To Sivilise or not to Sivilise

We had a brief exchange on Twitter, James Coyne, Tom Hartley, Helen South, and me, with some comment Keith Laws and Mark Bolstrige on rudeness and civility.

Occasion is, of course, the current tribal clash between those who think science needs fixing, and those that think – well, as that is not my particular ingroup I will (in the name of civility, and demonstrating my working knowledge of Social Psychology) refrain from labeling them.

A lot of the discussion/debate has not been about the research, but etiquette and behavior (some questions about the research has been brought up also). There has been charges of bullying, of defamation, of snark, of unseemly behavior. I’m not sure if I should bring the popcorn, or bring the swords, or flee in horror.

I have very conflicted thoughts about calls for civility or allowing the rude. I believe in freedom of speech. I think this is extremely important for democracies to function. And, I think you need to tolerate a bit of rudeness and heat and snark. It is fun snarking, being at the receiving end makes you realize it is a boojum, but, fair is fair.

But, there is also a downside, in that people really vary in how much of this they can tolerate.

I’m going to try to illustrate. I’ve been hanging on a forum for over a decade that was started by a woman who is extremely polarizing – and she knows it. She is very smart, very outspoken, and not afraid of taking the fight. People either love or hate her. Those who love her have oversight with the more prickly parts (me), those who hate her work on pushing her out, either through banning her, or through moving elsewhere (I have seen both). The pushing is extremely nasty, and upsets me as a form of bullying, but she is also capable of giving as good as she gets. She also doesn’t hold a grudge.

The forum has a contingent that like to argue Politics. Participants there openly say they enjoy the nasty, ad hominem fighting, and as the sides keep coming back for more, I believe them. I don’t understand that mind-set, because I don’t (and I make good use of the scrolling function).

One of the “rules” on this forum is that you don’t get to be a tone police. You either deal or leave. And, one way to deal, if you are like me and don’t like the pummeling matches, you just don’t join in some of the discussions, and there are other discussions where you are kind of measured. So, in many ways, the voice of the meek may be much more filtered than of those that bluster.

This is not entirely wrong though, as Cyberspace sometimes gives the illusion of privacy, when it actually means shouting to anybody with a device and access to a modem (as I figure John Bargh realized a couple of years ago). There may be things you don’t want to leave as a legacy for people to rub your face in later. (I figure as this new online record stuff keeps going, we learn to deal with that shit too. It is not like not having any privacy is a new state of being for humans).

The blustering is, I believe, a means of defeating the other. I wrote about this last year in “welcome to the monkey house”. Because I’m meek, that kind of behavior would silence me. Not the thinking in my head, but I would most certainly not voice my beliefs and opinions in the face of that. Now, others are willing to step in and bluster, so I don’t really have to. But, it then becomes a forum for the pugilistic, and the rest is silent.

The willingness to bluster and attack is also not particularly correlated with being… right. It is a means of trying to assert power, and it can be used against those doing bad science, those doing good science, those critiquing ones hypothesis, those people being uppity, those researchers pursuing explanations for something that we don’t like. It is used by anti-vaxers and pro-vaxers, by creationists and evolutionists, by republicans and democrats, by bros and feminists, and on and on and on.

It is much more tribal than anything.

But the shushing and the tone-police can also, insidiously, be used to silence. To keep control. To keep status quo.

I really don’t know a good way out (which means, trying to find some solution where I feel reasonably comfortable without having to grow an armor, which it seems I’m incapable of anyway). My suspicion is that this simply can’t be done, and that the arguing is needed.

Right now, I’m simultaneously reading two books (I know, multitasking, but I’m just too scatter brained to focus) – one is Christopher Boehm’s “Hierarchy in the Forest” and the other is a re-reading of Hull’s “Science as a process”. Both are very evolutionary based. What Boehm is investigating (and then continued to investigate in his later book Moral Origins) is the curious human penchant for egalitarianism. When you look at the anthropological record, bands and tribes are egalitarian (at least among men). There is no alpha, no boss, no top bully. This is very odd, as our nearest primate relatives are highly hierarchichal with a male bullying himself to the top. This suggests that the evolved legacy for humans would also be a tendency to hierarchy. But, for humans, across a great deal of ethnographies, it seems that there is an effort to suppress this kind of effort. What Boehm proposes is, that for humans, there has been a tendency for those with less drive to dominate to band together and suppress this tendency in any individual. This is done through rather quiet, but coordinated means, by snark, pointed disobedience, gossiping and cutting down anybody that tries to be an upstart. This is part of the moral code. Those who don’t abide may be shunned or ostracized, and in extreme cases executed. It is not entirely comfortable reading this. It doesn’t seem to be an easy, comfortable egalitarianism where I’m ok and You’re Ok, but a case of constant monitoring and vigilantism against anybody trying to lord it over anybody else – but done very quietly. Both comforting and uncomfortable to me, because I know what it is like to be a target for the “don’t think you are anything special” growing up. In the egalitarianism (nobody is the boss of anybody) there is also a strong push for conformity. But, it is also interesting in that it means that there is a need to negotiate and discuss, and the possibility of more freedom (at least against domination) than it is in a hierarchichal species – or a hierarchichal human society.

Hull, of course, advances an evolutionary view of science in his book. I was reading his introductory chapter as the skirmishes on twitter and face-book and blogs were going on, and he states, very much, that individual scientists and individual research groups need not be unbiased and behave like some kind of stereotype of good, objective people. Of the researchers he investigated, many of them were very ill behaved; bullying, blustering, derogating. Somehow, in these clashes, a better understanding of the world was chiseled out. Nobody has to be right. One just has to be willing to stick it out there for others to take a potshot at it, and then to defend it. As long as that dynamic is allowed, the work will go forward.

So, that is another reason I’m so conflicted about this. I would like things to be nicer, because I’m so intensely oversensitised I go into hiding faster than a sensitized aplysiasiphon, I find it difficult to engage, and I doubt I’m alone.

Being loud, snarky and obnoxious – or maintaining a “hush, think of the children” behavior is orthogonal to, well, truth, or whatever it is we try to find in science. They are means of maintaining the tribe, right or wrong. You punish the deviant and the intruder. It can be used to stand up to corrupt power. It can be used to usurp and topple precarious beliefs. It can be used to drown out unpleasant and inconvenient – well – things. Good or bad kind of depends on which side you are on.

The meek – I don’t know. Perhaps only the bible calls us blessed…

As this was happening I reviewed an absolutely excellent Masters Thesis investigating some of the factors underlying football hooliganism – comparing football supporters love for their team to social science students love for their study topic. She was reviewing the kinds of group processes underlying supporter behavior that Social Psychology has investigated, usually not with football fans, of course, but still. It just seemed really apt. Incidentally , social science students feel nowhere near as strongly about their topic as football fans do. I guess at that level one hasn’t extracted enough of true fanatics.

I may simply have to select a tribe, as reluctant as I usually feel about this. Reading Hull, there seems that within the research demes, there is the kind of camaraderie and tolerance that allows for the more meek to get a voice.

A little note on the title spelling, for those who have yet to read the wonder that is Huckleberry Finn – that is, how Mark Twain spells it.


About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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