From Marx, Anarchism and Web Standards, which Patrick sidelighted the other day:
This tendency [using terms of art to increase information density] means that most language that’s specific to a domain will generally trend towards the usable at the expense of the learnable. The impact this has on individuals new to the domain, however, is that of a wall. An impediment. Overcoming this obstacle requires a bit of good faith on the part of the beginner; to cross quickly over the chasm between beginner and expert, they must recognize and respect this aspect of the conversations they will invariably become a part of. When faced with a term that is used in a strange way, beginners should ask for clarification, and not start arguments over semantics they don’t yet even understand. Experts will recognize these arguments as coming from a place where concepts are not yet fully understood, and while they may recognize the need to help educate, if the newbie is being belligerent, they may just ignore them instead. Nobody wins; the signal/noise ratio has been decreased, the beginner doesn’t learn, and everyone’s time is wasted.
I read this and my moderator ears pricked right up. This is one of the classic failure modes of online conversation, particularly in social justice and civil rights circles. I estimate that it leads to wank, flamewar and exasperation about 75% of the time it appears.
What happens is this: a conversation will be bubbling along nicely, and someone will start questioning whether the term “racism” really covers the matter at hand—and doesn’t cover some other point they’d like to bring in. Or “sexism”, or “misogyny”. Is “homophobia” really a fear-based phenomenon? There’s always at least one person who thinks that all these baked-in inequalities are bad and all that, but that everyone’s energy really should be spent finding a better word than “privilege” to describe the situation. As long as we don’t fall back on “patriarchy” or “kyriarchy”, of course.
Sometimes it’s a genuine derail—someone doesn’t want to hear what’s being discussed, and starts a vocabulary fight to shut the conversation down. Your basic troll, looking to start something any old way, will have this technique in the arsenal.
Other times, the commenter is one of those people who has their ego shackled tightly to their intelligence, and prides themselves on the idea that they could, given an afternoon and plenty of tea, finally resolve this whole free will/determinism thing once and for all. So they’re trying to reinvent generations of scholarship and jargon-polishing from scratch, only better this time (because they’re involved). ‘Splainers of all stripes fall into this category, as do people whose worldview derives from an insufficiently nuanced set of base principles. They don’t really care how the content of the conversation comes out, as long as they’re on the podium at the end.
And sometimes, alas, it’s just someone who’s been argued into a corner on other matters, and is now fending off all comers in all ways. Those are the saddest ones. I try not to let that happen here, though I do fail at times.
But every now and then it’s the real deal—someone for whom the world is unfolding in a new way right then; they’re groping around for the next key and the next lock to put it in, becoming addicted to the sensation of a bunch of disparate phenomena fitting together into a new conceptional whole. You can tell these ones because they start discussing the terminology shortly after it first appears, using open questions, and genuinely responding to replies. These guys are pure gold, worth all the wankers and infraponts you have to put up with to get to them.
Of course, every conversation, and every community is different. Your mileage may vary. Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before exiting the vehicle.
The other way that these things go wrong is when the community reacts to someone of the third or fourth types as being type one or two.
Sometimes it’s bad pattern-matching, particularly in places where there have been far too many genuine trolls, derailers and ‘splainers. So it happens more often in political contexts than it does in, say, scientific or bookbinding communities, where the population of people with the impulse to intervene destructively is so much smaller.
And sometimes it’s that communities, like people, can tie their egos to their collective rightness. Then every newcomer with a question becomes a knight approaching the dragon’s cave: clearly on a quest, and about to get flambéd.