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?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."