Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sense and Futility of Online Debates

As Kaelah pointed out in Kink, Discussions and Emotions, we had a fair number of online debates in the spanking community in recent months. A few more than normal perhaps - is it the time of year for that, or just coincidence? Today, I would like to share with you my personal views about the matter of online debates in general.

There is, of course, the famous dictum that arguing on the internet is like running in the Special Olympics: even if you win, you are still retarded. I don't entirely agree with that. You can find discussions on the internet that are intelligent, informative and respectful. Most, however, are not, and that is where the saying comes from. It all depends on who is doing the discussing. If you have a bunch of people who are classy and mature enough so that they are not looking to "win" every argument, your chances for an intelligent debate are good. Indy, Mija, Kaelah, Paul and I managed a debate like that recently, about Spanking Tube's policy of keeping M/M content separate. Even though we had to agree to disagree in the end (Kaelah and I didn't think Spanking Tube was worthy of as much condemnation as the others gave it), it was always friendly and a very interesting discussion overall.

Should one ever debate with people who are not classy, but obviously stupid and / or mean-spirited? That is another question entirely. Is that worth it, if nothing else, to publicly counter their misguided ideas? Or is it always a complete waste of time? Dan of Spanking Blog thinks it is the latter. Here is what he had to say in a recent comment he made here:

"I start from the premise that the internet is full of sexually broken people and ethically broken people. This, in most of ten years of moderating blog comments, I am convinced is the case. [...] I just don't think there's much point in engaging with broken people. They never change their opinions, it leads to flame wars, and I'm not sure it does a lot of good with the mass of silent readers, either. Ultimately this isn't a 'you shouldn't' claim on my part; it's just a 'I generally don't, because it strikes me as a waste of time.' There's a saying attributed to Robert Heinlein: 'Never try to teach a pig to sing ... it wastes your time and annoys the pig.'"

Kaelah, on the other hand, is of the opinion that it is necessary to engage with strange and / or stupid people, because if you don't, you abandon the field to them. So if you care about the subject that is being discussed, you have an obligation to speak up. My own position on this lies somewhere between Dan and Kaelah. I am going to recount how I arrived at it emotionally. That requires me to go back a few years in time:

The most emotionally draining debate I have ever been involved in, in the spanking community, happened in early 2009. I had recently made my first "professional" spanking film, as a guest top for Mood Pictures. I had written an extensive behind-the-scenes report on the blog and I also mentioned it on the British Spanking Forum. One poster there was evidently so shocked by looking at Mood's site that she wrote a long (2.000 words), rambling, furious post condemning them and myself. Most of it was just a rant about how horrified she was to discover that such videos even existed, how no adjective could describe her disgust, how she felt the urge to format her hard drive after just looking at some trailers. The one argument she used, if you can call it that, was that any model willing to do such a video surely had to be mentally ill, that therefore, the videos were not consensual "since the people involved are not fully mentally healthy", and that anyone watching such stuff had to have an even worse mental illness.

I had seen similar rants before, but this one was even dumber and more vicious than the norm. The poster freely admitted that she was "not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or even remotely associated with the mental health profession", but insisted that her assertions had to be right because they were based on "common sense". It really was pathetically stupid. A whole bunch of me-too-sheep quickly jumped on to express their full agreement with the original poster, and before long, the thread was ablaze with all the usual urban legends about the exploitation of starving, drugged Eastern European girls...

I knew it probably would not do any good, but since I had been called out by name, I replied to the thread. I  did so in a consciously polite and diplomatic manner, saying that I could understand how not everyone likes severe caning videos and how some people might be totally turned off by them, but that this was a matter of taste and that the assertions which had been made about the moral aspects were unfounded. The videos were, in fact, fully consensual, there was no exploitation of desperate poverty involved, most models were people who wanted rather than needed extra money, they knew what they were doing and they were treated respectfully on the set. In light of this, I concluded, the OP's theory about all the models being mentally ill did simply not have any basis in fact. Neither did her theory that only a sociopath could enjoy such videos. Many kinky people play hard and like hard videos, and they are nice, caring people. Anyone who knows me in person will tell you that consent, decency and respect for the spankees are of the utmost importance for me.

But, as expected, it really did not do much good. In fact, the personal attacks from the OP and others intensified, calling me a "psychopath", a "sick, sick man" and (my favourite) a "true Teutonic demagogue". Some accused me of just being on an advertising mission for Mood, as if I got a profit from every video they sold (I obviously don't). My arguments were largely ignored or misrepresented. Because I was obviously a bad guy, I was not worth listening to. They did not feel like they had to reply to the content of my posts or even read them. Eventually, after wasting far too much time repeating myself and trying to explain myself, I resigned myself to the fact that it was futile and I just gave up on the discussion.

It wasn't all bad. I received a good deal of support as well, posters agreeing with my point of view, saying that they found the generalisations of the OP judgmental and offensive. In the end, it was probably a fifty-fifty split, pretty remarkable for a forum that did not usually cater to "severe" tastes. I also received messages in private, encouraging me to not be bothered by the people attacking me, who were apparently known for being insufferable, anyway. I would have been even more thankful if the private messengers had come out into the open, but I could understand that not everyone wanted to make themselves a target.

On balance, though, it was a very hurtful and draining experience for me. Not so much because of the personal attacks per se. Actually, I regretted that some of the most colourful insults (like the "true Teutonic demagogue") were deleted by the moderators. I would have been happy to see them remaining as a testament to who was really behaving psychotically here. No, what really hurt me was simply the stupidity of it all, the disappointment on a human level. The fact that a whole mob of people - spankos, who should have known a little bit about the dangers of prejudice and the merits of tolerance - was willing to jump on me based on totally faulty assumptions, without even listening to what I had to say for myself. When so many people are behaving in such a painfully stupid, painfully judgmental way, it just bothers me. I mean, it just undermines your faith in democracy, doesn't it? Makes you wonder whether universal suffrage is really such a good idea.

I can brush off name-calling, but what infuriates me a great deal is when people just keep ignoring or misrepresenting what I write. I don't expect anyone to agree with my point of view. But if you are going to reply to me, you might at least do me the courtesy of reading, and trying to understand, what I actually write. I remember how, in another discussion about severe play, I probably explained five or six separate times how my own moral position was that 1) all participants in BDSM have to be consenting adults, and 2) no permanent physical damage must be inflicted. And still, several pages into the thread, people kept going: "But OMG, what about mutilation and murder? WE HAVE TO DRAW THE LINE SOMEWHERE!" So I resigned myself to the fact that I was talking to idiots, and I gave up on that discussion, too.

What helped me to put everything into perspective, and to put it all behind me emotionally, was the realisation that going through a series of painful, frustrating discussions is an experience which most performers in spanking videos make almost as soon as they appear on the scene. It almost seems like an initiation ritual of sorts. In chapter seven of her autobiography Dances With Werewolves, Niki Flynn recounts how she had just made her first film The Exchange Student and started chatting about it on online forums: "Most of the members were friendly and welcoming and many were interested in hearing about the shoot. I loved reliving the experience, so I was happy to talk about it. What I wasn't prepared for were the attacks." Some people would confront Niki with all kinds of wild claims and accusations. How her fantasies were sick and how the films she made promoted violence towards women. How the canings in Lupus videos were all fake, anyway, just make-up. How she was not really a spanko at all, but just a publicity whore making videos for the fame and money. Et cetera.

Other performers in spanking videos talked to me about similar experiences of theirs. It always seems to be the same arc. You make your first film. You are still brimming from the experience and start talking about it on forums or in chats. Most people are friendly, asking you about the shoot and wanting to know more. A few attack you, though, and there is always at least one who writes a lengthy diatribe about how you are a psychopath, a whore or generally the scum of the earth. That takes you by surprise, it hurts, and for a while, you focus only on the negative stuff. Eventually, you put it into perspective and you just divorce yourself from it emotionally.

With hindsight, it occurred to me that the OP and the others attacking me at British Spanking had not really been talking about me at all. They had a certain preconceived notion of what someone who watches severe caning videos (or, even worse, participates in them!) must be like, and that preconceived notion was impossible to shake. I had to be a psychopath, could not possibly be anything else. No matter what I said or did, there was nothing that would have changed their opinion. In their minds, liking these videos and being a nice guy were simply irreconcilable. It was beyond the horizon of their imagination.

Once I realised that, any sense of anger or hurt that I still carried inside of me after the discussion just evaporated. I felt a sense of pity for these people (honest, non-condescending pity) because they were so limited. But I did not feel any anger towards them anymore. Moreover, my impulse to publicly confront their claims evaporated as well.

When I had replied to threads which claimed that severe caning videos were immoral, or exploitative, or fake, I had never done so because I honestly expected to convince the people who started such threads. I had replied to them because I feared that, if I did not, their nonsensical ideas would spread and other people would believe them. So I addressed every such post, every false claim made in them, every flawed argument... It took me a while to realise what an overkill it was. The point is, people are going to believe what they believe. Some people are going to have an informed opinion, others are going to believe nonsense. It is not my job to correct all the latter or to address every single nonsensical claim that is made somewhere on the web.

If people want to inform themselves about Eastern European CP videos, they can read my behind-the-scenes reports and those of other performers who have worked there, like Adele Haze or the aforementioned Miss Flynn. If people want to find out whether I am a psychopath or not, they can read my blog where I have written a ton of stuff over the past three years about who I am, what I do, my thoughts and feelings. It's all on the record for those who are interested. And if some people, on the other hand, choose to persist with chatter about evil / mentally deranged / fake caning videos, that is their prerogative. I can't be bothered with it and I honestly don't care about it anymore.

So, these days, I just ignore blatantly stupid opinions. I only respond to them when they are voiced by a commenter on my blog (which happens extremely rarely, because I have an intelligent audience here) or if they are voiced by a commenter in my immediate "neighbourhood", on the blogs which I visit regularly (also very rare, because the blogs I like have generally intelligent audiences as well). I care about the intellectual environment in my neighbourhood. As for the big wide web, a lot of nonsense is being talked there in many places, and will forever be talked there in many places. Not my concern, not my job to dispel it. Leave it to the people who live there.

Anyway, that's my take on it. If you like, share your personal views about the whole subject. Did you ever get stressed out by one discussion you were involved in in particular? Did you emotionally divorce yourself from it, and if so, how? Do you still get involved in weirdo debates, or can't you be bothered with them anymore? Let us know your thoughts and experiences.


Rich Person said...

Kaelah's right. If you say nothing then you abandon the field to the other side, whatever it is. Of course, you won't convince them, but so what? It's the people that aren't commenting that are going to be persuaded, not the people "on the other side".

And, considering that there are probably at least ten people reading for every one writing, then that's a lot of people.

But, chose your battles carefully. Not every thing is worth disputing.

I'm reminded of the line in Wooden Ships:

"I can see by your coat my friend that you're from the other side/There's just one thing I've got to know, can you tell me please, who won?"

Too often the answer is "no one".

Rich Person said...

Not to mention what Bertrand Russell had to say about "common sense".

"It's neither common nor a sense."

Joss said...

Very well said (or rather, written, Ludwig). It's obvious from your long history of thoughtful blog posts that you are neither a psychopath nor a sadist (whatever that means), but someone who finds creative sexual pleasure through experimenting with the boundaries of pain,pleasure and eroticism.

Unfortunately narrow minds by definition find it almost impossible conceive of anything outside their own limited scope. We should continue to try and change that, but as Rich says above, it's probably best done by choosing our battles carefully.

Great site, by the way!

Abel1234 said...

If I might quote a little from my reply to Kaelah's recent post on a similar theme, as it seems pertinent here...

"I find some of the debates that take place within our community to be incredibly stressful. Very often, one can't express an opinion in any way contrary to others' views without them jumping on you for being wrong, prejudiced etc. (and this, usually, from the folks who most vociferously claim that "your kink is OK"). It's as though they solicit opinion on issues that they know are debatable or controversial, but really don't want to hear others' contrary views - or believe that they have such a moral high ground that they can sneer at anyone who has different perspectives.

I was particularly caught up in one debate a few months ago. Various of our friends / readers attacked me for linking to the site in question, claiming that in so doing we were promoting what they saw as the author's racist attitudes. As a result and to avoid upset / confusion, we removed our links, without expressing any opinion on the allegations they'd made - and then faced a barrage of abuse for so doing.

I've learnt from all of this to steer clear of controversy as much as I can. I've avoided the more recent Spanking Tube M/M discussions altogether, for example, interesting as they are and much as I have opinions.

Life is too short for an interest that should be fun to end up being the source of stress."

doclash said...

Ludwig, I must say I sympathize with you. Long experience (not just on the internet) has taught me that some people are simply so ignorant and/or opinionated and/or stupid that they cannot entertain any opinion (or even proven fact) which is not in agreement with their view of whatever the issue happens to be. This applies not only on spanking (or other forms of kinky or non-kinky) blogs, but in every walk of life – personal, professional, medical, legal, scientific, philosophical, political, etc, etc, etc.

I used to spend quite a lot of time and effort trying to correct certain misapprehensions, on the internet, in the local press, on radio and TV, and so on, but I found that some people were simply so blinkered and fixed in their ideas that nothing – even clear proof, with references to published work – could sway them from their mistaken views of truth and reality. An example is where a writer in a local paper regularly published urban technological myths as though they were 100% true, but could not accept my comments that they were indeed merely mythical, and she suggested that there was obviously something seriously wrong with me that I failed to agree with her nonsense. I think it was around then that I started to think it wasn't worth the bother trying to correct such rubbish, even if some other readers might have been misled into believing some of it.

I am, of course, quite happy for anyone to hold an opinion which is contrary to mine, but I am not at all happy to be repeatedly insulted when I, politely as possible, point out to someone that they are wrong or that their opinion is not supported by any of the relevant facts.

The internet, of course, is so full of misinformation and nonsensical opinions that there is no way even an enormous army of people could correct it all. So, we are where we are and, to a greater or lesser extent, we just have to live with it, with occasional small victories against ignorance and intolerance.

In short, I have more or less given up except where I feel that the person involved is likely to be reasonable and receptive to a different viewpoint or a rational correction of their misunderstanding. Others, I'm afraid, I now leave to their own ignorant views and simply hope that they do not influence too many people in the wrong direction. Sadly, however, that will always remain a risk.

Ludwig said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

@ Rich Person: Yes, choosing my battles carefully is exactly my approach today. There simply is far too much nonsense about BDSM and BDSM videos on the net to address it all. Which is why I only do it on my own blog and on a handful of other blogs / sites I care about these days. My views and experiences are on the record here for anyone who is interested in reading about them.

@ Joss: "It's obvious from your long history of thoughtful blog posts that you are neither a psychopath nor a sadist."

Actually, I do identify myself as a sadist. I enjoy inflicting pain, so by any practical definition of the word, I am a sadist, and sadism is, in fact, the core of my kink. The important point is that I only enjoy inflicting pain when it happens in a consensual framework. Unlike those sadists who achieve sad notoriety as rapists or serial killers, I don't act out my sadistic fantasies on any non-consenting people.

It's an interesting question whether "BDSM-type sadism" and "criminal sadism" are really part of the same psychological trait, in different forms, or two different psychological traits entirely. From what I can tell, there is no consensus about this among psychologists. All I know is that I would never want to hurt anyone against their will and that I am just as appalled by violent crime as any "normal" (non-kinky) person.

I am planning to write an in-depth post about the subject of sadism someday.

@ doclash: On history forums (or other forums where historical discussions arise), there are plenty of people who have totally uninformed, irrational views. I have done my share of arguing with conspiracy theorists and I know that it is virtually impossible to sway them from their ideas. They have this self-sustaining argument whereby every piece of evidence which is presented against their claims has to have been manufactured by the conspiracy. It's an us-against-the-world mentality similar to that of cultists and sect followers, and it is hopeless to try and breach it.

As I pointed out in my post and you pointed out in your comment, there is far too much nonsense on the internet (and in newspapers, and in printed books...) to address it all. You have to resign yourself to putting your views on the record here and there and, for the most part, hoping that the people out there are smart enough to distinguish between good information and bad information.

How much faith you place in the majority of people to be able to do so depends on your degree of optimism or pessimism about humanity in general. Personally, I am on the pessimistic side, but maybe (hopefully) it is just the academic snob in me talking and I am wrong.

Peter8862 said...

Ludwig - All you say about honesty in intellectual debate is very true and those who flout the rules by making and persisting with ill-founded assertions, despite all evidence to the contrary, often have the great advantage of brevity compared with the verbiage needed to make a structured and persuasive denial. For this reason as much as any, it is wiser, as Rich Person says, to choose our battles carefully and then only on merit; never, of course, to assuage hurt feelings.

Easy to say perhaps; much more difficult to practise where personal abuse is concerned, but still true. 'Tis the price of going public with a blog !


Ludwig said...

@ Peter: You raise one very important point: "...those who flout the rules by making and persisting with ill-founded assertions, despite all evidence to the contrary, often have the great advantage of brevity compared with the verbiage needed to make a structured and persuasive denial."

Indeed, it is always easier to make asserions without arguments than it is to make an actual argument, and it is always easier to appeal to people's emotions and gut reactions than it is to make a reasoned, nuanced analysis. There is always a number of people whom you won't reach with the latter because they don't read longer texts in the first place.

There is also the danger of over-exhaustiveness. Kaelah and I try to be as clear and thorough as possible in our writing, illustrating our arguments with examples, addressing potential counter-arguments before they have even been made, and so on. The downside is that there is always a risk of the text becoming over-inflated, with the main points getting lost to the reader amidst the verbiage. My main criticism of my own writing is that I usually look back on posts and think to myself: "I could have written this much shorter."

Kaelah said...

As I already wrote in the comment section on my original post, I'll try to learn to chose my battles more carefully as well. What is even more important, I'll try to learn to deal with offensive comments in a more relaxed way.

But I guess I won't leave the field to the stupid (at least not on the sites I read), not because I believe that I can make them think, but because I want the silent readers to see that there are different opinions about certain topics. And I hope that there are people who are still in the process of forming an opinion who will then see that some comments are one-sided and only reflecting personal emotions while others are based on a careful distinction between emotional responses (which to my mind have to be taken seriously but can't be the base for moral judgements) and rational arguments. I assume that many people are more likely to follow the less complex emotional arguments, but I always hope that at least some are able to see that the world isn't only black and white and that the easiest solutions and explanations often aren't the most valid ones.

Eric said...

Quite some time ago, around the time when the Internet was starting to gain speed, I discovered that a lot of people don't think like I do, not just a difference of opinion, but that they lack the ability to reason or to see another point of view that isn't already their own. I was naive and had always gravitated to small circles of people like me, or at least conditioned to appear like me. The online experience was discouraging, but I had to accept the reality. I figure the condition is hopeless and will not improve in my lifetime, if ever. It goes a long ways towards explaining why things are so f'ed up in the world. However, I'm still content to help fill the vast emptiness of cyberspace with my point of view whenever I feel like it and where appropriate. I try never to see a debate as a battle. I don't feel the need to convince anyone of anything, even if that were possible. It's simply a matter of being alive, and to be alive is to express ourselves, often just to laugh over what we can't control. I like that you two care about issues and want to talk about them. I'm attracted to your rationalism and humanism, two philosophies that will make for you countless enemies.

Ludwig said...

@ Eric: As it was for you, the online experience was something of an eye opener for me - in the spanking community and on the web in general. I had always had a fairly small circle of friends, and most of them were pretty similar to me in background and outlook. Intellectual and pretty well educated, but without moroseness and without taking oneself too damn seriously. Those are the kind of people I always liked the most. We did not agree on every issue, but when they had a different position from mine, it was a position one could reasonably take and it was usually well-argued for.

So I guess I was a bit insulated and a bit naive. I knew that dumb, ignorant, bigoted people existed, but I was not prepared for quite how many they were. I mean, look at the average comment thread on Youtube. It destroys your faith in humanity. When I first went online, it was at a time when I had just emerged from the cynicism of adolsescence and when I was cautiously getting a bit more optimistic about things. So I went right back.

I am far from perfect myself. I am not above voicing condescension and veiled (sometimes not so veiled...) insults when I encounter dumb people. Rudeness does not win any arguments, but it is hard to avoid sometimes, and it is certainly better than getting ulcers from one's bottled-up frustration. I am getting more mellow with age, though. Today, as I wrote in the post, I usually just ignore stupid utterings on the web, unless they happen in my neighbourhood. I have also learned to appreciate that not everyone who behaves like an idiot is really an idiot. Often, they are just disadvantaged. I had the good fortune of being born in a good place at a good time, of growing up in a fairly enlightened and cosmopolitan environment. The majority of the world's population is not so lucky.

As a contemporary German philosopher whom I like very much says: the situation is hopeless, but not desperate. There is a value in trying to change things for the better, regardless of whether you succeed. Just don't get set on the idea that things will really change, because they won't, or at best, they will change much more slowly than you hoped.