his plan in leading the Leave campaign was to try to renegotiate with the EU, then go back to the British public with what’s on offer. He’s a Europhile and always has been, so it’s entirely possible that he’s intending to back out of an actual exit at the eleventh hour. It will be difficult. It will potentially alienate British voters. And it will irk EU leaders that we’ve caused an economic convulsion for nothing.

As for Scotland? That was a close referendum, too. One of the tipping points for them staying in the UK was that they would have to ask to come back in to the EU. Regionally, Scotland voted Remain this time round. The previous question of Scottish independence was framed in terms of a status quo that has now drastically changed. I think a second Scottish referendum is not only inevitable but reasonable. At least it would give them an opportunity to return to the common market. But much depends on further negotiations with a Westminster government that doesn’t currently exist.