Fixing my Fights

The most surreal part of attending the Reason Rally and the American Atheists conference happened during a conversation with a fellow attendee when he told me I might know him better by his pseudonym. It turned out that he was a commenter who had gone after me pretty aggressively as an accommodationist during my stint guestblogging at Daylight Atheism.

It’s hard, when interacting online, to imagine your interlocutors as real people (and in this case, even the efforts I had made were misguided — for some reason I had always pictured this commenter as a woman, so I was almost as startled by his gender as I was by meeting him in the flesh). Once the initial awkwardness was out of the way, we ended up hanging out and having a nice afternoon.

I had another incident or two of this type at the American Atheists Conference (in one case, a blogger grabbed me again after we met and said he’d looked back at our past exchange online and regretted the way it had spiraled out of control). Every time I met someone I had fought with online, we ended up having a good conversation and getting along. (Though I should caveat that by saying I met PZ Myers only in passing and didn’t get to discuss my critique of his desecration stunt).

The weekend was a reminder that I’m bad at gauging people’s sentiment online. Because my judgement is unreliable, I have to actively override my intuitions. Here’s the error check that works best for me (when I remember to apply it):

No matter how sure I feel that the other person is engaging in bad faith, or is unreachable, or is just plain mean, I have to respond as though they responded politely and cheerfully.

I can’t find the citation right now(Vlad found the citation), but I remember there’s a cogsci paper I read in college where two study participants were told to use a finger to press the other persons hand.  They took turns, and both were supposed to match the amount of pressure that the other person had just used on them.  The scientists had them hooked to a pressure sensor, so they could see exactly how much force was being used, but the subjects were working from feel.

In almost every iteration, the subjects ended up in a vicious cycle, where both participants kept pressing harder and harder.  What the other person does to us feels a lot nastier than what we do to them.  I need to work on remembering that my perceptions on this kind of thing are really badly calibrated.  So not only do I need to compensate for my own biased reaction, but I need to further undershoot so I don’t trigger my interlocutor’s skewed perception.

When I blog about plays featuring famous thinkers, I’m careful to caveat that I’m responding to play!Lewis or play!Spinoza, so that I’m not misrepresenting the actual thinker.  I tend to riff on posts that come up in my RSS feed or comments on this blog and use them as a way to introduce some problem I’ve been thinking about offline, and I’ll try to make more of an effort to distinguish between what the person I’m quoting is arguing, and the way I’m using that quote to explore a different issue.

The other thing I noticed, on reflection, is that I only tend to quote other bloggers and writers when I disagree with them.  In my mind, it’s not very interested to blockquote and then write “Ditto,” so I only single out the people I can pick a fight with.  Would you all be interested in me highlighting posts or quotes that I won’t have much commentary on?  Any other suggestions for this general problem?

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About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Vlad Chituc

    Leah, is this the paper you were referencing? (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5630/187.full)

    I just remember it because it had and awful pun for its name.

    • leahlibresco

      Looks like! Merci beaucoup, Vlad.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Would you all be interested in me highlighting posts or quotes that I won’t have much commentary on? Any other suggestions for this general problem?

    When you highlight a post that you disagree with you usually explain why you disagree with it. I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same with posts you agree with. Surely there has to be some reason why you agree; on posts you don’t agree with you don’t blockquote it and then write underneath it “I disagree!” and leave it at that.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      All kinds of agree with the above. (Not giving commentary on that agreement is something I hope you can forgive.)

    • leahlibresco

      I’ll give it a go, but I think usually the text itself makes it clear why I would agree. I’ll try to do one of these a week for the rest of April, but no promises.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        As someone who grades lots and lots of papers, I must sya that no, the text does not necessarily make clear why you agree. (Unless we know your idiosyncracies, of course, and, well…)

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        Bah. *say*

  • http://delphi.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    I only tend to quote other bloggers and writers when I disagree with them. In my mind, it’s not very interested to blockquote and then write “Ditto,” so I only single out the people I can pick a fight with. Would you all be interested in me highlighting posts or quotes that I won’t have much commentary on?

    Well, I don’t know about you, but just because I agree with somebody doesn’t mean I “won’t have much commentary” LOL! For example: “This really interested me because…” or “This makes sense to me especially in light of…” or “I think this is a strong argument because…” or “If I take this as my starting point then the next thing is…” I think talking about things you agree with is a valuable exercise. Clarifying why you agree with someone else can be very helpful in crystallizing your own thoughts. So I guess that’s a big Yes :)

  • Jack

    It’s hard, when interacting online, to imagine your interlocutors as real people

    This has been a problem for me since I first started using email back in the dark ages (mid 1980s). It’s a lesson in how much we normally communicate through tone of voice and facial expression, and in how little of that we are aware of — unless and until it’s missing, and a conversation spirals out of control. The problem is aggravated when the subject touches a raw nerve, as discussions about religion so often do. I think your principle of trying to respond as if your antagonist had replied politely and cheerfully is most wise. I would only add that believers tend to have deep emotional attachment to their religious ideas. Ridicule aimed at those beliefs or rituals is, for many of them, taken in much the same way as a threat or insult directed at their beloved infant or mother or favorite pet. Sometimes words must be chosen with empathy for the recipient.

    • deiseach

      Oh yeah; I’ve left comments that I thought were obviously humorous and not meant seriously, only to have very upset replies along the lines of “How could you say something like that???”

      Clearly, (a) I’m not as funny as I think I am and (b) you have to be extra-careful to make yourself perfectly clear because of all the missing nuance that online communication drops out.

  • leahlibresco

    And in another fun application of the general principle: I went to the Easter Vigil Mass tonight and saw the members of my former RCIA class be received into the Catholic Church. When I was chatting with them after, it was clear they were under the impression that I’d chosen to leave the class, rather than getting kicked out by one of the priests. I was pretty confident at the time that I was getting asked to leave, but who knows. Perhaps the priest meant something milder than what I heard.

    • deiseach

      Leah, I swear, when it comes to the General Judgement you will be the Queen of the South rising up in condemnation of me :-)

      You went to the Easter Vigil Mass? I was feeling bleh, so I stayed home and watched it on the telly. Oh, well – happy Passover (seeing as how the calendars are aligning for both festivals)?


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