The Gamification of Rhetoric

I posted a thought earlier on Twitter today and I’ll repost it here in non-tweet form:

It’s really frustrating to me that more people don’t understand that racist/alt-right people have gamified their rhetoric; they’re not interested in discussion, they’re slapping down cards from a “Debate: The Gathering” stack, and the only goal is taking heads.

They gamify their rhetoric because essentially this shit is a low-stake game for them, whereas for other people it’s their actual lives. That’s an advantage they have. If they lose, they shuffle their cards and go on to the next thing. If others lose, their life takes a hit.

And because their rhetorical strategy is essentially card-based, actual knowledge of issues is unimportant and probably a hinderance. They don’t want or need to understand the issues that affect others, they just need you to play their game so they can win.

I don’t have time anymore to entertain children who think other people’s lives are some sort of turn-based game, especially when all they want is to hurt other people. And it bothers me more people, especially those with power, don’t understand this shit.

I’m not going to tell people not to engage with these chuckleheads. But don’t engage with them on their terms. Engage with them on your own. One, they hate that, and two, it exposes what they’re doing as a pointless, hateful exercise, and them as awful people.

In sum: Understand what these folks are doing. Refuse to play along. And if you choose, point out to others the hollowness of their game. Because their “game” is to hurt other people, and then go on to the next target. Their game is other people’s lives.

43 Comments on “The Gamification of Rhetoric”

  1. Yes, that basically says in a much more literate way the conclusion I have reached about them.

  2. And when you get frustrated with their bullshit and tell them to piss off, they’ll lament your total lack of civility and claim ‘victory’ in the debate on the grounds that you Said Mean Things.

  3. What would count as engaging on their terms and engaging on your own terms?

  4. Yeah, I’d appreciate a little expansion on that as well. Always looking for new tools for the toolbox.

  5. Hm, I hadn’t thought of this in quite that way.
    But it makes a lot of sense, when you reflect that the main goal is to “own the libs”, by any means necessary.
    And certainly this also seems to be a way that the alt-right draws recruits in: young men looking to and for snark and lookitme contrariness and “my silly putdown can beat your argument any day” get drawn in to the harder stuff.
    There are also people (I see them more on the right-wing side of things, but not exclusively) who have what I call an insectoid view of the world, who cannot view any human relationship or interaction except in the form of a zero-sum game… they cannot be “up” unless someone else is “down”, and they must remain “up” to survive.

  6. The saddest thing here is I have seen similar statements from conservative commenters about the left. So what gives?

    Have we objectified the views so much that any dissent from the lock step of political conformity with whatever house you are put in that meaningful discussion is now impossible?

    In the 20th century we had the drumbeat of the Left (meaning Marxist communism) and the Right (meaning fascist). The only thing we got out of it was Gulags with mass murder of dissidents on the one side compared with Genocide and an equal mass murder of anyone in the wrong group from the other side.

    So right now all we are doing is yelling at each other and hopefully it won’t escalate beyond this. For a republic to work there needs to be a willingness to treat each other with at least some civility even when we fundamentally disagree. Or has the coarsening of dialogue brought about by the wonders of social media just made us too willing to use it as a form of spectator sport as we secretly cheer the trolls for our side while complaining when the same is done to ours?

  7. John, the alt- right says the exact same thing about the alt-left. What do they have in common? ALT. Or, to be precise, the inability to engage in civil discourse.

    I generally don’t discuss politics on the internet because it only leads to shooting matches and I don’t need that noise in my life.

  8. Jada, there is no such thing as the alt-left. There’s just a bunch of lefties of all stripes, generally poorly organized and often engaged in undercutting each other (think of all the criticism the very modestly left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been getting from Democrats simply for calling herself a Socialist).

  9. Engaging on the internet is for explaining things to casual readers who are not aware of the issues. The response to alt-fools should go long these lines – “I do not expect to change your mind, since you are beyond redemption. But it’s important to educate other people who may not yet understand why you are wrong and evil, and your comments will serve as a good example.”

  10. Hey @Jade,

    With respect, please be aware that while the “alt-right” is a self-denoted moniker adopted by neo-nazis to hide their actual ideology, the term “alt-left” was also created by them to imply a moral equivalence between their hateful rhetoric and those that oppose them. It feeds into the whole “there are good people on both sides” rhetoric.

    From here:

    Unlike the term alt-right, which was created by members of an ideology by its supporters (in order to make more palatable to the mainstream what had previously been considered radical views), the term “alt-left” appears primarily in social media and news reports as a term leveled against an inconsistently defined group of people with liberal ideologies in an effort to imply a parallel of extremism on both sides.

    Certainly there are people on the left who are incapable of engaging in civil discourse, and we should be vigilant to call it out when we see it, but the preponderance of fault seems to lie solely on the right.

  11. Unfortunately, I sorta don’t know what you are talking about . . . and then unfortunately, I sorta do know what you are talking about. I know a no win situation.

  12. This analogy is totally lost on me. Did I miss a post? I believe some examples may clarify things–maybe explain how the analogy connects to the examples. What are “their terms”? How is their rhetoric like a deck of cards? What are my/our terms to which I am intended to limit engagement?

  13. To a certain extent, I think that Twitter feeds this style of rhetoric. There isn’t enough space to really lay down a coherent argument, so what is left are “sound bites” that simply expound their position. And they have no obligation to engage with the ensuing thread. Maybe we need an anti-Twitter that requires a minimum number of characters and at least 2 paragraphs.

  14. I agree with the OP. I used to engage in debate with my sister, who is a Trumpist. I had logic, numbers, charts and facts on my side. She had “hurt feelings” and innuendo. And, of course, conspiracy theories, let’s not forget those! I’ve gave up on debating her when I said “Fox News lies” and gave an example when I saw a news anchor lie. Her response? She felt insulted because of the implication that she was stupid for trusting them. Bah!

  15. Jeff Machan,

    Thanks for that. Very interesting. As someone who always considered himself a conservative, but now finds himself more aligned with the liberals (and how did THAT word become a bad thing) I find the perversion of conservatism very very disturbing. While what Margaret Thatcher said about running out of other peoples money is true, how can we deny basic needs of health and education to all of our citizens, or to the world?

  16. I’m having a hard time seeing how this description is supposed to be more than just a long way of saying that the trolls are trolls.

    For the record, the term “alt-left” was apparently invented by Clintonites, not Trumpistas. See James Walcott’s article in the March 2017 Vanity Fair article.

  17. This debate is of little significance since the US is a nation-system into its senility phase and is, following most recent mathematical models, to extinct by 2050.

  18. For some reason… boredom, probably… I very recently re-read Fredric Brown’s “Martians, go home.” It’s his best work, IMHO, and I hope he made a bundle when he sold the film rights. I didn’t much agree with Brown’s politics (he supported the Vietnam war, for example), but this re-reading brought a delicious flash: My god! The martians are TROLLS! All they lacked was the web.

  19. sheppard: At the risk of coming across as didactic and know-it-allish, I’d explain the analogy by noting that the key to John’s analogy is “Debate: The Gathering,” a satirical reference to the most famous and heavily played strategy trading card games “Magic: The Gathering.” In MTG two players duel using cards with a range of common basic numerical variables but, in many cases, special card-specific abilities to alter, circumvent, or vary the game’s basic rules, often to the detriment of the other player. In Magic I might attack with a “Volcanic Hammer” in an attempt to inflict 3 damage on my opponent. My opponent could counter with a “Psychic Rebuttal” which has the specific property of countering the Hammer which means it does no damage and goes to its player’s discard pile. That example is actually more interesting and nuanced than the competitive exchanges that John analogizes: “Oh, so you you’re going to play the ‘Trump Lies’ card are you? Well, I’m slapping down this ‘Whataboutism–Clinton lied about Lewinski’ Card to block your ‘Trump Lies.’ By the way, this ‘Whataboutism’ also protects against ‘Trump is a Sexual Predator.’ Sucker.” And so on….

  20. I feel like I missed some context, somewhere…

    Blue Lives Matter?
    Lock her up?
    There was no collusion, and even if there was, collusion isnt illegal. But Hillary definitely colluded. And thats a crime?

    Which one was it?

  21. @rmichaelroman: ‘Hi, Mack!’

    Back in the early 1990s, I belatedly came to the realisation one day that boredom had a great deal to answer for, that a huge portion of the population was bored to distraction most of the time. (This astonished me. I hadn’t noticed because I was either busy or had my nose in a book. I hadn’t noticed that everyone else in the queue at Department of Motor Vehicles was bored and surly because I was the only customer reading a book while waiting.) And here’s the thing: Some bored people, many of them, get their jollies by messing with people.

    All of us Usenet denizens knew about ‘getting entertainment by messing with people’ extremely well: As John says, the behaviour he describes has a very long history. It seemed to start with ‘I insist on fighting with you’ but quickly evolved to the noxious Usenet patterns of ‘Let’s you and him fight’ and ‘Let’s classify everyone as either friend or enemy according to fashionable symbols and have a nosy and phony war.’ Usenet acculturation involved recognising these rhetorical techniques (including characteristic Newsgroups-line crossposting patterns and suspicious uses of Followup-To) and proper use of killfiles. Even though there was always an influx of the gullible and trollable (a flood starting in the Year of Eternal September, 1993), acculturation and killfiles sufficed.

    Not a lot has changed except it’s still Eternal September (Facebook being an exact replacement for AOL), pseudonymity is so common that many forget about its uses for asymmetric information warfare, we now have the ragemobbing vehicle called Twitter, and ideologues with absolutely no self-respect go around waving fake victimhood trying to claim figurative cookies. All the classic dumb Internet tricks are still around: Let’s You and Him Fight, sockpuppeting, The Lurkers Support Me in E-mail, frogeries, and all the rest.

    As Scalzi says, just don’t play. Roll your eyes, laugh, and say ‘Sorry, I’m not interested in your stupid culture-warring, and am busy sorting my belly-lint collection.’

  22. Not to just bring up the alt-left thing again, but false equivalence is absolutely one of the typical trolling tactics used by the right.

    In other words: “Whatever I’m guilty of, you’re guilty of too. Now let’s have forty hours of nonstop spam talking about nothing but the thing I’m guilty of, applied to you.”

    Fox does it, Trump /obviously/ does it, and people and the media fall for it every time. It’s so common, you can pretty much pick the scandals before they make headlines just by looking to see what ridiculous thing the trolls are pushing this week.

    One of the things you need to be able to do to deal with this problem in general is to be able to recognize these things. People online are /not/ arguing in good faith until proven otherwise, and if you don’t recognize that you’ll be open to manipulation.

  23. Oops. Sorry John, you are correct. Apologies.

    Back to the actual topic, I really appreciate how you articulated it. In fact, I DO often find myself engaging in unwinnable battles. Indignant soap boxy behavior. And it doesn’t feel good. It’s not healthy and I’ve been taking steps to just disengage from the entire conversation.

    For me, FB became either a pointless echo chamber of people that agree with me (mostly my liberal friends from the west coast)… or pointless arguments with the other side of the spectrum (mostly old friends from my small hometown in the south). The last couple of months I’m staying away from Facebook a lot more… “virtual connections” on the internet are not a satisfying substitute for face-to-face interactions.

    Still, I feel a little lost lately, and living in a large urban environment doesn’t help. In hopes of actually connecting with real live people (outside of work) I’ve started looking into volunteer opportunities with the local lgbt center. I can’t solve the world’s problems but perhaps I can do something to make my corner of it a little better? All I know is that I have to do something REAL to counteract the last 18 months spiral into despair and depression. :/

  24. I’d also like to ask what it looks like to engage trolls on your terms, not theirs.

    I’ve had some positive (if draining) interactions with friends and family from my more conservative past by engaging in their language and values (e.g. framing gun control measures as respect for the power of guns and the conscientiousness of gun owners) and pulling my punches a bit (e.g. suggesting increased background checks rather than a handgun ban to the gun shop owner). That is exhausting, though, and draws on my relational capital with my interlocutors, so I need to pick my battles lest I exhaust that capital, and it doesn’t work on strangers (let alone trolls) who I don’t have the same pull with.

  25. > (Elladan said) “One of the things you need to be able to do to deal with this problem in general is to be able to recognize these things. People online are /not/ arguing in good faith until proven otherwise, and if you don’t recognize that you’ll be open to manipulation.”

    This is critical. It’s so painful to see so many people try to argue in good faith with obvious trolls. They take the bait. They take the line. You can plainly see how they’re led to ridiculous exchanges. Yet is no longer fashionable to throw in the “don’t feed the troll”, because the trolls have learnt ways around that too.

  26. Those who did debate in high school know that debate has always been a card game. (Or it was back in the day when we carried around briefcases full of evidence cards. I suppose that’s all gone now.)

  27. Here in Indiana Republican Lawmakers are pushing for Hate Crime bills, designed to more severely punish those guilty of such. What are your thoughts on Hate Crime Laws?

  28. Why should a person who is left of center engage the alt-right?
    It is not going to change their mind, nor is it going to change yours. Further, doing it in a public is likely to only lead to people more in the middle giving credence to the alt-right. It is not a strategy that is good rhetoric. You’re not going to win by it and you’re not going to win elections that way.

    This is entirely different than engaging people that you might sway with your arguments, your reason, and yes your views on what is acceptable. Belittle demean and shame the alt-right so that the moderates don’t want to be viewed as in that group. While doing this one should engage people one hopes to change more directly with helpful and respectful reason. Show respect for those you hope to influence and disdain for those you don’t think you can.

    The rhetorical aspect is to be firm about one’s disgust with and the essential unacceptable nature of the alt-right while not resulting to shouting at the alt-right, but telling the middle that they are awful people they shouldn’t want to be associated with. You are telling the middle how bad the right is, providing the engagement of the left. You don’t engage the right, because they are not worth it.

    Belittle, demean, laugh at. Show that the alt-right disgusts you, but that is a message meant more for the middle as you are giving the alt-right the cut direct.

    You don’t sit down to a poker game with a cheater. And you make sure to tell others to disdain the cheater too.

  29. Above, Edward Brennan wrote: “…engaging people that you might sway with your arguments, your reason, and yes your views on what is acceptable.”

    Telling, I think. I would argue otherwise. I would suggest engaging with folks who might sway you with their arguments, their reason, and yes, their views on what is acceptable. In other words, it works both ways. If you intend to engage honestly, then you have to be prepared to not only sway someone else’s opinion, but also to be open minded enough to allow your opinion to be swayed.

    The suggestion that these online debates can’t be won speaks volumes. Perhaps it’s time to reassess positions when you realize there are simple counterarguments to your world view.

    Edward Brennan continued, writing: “Belittle, demean, laugh at.”

    In short, I disagree. I don’t see the value in demonizing one another. I mean, my goodness, this is the type of language that a villain in a 80s movie would use. The jock telling the other jocks to belittle, demean, and laugh at the nerds.

    We live in a wonderful time. There’s more open information than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of people are being connected to the power grid every day. We went from being serfs to having all of the knowledge of the world in our cell phones. Maybe it’s time we stopped all this self-destructive “them vs us” nonsense. Maybe it’s time we listened to one another without prelabeling those who disagree with us.

    Troll is a word that used to mean something. Now it’s just shortcut to stifling opinions.

  30. I did in fact participate in speech-and-debate in high school (and college), also a great many moons ago now — and luckily, was in programs that focused as much on the underlying rhetorical theory as on the competitive aspects. Some of the lessons do carry over to the current state of wackiness in government and media, but there are caveats.

    First, a good (that is, skillful and competitively successful) competitive debater could not afford to be an ideologue — the nature of the competition required being able to defend *either* side of a resolution skillfully and logically. At that time, we were dealing with particular policy resolutions that persisted for a full academic term, and one result of this was that the substance of both affirmative and negative arguments greatly improved over the course of that term. This was because writers of affirmative “cases” would adapt their plans to account for the various negative arguments they ran into from their opponents, and writers of “negative” or opposing arguments would adapt their material to deal with logical and evidential holes exposed by their competition.

    Which meant that the actual policy proposals arising out of those debates had a very strong tendency to gravitate middle-ward over the course of an academic term, because what the competitive process was doing was forcing competitors to listen to and respond to the substance of opposing viewpoints, and to address and deal with those viewpoints because doing so was essential to “winning” a given round.

    For whatever reason, though, neither the media nor the current structural underpinnings of legislative governance (state or federal, at least) presently support this kind of listen-and-learn practice very well. We’re stuck with models that treat the political process as genuinely adversarial — and which demonize the very profession of “politician” as inherently venal — such that it’s become increasingly difficult to work around either the adversarial tone of today’s rhetoric or to train a new generation in the true and proper skills of good governance.

    Which is why I am skeptical of any solution to the current gridlock that only hamstrings *one* of the major current parties — because the real roots of our problem are that partisanship itself has become too deeply embedded in the political sphere. Knocking one party out of power won’t solve this; deeper reform is needed.

  31. For those of you wondering about alternatives to playing slap-cards with these folks, this is what I’ve figured out through a long couple of years wrangling with them. (I am foolish enough to follow my Senators’ Facebook pages, and these folks are legion in their threads.)

    The first thing is to accept that they’re not honestly ignorant about the issues. When you’ve seen 20 different people saying *exactly* the same thing about asylum-seeking migrants deserving to have their families shredded because they supposedly crossed illegally, you realize that they’re not saying that because they don’t know any better. Telling them what’s actually the case does nothing. They then just slap down another card and move the goalposts (first it’s because they crossed illegally… now it’s because it’s an Obama-era policy… now it’s because domestic criminals don’t get to be with their kids either… etc. etc. etc.).

    What I have found works – at least to shut them down – is to either pity them or call them out directly. They are wanting an argument (so they can slap down another card) or for you to get mad (so they can claim the high ground).

    They are *not* prepared for someone to gently laugh and shake their head and ask, “Who the heck told you that whopper? You honestly believe that? Really?” (Note: you do *not* follow up that with a refutation of the slap card. You are not arguing or educating. You are adopting a persona of a person embarrassed for a fool hanging their ass out in public for all to see.)

    Nor are they prepared for someone to say, “Those stories may help you avoid dealing with the fact that you’re an apologist for mass child abuse, but the rest of us can see what you’re trying to do.” (Again, you’re not arguing with their slap-card version of events. You’re calling it out as a story that someone made up to avoid dealing with reality.)

    Or for you to take their fake concern (“This happened under Obama, I bet you weren’t upset then!”) and turn it back on them and force-team them onto your side (“If you thought it was terrible back then, you must be really upset now, right?”) This one doesn’t work for all slap-cards, but it’s useful for whataboutism, because they’re expecting that particular slap-card to get you to defend the person they’re slamming, so if you don’t and instead turn it right back to the issue at hand, they might give up. The other techniques usually work better.

    They want you to get mad, to call them names, to treat their slap-cards as if they’re valid arguments. So don’t. Laugh. Pity them. Be relentlessly polite. Don’t argue with their points or treat them as worthy of serious thought.

    Either they will disappear, or they will dissolve into a mishmash of incoherent rantings. (At that point I usually just block them, because they’ve been called out and revealed as something other than the rational voice they started out pretending to be, and there’s no point in engaging further.)

  32. Note that the above advice is for dealing with people who are clogging up threads with unhelpful derailings and misinformation. This is *not* useful if you’re dealing with an actual person who is willing to engage with you honestly one-on-one. If you’re not sure which you’re dealing with, go ahead and start down the road of polite correction. You’ll see pretty quickly who is just clueless and who is being an ass.

  33. I no longer follow anyone on Facebook or post to my wall. I strictly use it for groups, and 99% of those are related to my work, my favorite hobby, and my particular health concerns.

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