Friday, 9 November 2012

A small experiment in ignoring

I don't like playing social politics, I try to stop myself any time I catch myself slipping into it. And I don't like declaring anyone a lost cause, cutting them off completely and forever. Perhaps I'm unreasonably optimistic. Maybe it's a result of teaching, maybe it was a pre-existing part of me that drew me towards teaching, possibly to do with others writing me off in the past, maybe something else entirely, but I feel it's everyone's responsibility to help everyone else make the best of themselves, for everyone's benefit (practical limits aside).

So what to do then when you're in a (facebook) group that's intended for like-minded people to congregate and have interesting, mutually enjoyable conversations about topics in a given field - let's say skepticism and skeptical activism - and someone joins the group who doesn't appreciate skepticism, isn't open to anyone else's ideas, only ever speaks up to add wild, off-point digressions into topics that they'd rather discuss, and not only posts the most irrelevant stuff, but actually posts whole floods of them, drowning out the actual science and skepticism posts in a skeptics' group with political ideological crap (and I've got a fucking politics degree, I normally find that interesting!), and who will then react aggressively and verbosely towards anyone who wastes time criticising them? I'm picking on one especially bad but real example out of several, but it illustrates a broader problem: What do you do with people you don't like in online groups? In the offlineyverse, there are established social protocols and instinctive signals for managing intra-group relations in voluntary associations, but many don't apply online.

In that case, a lot of our membership has simply been driven to silence, either refusing to engage with what they're seeing in the group, or ignoring the whole thing outright. This is a loss to me, when nice, interesting people have to leave to make room for tedious shit-plasterers. I'm also concerned, based on some rough membership surveys I've been taking for the last year or so, that this unpleasantness has been especially bad for chasing away our female members, who were a minority to begin with, more than the males. Others, including at times myself, have tried engaging in debate, but this has proven entirely futile. And sometimes we've even begged, "please, stop spoiling our lovely group," in a variety of phrasings, but that's never been met receptively either. Eventually, last week, I broke one of my own major facebook taboos and applied the Block button to a couple of people who'd really been ruining the group for me.

And it was wonderful! All week, I was seeing the group almost the way it was a year or so ago, when the topics were all interesting and encouraging, and so were all the people. I found myself more eager to check in there and look for new posts, even inspired to add some myself. But I decided I'd only use Block for a week, just to test it out. Today I turned the block off again, and was thoroughly disappointed to find things the same as they'd seemed before, a thick morass of tedium entirely different to what I really want from the group. The beauty of that group for me had originally been that it was full of like-minded people I could enjoy being myself around, and I also appreciated having the group there as something positive I could point potential new skeptical friends towards, to give them a taste of the community they could join. The other week, I discovered a student of mine is a budding young skeptic in the making, and I had to stop and think very hard about where to direct him for further opportunities, because our formerly-convenient facebook group would just have put him off us instantly. This little test suggests to me that it's just a few loud voices who spoiled that for me.

But what's the lesson? We can't all just ignore each other permanently and forever at the slightest disagreement. Not only is skepticism dependent on rigorous debate, avoiding echo chamber effects and embracing differences of opinion, but it's simply unavoidable that we'll all somehow piss each other the fuck off eventually. Those Shakespearean monkeys would likely have to spend a few millennia throwing the typewriters at each other's heads before they got even one sonnet finished, and I'm definitely not especially good at discouraging people from throwing typewriters, literal or proverbial, at my own head. But that's ok, there's such a thing as constructive debate, and even outside of that, we should have some margin for error and forgiveness. We are all human, after all.

How far that margin should go is, for me, the trickiest thing to judge. My over-optimistic side wants to say, "Fuck it, let's keep absolutely everyone included forever! Even Hitler could have become a nice guy if we'd had the chance to talk things over with him long enough," which is why I consider use of Block buttons a bit of a taboo. After this week of pleasant isolationism, though, I can definitely see the value in a more narrow margin.

There's probably some reasonable middle path, requiring compromises from all sides, trying to avoid both tyrannies of majority and tyrannies of minority, with blocking only left as a last resort for when someone refuses to compromise, refuses to accept that they're part of a living community in that context, and needs to respect (a word I'm normally a little wary of) the other people in that community. But it does all make me very uncomfortable. I still don't like the idea of ever blocking anyone.