2014-07-11 Speaking in Public

There was a huge disturbance in the force, recently. D&D 5 got published and Zak Smith and the RPG Pundit were credited therein. One of the posts summarizing the issue I read was On the D&D5 Credits Controversy by Gary N. Mengle.

As far as this post is concerned, I’m not so much interested in the peculiarities of this affair, I’m more interested in how we could get here. I think the key to understanding the causes of the problem are to be found in this comment by Zak Smith on a private post on Google+:

There are certain things you don’t say in public no matter what someone means . I don’t care what they mean or if they’re a good person I care what’s in the public record and what people might think who see that public record. – Zak Smith

I was reading the comments on a public Google+ post by Rob Donoghue. The question being discussed was how to disengage from a hurtful discussion. Viktor Haag had just provided an example where person A said something, person B contested it and asked for proof and person A decided to disengage. Now A is angry and feels assaulted by B, and B is angry because A simply left the discussion instead of offering a fair discussion of the accusations. Anna Kreider then offered a different example where person A said something ambiguous (”I have mixed feelings about a thing”) and person B then attacks A for saying all sorts of things they felt this implied while A keeps maintaining that they never said any such thing. So now I started wondering. Why do these things happen? Rob Donoghue said: “Causation is complicated and multi-faceted, nuance is critical and perfect information is impossibly rare. Discussing something under those limitations requires trust and good faith. They must be entered with an interest in finding insight, not right answers.” I think that’s a good position to start with, but it doesn’t explain the vitriol that I’ve been seeing. The rest of this post is the comment I left on Rob’s post...

I can’t help thinking that part of “The Internet Problem” of communication spiraling downwards (as has been the case ever since flame wars erupted on USENET) is the inability of ordinary people to perceive the Internet as a very public space. In the old days, it was hard to say something in public. You basically had to find a publisher and print stuff. It could get heated if you stood up in a town hall meeting and said the wrong thing. But these days, anybody with Internet access can speak in public, and they—we, all of us—are unaware that “there be lions.” We are unaware that public speaking has always come with a distinct understanding of our freedoms and the limits thereof, and of the potential consequences. There’s defamation (libel, slander) laws, copyright laws (intellectual property, digital copying and distributing), and these laws are there to offer recourse for the most problematic aspects—but they don’t offer recourse for most of our actual problems. Our actual problems are often much smaller. That’s how I explain what has been happening: Person A tells their friends that they really don’t like what B has said and done (and they use strong language because they have strong feelings and they feel amongst friends) and person B says “you can’t say X on the Internet in public, to damage my reputation for ever and ever!”

Now, if person A feels that their reputation is being attacked in public, it’s only natural that they want to defend themselves. In public, there is no disengaging from such a discussion because person A has the support of the law. It’s the law that says person A can defend their reputation. If person B then feels harassed because they are being contacted by phone or they are receiving letters to their physical address, then they need to understand, that as far as the law is concerned, there is no difference between life “online” and “real” life. The law only cares about defamation.

To provide you with a different example. I run a site and it attracted spam. One of the links posted linked to a Swiss site. I made fun of them and because this other site is ranked highly by Google, my statements were soon the number two hit for the company’s name. I was contacted and told to take it down or face charges. Do I feel they are spammers? Yes I do! Did I take it down? Yes I did. There was no way to disengage without going to court or retracting my statements.

Given that speaking in private and speaking in public has such different consequences, and given all the various ways in which we are now able to publish our thoughts, and given our lack of practice, I think these conflicts are unavoidable, every now and then.

Were you taught about copyright, defamation, and all those laws in school? I sure wasn’t! I was taught to type. I was taught to open my mouth and I was not told about the foot I was soon going to put in there...

I don’t know how to resolve this. I think we need to develop cultural norms to handle this, and we aren’t there yet. I want to talk to my friends like I want to. I want to reach out to strangers and make more friends, and talk to them. The Internet makes this possible. I’m always on the verge of forgetting that so many things are in public, in writing, apparently forever. I may make troubling mistakes. The Internet makes this possible, too.

When it comes to publishing on the Internet, we had to develop cultural norms. Does Information want to be free? How will be pay game developers? Journalists? How will we make sure that our computers will do what we want instead of just doing what their vendors want? And we aren’t there, yet. When it comes to speaking on the Internet, same problem. How do we curate our circle of friends? How about the shades of publicness, social media friends, lists, circles, groups, communities? How do we make sure that our statements will not stand forever and ever? How will we read the deep history of people we talk to, hire, befriend, marry? We aren’t there, yet.

What I took away from all those years on the Internet was being more careful about what I said. At first I felt like a coward. Afraid of comments on my own blog, I was. Then I felt like a hypocrite, wanting people to be open, wanting to feel free, but not ranting like I used to. Was I betraying my ideals? These days I take a legalistic approach. I tread lightly because I’m in public. If I can’t stand the heat after nailing my blog posts to the church door, I’m not going to post. Yes, it’s sad. I will still rant and rave amongst my friends. But online, my friends aren’t Google circles and Facebook friends. Even though the audience appears to be limited, there is no intimacy. This communication is not ephemeral. It’s basically in public.



A lot of what you’re saying here is unspeakably tragic.

as a side note: Does information want to be free? Absolutely! How will we pay game developers and journalists? Those professions aren’t necessary. It’s very desirable to have them around, so if we can figure out a way to fund them: great. If not, well, it’s not worth sacrificing freedom of ideas.

The solution to your main problem is anonymity, or at least pseudonymity. It’s insane to use one’s real name on the internet but it’s fashionable now. (A cancerous trend started by social media networks.)

I can say and do what I like without the stage fright. My words wont follow me forever. I can let ideas, good and bad, offensive and bland, flow freely. Creating a primordial ooze of thought. Evolution can take it’s course: good ones are kept, bad ones die off.

Society has grown very witchhunty. (Maybe it always has been.) It’s gotten to the point that I’m afraid to express non-standard options tied to my real identity. Especially in public. This is horrible for thought itself. And what’s bad for ideas is bad for mankind.

another side note: Anything that interferes with free speech is simply wrong. I oppose both copyright and defamation laws. (And there’s not really any such thing as “intellectual property”. It’s a bullshit propaganda term.)

– Anonymous 2014-07-11 17:48 UTC

Does information want to be free? It’s a ridiculous simplification. [1] [2] Do we want to pay developers and journalists? I do, some of them. I actually pay double for my favorite newspaper because I want to support them. Pseudonomity is not the solution because I also want to maintain stronger relationships. I find that to be essential to being human. I do agree, however, that expressing opinions in public is fraught with danger—and I suspect it has always been. I just need to think of village life in rural areas today. Say the wrong things in public and you’re marked. I disagree with your assessment that anything interfering with free speech being wrong. I think we’re better off prohibiting hate speech, threats, and defamation. As for copyright and patents, I’m not sure whether a complete abolishment would solve our problems. I’d already be super happy if we reduced protection to five years. As for “intellectual property” being a propaganda term: There’s an actual section in the Swiss code of law that says intellectual property. I am in no position to dispute the nomenclature. It is what it is, a diverse collection of property rights for intangible things.

AlexSchroeder 2014-07-11 21:52 UTC

I just saw a blog post entitled How Dungeons and Dragons is endorsing the darkest parts of the RPG community via Courtney Campbell’s public Google+ post and kirin robinson’s public Google+ post. I’m guessing the blog post was written by Tom Hatfield? That’s who is named under the “About” link. The author doesn’t really say much about RPG Pundit and Zak S except that they are “very nasty people”. The things that I find objectionable—phone calls at night, threatening children—happens by anonymous others. The author feels that RPG Pundit and Zak S “refused to admonish their fans when they step over the line.” I have trouble understanding this as an actual offense. Idiots go on crusades somewhere, making phone calls at night and threatening children? Of course this is vile! I’m not sure whether the offenders need “admonishing”. They need the police visiting their homes or something. OK, so perhaps neither RPG Pundit or Zak S spoke up in public against the lunacy that was happening in their name.

What riles me up, however, is the part surrounding this accusation:

They publically attack someone for criticising them, speaking out about sexism and bigotry, or just liking the wrong game. That person then finds themselves under a sustained campaign of harassment from Zak and Pundit’s fans. They pair would then feign innocence despite knowing full well what would happen and doing nothing to discourage it. Even after the initial attacks die down things are not over, they will routinely return to attack targets that angered them years ago. Cross them once, and you are marked for life.

This is where Zak excels. He has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names. Those people then lists find themselves subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment. Not mere internet name calling, but phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school.” To be clear, I am not accusing Zak or Pundit of making these calls, there is no evidence for that. What they do is point out targets and refuse to admonish their fans when they step over the line.

I want you to ignore the “fans”. I already established that I find actual harassment—phone calls at night and threatening children—absolutely despicable. Let’s look at what remains when we ignore the anonymous idiots:

They publically attack someone for criticising them, speaking out about sexism and bigotry, or just liking the wrong game. [...] Even after the initial attacks die down things are not over, they will routinely return to attack targets that angered them years ago. Cross them once, and you are marked for life.

This is where Zak excels. He has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names.

So, is Zak harassing people? It would seem to me that Zak is defending his reputation. You don’t agree with him in public, fine. That doesn’t mean he has to take it, though. You criticized him in public? That doesn’t mean he has no right to defend himself. In fact, if Zak feels that what you said in public is defamation, then publicly attacking your statements is his right. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” – Louis Brandeis. What alternatives does Zak have to defend his honor? He could sue, I guess. Before suing, it would seem entirely reasonable to call you during office hours and ask you to either provide proof or retract your statements. Before calling you, it would seem entirely reasonable to send you an email and ask you to either provide proof or retract your statements. Demanding proof, again and again, until such time as you retract your statements or provide proof, in public, and wherever you go, would seem entirely reasonable to me.

This isn’t harassment. It’s how our system works. People try and settle their argument before going to court.

If you don’t like it, then it is your right to not say things in public. You are not freed from the consequences of your speech, and you are not freed from the obligations put upon you by the law. Think before you post. Be ready to provide evidence if you accuse.

– Alex Schroeder 2014-07-31 13:59 UTC

More interesting perspectives:

Years later, more of the same. 2016-07-27 OSR and DIY D&D.

– AlexSchroeder 2016-08-04 07:57 UTC

Another year later, on a thread by Christopher Menell on G+, Zak describes the four types of communities he sees:

1. See No Evil Hear No Evil: No Accusations, No Investigations, No Accountability

This is the kind of community that most businesses aspire to be and that many mainstream game spaces effectively are. [...] Their watchwords are things like leave the war outside, no drama, no politics, “just play games” etc. [...] The real disadvantage is that they are completely vulnerable to abusers and can do nothing about them. If a company, for instance, is accused of failing to pay a freelancer or publishing something racist and then the company itself claims they did pay them or they aren’t racist then the community basically has no tools to deal with that besides deciding the whole thing is “drama” and ignoring it. [...] Tone policing is normal here: suspicion doesn’t fall on the side at fault but on the side that talks most about the problem.

2. Good Community: Accusations Lead To Investigation And Accountability

This is not a drama free zone both activism and practical work can happen here. [...] You can say someone didn’t pay you, you can say someone sexually harassed you, you can say that a game is racist, [...]. But you or [...] your friends and allies have to actually answer questions, provide details and give evidence of the abuse and address counterarguments, apparent incongruities, suspicious circumstances, even questions you think might be asked just to waste your time. You don’t have to argue with trolls, but if you’re dismissing someone as a troll, you have to clearly state why and apply that definition of “troll” across the board. You don’t have to answer every person, but you do have to answer every question. And the people who asked have to acknowledge they heard your answers, not just run away.

If you’re not involved you have to either go “I don’t know and I don’t have enough information to make a decision”(and then say or do nothing and admit you don’t care enough about whatever principle is involved to find out) or, if you want to claim to care, find out everything both sides have to say about any point or detail that helps you make your decision every piece of evidence or reasoning both the accuser and accused have to offer has to be on the table and anyone who is making a decision must be able and willing to speak to all of it when asked and must be, basically relentlessly, hopelessly overinformed. Everyone needs to be able to talk to at least one person who has access to all the arguments and counterarguments on both sides.

Sometimes the truth may be literally unknowable but if you’re going to pretend you care, if it’s technically knowable (especially if it’s all googlable), you need to know it. If you’re taking someone’s word, it has to be because you have no choice and if you’re basing your decision on trusting them, you have to say that “I didn’t look into because I trust Dave. Why do I trust Dave? Well...”.

And once everyone looks at the evidence they make collectively or individually decisions about how to enforce accountability on either the accused (if they did it) or the accuser (if it was a false accusation). [...] If it’s something the person can reasonably apologize for, they ask for that apology and for a change in behavior and people do something about it if they don’t get it.

[...] It’s a fucking exhausting pain in the ass. [...]

3. Troll Playgrounds: Accusations Good, Investigation Meh, Accountability Never

This is the classic troll forum. [...] Everyone is free to accuse anyone of anything, investigating the accusation is considered kind of gauche because even assuming the person did something there will be no consequences. [...]

Because they don’t have lives offline, active participants in such communities consider the conversation, including accusations, basically recreational rather than functional. Jean Paul Sartre described them long ago:

“Never believe that anti Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.”


4. Green Hell: Accusations Good, Investigation Bad, Accountability Never

This is the disaster you get when a community tries to combine the heady brew of activist morality with the thin white gruel of middle class pop mental health discourse. Public accusations are encouraged (all activism, by definition, requires at least implying someone somewhere did something wrong) but then are treated as a cry for help from a victim, never as something which might possibly impact the target unfairly (and rarely imagined to hit anything so concrete as their wallet, feelings are all that matter here). Above all, discussing the accusation in any way other than total approval is discouraged, especially if the accusation can be framed as forwarding an activist goal. The accuser is comforted and the accused is dismissed while everyone talks a lot about how responsible and empathetic they’re being by doing that.

[...] attempts to focus the community’s attention on the details of what happened to establish guilt and innocence are met with:

  • “I’m tired of talking about this”
  • “I’m closing the thread since I can’t monitor it”
  • “There’s a variety of opinions here and they’re all valid so...”
  • “I can’t untangle this and we’ll never agree so...”
  • “This is not the place to go down the rabbit hole of who did what...”
  • “This isn’t a trial” (despite the fact someone is effectively going to be fined for what people think happened)

...as well as enthusiastic support for abstract platitudes about civility that dance around the issue of whether a human being did a bad thing to another human being and what will be done about that problem that we have here today with these people. [...]

Zak also mentions The Asshole Filter. A great read about the kinds of social dead ends we can manoeuvre ourselves into.

As for Christopher: he says he just wants to talk about games, he doesn’t want to block people. If the truth is that you “just want to talk about games,” then answer seems to be obvious. Don’t post or allow comments on things that aren’t about games. It’s harsh, but what Zak said rings true to me: you’re providing a platform on your posts. If you invite discussion on interpersonal issues, people will react. So don’t do that. If people change the topic from games to interpersonal issues, people will react. So don’t do that. No claiming of hurt, no besmirching of reputation, no defending of reputation, it has to stop. But if “X is a harasser” is an OK statement, then a defence must be OK, and the discussion of it must be OK, and dragging up history and proof and archives must be OK, for all values of X. And like Zak says: it’s an exhausting pain. I’m sorry this is so and wish we’d all be friends but that’s not how it is. If that’s how you want it to be, the posts must be less public. Pick a filter bubble, I guess.

Somebody else was wondering whether Zak blocks the people he says should be blocks and how he still knows what they are doing. He just logs out and checks, every now and then: “You know what they’re saying in a public thread because you can log out to check if they’re smearing you.”

For what it is worth, I find blocking people for my peace of mind and occasionally checking what people say about me in public to totally rational. Sometimes the blocked people are then surprised that their continued activities are being called out and call it harassment – but if they are busy ruining somebody’s reputation and others are calling them out, then that’s not harassment. They might have blocked others but they are still ruining a reputation in public. This makes a difference. Social media sometimes feel like a private place but often they are public spaces and speaking in public demands responsibility.

Anyway, Christopher then basically agreed with Zak and said: “I just can’t be that person to govern it correctly, so I accept that I am a horrible person and am doing the wrong thing on social media. I will always, inevitably, hurt other people, either by taking action or not taking action, and that leaves me with no method for me to do right by anyone. [...] I have decided I will not post privately, and I will not stop posting. I can say I’m sorry that I am doing this, but doesn’t an apology sound hollow when I’m refusing to take the steps to do the right thing?”

I wrote a long reply because yes, it does. It sounds a bit dysfunctional, as if you wanted to be a martyr for your belief in the good of humanity. I am reminded of people that started platforms like Reddit or Shops like Drivethru where people can interact and they think free speech is great and we’re just going to focus on games, but it’s never that easy in the public sphere. Fascists create forums on their site, harassment campaigns spill over into product ratings and calls for boycotts and these people have to find constructive ways to deal with the situation whether they want to or not – or go down in flames as the thing they love falls apart around them. It’s dysfunctional because it doesn’t help anybody: in the end, everybody is unhappy except for the trolls who enjoyed watching the fire. It’s dysfunctional because nobody learns anything and mistakes get repeated. If you keep acting the same way hoping for a different outcome, that’s not going to help anybody. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I’m not a therapist and no priest but this sounds like a recipe for tears and tragedy. You will break yourself on the world. This is martyrdom, dying for your belief. But this is not a game. This is your life. If you say “I’m a bad person” and “I will always, inevitably, hurt other people,” I imagine you hanging your head and accepting the burden, carrying the cross, absolving everybody else and yourself from responsibility and guilt. But that’s not how it works. In a conflict, staying neutral is an active position and not the same as doing nothing. Two people beat each other up and nobody steps in, that’s not being neutral. That’s helping the strong bully the weak. And solutions are easy – but they aren’t free. Participation in the public sphere isn’t free even though we have recently come to think that maybe it ought to be free. But there is still a price to be paid. You could take up the burden of an arbiter and read, evaluate the evidence, judge, take sides, take action, defend the weak, defend the innocent, partake in the royal pain of acting in public, together with other people. And yet, you have so many options: create a private space and uncircle some people, post privately; or remove the comments that delve into the interpersonal drama; or stop posting; or stop comments; or ignore comments (I sometimes think of this as the YouTube model and I don’t like it, better to disable comments). Any of these is better than saying “I’m sorry I’m a bad person but I can’t stop myself.” If this is truly the position you’re in, I think you should stop posting and talk to a professional therapist because any advice you’ll be getting from me or other people is bound to be worse. It’s also unfair to lay your sanity at the feet of your readers.

I’m sorry for the length of this comment, but I think this is important. I’ve seen posts like these a few times now, and seeing this repetition is not a good sign. Something is making you profoundly unhappy. It’s your life. You only have one. Do the right thing to make you happy. Do this in the knowledge that changing the world is hard. Changing yourself is easier. Don’t be a martyr.

– Alex 2017-08-16 05:43 UTC

Update: 2019-02-11 More Zak Smith.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-02-11 11:29 UTC

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