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foxwizard ☾

🦊 Reject fake arguments

Here is a way, I hope, for you to save yourself from pointless, frustrating and/or time-wasting battles with trolls online. It was directly inspired by a passage from Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.

Note: the following post contains a minor spoiler.

Adam Roberts summarises the 2019 book aptly. Here is a key passage:

[Early in the book] a midwestern town called Moab is destroyed in a nuclear attack. This is quickly shown to be a hoax, orchestrated via faked online video, massively coordinated misinformation and a few holographic special effects, but when the truth is revealed many people refuse to accept it. Fall [the book] is, among other things, an interrogation of our lamentably post-truth world, and Stephenson rolls history a couple of decades into the future to depict a US completely unmoored from factual reality.


Overall there’s no doubting Stephenson’s dismay at the direction our culture of increasing political and ontological fakery is moving in. The way Stephenson tells it, there was a 300-year period in human history when folk by-and-large found themselves able “to agree on matters of fact not immediately visible to them”. This collective consensus peaked during what he calls “the Cronkite era”, but then “dropped to zero incredibly quickly when the internet came along”.

The “nuclear attack” was faked in a rather low-budget manner that was quite feasible: a combination of coordinated DDOS attacks bringing down local internet and telecommunications, along with pre-prepared footage that was “leaked” at just the right time, made for a story too sensational to ignore. Thus the hoax spread like wildfire.

It makes me think to the atrocity propaganda that emerged from Israel and was propagated so quickly and unquestioningly by Western media. “Beheaded babies!” “Babies cooked in ovens!” “Mass rape!” I remember seeing the IDF spokesperson (a Rear Admiral) point to a random calendar in a hospital as “evidence” of a “hostage keepers’ list” with “terrorists’ names”. It would be hilarious if the context weren’t so heinous and grim.

Yet now—even after all claims have been debunked (with no credible evidence coming to light)—the damage had already been done. And if my personal DMs are anything to go by, still many believe the stories to be true, and many still quote them as fact.

If you are someone who cares enough to speak out against things like war crimes,* crimes against humanity, human rights violations, genocides, the use of prohibited chemical weapons, the killing of journalists and doctors and aid workers and oh the mass slaughter of children—if you understand that none of this is good—then no doubt you will have encountered some interesting characters online. Characters who seek to apologise or otherwise deflect or defend these atrocities. Characters who seek to gaslight you and others into believing that, no: if we don’t violate international human rights laws, kill children in their thousands and commit plausible genocide—the bad guys might win!

* One needs to be careful in calling out war crimes in countries like Australia, though: we send folks to prison for such things. Here’s a message to whistleblowers recently shared by the Australien Government. That typo is deliberate btw.

deep breath

I’ve been lured into battle with many such folk in the past four months. What begins like a good faith conversation turns into something quite maddening. Something that awakens a righteous darkness within me, and brings out my snark.

It’s unbecoming; I don’t like it. And I don’t like how easily lured I am by these platforms that profit from outrage and discord.*

* Not discord the platform, though. Discord is good.

I really should know better.

The general advice is: don’t feed the trolls. But sometimes it is seemingly impossible to ignore a comment to a post you have made. The professional (yt) thing to do is to seek civility, comfort and conformity. To “agree to disagree” and leave it at that. But in Neal Stephenson’s speculative fiction, another way is proposed.

🟥 Reject fake arguments...

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is a big book. At times it felt like a slog. But there were moments of conceptual aptness that stay with me today.

One such concept is The Red Card.

The Red Card... “was a reference to one of their teachers at Princeton who had gone so far as to print up a wallet card for people to keep in front of them during conversations like this one. One side of the card was solid red, with no words or images, and was meant to be displayed outward as a nonverbal signal that you disagreed and that you weren’t going to be drawn into a fake argument. The other side, facing the user, was a list of little reminders as to what was really going on:”

1 // Speech is aggression

2 // Every utterance has a winner and a loser

3 // Curiosity is feigned

4 // Lying is performative

5 // Stupidity is power

There are many times where I have found myself in conversation only to realise, too late, that, hoho: this is not a conversation. This is no ‘good-faith attempt’ to arrive at deeper mutual understanding. I’m being baited here; their curiosity is not real, and they’ve power over me because they are willing to forgo intellectual honesty altogether.

And so, the temptation is to simply place a red card emoji 🟥 in the comment thread and leave it at that. A card that signals: I disagree and won’t be drawn into a fake argument.

But this on its own feels like a dick move. And besides; there’s a chance that the person you are in conversation with are secretly hurting. They may be afraid, and are very likely not at their best.

Thus, if we are to use the red card, we must do so...

... with heart ❣️

The “red heart as an exclamation mark” emoji looks like this: ❣️

When this red heart as an exclamation mark is paired with the red card symbol, we get this:


What this means is: I disagree with you and am not going to be drawn into a fake argument—but! I still love you and wish you well. This ‘love’ word sounds mawkish, and is sometimes difficult to manifest. But it is earnest (at least, in a philosophical sense).

We are, all of us, children in adult bodies. And where some have had the support to heal, integrate, develop and grow—many have not. I know that bullies sometimes enact their traumas unto others.° And I know that power begets paranoia. And I also know that not everyone knows how to think and reflect critically; thus when they consume content from poisoned information feeds, they know not what they are subjecting themselves to.

* I had a friend accosted by folks as she made her way to an anti-genocide/pro-humanity rally. “You’re making me really scared right now,” she said. “But I still love you!”

We are all doing the best we can, with the resources we’ve got, based on how we see and relate to reality. “Even if we don’t agree, we come closer to the truth if we create better dialogues and raise the standards for how we treat one another,” to quote Hanzi Freinacht.

Besides: I like consensus reality. I like having common conceptual and ethical frameworks to work with. I like having shared values like human rights, and international laws to adhere to. Super handy.

That doesn’t mean consensus reality can’t change—only that which can change can continue. But the way we go about updating consensus reality ought surely involve a lot less violence.

A step towards this, perhaps, may be in minimising the violence we do to each other online. To recognise, a little earlier, when our conversations are veering towards an unproductive path.

A better game

Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, says there are two games we can play in life. The first is the game of “who’s right?”—it’s a game in which everybody loses. The second is the game of making life wonderful.

This mirrors James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of Life as Play and Possibility. Finite players play to win; infinite players play to continue the play.

I hope that one day some folks have the opportunity to reflect on their implicit support for genocide, and how they show up online and in life. I hope that we all might continue to stumble our way to a world more curious and kind.

Perhaps we might make better progress if we reject fake arguments, with heart. ❣️

// Where to now? //

Thanks for being here · I’m foxwizard (aka Dr Fox)

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