Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I am so absolute

I must be in a bad mood lately because several people have told me or implied I am. Things work that way, right? Wrong. I could be tired, not upset. I could be thinking about something in particular -- tuning out the world -- and not actually fuming over something. I could be concentrating on learning a new dance step, not bored or wishing I was elsewhere.

Or it could be that I am doing these things and still feel some discomfort or anxiety or maybe even anger. Maybe our emotions color our non-emotional states and we project a blend of "I so don't want to be doing this badly" with "how am I supposed to be doing this?"

Nonetheless, my moods being what they are, other people have their own moods, and when two incompatible moods clash, almost inevitably one person will say something that strikes the other as inappropriate. How we handle these rare moments of broken rapport with our neighbors may be an indication of the quality of our character or it may only be an indication of our emotional or physical state.

That is, if someone says something that offends you, what is the appropriate response? Men often just ramp right up into confrontational mode. When I was at the Denver airport the other day, nearly late for my morning flight back to Houston, I decided that since I hadn't had breakfast I'd better buy lunch since the airlines are now too cheap -- I mean, broke -- to serve us cheap, icky tasting lunches. So I stood in line for an $8 sandwich and soft drink and in front of me a man stepped up to the cash register.

The man he stepped in front of took offense at the action. "I was standing here!" he said angrily. The larger man turned around with a grim, foreboding expression and said loud enough for everyone else to hear, "I stepped out of line to get a drink, buddy."

You had to be there to see the testosterone flowing, but most of us have seen these kinds of confrontations before. Who was right? Who was wrong? I don't know. I hadn't paid attention to either guy before they rudely interrupted my reveries. How dare they?

On the other hand, in my usual tactful, diplomatic fashion, I recently interjected some comments on the LED-digest. This list has occasional flare-ups of rudeness, usually starting with casual remarks that are not intended to offend anyone. The rudeness is not in the casual remarks, but in the response to the remarks. People just don't stop to consider that they are taking offense at something not intended to offend, and they don't consider just how much they will pollute the discussion forum with the insults and lies they subsequently post in their frustration.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the only target of such outraged responses. Other people get nailed by the backlashers of self-determined propriety. I just happen to be the latest victim of abuse.

LED-digest is a blend of technical and marketing-related discussions. There are something like 40-50,000 subscribers on the list. A lot of nonsense about search engine optimization is posted there, and I occasionally rise up to debunk the stuff I feel comfortable debunking. One of the more popular SEO myths is that a link changes everything. That is, many SEOs feel that Google determines rankings primarily on the basis of linkage.

Which is absolute nonsense, and I have not only said as much on many occasions, I've provided links (on LED-digest and on Web-based forums) to Google resources, technical papers, etc. which pretty much show that people who say Google rankings are based primarily on linkage are full of -- have no idea what they are talking about.

Still, I don't pull any punches, and I often say things like, "That is absolute nonsense".

So, the latest trend in Michael Martinez repartee appears to be, "You're making absolute statements". The clear implication in such comments is that making "absolute statements" is not only fundamentally wrong and morally objectionable (an ironic implication, considering that absolutism is supposedly part of moral objectivism) -- no, it's not just fundamentally wrong -- my absolutism in itself is (it is implied) self-sustaining.

That is, the people who accuse me of making "absolute statements" or being "absolutist" imply that I am merely expressing my personal, factually unsupportable opinions, and that I really have no business saying anything whatsoever since I'm unwilling to be self-deprecating enough to admit that the facts are really just my opinions.

The latest criticism I have received can be narrowed down to this: "My simple, single example, in my opinion, is enough to demonstrate that your absolute statement
('They occur becauseā€¦') is not absolutely correct."

The writer of that comment took my own remarks out of context (I was referring to specific examples of link bombing that only work because of certain conditions which are well documented). So, the first sin in this misguided attempt at correcting me was to misuse my words in such a way as to imply that I meant something other than what I was talking about.

But the second, more egregious sin came in a subsequent remark by the same person (same message): "maybe you should just quit claiming that your beliefs are absolute facts and attacking those who demonstrate that they're not".

These kinds of lies (that I make such claims or attack people who object to my stating facts-they-wish-were-opinions) are quite frequently lobbed across the Net against unsuspecting victims. Technically, having been subjected to such lies before by other people, I rather suspected the individual who posted this defamatory remark would be tempted to stoop this low. Not because I felt he is the kind of person who would do so, but because I just had a gut feeling. I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Instead, I was disappointed to find that someone I have long respected is no better than anyone else on the Internet.

The unfairness of this lie stems in part from the private implication that the writer objects to another discussion in another forum where I made some very frank comments on spam. Someone was trying to find a moral justification for encouraging people to send out unsolicited email. The technical definition of spam originally applied to email: spam is the sending of bulk unsolicited email. But spam has been used to refer to bulk messaging in news groups and forums, too. Even search engine spammers produce content in bulk. Link spammers create links in bulk.

The definitive quality of spam is volume, bulk, mass quantity. I'm not the person who has developed these meanings. I'm not the person who gets to decide if they are appropriate or accurate. But they are well documented, widely annotated definitions. So, when I pointed out that spam involves bulk, the other person responded by insinuating I was just expressing my personal opinion.

That's a common flaw of Internet arguments. Inconvenient facts always become the other person's opinion. In strict logic, such an argument fails. But people don't operate by strict logic. Rather, they argue by rapport. That is, they seek support from the group in the hope of silencing a point of view they disagree with. The easiest way to do this is to make everyone else feel like they are personally threatened.

You do that by accusing the other person of expressing their opinions as if they are facts. While the other person is really stating the facts in an unopinionated way, the simple allegation that they are stating opinions as facts leads other people to feel that your victim won't give their opinions any consideration. Hence, you place the rest of the group in a defensive emotional state with your lie, and they (you hope) will attack the person (your intended victim) who was merely stating facts.

Sound unreasonable? The Internet forums and mailing lists are filled with this kind of guerilla logic every day. Thousands of people are subjected to lies and verbal abuse by otherwise reasonable people simply because those otherwise reasonable people don't like what is being said. They cannot graciously pause and consider what is being said, they must instead highlight the offense they take at comments that quite often have nothing to do with whatever point they are trying to make. And they elevate their offense by resorting to lies and insults in an effort to villainize the other person. By villainizing the person you disagree with, you ask the community to ostracize that person.

What better way is there to silence the voice of facts in the face of your challenged opinions?

Frankly, I've seen it go down so many times, I know there is no stopping this process. I'm not sure how well people are swayed by the immediacy of lies, but I do know that the more often a lie is repeated, the more credible it seems. For this reason alone I often tell people to disbelieve whatever they see on the Internet. Relatively few people bother to check the facts before expressing their thoughts. Many people admit they don't bother to check the facts as they express their thoughts.

And that is why nonsense gets posted, and that is why it gets repeated. The more it is posted, the more it is repeated, the more credible it seems. The more nonsense you see, the more nonsense you tend to believe.

And that's just absolute nonsense. I object to that kind of deliberately self-imposed ignorance. It's just sloppy analysis, blindly groping for convenient "truths", and it's nothing I want any part of.

So, I'll admit to being an absolutist. At least I know what the word really means.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for kicks, here's a link to the beginning of the flare-up on LED Digest...

I think Eric Ward's post (in LED #2211) kind of started the initial fray. You can follow the discussions from there, and decide for yourself how "absolutist" Michael was or was not being. Personally, I think it was the tone of your post, Michael, not the content that caused the "issue."

The browbeating that goes on within Internet forums and lists has been trending upwards, inversely proportional to people's lowering faculties of decorum. I'm not sure why it is, but I think it's time the problem was addressed. I've emailed Adam (LED Digest moderator) about this issue, perhaps he'll make a statement and we can "air it out" on the list.

Problem is, it seems to be a cultural shift online. People are less patient, more authoritative, more emphatic about their ideas, while not being more accurate at the same time. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand. In the idealistic old days online, people helped each other. Now the Internet is much like anywhere else - people compete with each other, fight with each other, and try to beat one another. Not exactly idealistic. But I guess it's more realistic, huh?

Michael, I've been on the LED a long time like you have. Thanks for years of quality posts, posts that have helped me.

6:19 PM  

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