In maintaining this blog, I have to deal with the occasional commenter who tends to hijack the comments to pursue some pet issue, sometimes using a form of argumentation that I have now learned is called sealioning. Bloggers take different attitudes to this phenomenon. There are those who treat the blog platform as similar to their homes and all commenters as visitors. This results in relatively quick ejections for those who violate the rules of the house. I view this blog as more of an online magazine with me as the editor with the right to moderate comments but where the rules of behavior are less strict than those of a private home. I initially tried to treat the blog as a completely open platform where people were free to say what their liked but I found that my tolerance had its limits and I had to ban one commenter.
But I am well aware that my ability to take a more tolerant attitude is because I am a man. Ijeomo Oluo in a post titled When A Woman Deletes A Man’s Comment Online describes why she deleted a comment and what happened afterwards.
I spent a fair amount of time this weekend in mixed states of amusement, frustration, anger, and confusion as a grown man threw a fit in my online spaces. It had started on Facebook, with multiple comments left on my page, the same screenshots posted over and over. He then looked up my Twitter handle and railed against me there, trying to drag in a celebrity, his followers, and one of my employers. According to him, I was a fatwa-issuing Nazi (I’m not making this word choice up) of no journalistic integrity who was censoring the public. And the world needed to know.
Why had a man spent two days on a mission to tell the entire world that I was a journalism-destroying fascist? Because I deleted his comment on my personal Facebook page.
If this shocks you, you are likely not a semi-prominent woman on the internet, because this happens, to greater or lesser severity, about once a week.
She thinks that this kind of behavior occurs with people for whom the issues are not real or personal and thus have the privilege of treating online commenting as an extension of high school debating, where the speaker has no real vested interest in the topic but the goal is to ‘win’ the argument by using debating tricks and by grinding the opponent down or overwhelming them with a blizzard of words. This deprives others for whom the issues are meaningful from taking part in the conversation. Also, since in these artificial debating contests one assumes that one’s opponents also have no personal investment in the topic either, their feelings become irrelevant and one can thus freely pursue the goal of ‘winning’ the argument by any means at one’s disposal.
We live in a world where the most hotly debated issues surround questions of women’s rights, health care, racism and racial oppression, immigration, trans rights, reproductive rights, and religious discrimination. To be able to take issues fundamental to the health and safety of millions of people and turn them into sport where winners and losers are decided by talking points requires some level of insulation from the negative impacts of the outcome in order to enjoy participating.
It is no surprise to me that online debate has become the international sport of cis white men. Those who are least likely to be negatively impacted by the outcomes of discussions regarding the rights of marginalized people, who are driven by little more than ego and the risk of slight discomfort if society is made more equal, can gleefully jump from post to post, forum to forum, challenging the heartfelt pleas of those most at risk. “Well actuallys” are flung at those working for justice and equality like drive-bys of apathy. And those who are fighting for their lives are then forced to battle each challenger bearing advanced degrees in Google and entitlement in order to prevent the outright dismissal of their lived experience.
But as much as I hate this sort of debate, as much as I make it known I hate this sort of debate, many men are more than happy to completely ignore that and challenge me — even if I’m a complete stranger to them — to a debate about basically any social issue I dare post about. I do not get mad at the challenge, even if the predictability and mundanity of it all does try my patience. I do get mad at the continued insistence of it. I used to just say, “I don’t debate this here,” when random strangers would find their way to my Twitter feed or personal Facebook page. But that boundary put in place on my personal page is almost never respected, and others jump in to argue on my behalf, and my online space is inevitably full of debate over the basic humanity of marginalized people that does nothing but remind the marginalized people watching that they are not valued or safe.
This kind of behavior can occur in face-to-face interactions as well. I have been in ‘group’ discussions that became a battle between just two people with all the rest as bystanders and must confess that on occasion I used to be one of those debaters myself (a relic of being a high school debater) before I became more aware that this was the behavior of a jerk and have learned to control myself. It helped that as a teacher in seminar classes, I had to learn to shut up myself and to create room for quieter people to enter the conversation when it threatened to become a two-person debate or a one-person monologue.
In real life, the occasions for such poisonous debates are rare. But online spaces allow people to seek out forums where their pet issues are raised and by repeatedly engaging in them, they can polish their arguments, have a ready list of talking points and facts and data, and even have ready-made text at hand that can be cut-and-pasted to enable them to overwhelm anyone who disagrees.
Since this practice is so common on the internet, perhaps we need a convenient label for it as well, like sealioning. Any suggestions?