Wednesday 13 February 2019

Thank You, Mandy

With a single post, Mandy Morbid has done more to improve my optimism about the gaming community than any single act I can remember.

As is overwhelmingly the case when someone abused calls out an abuser with status, influence, and the wherewithal to weaponize them, this will no doubt cause Mandy a great deal of energy, pain, and trouble.

Please do not be even the smallest part of her problems.

* * *

For years, I've been too chicken shit to call out Zak publicly for his awful effects on the online TTRPG community. A jealous, self-obsessed black hole, he pulls people into his orbit and then slowly rips them up. Like a lot of people, apparently, I've been scared of his three-day revenge benders and his heavily footnoted takedowns.

I've been privately grateful when people close to him put words to what I've felt—notably Patrick Stuart's truly spectacular break-up essay, but dozens of others who I deliberately won't call out here.

My fear comes from a personal flaw of my own, unrelated to Zak. Because of it, I've been riding the coattails of others who were braver, quietly yissing at the screen whenever they said what I was thinking, sharing it in small, private circles. "See? See!"

It's not a good look and I'm ashamed of it, but whatever.

* * *

Part of why I'm saying this is that Mandy's gift out of the blue has made me realize what all this fear cost me. There are all sorts of good an interesting people that I haven't collaborated with or gotten to know better for fear that Zak was part of their circle.

As people have lined up to repudiate him, each time it felt like a little weight was lifting. "Oh, you're okay?"

At some point, I had the obvious realization that my silence has probably had the same effect on others. In fact, I know it has. Because I never said anything, people have had to just guess if my tiny corner of the internet was open to abusers and chucklefucks, or if I would have their back if one showed up. For anyone for whom it really mattered, it wouldn't have been safe to even ask, so you just moved on.

Me, who has had absolutely nothing tangible to fear this whole time.

If my silence helped make your world smaller, I'm sorry.

* * *

Tomorrow, Zak will supposedly post one of his legendary diatribes to tell us how it really 'went down'. I don't know what it will say, but I can take a reasonable guess at its aim.

Zak is very clever, and one of the things he is great at is driving a wedge between how you think and how you feel.

There is a part of each of us that is a total sucker for 'toxic rationality'. Legitimate ideas are supposed to look a certain way, and if you feel bad about them, that's because you're an intellectual weakling indulging your emotional side.

If you read Zak's post, I want you to bear in mind that you are a staggeringly sophisticated gigaprocessor that weighs millions of inputs every second, and filters them through a lifetime of experiences.

Your feelings and intuition are a holistic summation of this unimaginably vast work. They are every bit as important as the formal calculations we do (which are so simple in comparison that you could peg them out on a Lite Brite).

If you read Zak's post, squint a little bit, and you might notice it says something like this:

  1. I am smarter than you.
  2. I am so much smarter than you, you should immediately abandon your embarrassingly stupid ideas, and feel bad about having them.
  3. My feelings are your problem (any action I take to protect them is justified)
  4. Your feelings aren't my problem (even bringing them up is intellectually bankrupt tone policing and probably harassment)
  5. If you disagree with me, there is only one responsible way to go about handling it, and it puts me in the position of maximum leverage. If you don't like that, see point #2.
If you don't get caught up in debating his points, my guess is you'll be able to perceive these emotional threads in the pit of your stomach. Please listen.

* * *

Late last year, I served as a juror on a human trafficking case involving a minor. It took forever, and for all of the pain and suffering involved, resulted in a hung jury. This was all kinds of devastating, and I can't legally talk about the details because Canada.

I bring this up because, afterwards, all this talk of "evidence" in online started to look like farcical bullshit. Over and over I see courtroom analogies applied to online conflicts, and as far as I can tell now they're completely misapplied.

In a trial, the evidence the jury reviews is vetted for admissibility, cross-examined, and (importantly) the jury (who is a specific bunch of people) has to review all of it. (Often multiple times.) Lastly, the question(s) they are answering are known ahead of time, and so are the consequences of whatever they decide.

Because the consequences of being found guilty of a serious crime are so destructive, court procedures are strongly biased in favor of a 'no determination' outcome. (On paper, at least.) To come to a finding of fact, twelve people must unanimously agree that the evidence proves the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Any other scenario at all and it's a "no result" finding.

This is not remotely how people make every other important decision - who to be friends with, whether to have Gary over again, who to sleep with, where to live, to trust this babysitter, whether to take or quit that job, whether to euthanize a beloved pet, to get this or that treatment for a serious health condition. In these situations there's no waiting for a finding of fact, and there's no default option--we just have to act on a holistic assessment of the partial information we have.

* * *

For online conflicts, here's a big lie: the community needs to come to a finding of fact. (Nope!) "We need to probe the dark recesses until we know all the details, and we've sorted out What Really Happened."

Get real, that's not happening.

What plays out in online communities instead is very different: a revolving door of self-appointed jurors do drive-by reviews of fragments of evidence, which is usually a bunch of hearsay and partial screen caps.

This impulse to seek answers is relatable, but so off the mark it's dangerous. It's not what actually helps.

When your child comes in from outside with a bleeding knee, saying Billy pushed them, if your first order of business is to establish What Really Happened, I can't help you.

If you do a web search to figure how to support victims of trauma (do it, it's time well spent), no reputable resource will urge you to figure out what happened by digging up evidence. Someone is evidently hurting, so support them as you're able.

I think we reach for courtroom analogies because of some combination of:
  1. It's a familiar model for deciding whether someone's life should be destroyed by punishment (thanks, TV!)
  2. It gives me an opportunity to indulge my prurient curiosity into the lives of others
  3. It strokes my ego, that I'm now appointed to the role of Judge
That's a heady mix. More charitably, I might learn about danger that I could face myself, or protect others from it. I'll come back to this one.

* * *

When we fall for this disembodied, logical-sounding indulgence, we wind up with community rules that are totally dysfunctional. One well-intentioned but Zak-orbiting community wound up with a reasonable-sounding set of rules that were subtly awful, when I thought about them.

I forget the exact wording (and I can't dig it up, as they were thankfully changed in the process of banning Zak), but they had two curious properties:
  1. The only activity that was governed was accusing people of bad behavior.
  2. The process mandated for dealing with it made sure the accused had as as much information and leverage as possible.
When Zak's diatribe lands, please don't buy an implied conflict resolution structure that does these two things.

* * *

I believe Mandy, not because I've 'seen the evidence', but because her experiences, though dire, are completely ordinary.

Repeat after me (or not, I'm not the boss of you):

"I will never know what really happened between Mandy and Zak, and that's fine."

I don't need to know in order to decide who I want in my online communities. Believing that I need to know the facts of somebody else's life before I can trust my own intuition is learned helplessness.

For me, this isn't about a societal decision about "what to do with Zak because of what he did to Mandy", this is about who I want near me in my online communities, and who I don't. I can decide that based on the feelings I have when they're around. This is completely appropriate, and the way we make our best relationship decisions.

The "conclusive evidence first" approach is a reasonable-sounding bad idea, and it privileges the null hypothesis. This constant, "no finding" result shrinks our lives and only benefits the creeps, sociopaths and abusers.

Here's an idea, don't take community-building advice from people who act like sociopaths.

* * *

Don't be an asshole in the comments.


  1. Thank you for this. I think you managed to find a constructive thread of thinking in a difficult situation.

  2. This is an excellent, reasoned take on how to process ANY scene drama, not just this particular case. Thanks for this.

  3. We are, all of us, in the midst of what appears to be a culture-wide shift towards an understanding which you've encapsulated well, here. We've seen it in US politics for the last two years, growing and changing. We've probably all seen greater or lesser examples in our own social lives. Reactionary social forces grasp at the notion that because people and groups can make decisions which hurt a perpetrator's social standing, this "punishment" must necessarily adhere to the standards of a court of law - a pernicious notion you've rightly illustrated as farcical, here.

    In short - I don't know these people, but I'm glad that YOU do, and I'm thankful for and heartened by your well-considered words, here.

  4. A great deal of what you say is what I'm also thinking about these things; thank you for articulating them so well. I appreciate the thoroughness.

  5. You hit the nail on the head. As someone who was marginalized from the time he hit the OSR by him to just a few months ago, his modus operandi you have covered perfectly.

    And his defense now seems to be that he considers himself an artist first and foremost. Maybe those galleries need to hear about this....

  6. And this is why you're the best, Michael.

  7. Thank you for articulating this so well. It sums up much of my feelings on the topic also.

  8. "Toxic rationality" is a very apt description of a particular style of argument/delusional outlook.

  9. Excellent insight, that's given me some solid methods to deal with the "but ... he said / she said" crowd.

  10. Thank you for sharing this.
    I hope all those people that modelled themselves on (and gave much muscle to) ZS’s abrasive and toxic online behaviour will now stop.