Communication on the web for smart men 101


I’ve seen a lot of very unhelpful comments lately, by men, on blogs, by women, usually ones women have written about sexism or some aspect of the way women are treated in particular high-skill industries (tech, science, journalism, or academia) and it’s been acutely embarrassing to read so many dismissive, rude, point-missing and point-scoring discussions instigated by seemingly intelligent people. I expect some of them are just misogynist bullies and trolls, and know exactly what they are doing – but I’m prepared to give some the benefit of the doubt and say that I think that there are men who may not realise that they are being unhelpful or dismissive or irrelevant or childish or hectoring or bullying. I’m mentioning this on what is nominally an academic blog because a lot of this seems to be from men who are middle-class and educated and sciencey, which superficially describes me pretty well, so perhaps I feel I recognise where some of their behaviour is coming from, which is all the more frustrating. That education and relative level of comfort doesn’t correlate with thoughtfulness, it would seem.

I’m not trying to be patronising, but there seem to be some ways in which they would get a lot more out of internet discussions by thinking about the way they interact. Here are ten I thought of for starters:

1) Don’t be a troll. If it helps, think of it this way: there is no such thing as a troll. There are bullies, there are people who tease other people to get a rise, there are people who are trying to play devils advocate or use humour to start an argument, there are misogynists angrily objecting to women calling out bad behaviour, and so on. Sometimes these overlap, but I don’t think any of these are very fun, useful, or worthwhile. The internet is not a contact sport and I think everyone has a worthwhile time when these stereotypes are given as wide a berth as possible. Know when you’re being playful and when you’re being a bore. TIP: people will tell you.

2) Your humour is not a get out of jail free card. Neither is “irony”. When did “I was using HUMOR” become synonymous with “don’t object to anything I just said”? Phrasing something “as if it it’s a joke” doesn’t give you carte blanche to say whatever you want, consequence-free. NB: the only consequence might be that everyone thinks you’re an idiot, or a disagreeable person, and ignores you; there will be no actual Thought Police kicking down your door, just a bunch of people wondering why you’re being unpleasant and not wishing to continue the conversation with you in it.

3) You’re probably not that funny. At least not to most people. That’s ok, humour is subjective, most people don’t find the things I say very funny either. I don’t mean you should stop having a sense of humour, just be aware that if doesn’t come across to someone it might not be their fault.

Newsflash: people use humour to say some very unpleasant things. Often this is to communicate something unpleasant in a palatable way. So, Doc, what you’re saying is, “Don’t buy green bananas”. Sometimes the teller thinks these unpleasant things are bad (cf. sexism, racism, homophobia…), but sometimes they’re saying these things because they believe or like what they express (cf. sexism, racism, homophobia…) and humour lets them pretend that they don’t really mean it if they get called. If there’s any ambiguity, it might be worth rephrasing what you’ve written in case everyone does think you want women to be chained to the cooker. There are people in the world who sincerely believe that, and being a Nice, Educated Chap doesn’t mean you’re automatically Not One of Those People. Indeed, it’s not unusual for Nice, Educated Chaps to do and say things that don’t seem very nice or educated at all.

4) Don’t derail. You might find it terribly interesting to raise the issue of what Evolutionary Psychology tells us about women having supple digits for manipulating dish scourers*, but it may not be what other commenters want to talk about. How about respecting that, and if people don’t seem interested in your tangent, take it somewhere else? You could write your own blog, and have the chat there if you like, what’s wrong with doing that? If people are interested, they can join in. In the same way that, when you comment, you’re taking part in a discussion on a topic that the blogger has chosen.


5) It’s not all about science. “Science” does not make every social situation easy to understand if we model it as a perfect sphere in a vacuum. You may feel like you’ve got a lever which moves the argument wonderfully, but simplifying a situation by ignoring important factors and claiming you’re being “scientific” or “rational” or “logical” can makes people feel like you’re disregarding or diminishing their comments without adding much else to the mix. Maybe you have a great, simplifying insight, or maybe those details you’ve left out, or not thought about, are pretty crucial.

While you’re being “scientific”, consider the evidence. All the evidence**. Ok, more of the evidence. Including the evidence being presented to you by the blogger, and other commenters, even if they’re not blokes and they’re not using the same approach as you or agreeing with you. You’ve already thought about which evidence is important, now think about what evidence other people think is important and why. Maybe you could ask them (nicely) if you don’t get why. It’s not their job to educate you, but you can always ask (nicely).

If you don’t actually think science is helping and you are just using it as a cheap point-scoring tactic, please stop, it’s so boring. No one likes a Sophist. The goal of a conversation is not to win points and level up†. It is not a boss fight.

6) Don’t make it about you. This is a very man-specific thing that women have pointed out to me again and again. It goes a bit like this:

Woman: [X] community has some crappy behaviour towards women
Man [from Community X]: Well, I don’t do that
Woman: I wasn’t addressing it to you – it’s a wider issue that women need to be aware of
Man: Yeah but I’m not doing it so why are you accusing me
Woman: I wasn’t, but it’s something that needs to change
Man: I don’t do that – why won’t you admit it?
And so on

Don’t be that man. It’s unpleasant to hear that members of a community you’re part of are doing something awful. That will produce some cognitive dissonance – maybe you’ll think “oh I know all those guys, they wouldn’t behave that way, it must have been misconstrued or fabricated”; well, consider the possibility that some people do behave in that way. It doesn’t take many people doing something horrible to have a disproportionate effect; it doesn’t mean everyone is behaving that way; and neither does that mean it should not be taken seriously. And if somebody says something unpleasant happened, there is every possibility that they aren’t lying or misconstruing and it is true. Bear in mind that unpleasant people can be clever, and if they have a lot of practice at doing whatever bad thing it is they enjoy doing, they are often quite skillful in leaving enough ambiguity in their behaviour that it can make even those directly affected question how they should be feeling. Usually the answer is far from positive.

Anyway – if you’re asking yourself “Is this person writing about me?” or “Does this apply to my behaviour?” – either the answer is yes, and you need to think about changing your behaviour, or the answer is no and you need to think about others’ behaviour.


7) Don’t expect automatically to be listened to or taken seriously. Everyone has the right to an opinion, and everyone has a right to ignore your opinion if they don’t think it’s helpful or especially well-informed. If you go to someone’s blog and comment ignorantly, divisively or tangentially on the subject, don’t expect anyone to care. If you’re not respectful of the person writing, why should they be respectful of you? If you think you’re making a valid point which is being ignored, nevermind. Worse things happen at sea. And to women and minorities every day. Withdraw gracefully. Not grumpily. You might want to chat to these people another day, even if they seem ill-disposed to do so today.

More generally,

8) Do be sincere. Please don’t treat someone’s discussion of an issue that upsets and impacts them as an opportunity to put on your Clever Hat and show off your knowledge of logical fallacies. (NB. Being sincere is not the same thing as being humourless).

9) Be forgiving. The internet is written is ink, and people make errors, whether factual, typographical, tonal or otherwise. Actually calling someone an idiot or otherwise being rude or patronising doesn’t give them anywhere to go if they do change their mind about their views. I’ve seen people be swayed by good, compassionate argument. People so often argue against things they know to be true – the cognitive dissonance of recognising a truth and not wanting to deal with the consequences of accepting that truth – that is quite a motivator. Learn to recognise it in yourself as well as seeing it in others.

10) “Oh but that’s how people act on the internet” is not an excuse. Sure, we behave differently in different contexts, I would never call Ayn Rand an idiot to her face*** (as I imply repeatedly on the world wide web), but that doesn’t mean we should expect people to behave cruelly, dismissively and rudely as a matter of course. Don’t do it, or excuse it. Lead by example.

Finally, I apologise again to readers who find this patronising or simplistic. If you find it either of those things, hopefully you’re going around not doing any of these things. This really is Internet 101 as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve seen so much that doesn’t manage to meet even these basic standards.  I’ve done more than one of these things in the past, I’ve certainly called people idiots I shouldn’t have, but they were bigger boys and they called me worse back so that’s ok. I doubt that the men who are being bullies on the internet will pay me much mind, but for those men who care about more than showing off – and I think that’s a lot of men reading – just chill out a bit and listen. You can do so much better and have much more interesting conversations and learn interesting and valuable things.

I’m guessing this won’t entirely solve the the Internet, but here’s to optimism.

*obviously this is nonsense, to be clear, I just made some nonsense up

**actually, you won’t be able to do that, but while you’re gathering All The Evidence In The World, we will get some peace and quiet

***she’s dead

†Unless you’re a character from an Ayn Rand novel. Then life is a debate you’ve conclusively won. Well done Dagny, you’re a Level 3 pain in the neck.

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