I was invited to a Poly-flavored gathering this past week and looked at comments attached to the invitation. I was not familiar with the group that was hosting it and didn't know many of the people involved. Weird, given that I am fairly well connected in the area's existing Poly groups, so I assumed that this was a newer group.
It is. I found a couple of long comments posted by the organizer, and was disheartened by what I found. The longer of the two comments can be summarized as, “People who call themselves Poly, who also sometimes have sex outside of long-term relationships are ruining Polyamory's reputation. They are a problem, so I started this group so that we could ostracize them and make sure that they know they are wrong.”
Anyone who has spent much time on Poly-related forums (or probably ANY topical forum) has run into “purists” who decry any variance from their vision of canonical interpretations of the faith. Such purists are openly mocked by many others, with pseudo-hate-filled commentary about how “Ur doin' it rong!”.
It's a reactionary cycle that distills to:
“No, you're wrong.”
“No, I'm not. I'm right because of (x). You're wrong!”
“No, you don't know what you're talking about. I'm living proof that it works. You are so preachy!”
“You are hurting people with your acceptance of (something they think is bad)!”
“You are hurting people with your ignorant judgmental attitude, jerk!”
… and we go downhill from there. Conversation ended. Flame war initiated. This sort of thing is why I no longer post on one of the larger sources of Poly forums. I've found that more often than not, people are preemptively attacked because of previous conversations and debates that have degenerated into such a scenario. If anyone comments on a thread belonging to a certain person, someone else will chime in with a “warning” about that person, and how they are either a judgmental purist, or a dangerous threat to the community who needs to be ostracized. Sometimes both.
So, what do we do about the times where people really are doing it wrong? Is anyone doing it wrong? What would that look like? Who decides what's wrong? That's a big ballpark. I am planning on attacking that, but I'm expecting it to take a book, not a blog post. In the meantime, let's bite off something a bit smaller.
How do we short circuit this cycle?
I don't think we can prevent snarkiness and flame wars online, because people want that. It's a sad truth, but the reason that there is so much drama in certain social circles is because some people, though they adamantly deny it, not only select for needless conflict and hostility, they actually initiate it because they feed off of it. What can we do about that?
Psychology teaches us that engagement, positive or negative, can still be reinforcing. If your child is acting out, and you give in, giving them the ice cream cone (or whatever), then you are giving them positive reinforcement. They act badly and they learn (whether they are conscious of it or not) that if they act badly they get their way. This is part of Parenting 101. I would actually say it's also a part of Relationships 101. One piece of advice that I give to people frequently is to not start patterns in a new relationship that you don't want to continue for the duration of the relationship. Don't accept a situation thinking that you need to, in order to “make things work”, assuming that you “will change them later”. It's possible, but not likely.
On the other side of the coin, you might punish the child for acting badly. There are many forms of response that you see as potentially disincentivizing the behavior, however, this is often illusory. Negative reinforcement is still reinforcing the behavior. How's that? Well, if a child has an underlying desire for attention (hint: they do), and they act badly, even if you are scolding or otherwise punishing them for acting badly, you are STILL giving them your attention. They are not getting the immediate object, but they are getting what they actually are after, which is your focused attention. This is negative reinforcement. That's why the ideal solution (not that anything about parenting ever goes according to plan) is to address the behavior, set a standard for what is preferred, set a consequence, then move on as quickly as possible. If only it were that simple with children.
With adults, especially adults on internet chat forums, we have far less responsibility or connection, which allows us to look at the fundamental psychological truth mentioned above and take from it the idealized solution. When confronted by someone who is aggressive, hostile, and who we know actually wants attention, the solution is to disengage.
A common refrain in online forums is, “Don't feed the trolls.” Don't argue or fight with people who are making argumentative and aggressive commentary. They want to start a fight. They want your attention. Don't give it to them. So, if we do this, if we adopt this tactic of detaching, what is the practical consequence? What actually happens?
We detach. We don't engage. We don't speak. We are quiet.
Wait a second, that doesn't seem right. We just let them steal our voice. Why are we letting someone else prevent us from participating in a conversation that we were (presumably) gaining benefit from?
That is the path that I've taken, with one particular website, but it's only because of two mitigating factors. One, there are other places that are not so deeply dysfunctional where I can still contribute and get my needs met. Two, there are other smart, capable people who are still on that website, who are answering questions, having interesting conversations, and discussing things in a thoughtful, considered way.
I struggle with this. It feels like I'm copping out, and leaving the work to others. From what I've just written, yeah, I kinda am. I don't like that, but to keep my sanity, that's the course I've pursued heretofore. However, thinking about this, and partly in response to the excellent concepts illustrated here, I've wanted to also share some ideas about how to remain engaged, to show up, to act, and to short circuit the devolving cycle that I shared above.
It's simple, but not necessarily easy. Step 1, recognize the situation as it develops, see the bait. When you feel yourself having the urge to escalate, to make a “you” statement, stop. Use something like “The 5 Minute Rule”. Anytime you feel like posting something that has an emotional charge behind it, stop and give your self a time out for 5 minutes before hitting the Enter key.
Step 2, reflect on what your goal really is. Do you want to share an opinion to help others? Do you want to better understand someone else's position to see if you can learn from them? Do you want to show off how smart you are? Do you want to win an argument and prove how the other person is wrong? Depending on how you answer this question, you might find that you are actually a part of the problem. Maybe you have your own internal Drama Llama crying to get out. Well, you can do what you want to do, but be aware of it, and be honest with yourself about what you're doing and why.
Step 3, I would argue that NVC is a good starting point if you decide to remain engaged. If you are going to craft a response, try following these guidelines:
- Don't address the other person. Address the concept.
- Don't say what is right or wrong without a willingness to cite an external, objective source. Math works well. Another discipline, such as Psychology, Physics, or English might also work, but at this point you will need to provide a citation or claim a certain level of knowledge, and then back it up with some explanation. Don't start here unless you're willing to follow through.
- Finally, state your position, and then stop. Don't continue to engage. If the other person, or people, continue to tell you, “No, you're wrong”, but they don't further the conversation with new or different ideas or data, then that IS the time to disengage. Speak clearly, speak completely, then SHUT UP. Sorry, caps lock.
- After you've had your say, don't stay hooked. Stand up, go for a walk, go play with the dogs, vent to a trusted friend, whatever it takes for you to process the emotional charge that you're feeling. You acted. You spoke. You shared your knowledge and experience, and there are people reading this thread who will weigh what each speaker is bringing to the conversation. They will read someone else's personal attacks and they will compare it with you're (hopefully) balanced and thoughtful input.
Often it's better to simply say, “For me, I've found...”, or “In my experience...” and make your statement far more gentle. Yes, you're allowing room for the other person to not acknowledge that you are right. Is that a problem? What was your answer in Step 2 above? Isn't it okay for the other person to be wrong? If you know that they are “doing it wrong”, why do you need to try to “force” them to be right? Do you think that it is likely that typing on a keyboard, in your home, sharing words over the internet, will change this person's mind? Really?
This is a way to stay engaged, speak from your personal wisdom, contribute to a community, but not encourage or feed a hostile environment that makes people consider whether all of these (label)-people are completely hostile and crazy.
I hope you consider this the next time you're tempted to tell someone that they are “doing it wrong”, or when someone else tells you the same.
Thanks for reading!