Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Commenters and My Responsibility

—Oops, is that a troll-proofing, patronizing thing to say?
Me, near the end of last week’s page

Hello Reader,
“Don’t touch that dial!”
Ready to tune into the same blog-topic, same blog-station?

Other People and Me
Other People
My Responsibility

This continues last week’s post of Readers and My Responsibility.

Other People and Me
The last time (Over April-May) I did a two part blog, (for citizenship and air travel) I began part two with a conversation I had with David Gerrold. This time, let me begin with something one of Gerrold’s characters said in the Chtorr War series: Don’t try to explain or defend, because if you have to explain, then you are already half in the wrong.

Which is why I won’t explain to you any unhappy specifics of how my comments on a blogger’s long comment thread, earlier this month, led to other commenters having derisions, projections, assumptions and so forth at my expense. Ouch! I will say that maybe I was rocked off-center, un-grounded, but not by much, maybe flustered. And I will say the topic of that post is relevant:  

Imagine a man writing in the 1950’s during the atomic age when everyone is aware of the destruction of Hiroshima. If you wanted to talk of the danger of pacifism, you might have a character spit on the ground and say, “That so? Go tell that to the city fathers of Hiroshima.” A no-brainer, right? What if I told you the writer was Robert Heinlein, and that instead he wrote, “tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.” Why the heck use that ancient city, from two millennia ago, instead of Hiroshima? A possible explanation is that Heinlein came of age when every schoolchild was taught about the Greeks and Romans. I tried to say so, in effect, for a blogger’s topic of Robert Heinlein’s writing. 

As I said last week, this caused red and black emotions, perhaps because although Heinlein was an award-winning author in his day, a lot of people despise him. Seriously.

You may recall that back in mid-April I wrote about Citizenship and Belonging. I bookended it with references to Heinlein. Six paragraphs in I wrote:
Now, before I attempt an essay about classical citizenship, I would say to you, dear reader, “let’s be cool.” Relax. No one is saying we should return to the days of my father, born 1919, or Robert Heinlein, born 1907. It’s all cool. As I write this, I am merely agreeing with a young history major I know who said “You need to know your past to know where you’re going.” This I believe.

You would think I should have deleted that paragraph, after second thoughts of, “Oops, that’s too patronizing, too insulting and maybe too cruel.” You would be wrong. Judging by that comment thread, the gods were with me when I put that into my essay. Because people on that blogger’s comment thread were not reading responsibly.

So you may wonder: Did I proceed to add that paragraph, or something like it, to the long comment thread? No, I forgot I had ever written it! And no, because I kept being innocently taken off guard, not thinking people would be irresponsible. As it happens, my self-esteem is no better than the next person’s, yet I did not get all scared and full of butterflies. Reason: The responses from people who assumed and didn’t read responsibly sounded like non sequiturs (Latin for, “it does not follow”) so I couldn’t truly “get it” or take them seriously. 

Other People
How the heck did my subconscious prompt me to put that paragraph onto my blog? I mean, I’ve never tried to troll-proof before, never. And I’ve been writing essays every week for years. 

I guess I was immunized by the cheerful blog of Derek Sivers. Like Paul Graham, Derek has made himself independently wealthy. He doesn’t have to work, yet he still takes time to labor over essays on his blog. Not for money, but to be helpful. People comment “thank you” for nearly every post. Sivers makes it plain that anyone can use his texts and graphics, without fear of copyright. So here is a relevant part of one of his posts You Should Feel Pain When Unclear (link):
Email blasts are the best training for being clear.
At my last company I had about 2 million customers.
When writing an email to everyone, if I wasn’t perfectly clear, I’d get 20,000 confused replies, which would take my staff all week to reply to, costing me at least $5000 plus lost morale.
Even if I was very clear but took more than a few sentences to explain something, I’d get thousands of replies from people who never read past the first few sentences.
Writing that email to customers — carefully eliminating every unnecessary word, and reshaping every sentence to make sure it could not be misunderstood — would take me all day.
One unclear sentence? Immediate $5000 penalty. Ouch.
Unfortunately, people writing websites don’t get this kind of feedback.

To me, the most relevant sentence is “…replies from people who never read past the first few sentences…” As I said last week, some readers are irresponsible. I am wondering: What is my responsibility to them? Unlike Sivers, I don’t have a company to worry about.

I do try to accept responsibility for helping. As I said at the end of last week, I try to help Sivers be more understandable to my fellow commenters, as when, for example, they miss a metaphor. 

Derek Siver’s blog is mainly for people trying to succeed as music artists. Sivers urges them to learn from the business world, as music is a business too. Meaning: Don’t just read his blog literally and concretely, but also abstractly think of how Derek’s “business world” metaphor-lessons can be applied. Read responsibly.

For example, in his essay Does Your Company Really Want To Hang Out With Me? (link) Sivers tries to straighten out big companies (and little music artists) that would “use people” on their company social media. Sivers attempts the metaphor of a pretty bank teller “using” him over a fancy dinner. 

I was commenter # 259, after a lot of people had tried to give Sivers dating advice. I just had to write to his music loving fans:

How queer:
I wouldn't have imagined how many commenters can read a story that starts with "Imagine..." and then somehow imagine it is not a metaphor, but real.

Some folks have no imagination. You might say, they can't be dreamers while they're wide awake.

I know I'm not the only one to say it: English speakers are impoverished in their use of the subjunctive. 

My Responsibility
Having established that some people are irresponsible, it is time to start forming a philosophy: How much shall I be responsible for such people? If I had a company like Sivers once did, it would be a no-brainer. But I’m not in the smaller business world, I’m in the bigger real world. 

Certainly there are times when it is OK to “patronize.” (From the Latin pater, for father) For example, Robert Heinlein, back in the 1950’s, in Citizen of the Galaxy, wrote a novel about a beggar boy and his pater on a planet having a version of Sharia law. The boy steals. The father finds out. What to do? He asks himself, “How do you teach morals to a stray kitten?” Knowing his boy is flocking with boy-criminals, he tells the boy about consequences, adding that as his father, he would be the one to lose a hand! The boy agrees not to learn to steal.

Today it’s not just social workers, but the general public that has learned that if, for example, you are talking to a delinquent adult, or a practising alcoholic, then you must not talk in terms of morals, but in terms of consequences, maybe using a calm computer voice: “If you get caught doing X then…” With a normal person, though, you don’t need to patronize; you can talk of good and bad, right and wrong, and show by your voice and expression how distasteful certain behaviours are.

I wonder: If some readers are irresponsible, then should I, like a good social worker, meet them where they are at? By patronizing them? And therefor patronize all my readers? Or do the opposite, treating the bad ones as I would the normal ones?

If so, then would a wise crone say that with my standards are too high, that I’m being too responsible? I know the facts, but how do I respond to the facts?  

As a citizen? George Orwell said that every healthy society must demand of citizens a little more than it is reasonable to expect. So maybe I should hold people to a standard of proper reading

As myself? Paul Graham has said new ideas are hard enough to catch whispers of, without trying to sooth people as you write, which might unfortunately cause you to miss the whispers because of censoring or restricting your own brain.

Ouch! As a writer, that strikes home. I had best expect people to give me benefit of the doubt on-line and on the page, just as my friends and I do in real life. I still believe what I commented to Sivers on his pain when unclear post:

I blog for people whom I would not dislike personally.
I blog for people of good will who have enough politeness to read before they reply,
with enough responsibility to read before they would publicly censor, or censure (reprimand) me,

I write for gracious ladies and gentlemen who converse and comment, in person and online, with an appropriate patience and attention span.

Sean Crawford

Credibility Footnotes:
~to document that normal people go by principles, and not by consequences, 
Mark Manson has a “40 minute read” called (link) How to Grow the Fuck Up: A Guide To Humans.

~Paul Graham wrote “But I don’t write to persuade, I write to figure out” in his essay about not pandering (link) Persuade xor Discover.

Credible Research
~As for my credibility in saying I always write without ever troll-proofing, except for once last month, you may check out my archives.

~As for my credibility as regards my comments being disinterested: I don’t have a business to promote, my blog site has no advertising, and as specifically regards Derek Sivers, I can truly say that no one has ever clicked on my comment name to go see my blog. Because you can’t. Name links are disabled.

~As for my credibility for having lots of experience in writing comments: 
my best “writing references” are on a Derek Siver post from three months ago, (link) Why You Need a Data Base:

Zohreh (2018-02-14) #
You have such a fabulous fan base, Derek. I find I have nothing to add. However, I did want to thank Sean for comments #6 and #9 which made me laugh out loud - great way to end my day!!
Sean Crawford is amazing. If you go through my entire blog, over 300 posts, he has left a thoughtful comment on almost every single one. -- Derek

Zohreh (2018-02-14) #
In response to your comment, Derek - I had already been struck by Sean's comments on your various blogs. In fact, meaning no disrespect to anyone else, I tend to rapidly scroll down to see what he might have said. A thoughtful person. I liked his piece about being a nerd and small talk.

But to get back to you, I do like how you're writing your book.

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