Putting Sealions to Work

I’ve been gearing up to get back to more regular blogging here for a while without actually doing it. As commenting has shifted to social media, so have a lot of my observations of the world. But I don’t want to be dependent on sites that aren’t mine for retaining the things I have to say, so I’m going to try to put more of this here.

Today, I posted an anonymized snippet of conversation:

Them: If I’m wrong, why won’t you try to educate me instead of saying I’m ignorant?

Me: Have you read the article you’re commenting on yet?

I posted it because it amused me. Then a friend commented that the original sounded a lot like sealioning. Of course, that’s exactly what it is.

This person has already been arguing (read: asserting their opinion) at length. I’ve been commenting mostly short posts in return, pointing out they’ve already told me they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re frustrated because they’re working harder than I am and getting nowhere. So they’re trying to challenge me to do more.

Sealions: You can’t talk about this topic without doing a lot of work to defend yourself.

This person: You telling me I’m ignorant isn’t valid unless you do a lot of work to fix it.

Same argument, slightly different wording.

So why am I blogging this? Because my friend’s question made me realize that this is why sealioning fails so badly around me.

Even before we had a name for this kind of bad-faith arguing, we had sealions. Oh, did we have sealions. And I developed strategies back then that still serve me well dealing with them today. Namely, if someone wants me to do work, they need to demonstrate they’re willing to put in work themselves. Also, they need to do it first.

A lot of people don’t like that last part. Not just sealions, but onlookers too think it’s unfair not to go into this with the assumption people are really there for conversation. I don’t really care. It’s my labor. They’re my conditions.

At the same time, I’m already doing work. These interactions tend to start something like this:

Someone: Posts argument, statement, or article.

Them: Well, I think [stereotypes and political talking points].

Me: Well, actually, we’ve studied these things, and our best understanding is [information underlying original post that’s very easy to find in articles and/or statements from professional associations of researchers].

Them: Nuh-uh. Prove it.

Me: Give me some information to show me where you’re starting from on this topic and how you developed your opinions.

Them:

I’ve already done quite a bit of work here. I’ve:

  • Made myself familiar with the state of research on the topic.
  • Communicated that information.
  • Prepared to share links with further backup.
  • Asked a question that will tell me where this person has picked up the bad information and what kinds of misapprehensions are underlying their opinion.

They have asserted something twice. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t do more work to understand the backup I’m prepared to give, since most people really don’t like having their opinions challenged. But my question works either way.

A sealion, facing this strategy, will do a lot of work to avoid doing any work you assign to them. Their goal is take control of the interaction, and cooperating with you isn’t on their agenda. They may go away. They may resort to insulting you. Whatever they do, though, it won’t be to put in the work that demonstrates to onlookers that they’re really open to learning. The sealioning becomes obvious.

Someone who does want to learn, on the other hand, has no reason not to cooperate with you. And asking where they come from on the topic helps you twice. It shows you what you’re up against: ignorance or active sources of disinformation.

It also reminds the person you’re talking to that their opinion is based on something outside themselves. It takes the possibility that they’re wrong from a question of ego to a question of education. It’s much easier to tell someone they’ve been failed by their education, and someone else is responsible for them being wrong, than to tell someone they figured things out badly.

In reality, though, most of these people will be sealioning. Treasure the ones who aren’t, and challenge the sealions to put some skin in the game.

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Putting Sealions to Work
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