The insidious thing about malicious manipulation is that, by design, it goes unnoticed.
Manipulation is an act of subterfuge, and a victim of manipulation does not see themselves as a victim. From the victim’s perspective, they aren’t being manipulated - they are being informed, or protected, or making a choice based on available evidence. A person who is being controlled through manipulation thinks they are in complete control of their own thoughts and actions, and this raises an unsettling question: how do we actually know if someone is manipulating us?
To address this, you really have to get into what makes manipulation what it is. Like mentioned above, it’s fundamentally an act of subterfuge. However, unlike conventional misinformation or the simple act of lying, a manipulator creates complex, self-sustaining structures that can resist or invalidate counterevidence. They effectively create lies that cannot be proven wrong, and to resist this you have to do something that seems extremely counterintuitive to resisting manipulation:
You have to make sure your beliefs have vulnerabilities.
Imagine, for example, that you completely suck at basketball For most of you, this probably will not take much imagination. Let’s say you start to theorize that wearing a sports jersey will improve your basketball abilities. Since, after all, the professional players wear them.
This isn’t a particularly harmful idea, because it has vulnerability. After donning a jersey, you’ll be able to see if you actually get any better at basketball. You even have a numerical metric (score) to judge yourself by. If your average score with a jersey is not discernibly higher than your score without a jersey, you will more or less know that you were wrong. The entire belief is firmly tied to reality, there is an easy way to judge it, and it can be weakened or destroyed if it does not reflect reality. It is extremely vulnerable.
But now, imagine you are a malicious manipulator who wants to sell as many jerseys as possible. And imagine you have no ethical boundaries for doing so.
You could make an outright false claim like “this jersey will make you better at basketball”, but - as mentioned above - that would be extremely vulnerable. Almost every person who uses the jersey would be able to tell that the claim was false. However, imagine you made a claim that was harder to directly address. Like, rather than saying the jersey will increase someone’s basketball ability, you say it will increase their torso agility.
Unlike basketball ability, there is no real way to measure “torso agility”. Agility itself is a pretty vaguely defined concept - the closest thing it’s ever gotten to an official definition was when some researchers said it was “rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”, and reducing it to “torso agility” invalidates that.
While it’s pretty reasonable to say that increased torso agility helps someone play basketball (after all, more agility is better), it is very hard to dispute the claim that the jersey increases torso agility. If someone’s basketball ability does not improve after wearing it, you could easily just claim that they weren’t fully utilizing that new agility. Likewise, it would be very hard for them to show that their torso hasn’t gotten more agile - how would you even measure that?. By dealing with something that cannot be concretely analyzed, you have successfully created a stable manipulation entity separate from reality.
And that makes you a dick!
In a lot of ways, this actually parallels the mechanics of mental illness. Someone who suffers severe obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, is disjointed from reality. They might feel like something horrible will happen if they don’t pass through a door in just the right way, and counterevidence will just be dismissed as “I got lucky that time”. Someone with severe depression will feel worthless, and no amount of testimony or empirical analysis of their value will shake that belief - the testimony is just wrong. The beliefs are not vulnerable; they exist in a place where outside reality cannot touch them, and this leads to the “downward spirals” typical of many mental illnesses.
When it comes to conscious manipulation, you can see this same thing very clearly in religious cults. A cult leader may say that a proper amount of faith (and accompanying donations) will make something favorable happen. If someone makes those donations and something favorable doesn’t happen, then their faith wasn’t strong enough and they have to try even harder. It’s a downward spiral based around an idea that cannot be disproved. It’s a very well-designed manipulation construct in that it disjoints the victim from reality.
If you’ve seen that recent “#LikeAGirl” video sponsored by Always, there is a scene toward the end of it that completely hits the nail on the head when it comes to resisting manipulation. The woman in the blue dress is essentially giving the advice to be empirical. She is encouraging young girls to take the notion that being “like a girl” is a negative thing and hold it up against measurable results - to keep it vulnerable to counterevidence, rather than treating it as inherently true. While most people are probably just going to interpret the video as yet another toothless statement of ”our word use causes problems”, the lady in the blue dress actually delivers an incredibly important message about countering manipulation by remaining tied to reality. Determining beliefs based on what you experience rather than what you’re told.
And that is all it really comes down to: remaining tied to reality. It is very easy for us to latch onto harmful false beliefs, and they are often planted there by someone who wants to control us. Like an airborne sickness, it’s not something you can completely wipe out or isolate yourself from - all you can do is develop the antibodies to get over it quickly. To resist harmful manipulation you need to constantly question whether your ideas have vulnerabilities and, if one doesn’t, take a very serious look into where you got it.
Having beliefs that cannot possibly be shaken does not make you an admirable person, It just makes you a danger to yourself and others. Having an invulnerable belief is the biggest red flag that you are someone else’s pawn, and recognizing it is crucial. If you let someone cut your ties to reality, there is no telling what they’ll make you believe.
I see a lot of people calling things “gross” when they don’t like them. The recent chatter about cultural appropriation had someone telling me it felt “really fucking gross” to see a white guy talking about cultural appropriation, and Luka’s little swarm of teenagers with hatecrushes is full of people who say he’s gross. A lot of the angry teenagers love to call people “gross”.
So why is “gross” often used as a moral judgment?
Because that’s how human brains work. Revulsion is revulsion. The same bits of your brain are involved in recognizing “disgusting” behavior and recognizing “disgusting” food. There’s doubtless reasons for this, but the most likely reason is “evolution does not have the luxury of design meetings.” And there’s a lot of weird interactions that result. People tend to wash their hands after thinking about immoral actions. Yes, really.
This is actually, it turns out, sort of a problem. See, the problem here is that while it may be useful to be repulsed by immorality, it is very dangerous to think things are immoral because they disgust you. There are lots of reasons other than morality to find something repulsive or disgusting. For instance, a whole lot of sexual activities are objectively sort of messy and gross. People tend not to notice or think about this when the activities in question are ones they personally find appealing, but to notice it when the activities are ones they don’t find appealing. Conclusion: Homosexuality is immoral.
Transphobia is likewise rooted almost entirely in the fact that the concept is repulsive to many people at some sort of instinctive level. That is a thing that probably can’t be easily changed, and which is not inherently a problem… As long as you don’t hold the unconsidered view that the things that repulse you or upset you are therefore immoral.
There’s a word for this distinction, of course; “squick” is a word for the revulsion response without the moral connotations. (According to the Internet, the etymology goes back to Usenet-era discussions on what skull-fucking would sound like. Thank you, Internet.) A thing you don’t find appealing but which you don’t have a moral objection to squicks you. But that’s okay, because no one expects everyone to like everything. No one thinks that Randall Munroe thinks seafood is immoral. But it does give you pause if you consider: Is that why shrimp are an “abomination” in the Bible?
So before you get too mad at people for being “gross”, stop and consider: Do you have a case you can make against their behavior which doesn’t rely entirely on being disgusted by it? If not, maybe you should keep your squick to yourself.
In all seriousness though, if you vent via a service built for spreading and preserving art, is going to be treated as activism.
I’m not saying activism is bad. But if you want to be an activist, be an activist. That means your goal is to influence the thoughts/beliefs of others. There is an entire academic discipline built around doing that (rhetoric), and a long history detailing what has/hasn’t worked when applied to social activism. You need to think tactically to move toward concrete goals, analyze feedback and statistics to target campaigns and improve on weaknesses, and be able to recognize and nullify manipulative tactics used by opponents. More importantly, it puts you in a position where you are representing other people, and any failures or crossed ethical boundaries will reflect on your entire movement’s reputation. It’s a dangerous and nuanced thing.
By contrast, venting is passionate and uncontrolled. Like punching a pillow, it’s the sort of thing you want to do where it will cause the least damage. While emotional appeals can be a powerful element in activism, they can work for or against you depending where they are applied. That level of strategic planning is contrary to what venting is all about. If you vent under the guise of activism, you are only going to make things worse for your partners who have an actual plan.
This is a problem I have with a lot of fiction: the whole idea that caring a lot about something is enough to make you powerful. Realistically, the world doesn’t work like that. A group of teenagers who just picked up swords cannot defeat an army of trained soldiers, ignoring a commander’s orders to fall back does not usually save the day, and a hero crying over his dead girlfriend does not pick up a gun and instantly have perfect aim - he just has blurry eyes and shaky hands.
Stories continually hound us with this message that caring a lot about something is enough to override a complete lack of planning, and that is a terrible thought pattern to encourage. We need commanders to tell us when to fall back; we need to recognize our emotions as an occasional weakness that clouds our judgement rather than enhances it. We need that passion to fuel our pursuit of good tactics, not replace it.
If you read the webcomic I write, this is actually a major running theme in it. Katia is basically a subversion of the whole “passionate hero succeeding” trope. While it’s easy to dismiss all her failings as terrible luck, one of her major character traits (especially earlier in the story) is that she jumps into things without planning, thinking her passion and enthusiasm will be enough to make up for it. These things tend to backfire disastrously, of course, but she’s slowly learning to strike a better balance. On top of the more obvious things, a lot of scenes deal with her struggle to balance her idealism and realism. She wants to solve problems like the storybook heroes she grew up with, but she also wants to not die. Sometimes it’s hard to do both.
But yeah, sorry for the last few posts covering venting when most of you are probably here for game design stuff, but I think it’s a rather important topic and HeyLasFas’ ruminations inspired me to reply.
If you are going to be an activist, you need to think tactically and try to ensure your movement’s success in the long run. If you’re not going to be an activist, then it’s important to make sure your actions do not hinder the people who are trying to operate tactically. I know not everyone will want to think about social issues as operating like some kind of tactical war, but when your actions affect other people you have a moral obligation to consider their ramifications. Declining to consider tactics doesn’t mean you are uninvolved, it just means you have no idea which side you are hurting and which side you are helping.
Like pretty much all my posts here, I’m not even telling you to take a particular side. I’m just telling you to think about what you’re doing. If you agree with me on an issue, don’t fuck our side over. If you disagree with me on an issue, don’t fuck your side over either. Just don’t fuck anyone over unless they’re a person you actually want to fuck over.
People need to vent.
I believe this is something that exists universally and trying to draw the line at the various forms of oppression sorta degrades this, for it’s just a natural state of humanity.
There was a lovely TEDtalk from Christopher Poole, the founder of 4chan, detailing this a bit:
- I mean, for as much good that kind of comes out of this environment, there is plenty of bad. There are plenty of downsides. But I think that the greater good is being served here by just allowing people — there are very few places, now, where you can go and not have identity, to be completely anonymous and say whatever you’d like. And saying whatever you like, I think, is powerful. Doing whatever you like is now crossing a line. But I think it’s important to have these places. When I get emails, people say, “Thank you for giving me this place, this outlet, where I can come after work and be myself.”
Now, of course again, I’m not policing anyone from speaking out, I’m actually encouraging the opposite.
The current trend on tumblr seems to follow a series of steps where someone would speak out against a specific group, a dissenter would scream from the heavens “not all herpaderps,” then it would be sorta open season from there.
Why is this? I’d like to think I was a decently good behavioural analyser, but to be fair I did go to college and that mighta chipped away at my knowledge a bit, heh.
To answer that question, it seems rather confident that the issue is that those who jump in to dissent are not allowing those talking to vent.
This is a really long post full of cute images so I hope you don’t mind me cropping it down to just the (possibly rhetorical) question near the end. That is, the question of why venting on Tumblr pans out the way it does.
First of all, I think it’s important to note that there are some very significant design differences between 4chan and Tumblr. 4chan, from a pure design perspective, is basically optimized for venting. If you’re feeling negatively toward something, you can barge into a thread about it and start ripping it apart. There are no personal consequences to doing this; no matter what you say, it will not reflect positively or negatively upon you. It’s a safe place to vent, functionally comparable to, say, anonymous venting pages like this.
More important, though, is that it is designed to let things pass. Being anonymous means you start existing at the beginning of your post and cease to exist at the end. If someone replies to your complaints with a really compelling counterargument, there is no social pressure to hold to your old opinion. If you calm down later and realize, no, that movie wasn’t terrible enough to justify a ten page rant, you can just pretend those posts were never yours. It encourages maturation, growth, and change - ideas we don’t necessarily associate with 4chan, though that makes sense given we can’t actually see anyone there changing. To us, people simply pop in and out of existence.
Compare this to Tumblr. Tumblr is, at its core, a platform for spreading and preserving art. The more artistic merit something on Tumblr has, the further it spreads and the longer it lasts. You are encouraged to follow people who post things the you are interested in, meaning everyone on Tumblr - including you - develops an “identity” based on what they post and reblog. The more consistent your identity is, the more people will be interested in following you (after all, people follow you because your content matches their interests; they don’t want your interests to change). In that way, Tumblr is the opposite of 4chan: its design pressures you to stay the same, worry about your identity, and judge others according to theirs. That is what helps art spread.
Consider what this means for venting, though. If you vent on 4chan, you are doing it to a small room of people who will agree or argue with you, and then in like a day it is gone with no traces other than any impact you left on those people. It’s how venting worked back before the internet, with the added bonus that nobody can tie it back to you should you say anything that would reflect on you poorly.
When you vent on Tumblr, it becomes a part of your identity. Everyone who is interested in the content you spread sees it and associates it with you. And not just that, they spread it. If one person agrees with something enough to make it part of their identity, then suddenly more will have the opportunity to take that message and spread it. What started as venting becomes activism. Words spawned from anger and frustration become a fight in which you are expected to defend yourself. People who think your message may be harmful move to stifle its spread, which they can only do by spreading a countermessage. The result is a complete mess that takes people who are talking to no one in particular and actively pits them against one another.
And I mean, it’s not their fault for venting. It’s their fault for venting on Tumblr. It’s a service for spreading art. I can’t even respond to your post without sharing both it and my reply with all of my followers, because Tumblr assumes you have made a work of art and I am reblogging it with a comment like “this is a cool song”. Venting on Tumblr pans out the way it does because Tumblr is not built for that kind of thing. Really, there is absolutely no way this should even be considered a blogging platform to begin with.
Kazerad says, while using Tumblr to vent about blogging.
This is one of the hills I always die on: ‘the Greeks’ were not ‘bisexual’. We don’t know what the Hell ‘the Greeks’ were. It was considered socially appropriate for a free adult male of a certain class background to express sexual desire for both (young) men and (usually young) women. In some parts of Ancient Greece, it was also considered socially appropriate for a free adult male etc. to seek sexual gratification via the insertion of his penis a) into the vagina or anus of a woman with whom he was in one of a series of codified social relation-structures (e.g.: she was his wife, she was his property, she was a prostitute) or b) between the thighs or into the anus of a younger man with whom he was in one of a series of even more fiercely codified relation-structures (definitely prostitute, probably property, sometimes very-complicated-social-dance-in-which-everyone-involved-tries-to-pretend-it’s-vital-to-the-moral-health-of-the-state-orgasms-what-orgasms). Mouths are risky territory and we won’t go there right now. We know next to nothing about the sexual appetites of men who did not belong to this specific nexus of age-class-background, and next to nothing about the sexual appetites of any women whatsoever.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying the Ancient Greeks were straight. Many of them demonstrably weren’t. And I’d go further than the OP here by saying that ‘heterosexuality’ is a cultural invention - not because there have never existed people who are only attracted to men or only to women, but because ‘sexuality’ is a cultural invention whatever you put in front of it. The Greeks didn’t even have the concept that you could distinguish between categories of people based on who they wanted to have sex with. Hetero-, homo-, bi-, and all other kinds of sexuality are terms we have made up to diagnose ourselves, not immutable ontological absolutes. This isn’t a startling discovery, it’s pretty much the bedrock (ha) of most modern theories of sexuality.
'Does heterosexuality exist?' and 'Are there people who are never attracted to people of the same sex?' are not the same question. For the Greeks, the answer to #1 is a straightforward (ha) 'no', the answer to #2 is 'we have no idea'.
(Take-home assignment: what does it mean for a sexuality to ‘exist’?)
I pretty much can’t stand people who put so much stock in being right about everything that they gotta knock down some kid’s sand castle and lecture the kid who was building it about how, ACTUALLY, sand castles aren’t structurally sound places to live and would have never passed code on inspection, and furthermore any idiot knows you can’t build a real castle with a shovel, so stop wasting your time and go get a degree in mathematics already!
That’s how I see the MoR series. Some flawed AI bot once read about fun in a children’s story and didn’t like it very much, and took it upon himself to deconstruct that story by writing an insipid cardboard cutout version of himself and sending it around inside the story to sneer at everything that isn’t scientifically accurate and gloat about how it doesn’t measure up to his walls of text about human nature and those rapey brown countries who weren’t descended from the Enlightenment.
And oh my god, the cheesy, shoddily written dialogue!
STRAWMAN!PROFESSOR: Magic spalz are done liek this ok wach and lurn *does magic, which violates all natural law*
AWESOME!SCIENCE!HARRY: Yes, well, I’m afraid I must disagree with you on your methodology, and in fact your entire worldview, as, in my opinion as an eleven-year-old boy, the very notion of waving a stick of wood around and spontaneously generating observable physical effects therefrom is utterly preposterous. I’ve studied all the spellbooks and none of the Latin used for the basic incantations is correct—although I’m sure someone like you wouldn’t be able to comprehend that, would you? *politely scoffs* And my goodness, I believe I can safely theorize, utilizing Muggle Osmicus Bublbat’s fourth dissertation on the dissipation of particulate odors and my own thorough studies of the olfactory processes of a standard eleven-year-old boy wizard, that you have had an accident within your robes. *politely smirks* This is, naturally, what comes of living an irrational life. Look at yourself, and your choices, aren’t they inferior to the way I live? You know, any God that created a world like this, where magic and “fun” are perceived as something less dangerous than a theist lie to be toppled and overthrown is a flawed God, and probably female, as well. *polite chuckle* I would despise and overthrow such a God on principle, were she to exist, and show her the error of her ways. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anyone?
STRAWMAN!PROFESSOR: I… never seed it that way! I so confuse! Science… good?
AWESOME!SCIENCE!HARRY: *polite smile* Oh, naturally you would agree with me without having the slightest comprehension of the sentiments I’ve just expressed. It’s human nature for weaker and emotionally permeable lesser intellects to sense the existence of a superior mind and philosophy, even if he is only the tender age of eleven, as I am, and flock to his defense. Yes, friend, yes, science good. *polite chuckle* Do try to embrace it!
STRAWMAN!PROFESSOR: U teech mai class smartboy?
AWESOME!SCIENCE!HARRY: No, sir, I am afraid that’s not possible. I am, after all, merely a eleven-year-old child who knows a few small things and is only too happy to make this school and all the experiences found within more relatable for those of us who are too smart and too rational to foolishly tumble into the pit trap of “fun”. My name is Harry Potter, and I am an atheist. Now go and shower, Professor, and please use soap this time when you wash the feces from your buttocks!
DRACO MALFOY: Rape rape rape.
AWESOME!SCIENCE!HARRY: *sigh* Malfoy, when will you learn that it’s enough to merely humiliate one’s inferiors with words?
it’s like watching someone masturbate.
It’s not so much knocking down the sandcastle, as wanting to be able to play with it in a different way. Seeing the world be like, “Look, magic!,” some people react by being like “Magic? Wheeeeee! Explosions and poofings and unicorns!” And that’s fine, it’s awesome, but some other people are more like, “Magic? Wait how’s it work?” and part of the “Wheeeeee!” has to involve “DO SCIENCE TO IT! YAY!” or it feels unfulfillng.
And it shouldn’t have to mean destroying the magic or the world or being shitty to the characters, if you want to stop and say, “Wait, where does the rest of her go when she’s being a cat? Is her mind the same?” or “But WHY does the unicorn have silver blood? How does it work?” or “Wait, go back and tell me more about garden gnomes. Are they a kind of primate like us? Are they like weirdly bipedal gophers? Are they actually walking potatoes that bite?” The reward for me wasn’t watching the protagonist get away with being a such massive little shithead. In the case of what I (used to) enjoy about MoR, Harry initially just becomes a vessel for transporting Science to Hogwarts, because we want to play with how and why it works.
I’ll say now, I’m actually pretty much in your camp about it at this point- I tolerated the gross stuff at first because I found enough other to be clever and engaging and fun, but… it started to become clearer and clearer that the schoolfeeding I kept expecting to happen to Harry, the one about respecting other people and not manipulating them and not throwing tantrums every time someone won’t admit that you are obviously RIGHT- was never going to happen.
And then the author fridged Hermione. He did it in a massively brutal, vivid, violent scene. We watched her bleed to death. We watched her end. And it was because the author believed he needed to make a point about death being bad. He apparently thought that people who held a philosophical position that death is not necessarily a bad thing, or is inevitable or maybe even necessary, had simply not yet been hurt enough by death to realize it was bad. So he set out to hurt his readers, such that they would agree with him.
I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation since about third grade. I know that there is a difference between mental illness and a philosophical acceptance of the phenomenon of death. I know that mental illness and abuse and rape are not just things that happen far off to other people, like irrationality and being wrong.
A few weeks before I read that chapter, my dog died. I watched it happen. She died in my arms, of something that I should have been able to prevent.
This is really hard for me to write. I don’t want to be like, “Owh maw GERDH, he TRIGGERED ME, how DARE!!!1!!” I know he was not responsible for the fact that I read that chapter at a time when I was psychiatrically vulnerable. But it bothered me, and I wanted to discuss it. So I started composing a response. And then realized I couldn’t do it, because, in wanting to explain to him that, no, I actually know what death means- I kept flashing back to her. How she was gone, and she was never coming back, and there was nothing I could do. My dog, not Hermione. I wanted to explain to him that it wasn’t because I didn’t hurt enough that I disagreed to him, and that hurting people more with the simulated death of a character they loved… wasn’t going to change their minds, because contrary to what he knows in his heart, people aren’t actually completely fucking stupid. But I realized I couldn’t get any of it down, because I was crying so hard my eyes were swelling shut and my throat and sides were aching.
I ended up driving in that state, because my anxiety meds were in a house across town. I probably shouldn’t have. I take responsibility for that- it was a shitty thing to do, I should have called someone else, I could have hurt someone, I’m really glad I didn’t. I just… found it kind of ironic that something that was designed to convince me that Death is Bad ended up inspiring me to take action that might have killed someone. Not saying that to be like “YOUUUUUUUUU! BAD AUTHOR FOR TRIGR MEH!” or that it’s anyone’s fault other than mine. Just that it was kind of an illustration of the author’s strategy backfiring, in my particular case.
Also, I realized that it was grounds for anyone with his value set to dismiss pretty much everything I might ever have to say, Because Irrational.
I am kicking myself so hard for letting myself get suckered in, for ignoring the warning signs because whee i wanted to ask those questions too, for not realizing how toxic it was when I let the first few gross things slide. For flipping so thoroughly the fuck out over a fucking Harry Potter fanfic. … and a dash of what looked a lot like PTSD symptoms, OK. … which BTW you can’t cure with rationality, contrary to what the fic itself heavily implies.
Anyway now I can’t think of the thing any more without getting violently ticked off and also flashbacks. Uh… sorry, this response was not supposed to be this long.
Man, that is fucking rough :( i’m so sorry that you went through that.
I think the line between “this series left so much unsaid/bungled it/didn’t do it justice, and now I want to deconstruct it/fix it/try new shit in that universe” and what the Methods of Rationality attempts to do to HP’s sandcastle boils down to a single word: contempt.
There’s no love or even hate for Harry Potter in this fanfic. I feel like it could have been fanfic for any fantasy series, with the same neverending babbling from the same self insert that passes for “Harry”, with very little changing except the backdrop before which the hand puppets do their jousting. The story is so impersonal and hostile toward the specific characters, setting, and spirit of the HP series that I can only assume he picked it instead of, say, the Circle of Magic books, because HP is massively popular and fandom attention is guaranteed.
Also ‘cause Harry is a guy protagonist and that makes the self-insertion thing less weird and icky.
So in late high school and for a few years afterwards, I convinced myself I had multiple personalities and participated on the online multiple community. I strongly hesitate to say that everybody there was delusional, but I was and I was probably not alone.
As is probably often the case, I had other problems that I was afraid to name and couldn’t really understand or cope with, and was looking for something that made sense. It wasn’t a 100% retreat into fantasy; there was a grain of truth that made me choose that particular expression; I imagine there usually is. And some of what I was doing was processing my feelings in a safer way with the ability to distance myself by saying “not me”.
More detailed story under the cut. (TW for child sexual, physical and verbal abuse, gaslighting and ableism):