Plato’s Digital Cave: Soft Bullying, Rules of Engagement, and Possibilities for Transcendence
I have a PhD in philosophy, but I have the equivalent in life experience dealing with bullying and violence. I am a 4thdegree black belt in karate. I have decades of experience practicing and teaching yoga and meditation, as well as many published articles and books on Buddhism, meditation, and free will, particularly on the way meditation increases free will or agency. I also have professional trainings and/or certifications in Gestalt Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, life coaching, mindfulness practice, and philosophical counseling. I’m also the grievance counselor for our faculty union’s chapter on my campus. I mention all this to frame the context for the topic of this analysis: the concept of soft bullying, and strategies for dealing with it. The meaning of this concept will be developed in the course of the analysis, if not a working definition. For now, the simple contrast between hardcore and soft versions of anything ought to convey what I have in mind. My background is relevant because it did not adequately prepare me for soft bullying as I have been encountering it increasingly in social media in the last few years.
Life Experience PhD Equivalent in Ghetto Violence.
As for the street equivalent of a PhD in bullying and violence, I lived for 10 years (as a kid, into my early teens) in a ghetto-like Queens, New York City public housing projects, back when and where hard core bullying happened daily in real life, when the norm was fists, and nobody called the cops about it. No trip outside the apartment door was safe: from the very hallways, staircases, elevator, and lobby of the building (people were also thrown off the roof of our six-story buildings, to their deaths) and anywhere between it and the bus stop, park, grocery, church, school. Things weren’t much better inside our apartment door, as my father was a real life version of the character played by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. I experienced dozens of attacks by individual bullies and gangs, fistfights, fights with attackers with weapons, many more attempted shake-downs or robberies for bikes or other toys, countless incidents of racial violence, intimidation, harassment, and of verbal, social and other forms of abuse, as early as age 5. If I aggregate all these, the total is at least hundreds, if not thousands of incidents. I have multiple PTSDs just from this decade of my early life, and more from later years, but that’s not something I’d have paused to think about were it not for the required therapy sessions that are part of the Gestalt Psychotherapy certification program, where my therapist’s horror at my casual discussion of the experiences that led to my reactive dispositions eventually culminated in that set of diagnoses.
The Golden and Silver Rules.
Speaking of reactive dispositions, growing up in what I refer to as Hell Houses, I adopted what I call the 3-1 rule, a version of a more generic moral principle some refer to as the Silver Rule: treat others the way they treat you, according to the principles they tacitly endorse by acting in accordance with them. For example, someone steals from you, so they endorse the principle that stealing is acceptable, so they are logically forced to accept that it is acceptable when you steal from them. They certainly cannot validly object on the ground that stealing is wrong. There are philosophically sophisticated defenses of this principle. One very intuitive account is offered by James Rachels in his Elements of Moral Philosophy, a widely used introductory text I and many other philosophers have used in our Ethics classes. Rachels and I agree that the Silver Rule only applies to those who first violate the Golden Rule, that we ought to treat others the way we would like to be treated, until and unless they treat us otherwise. I will explain the 3-1 version shortly, but I should note that I try to hold out with the Golden Rule approach as long as I can in most cases before shifting to Silver, except when it comes to violence, though initially I held out even there, until I got my head handed to me at around age five or six. That’s when I decided to adopt the 3-1 rule.
I had absorbed many minor acts of aggression, shoves, a punch in the arm, a put down, etc., without retaliation, as my natural instinct was rich in sympathetic joy and suffering: taking delight at others’ joy and suffering when seeing them in joy or suffering. I did not want to hurt anyone, even if they were hurting me, to a point. The point arrived when Scott, a few years older than me, a bully, and a ringleader in the little tribe of kids who hung out in between his building and mine, kept pushing me and telling me to beat it when I was just trying to play with them. I wouldn’t leave, he hit me a couple of times, and I wouldn’t leave. He got pissed, knocked me to the ground, pinned me on my back, sat on my stomach, and started punching me in the face, one at a time, demanding I “say uncle!” (a local primate gesture of acceding to dominance). I refused, so he began to rapid fire punches, left and right, till the pain became terror, instinct took over, and I wrapped my legs from behind him, around the front of his neck, and slammed the back of his head into the concrete. I got up and took a fighting stance. He wobbled up, slowly, like a drunk, and actually attempted to swing at me, but all it took was a little push from me and down he went again. I actually suffered more emotionally from seeing him bang his head twice than I did from the volley of fists he painted on my face, given my natural tendency toward sympathy. But in that moment I knew I was in a world where the Silver Rule was a necessary auxiliary to the Golden one.
The 3:1 and 10:3 Rules.
It took many Scott-like encounters for me to shorten the distance between the first violation that might trigger a shift to the Silver Rule and my actually doing so, and many more before I felt pressed to adopt the 3-1 rule. The 3-1 rule works according to this extension of Silver Rule logic to dangerous, zero-sum contexts, like the cafeteria, the yard, or the showers—in prison. In honor cultures, your rep—your street cred—is everything. So, bypassing the verbal aggression game where a verbal bully “ranks you out” (insults you, in rap-like put downs about “yo mama” and the like, which can just be a contest or premise for initiating physical violence), and going straight to physical aggression, say, some Scott-wannabe tries to shake me down, pushes me in the chest, punches me in the arm, or slaps me in the head—just for the sake of it. The 3-1 rule says I must reciprocate three times. Why? Once, because he just initiated violence against me—tit for tat, eye for an eye, that sort of thing. Twice, because the first reciprocal act is absolutely necessary as a given in honor cultures, but, perhaps more importantly, people are watching, so they need to know that anyone who does X to me once will get X back at least twice, and also because Scotty-wannabe and I were equal when he first slapped me for no reason, and the first reciprocated slap simply returned the first violence-initiating slap, so in order to truly reciprocate an unwarranted violence-initiating slap, a second reciprocating slap is required. So, now, Scott slapped me without provocation, and after my first response, my second reciprocal slap was technically without provocation, since we were even-steven when I first slapped him back, but now we are even-steven because we each gave each other one unprovoked slap. But a third slap is also required, for a few reasons. First, because we were even-steven before he went ahead and slapped me for no reason, and my first two reciprocal slaps were both for good reasons. Now that we are even steven, all things considered, I must apply his own tacit principle, that it is acceptable to slap others for no reason. Thus, the third slap, which has the collateral benefit of letting onlookers vicariously experience the beating they will get if they mess with me, is an unwarranted slap, just like his first one was: it was initiated for no good reason, in one sense, when we were both unprovoked by each other. Of course, there’s also an auxiliary 10:3 rule, rarely but sometimes needed, for recalcitrant aggressors, whether because thick-skinned or dim-witted, or in some cases, both: If the 3-1 rule doesn’t work, meaning, if it doesn’t end things with Scott-wannabe, then add seven more slaps to your first three, or simply beat the crap out of Scott till he begs “uncle” or, like the real Scott, is too incapacitated to even say it, for all the same sorts of reasons.
Some Ghetto Highlights.
After two respectful, tolerant, verbal attempts to stop a completely irrational, approximately 11-year-old, somewhat rabid bully from bullying my approximately seven-year-old effeminate brother, who kept shoving him and trying to steal his handball, upon his third act of aggression I shoved him, just enough to knock him to the grass, not enough to hurt him. He immediately ran away and promptly returned with a posse of about a half dozen of his brothers and their friends, all towering over me. I was 13, they were all about 18. The ringleader got up in my face, well, actually, he was looking down to me and I up to him, and accused me of picking on his brother. As I began to explain what actually happened, he cut my speech short by punching me in the face. I went, as we would describe it then, ape-shit on him, fueled by righteous anger and indignation at the injustice, despite his being roughly twice my size, and accompanied by about a half dozen guys twice my size. My rage managed to overpower him, initially, so his friends all started to pinch in on his behalf, fighting me, trying to hold me so he could hit me, and the like, but my ferocity was so great that I managed to hold my own against six men for quite enough time to shame them all. Even a half minute of that is a face-losing event for seven tall black men in the roughly 99% black housing projects at the hands of a much shorter 13-year-old white boy. Finally, they managed to subdue me, and he got a few good shots in on me. As fortune would have it, my blonde haired sister, about 15 years old, saw what was happening, and thrust herself into the group, pulling them off me, demanding that they fight someone their own size, one on one, calling them cowards.
A week later, that same gang of seven doubled in numbers, surreptitiously surrounded me in a circle while I was playing catch with a friend behind the building, started shrinking the circle, punching their fists into their other hands, grinning evil intent at me—clearly a choreographed performance to terrorize me. I quickly surmised the ringleader and his friends were all embarrassed by my heroic stance against the seven of them, they had to show me to clear their names, and, pathetically embarrassing to them, they needed twice as many of them to do it. I looked at the man to my left, and rapidly cold-cocked the man to my right, creating an aperture through which I quickly fled, over a dozen men in my pursuit. They caught me in the lobby of my building and beat the shit out of me, kicking me in the groin, gut, and head while I lay there trying to cover up, till once again my guardian angel sister, Sandra, serendipitously showed up and dispersed them with insults to their manhood. I went upstairs, in a state of absolute rage, got my baseball bat, and headed for the door in full bash-heads-and-kill mode, but my mother quickly sized up the situation (my being all bloody, black and blue, eyes enraged, baseball bat in hand, was a big clue), and she blocked the door with her body. She wouldn’t move, she grabbed the phone on the wall nearby, called my father, the raging bull guy, and told him what happened, and told me he was on his way with his friends, to wait.
Raging Dad arrived in a pick-up truck with two of his moving-man buddies (yes, he carried refrigerators upstairs on his back for a living), and the four of us went through the projects looking for the gang, to no avail. We walked back to the truck, he told me to go home, and he stayed chatting with his friends. As I rounded the corner of my building, I saw what looked like a tribe of about 20+ men carrying weapons—bats, pipes, chains, etc.—running toward me. I turned back towards my father and his friends, only to see that the truck had left and my father was walking home. We were screwed.
The tribe got to us just as I got to my father, surrounded us, and their ringleader, a fellow I’ll just call Isaiah, started arguing with my father, claiming I’d beat up his nephew (the kid I shoved to the grass for bullying my little effeminate brother). My father asked me if it was true, and I denied it, honestly, because after getting my head bashed in by over a dozen men—recall, I was 13—I was still in a state of shock, and I literally thought Isaiah was lying: I had no episodic memory of the actual events. If I did, and explained myself, that might have prevented what ensued, but I was a deer in headlights after already being run over by an SUV. Isaiah and Raging Bull argued a bit, and while they did, about 100 black projects residents gathered round us, many of them calling us “white cracker”, spitting at us, throwing soda cans at us, inciting riot. My father finally tried a move I would have accepted had my head and ribs not already been bashed in: “OK, then, fair and square, my son will fight every one of you, one at a time, starting with you,” speaking to Isaiah. Again, had I not already had my ass handed to me by half of them, I would have taken the offer, and Isaiah might have been the only one I’d have to fight, as there was little doubt he, the ringleader, could take me. I think he was in his early twenties, he was pretty built, and had the strength of a leader’s confidence. In an instant, instinct took over again, and I bolted towards the projects police station, top speed, about a block away.
Before reaching safety, however, the tribe caught me again, and repeated their beating, kicking, stomping, etc., till my father arrived, covered me, shoved them off, and protected me, using his own body as a shield while waving a weapon to create space. I forgot to mention, he held a bat-length metal pipe in his hand, with a rag wrapped around his hand holding it (protection from knives), which he used to threaten those close enough to it to move back just enough to create space though which we could escape toward home. They acted like hyenas as we walked back to the building, hitting him from behind, till he’d turn, point the pipe, etc., which continued the roughly block and half journey back to our door, with the roughly two dozen warriors and the roughly 100 angry black racist spectators tagging along, egging the warriors on, spitting, cursing, spewing racist venom. When we arrived at the door to our building’s lobby, he ordered me inside, turned and faced the crowd, inviting then with the question, “Who would like to be the first to die?”, holding the pipe in two hands like a baseball bat, and calling them all cowards. None of these coward-bullies took him up on it. Finally, the black housing cops arrived, and ended it, adding something like “Why don’t you move out? We don’t want your kind here no more.”
Hippies, Gangsters, Yogis, and Karate Teachers.
That’s but one of countless stories like it that led my therapist to convince me that, no, those were not normal childhood encounters, but yes, I have multiple PTSDs—not only of that sort, but all equally traumatic. Again, when all you know is war, it doesn’t seem abnormal, till things change. Things changed when they immediately sent me to spend the summer at my relatives’ house upstate, and moved out of the projects while I was gone, to Boro Park, Brooklyn, a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood with a lot of hippies, adjacent to Bensonhurst, with a lot of mafioso types. Making friends with potheads soothed my traumas, and after a short adjustment period I became a psychedelic hippy myself. Studies now confirm that psilocybin helps with that, although the alternating use of pot, LSD, mescaline, and peyote had the same effect, as did yoga and meditation. To make a very long story very short, one example of how that worked was me taking lots of acid and going by myself into a neighborhood bar—not my turf, rather the opposite—where word had it some bad-ass dudes, including one key drug smuggler/supplier, had a problem with me, going right up to him amidst his posse, and confronting him about it with my acid-saturated eyes.
Many similar encounters led me to be convinced that the Jedi mind-control thing worked on gangsters, but upon reflection I think it might have been a combination of that and my much more vicious experiences in Hell Houses. Actual gangsters, I totally believed, were cowards compared to me, dime-droppers, we called them: a phone call cost a dime then, and instead of having the balls to deal with you to your face, they’d make a phone call to get the boys after you.
Thanks to Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now, former Harvard psychology professor and psychedelics researcher turned yogi, after one yoga session ended in an out-of-body experience I managed to find him and a couple of other meditation teachers, who I dutifully followed, studied with, and practiced meditation and yoga for a number of years. This convinced me that the 3:1 rule should be reversed: believe in peace, and don’t retaliate once until the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule seems applicable. Adding a black belt in karate to my repertoire made it easier for my ego to reassure myself that it really was the case that I could easily defeat aggressors, in which case I no longer had to worry about the honor culture sense that letting aggressors off easy was a sign of weakness. After fighting countless karate matches, and judging many of them, I truly believed I had nothing to prove to anyone, and could even allow nasty arrogant bullies to diss me in public and just walk away. I even ran into one of those projects bullies as a black belt, something I’d fantasized about with a heart of revenge for many years, but felt only compassion for him, as he looked much more mangled as a person than I would ever be, despite abuse by countless lowlifes like him.
Philosophy Blood Sports.
Skipping ahead, I eventually entered a PhD program in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate School, one of the leading analytic philosophy programs in the world. There were weekly colloquia where renowned philosophers would come from the world over to give a talk, followed by a Q&A during which the CUNY grad philosophy faculty would treat the speaker like a challenger to the title of fastest philosophical gun in the West, and engage in what the kinder philosophers among us described as philosophical blood-sport. But even this, on reflection, was quite civil, despite how biting the attempted objections, counter-examples, and challenges were: they were still framed as logical weaknesses in the presenter’s argument, not as deficiencies in their person. One example will suffice.
An ethicist, let’s call her Prof. K, once gave a talk there about some problem in ethics, using a sort of casuistry approach considered standard in normative ethics, that is, reasoning about principles through analyses of cases exemplifying them. A reputable philosopher of language, let’s call him Prof. S, responded to her talk by claiming something like: On my theory of meaning, your problem does not even arise (implying that, in the context of the program’s embrace of philosophy of language as more important than ethics, her whole talk was predicated on a linguistic confusion)—a potentially embarrassing objection, should she have no witty response. Prof. K’s reply was impressive, especially from someone in a sub-field of philosophy that these self-appointed hierophants of esoteric logic and meaning typically disparaged: she said something like, “I do not ascribe to your theory of meaning. My talk presupposes an ethical context in which casuistry is a central method of parsing and testing hypotheses and principles, so it is only of interest to those who accept the parameters of this endeavor. You need not.” These attempted take-downs were the norm—not friendly at all, but rather often brutal, but always respectfully delivered and received. Those are the roughest philosophical exchanges I’ve observed or participated in, and I’ve been engaging in them professionally since 1984—until recently on Twitter.
Distributed Cognition and Agency.
When scientists do science, they are engaging in distributed cognition: they cannot all perform all experiments, but the ways in which they collaborate, report, test each other’s claims, engage in peer review, and so on, count as a kind of social cognition, a kind of learning and knowing that depends on many independent epistemic agents, knowers, contributing to the growing body of scientific knowledge. The same is true in many other domains, such as mathematics, programming, technology, engineering, architecture, aeronautics, pharmacology, psychology, immunology, history, art, music, philosophy, etc. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before and added to our collection of knowledge. Distributed cognition is particularly visible in language, as Wittgenstein implied in arguing that there cannot even be a private language: language requires a community of linguistic users that serves as information source and corrective to errors in the communication and application of that information. Similarly, there is such a thing as distributed agency, where each pall-bearer bears his or her share of the weight of the coffin, but none alone could carry it, or each performer in an orchestra, dance, or play bears responsibility for their individual contribution, but in so doing contributes to a phenomenon that cannot be reduced to its parts. None of this entails that there is no such thing as individualism, individual cognition, or individual agency. But when an army advances, each soldier is responsible not only for his or her own micro-level actions, so to speak, but also for the macro-level actions of the entire army to which he or she has sworn allegiance.
Why am I discussing all of this this here? All of it provides some of the context for the inquiry I will engage here into the nature of soft bullying in social media forums. It’s easy to spot hard core online bullying: direct threats, direct defamation, exposing immediately damaging information (true or false) about the target, telling them they’re worthless pieces of shit and should commit suicide, etc. The challenge is identifying bullying when it poses as not bullying, because no single action seems like an obvious case of bullying, but, on analysis, there’s no real doubt that it is simply thinly-disguised bullying. Like porn and jazz: You know it when you see it or hear it, respectively.
We are no longer constrained in our aggressions by the expectation and norm to the effect that if you disrespect someone, or even wander innocently into their turf, they will punch you in the face, if not jump you with all their friends. In social media, when someone wanders into your version of Plato’s digital cave, you and your cave-dwelling friends can simply torment her without ever having to worry about facing her in the real world, where she can grab your hair and bash your head to her knee. Norms have changed, but unfortunately in a way that enables a lot more bullying with far fewer consequences. Here’s just one of many possible (and unfortunately too frequently, actual) cases to illustrate this.
One individual, who may or may not be a mangled psychopath, for all you know, can now not only create a fake online identity, but a whole cast of pretend characters that function as his or her avatars, so-called ‘sock accounts’, and use them to create fake kangaroos courts that bounce those unwitting, good natured naifs around, putting them through hell by creating a phony impression of distributed cognition and distributed agency to overpower their victim’s proclamations of innocence in response to the posse of critics who spread out incrementally-increasing negative responses to the naif’s innocent words, creating illusions of mountains out of phony molehills—just for the sake of a performative charade orchestrated by one possibly psychopathic individual, for all you know. Welcome to the world of trolls, bullies who don’t ever need to leave their mothers’ basements to torment the naïve.
Given the nature of the relatively anonymous forum, sadly, many players, even many hiding their real faces and real names (after being burned already), can wind up getting sucked into this vortex, and unwittingly find themselves allying themselves with some of these phantoms against others of them, lines get drawn, teams form, and many real people with real names and faces are at a great disadvantage, as they are self-doxing, so to speak—not hiding who or where they are. The anonymous mob, which could really just be one sick puppy without a life and plenty of time to play these sick games, is not accountable, but their non-anonymous, identifiable victims, cannot even engage the Silver Rule, much less the 3:1 or 10:3 rules, since they are identifiable, unbeknownst to them fighting a pretend mob of possibly only one psychopath. Since you cannot really know, it’s unclear which is worse—one sick psychopath posing as a posse of sock accounts or a dozen real psychopaths? It doesn’t really make a difference, just as it wouldn’t make a difference if you were a simulated being or a brain in a vat, as long as you cannot tell the difference.
This inequality of accountability reminds me of one encounter I had with the Chinese hoodlums who hung out in the former Mafia-turned-Chinese-karaoke-bar (ethnic culture shift) below my bedroom in Bensonhurst. They were outside the bar early one morning (after what sounded like torturing cats all night), just after daybreak, drunk as skunks, making lots of ruckus, when I had to go out and move my car off the avenue before the street sweeping and parking meter rules kicked in. As I was walking back to my door, one of them was giving me what street folks all know as “the eyes”, that alpha male staring contest which is won when the other person looks away. I’d had enough of this guy, since he was adding that sort of facial distortion which is supposed to be the facial equivalent of the middle finger, so my street instincts kicked in and I said “What are you lookin’ at? You gotta problem?”, with the appropriate verbal and gestural expressions of Italian machismo. He started jumping up and down, calling me out, insulting, etc. Reason immediately reminded me that though I felt confident I could hospitalize the six of them, they knew where I lived, and while I knew where they hung out, they could stay away, but I couldn’t. I was not anonymous, but they were. I made some sort of appropriate fuck-you-type gesture and went inside. They laughed in mocking glee as if they had emasculated me. Though I knew I could kill them all, it took great restraint to let them have that last word, so to speak. But I knew better: I didn’t need to make sure they also knew. All that mattered was that I did.
There’s almost no way to do that—flip the bird and go inside—online, except to leave the venue. Once a skirmish ensues, that’s likely the only way to guarantee it ends—just leave the venue—and even that is no guarantee, given how anyone with any public identity is subject to cancel culture. The trolls have the upper hand, as they probably live in their mother’s basement, are unemployed, and have nothing better to do with themselves except play video games, watch porn, and binge watch. (At the time of this writing, they’re probably receiving hefty COVID-19 “stimulus” checks for doing this.) They will appear to win any conflict simply because they have an army of avatars posing as nodes in what appears to be a distributed cognition and agency network, they have all the time in the world, and you have a life, you are sincere, honest, you care about what people say if it is likely to tarnish your reputation, you play by the rules, and they don’t. Engaging with them is a lose-lose, worse than a zero-sum game. It took me a series of encounters with this phenomenon to come to this conclusion.
Digital Plato Caves.
How can you tell you’re in one of these digital Plato caves? Well, recall that Plato’s cave is a hypothetical scenario Plato conjured to make several points. In this imaginary cave, prisoners have been chained all their lives to face a wall, and all they see are shadows cast on the wall by hidden actor/ventriloquists behind them, which they unwittingly take to be real objects making those sounds. The prisoners know no better. Over the years, the smarter among them become leaders in their little social cognition hierarchy, whose positive or negative reactions to the shadows determine whether the other follower prisoners laugh or get angry at them, and the like. Were a person from outside the cave to wander in, their eyes would need some adjustment to the dark, they would initially appear disoriented, and their language would only somewhat correspond to the cave’s shadow-based language, in which case the cave-dwelling prisoners would perceive the visitor as a madman, deceiver, or fool, if not try to kill him, especially if he tried to persuade them that they had it all backwards and should follow him to the outer world. If he managed to free one, and lead him out, the freed prisoner would be blinded by the light, frightened, but could over time be showed what casts the shadows, and how the objects in the real world differed from them.
So, if you wander into a thread in social media in which your otherwise innocuous comments to the sort of claims being made are met with the sort of reactions the cave prisoners would give to the outsider, chances are you’ve wandered into a digital version of a Platonic cave. Some caves are worse than others, like the differences between that drug dealer’s bar, the karaoke bar, and the Mafia bar. The bar metaphor is worth keeping in mind. If you’re driving cross-country, say, or through another country, and you naively enter a saloon filled with locals, you never know what you’ve wandered into: they could be gangsters, drug dealers, in-breds, etc. A classic case is that of the sociology grad student who wandered innocently into the worst housing projects in the U.S., in Chicago, to ask residents to answer survey questions for a sociology paper he was writing in grad school. He wandered right into the central hangout of the drug dealing gang that controlled that entire housing projects, they kidnapped him for days thinking he was a narc, and they eventually realized he really was just that stupid. Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudir Venkatesh, had a happy ending, probably because Sudir knew enough to play off the gang leader’s narcissism and offer to write his biography. Some number-two type followers in cyber-mobs revolving around a social media narcissist seem to have opted for a similar trade off: I agree to be a supporting role in the Twitter movie of you, and you don’t kill me.
Some other signs that you may have wandered into a digital Plato’s cave are, for one, the prevalence of straw men, especially what seem to be, after a while, intentional straw men. A straw man is a fallacious form of argument in which A makes an argument or claim and B mischaracterizes it, typically in less charitable terms than the original, and then critiques the mischaracterization, as if B is critiquing A’s actual claims. That’s like beating up a poster of Mike Tyson, and acting like you defeated the champ. More vicious forms of straw manning include—possibly performative—outrage that A could say such a thing, followed by others’ equally offended responses from the real or sock/avatar-constituted distributed cognition and agency network, which together is basically a pile-on, public flogging, or shaming. How could you be so vile? Straw men are just one kind of fallacy to beware of as signs you’re stumbled into an online prisoner cave. Others include red herring (diverting attention away from, and thus effectively changing, the subject), ad hominem (diverting attention away from A’s argument or claim towards A’s character as someone to be disbelieved, disqualified, dismissed, disdained, etc.), and a host of tactics that might not seem intentional but which on careful analysis make more sense if interpreted as intentional than not.
The general reason for that weighing of the evidence as valid proof of intentionality is that it takes a lot of intelligence, agency, and effort to repeatedly generate these tricks, so the only other alternative, that the person committing them doesn’t realize it because they aren’t intelligent enough to do so, is far less plausible than the inference of intentionality. (Of course, sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism, and other pathologies could be in play, in which case the intentionality issue becomes far less relevant relative to the dangers of dealing with a manipulator in these mental hells.) While I always naturally favor offering folks the benefit of the doubt before ascribing negative intentions to them—to a fault, as far as my family and friends are concerned when I don’t side with their attributions of negative motives to other—in this domain the same, more evolved principles that govern my response options for physical aggression hold here: the martial artist/yogi allows much aggression before striking back, and walks away when necessary or advisable, but sometimes must engage in self-defense. An illustrative analogy with a subway encounter comes to mind.
Once I was riding the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan on my way to work in the morning, my then-wife had a seat right next to the door, and I stood in front of her holding the handrail above, chatting. As the train got crowded, a fellow pushed his way in, grabbed a small part of the handrail closer to the door, and sort of elbowed me, looking at me, then at the empty space on the handrail on the other side of me, sort of facially conveying to me that he thought that I should move over to the empty space so he could have an equal share of the handrail. I thought to myself, maybe that was what he was nonverbally conveying, maybe not, and I was more focused on my conversation, and so I didn’t pay full attention to him and this mere maybe. As the train pulled out of the station, as it rocked about, as it came to a stop in the tunnel, moved again, each time he seemed to be bumping into me. I sort of noticed it the first few times, but attributed it to the normal sort of bumping into each other that standardly happens on a crowded subway train, but after awhile, I realized he was doing it intentionally, but trying to make it look nonchalant, and without realizing it had happened, with each bump, I lost my balance just a bit, and wound up sliding my grip a little further away from his hand on the handrail and further into the empty space on the rail, and my feet were now half planted in front of my wife, and half into the empty space. He was manipulating me through deniable semi-stealth actions, to push me out of my space, because he was too stubborn to simply walk around me into the empty space himself.
By the time I realized this, I realized several stealth manipulations had been employed, each of which took advantage of my good, pro-social instincts to move over so as to cut down on awkward close encounters with strangers’ bodies on trains, and so I was convinced it was intentional. At the next jostling of the train, I elbowed the man, with great force, but a force not visible to onlookers, thanks to my martial arts training, and he literally went flying several feet away from me. We exchanged unpleasantries, but I returned to my spot, and he moved away. Oddly enough, that’s safer than social media.
In the above example, the sort of moves the subway manipulator and I made were visible only to him and me, but in social media platforms, every word is public. However, trolls, cyber bullies, sock account avatar creators, and other miscreants are often very skilled at using the equivalent of the double entendre in order to both manipulate you and the onlookers—real or imaginary—and simultaneously to pretend that’s not what they said. The equivalent of the double entendre is often speech that is vague, ambiguous, cryptic, or confusing, but which functions the same way: it conveys the assault, manipulation, accusation, insult, insinuation, etc., but in a way that affords them plausible deniability. Those whose skills rise to the level of sociopathy cleverly design these mixed—passive/aggressive—negative messages precisely to get you to react to the negative implications, solely in order to then immediately turn the tables on you and accuse you of being negative, of attributing motives to them they don’t have, of overreacting needlessly defensively to an innocent point about some neutral idea you were just discussing, painting you as the villain, and encouraging the onlookers—real or socks—to chastise you. They will be publicly rewarded for doing so, and they will have a conversation about your negative traits fully knowing that you can read them, which only serves as another invitation to lure you into their lair, further exposing you to their shenanigans if you react—just what they hope you will do. They feed off reactions like vampires on blood.
Their shenanigans include what are unfortunately widespread enough to have earned an acronym—DARVO tactics: deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. They also include gaslighting: manipulating you to doubt your own rationality. Of course, DARVO tactics have the effect of gaslighting anyone who falls for them, especially when the DARVO move initiates the conflict: the troll accuses you of denying what you did wrong, say, when you react to their innuendo, accuses you of attacking them in your defending yourself against their accusation, accuses you of reversing victim and offender, of your having and acting on bad motives you don’t have (based on their straw men of your innocent remarks), and of your gaslighting them (when they are gaslighting you). The fact that the sort of trolls who pull this sort of nonsense probably have sock accounts—if not former victims who they have subdued into submission through conditioning, rewarding them for their obedience and penalizing them or others for the vicarious impact doing so will have on their followers—means that suddenly what appears to be a distributed cognition and agency network will echo the troll’s judgments, some sock accounts of the troll, some sock accounts of the troll’s closest victim/survivors, and some fearful followers, if not some equally mangled trolls who have joined forces with the lead troll.
It’s very difficult psychologically for the average person to stand up to a mob. Few of us have the balls that that woman in the video had, who refused to make the BLM fist despite the demands of an angry, outraged, threatening BLM mob screaming in her face as if she was a racist, at her outdoor dining table as the protest raged by. The trolls know this and use it to push you into submission.
Lying, Sophistry, Doxing: Intention Is Key.
There’s a huge difference between asserting something you believe is true, but which is false, unbeknownst to you, and lying. Flat-earthers around the time of Columbus honestly believed something false; they were not liars. What makes a lie as opposed to an untruth is asserting something as true that you know is false, with the intention to deceive. In social media, trolls call people liars when they dislike or disagree with their claims, as if their claims are not only false, but knowingly uttered to deceive, which bears the further implication of a lack of integrity. This difference is one of belief and intention, and it is crucial to be able to articulate to defend yourself against false accusations that you are a liar.
Similarly, there’s a huge difference between reasoning in a way that you think is valid, but which isn’t, and intentionally using invalid reasoning to deceive. To commit the former is to commit a fallacy, a non-sequitur, something that does not follow. To commit the latter is to commit sophistry, deceitfully twisting logic. Just as those trolls who accuse you of lying because they disagree with your claims and want to cast you as deceitful, those same trolls accuse others of sophistry when the evidence only supports the reasonable interpretation that they may or may not have committed a fallacy—more often than not, they haven’t even committed a fallacy. As with being accused of being a liar, being accused of sophistry carries negative implications for one’s integrity. Again, this difference is one of belief and intention, and it is crucial to be able to articulate to defend yourself against false accusations that you are a sophist.
Likewise, there’s a vast difference between expressing information about an interlocutor’s identity characteristics, e.g., their real name, what business they run, their political affiliation, etc., inadvertently for whatever reason, and doing so advertently, intending to expose them to some sort of mobbing, cancel culture, or other forms of harassment. In the former case, the context may not make it clear to the person revealing the information that the information is sensitive, and if the person who feels exposed expresses their sense of vulnerability, a sincere apology is prima facie evidence that the person who divulged sensitive information did so unintentionally, whereas in the latter case, the person who has done so with malicious intent has doxed their victim, and typically their insensitivity to the complaint from the victim counts as prima facie evidence that they are guilty of intentional malice. Once again, belief and intention make the difference, and it is crucial to be able to articulate to defend yourself against false accusations that you doxed someone.
Accusations of lying, sophistry, doxing, and of a host of other malicious acts and intentions may be added to DARVO, gaslighting, sock account pile-ons, and other forms of cyber-bullying to be found in the troll’s weapons cache. Online manipulations, of course, can include any types of manipulations found offline, such as when manipulators pressure those in their extended peer groups to side with them, gossip behind each other’s backs through DMs (direct messages), play both ends against the middle, spread rumors and lies, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems cyber bullies can cause much more damage in virtual space than real world bullies used to cause in the actual schoolyard, since they can hail from all over the world from their mothers’ basements, and almost never pick on the wrong kid who actually kicks the shit out of them, ending their career as a cyber bully.
The difficulty in the cyber schoolyard, or digital cave, is being able to tell apart lies from believed falsehoods, sophistry from believed fallacy, and the like: the problem of mind-reading, motive interpreting. In what cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind call folk psychology, the study of mind as opposed to brain (the rationality and logic of belief, desire, emotion, memory, etc., as opposed to the neuroscience of the same), ordinary “folks” (people) either have a kind of “theory of mind”, or they engage in simulating others’ mental states, or some blend of the two, as a way of inferring others’ mental states. (We can leave it to them to decide which interpretation is best.) The three main nodes in the triad of elements composing folk psychology are beliefs, desires, and actions. For example, if we know Plato believes Aristotle is in Syracuse, and we know Plato wants to see Aristotle, we can use our theory about how the mind works, about how beliefs and intentions work to guide and produce actions, to infer that Plato will go to Syracuse. Alternately put, if we know the same things about Plato, we can simulate him: we can take our own beliefs “offline”, and imagine we believed and desired what he does, and then see how we would react in our offline (from reality and the world) simulation, and infer that Plato will go to Syracuse. Folk psychology is too complex to go into further here, but suffice it to say we can often reliably infer any one of the three nodes in the triad based on knowing the other two, and sometimes even when knowing just one. Here’s just one example. We see an action: Plato opened the fridge, grabbed an edible item, and ate it. Based on that action, we can reliably draw this inference regarding Plato’s belief and desire: Plato believed there was something worth consuming in the fridge, and he wanted to consume something.
The point is that we are pretty good at mind reading, or else we would not do well in socially structured environments. Autism often involves diminished capacity for simulating or inferring the mental states of others, by contrast. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum of mind-reading abilities, or rather disabilities, are those who think they are very good at it, but are not. Cynical people, for example, tend to always attribute the worst reasonably possible motives to anyone who they are suspicious of, akin to conspiracy theorists. This is similar to the ignoramus who honestly thinks he is a know-it-all, precisely because he knows so little that he is that unaware of what he doesn’t know. But as with the difference between lying and believed falsehoods, an ignoramus who honestly believes someone has negative or self-serving motive x when they don’t is very different from someone who knowingly falsely accuses someone of having that motive, simply to impugn their victim’s character, either to onlookers or to the victim, attempting to gaslight them.
Master manipulators, aka sociopaths, play on non-sociopaths’ naturally pro-social inclinations because they know the average person seeing a sustained set of accusations from a distributed cognition and agency network, a community of seemingly different individuals, all up in arms about the victim’s alleged violations of civility, will infer that where there’s so much smoke, by so many different people (sock accounts, other trolls, allies, etc.), there must be fire. They are also known by the sociopathic troll to be vulnerable to peer pressure as social beings, easily conditioned by vicarious suffering inflicted on anyone challenging them, afraid of the pile-on, the online mob, of being cancelled, if not doxed themselves. Master manipulators instinctively know all this, and cleverly weave their blend of double entendre, ambiguity, deniable innuendo, deceitful motive-whispering, DARVO tactics, and the like, like puppeteers, creating little armies of frightened soldier followers, themselves vulnerable to implicit threats in the form of public remarks like, “I can’t believe you could believe that liar! He’s been causing nothing but trouble since he entered this thread!” The message between the lines: you better join in and back me: you may be next.
The gaslighting can be very devious: sock accounts can accuse real people of being sock accounts when they defend other real people against the bully sock accounts. These bullies have experimented enough with these tactics to know that the best defense is a good offense, so they accuse their victims of what they themselves are doing first, which always seems to persuade onlookers, in a way that may derive from that psychological groove in all of us with siblings that begins with the experience formed by the first child to run to mommy and tattle on the others.
Rules of Engagement for Philosophical Samurai, and Advice.
As with any other skill, practice makes perfect, and calibrating the apparatus along the way, noticing excessive and defective approximations to the mark, adjusting, etc., all convert initially flailing attempts to skillfully cultivated muscles. The same holds for recognizing devious motives coming your way, and learning how to respond to them. In the dojo, basic training involves repetitive punches, kicks, blocks, combinations, controlled sparring, free sparring, at or slightly above the student’s skill and rank level, the manageable challenge being the ideal teaching/learning zone. Likewise, engaging with people in the domain of discourse in which you are comfortable enough to engage, but perhaps not effortlessly, is akin to practicing with the other blue belts, say.
In places like Twitter, however, someone without the metaphorical verbal equivalent of any type of martial arts experience, in the dojo or on the streets, is often stumbling unwittingly into the Twitter equivalent of a fight club, so it’s often sink or swim. And if that happens to you, just like the older man in your prison cell who initially protects you from the other inmates, but who wants something in return you might not wish to give, those who seem to come to your aid in Twitter Hell may not be your friends. But also like prison, once you befriend a gangster, it’s not easy to escape. Beware the same dynamics online.
I have had extensive experience dealing with physical and other forms of real world violence up close and personal, as well as extensive training in understanding the triad that explains intentional behavior, in conceptual analysis, argumentation, debate, and also extensive training in introspection and the cultivation of contemplative skills, therapeutic interventions, problem solving, dispute resolution, and a host of other trainings and experiences that should make me immune to the sort of shenanigans described above. However, applying those skills, insights, and understandings to social media has proven to be a greater challenge than I expected, for a host of reasons I need not detail here. Instead, I’ve share some experiences and ideas I’ve come to adopt in the course of this new phase of my experience dealing with conflict, manipulation, and violence, in the hopes that some of it will help inoculate you from the social media parasites I have been exposed to, and I’ll share just a few more in closing.
When you enter a bar in another town and the locals seem dangerous, quietly have your drink, use the restroom, if need be, and quietly leave. That’s a metaphor for a Twitter thread. At least in a real bar you stand a chance of duking it out with the one bad ass, defeating him, and walking away. Not so in Plato’s Digital Cave Bar. You might think it’s a decent group of folks, everyone’s happy, piano playing, etc., but after an hour or so a conflict emerges: time to leave. Don’t saddle up with the guy to your left, as he criticizes the guy to your right: that never ends well. Avoid getting involved. But like Cain in Kung Fu, sometimes the locals are going to make sure a fight breaks out, aimed at you, and you have to fight back. Remember the 3:1 and 10:3 rules, but use them very sparingly. When the cry-bullies—yes, all bullies cry when they get their asses handed to them—cry out that you’ve been rough on them, kindly explain the Silver Rule and its two numeric variants, and remind them that they drew first blood, that you let them, that you tried to be nice, but they crossed the line.
What sort of beating does Cain do on Twitter, you may ask? All he needs to do is take the velvet gloves—the long-worn-out benefit of the doubt and the niceties that go with it—off, exposing the iron fist of truth: simply state very clearly the sophistries, DARVO tactics, etc. that the cry-bully and its sock account friends engaged in, how you tried to alert them not to do so, that you permitted too much of it, they mistook you for a victim, and that you will continue to hold a mirror to it if they continue to do so. They may or may not relent, but in my very recent experience, a number of the cry-bully’s unfortunate victims with stronger spines than the rest will both start to remark in ways that might be quasi-supportive of you publicly, and to emphatically support you privately, admitting to you they are just afraid of the cry-bully.
Hopefully, it will not come to that, if you leave the saloon early enough, etc. But if it does, recovery from that is also tricky. The onlookers may act like you went way too far, they will accuse you of starting it, they will downplay what they and the cry-bully did to you. But they will not even believe each other, much less themselves. Almost nobody is that stupid, but if anyone actually is, you need not concern yourself with what they think. Some trolls, bullies, sociopaths, etc., simply will not let go, and will engage in incredible histrionics to draw their flock closer, ramping up the pressure on you and them. If you’ve been in a forum long enough for this to happen, you’ve clearly fallen into Plato’s Hell Cave, so the best thing to do is leave.
One more strategy is worth sharing. Thus, try to never respond in kind (the opposite of the 3:1 rule) to anything anyone says that will personalize the discussion. E.g., you’re debating free market theory versus socialism, and the other person starts saying things like “You capitalist pig!”, “You bourgeoise bastard!”, “You obviously could care less about people with pre-existing medical conditions!”, and the like. The debate is no longer a philosophical discussion: the person is directing attention to you (ad hominem). Gently redirect focus to the issues, adding something like “My personal beliefs are not at issue; I’m just reasoning about the relative merits of these two systems”. If the same nonsense keeps happening, try to keep responding that way. Eventually, it will either stop, or you’ll try another strategy, the best of which might be to leave that saloon. I’m currently experimenting with these strategies, but unfortunately in a cyber saloon where something like Cain recently made an ass-whooping appearance, so the locals might have a hard time being civil, despite the recent whooping they either experienced or witnessed. Time will tell.
One last tip. Abigail Rosenthal, in her book, A Good Look at Evil, a philosophical analysis of what constitutes evil, suggested this tip. She said, if you find yourself repeatedly making excuses for someone, to yourself, your other friends, and your loved ones, chances are they are a sociopathic manipulator. By analogy, if you find yourself endlessly having to explain to someone or a group of them that their negative interpretations of your neutral or positive comments are incorrect, and they repeatedly not only don’t believe your sincere explanations, but act as if your valid explanations amount to nothing, then you are very probably being manipulated by sociopaths trying to gaslight you. Admit to yourself that there is nothing you can say that will change their minds or stop depicting you in a negative light. They are not worth keeping in your life. Find another venue. By all means, do not apologize to them: they literally get off on watching you grovel, and no apology is good enough for them. Besides, never apologize for what you sincerely believe you did not do wrong.
Finally, an alternative that is largely equivalent to leaving, but without actually leaving, is to only respond to comments made by the rational, civil folks in the thread, and to completely ignore the others, no matter what they say. Muting them will reduce the temptation to respond to them, without their knowing you’ve muted them. Just like your parents told you to ignore the person teasing you, as their getting a rise out of you just encourages them to keep doing it, so too completely ignoring trolls finishes them, like ignored fairies. Don’t keep them alive with your precious time and attention. Let them fade into the void, where they really already are.