‘Sealioning’: a neologism I can get behind

It was only recently that I learned the metaphorical use of the term ‘gaslight’, that arose from the 1944 film Gaslight where the plot involved a husband tricking his wife into thinking that she was going insane. The term ‘gaslighting’ is now used more generally to describe a form of psychological abuse that seeks to undermine a person’s confidence in their own memory or perception or even sanity.

In response to my post on sea lions playing volleyball, commenter Saad posted the cryptic comment, “Clickbait. I thought it was going to be a couple of white atheist men posing questions while playing volleyball.” While I was puzzling over this seeming non sequitur, another commenter Holms asked about it and yet a third commenter kai provided a helpful link to a post by Erica Friedman where she explained that its origins lie in this cartoon by David Malki.


Friedman says:

Sealioning is the name given to a specific, pervasive form of aggressive cluelessness, that masquerades as a sincere desire to understand.

A Sealion is a person who, when confronted with a fact that they don’t care to acknowledge, say, the persistence of systemic racism in America, will ask endlessly for “proof” and insist that it is the other person’s job to stop everything they are doing and address the issue to their satisfaction.

I immediately recognized this practice. One often encounters this with people who deny evolution or with supporters of Sam Harris’s deplorable views on torture and profiling Muslims or defenders of Israel’s awful treatment of Palestinians.

Friedman adds:

Sealioning is not predicated upon any implicit understanding of public/private space, but upon the premise that the asker is “sincere” and therefore all resources possible *must* be immediately diverted to teaching them, immediately. The resources that they could, with minimal effort find, are not the issue. They demand attention – your attention. All of it. RIGHT NOW. And they have no intention of listening, because it’s your job to make them understand. It is a specific form of harassment. You may not look away, or point them to a link. You must spend all your time and energy. This isn’t a sincere attempt at anythinging. It’s a calculated technique to grind an opponent down.

I have long followed the practice of not responding further once I find a person seems to be following this practice. I now have a convenient label for it and it is a useful term that deserves to be more widely known.


  1. kestrel says

    I too love the fact that there are words now that help me express things I’ve been experiencing my whole life. This is a very good word indeed.

  2. KG says

    But how can you be absolutely certain that someone is sealioning, and not genuinely trying to understand? And if you can’t prove that they are sealioning, surely you should be prepared to drop everything and spend an hour or seven satisfying their polite requests for further information? :-p

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