Why I used to support Zak and how to not have it happen again

Context on Zak Smith. Read also the Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/amandapatricianagy/posts/10215845527064252 and the linked blog posts: https://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2019/02/you-should-read-this.html . Reading Patrick’s timeline is especially advised: http://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2017/02/a-timeline-of-zak-wars.html

I explain what, in my perspective, was some part of the dynamics of how I and other people with similar values turned to support Zak. The reader should note that I was in Zak’s orbit, though not very active; as such, this is written very strongly in reaction to the experience. It might or might not be a good idea, and I would like to hear about this, if anyone has reliable sources of personal experiences.

How the controversy started

I was involved in the rpg blogging community. The Forge was pretty much dead or dying. I was, and still am, interested in how roleplaying games work, which means rpg theory. The locus of that was moving away from the Forge and into blogs, soon OSR blogs. Google plus was getting traction among roleplayers. Zak S. became one of the rpg bloggers who posted interesting things about an interesting subject.

There were some conflicts around sexism and such. Some people were trying to build bridges and offered to work as mediators. Some people tried to figure out what had actually happened and collect information. Everyone (seemingly) wanted the situation to get resolved. There soon formed two camps had a very different responses to what was going on.

To answer questions

Zak, when asked questions, answered them. Sometimes the answers were pure sophistry, but often they were reasonable, when the questions did not challenge his narrative. He also answered follow-up questions.

The other side did not answer questions with any regularity. They started to take merely asking questions as an act of hostility.

As a third party who was not close friends with anyone, the one answering questions seemed more credible.

It is an undue burden on a victim of harassment to answer questions. It is an undue burden on anyone to answer a flood of questions. The ability of a person to answer questions depends on their privilege – free time, mental energy, ability to handle stress, experience with public internet discussions. On the other hand, it is reasonable for a larger group of people to gather answers to questions or to find someone to answer them.

To providence evidence

If Zak claimed someone had done something, he always proved some sort of evidence, often in terms of screen captures (some of which were  misleading and out of context, some credible, many of minor consequence but inflated by him). Asking for proof or evidence started to be taken as a sign of hostility by the people attacked by or attacking Zak. Sometimes Zak’s evidence required one to accept he was using strange definitions of words, but often it was persuasive. There was little evidence the other group could collect; eventually, there was the Shannon Applecline impersonation Reddit screenshot.

Asking an abuse victim for evidence is not appropriate, but when someone is claimed to orchestrate a widespread harassment campaign, there should be someone available to gather and present proof of it, possibly anonymized, and possibly not immediately.

Many websites suggest taking screenshots as a best practice against harassment.

To create reliable summaries

Both of the points above are symptoms of not having reliable documentation of what is happening or had happened. Zak S collected and provided such summaries. People who were against him might have linked one to this article: https://web.archive.org/web/20180816050010/failforward.co.uk/post/93348768153/how-dungeons-and-dragons-is-endorsing-the-darkest . The article mixes stories of bad behaviour (without evidence), vague allegations, and outright lies. Some of the content is true or accurate, but why would one believe it, given the false parts and lack of proof?

To this day, the only reasonable larger summary I am aware of is Patrick Stuart’s timeline, linked above. Notably, it was started when Patrick was sympathetic to Zak. A personal summary by a target of Zak is also available and recommended reading: https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/this-post-is-insufferably-long-and-im-sorry-for-that-longtw/

I would be interested in other summaries.

What to do and not do

This is a defense protocol. The part about not lying is a good idea regardless, since it makes conversations and interaction better. The other things would, I think (but might be very wrong), stop or lessen the impact of a bad actor, and as such they are defensive measures to take against a suspected or confirmed bad actor.

Do not lie

Lying online is stupid. If someone is the target of false accusations, it is very easy to believe that also the other accusations against them are false. People concerned with truth, integrity or justice will object to false claims. Many casual readers will not remember whether only the claim of homophobia is disputed, or if all the claims of evil are. Furthermore, being the target of lies is a great way of earning sympathy and allies due to that.

Lying also makes the world a worse place, generally speaking.

In particular, and as a special case, do not attack people on false grounds. This provides them with moral superiority and is thus a stupid tactic. The false accusations against Zak gave him supporters and retracted from the plausibility of other accusations against him.

Be specific, not vague

Vague claims are easy to believe if your preconceptions align with them and hard to believe when they do not. As such, they are an excellent way of creating factions. The failforward article, linked above, is a fine example of this effect. Make claims that are specific enough to be verified to create common understanding and common ground, rather than tribes.

As a special case, do name names. The author of this blog post https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/this-post-is-insufferably-long-and-im-sorry-for-that-longtw/ had a (to me) very strange belief that not naming the target would protect them, even though the target was identifiable from the messages. Everyone who knew of the issue knew who it was about. It might have protected from a single or isolated actor who relies on googling to find message about them. But when there are numerous people involved, the word will get to the target, anyways. In the meanwhile, keeping the text anonymous confuses new people hearing of the situation; they do not get effectively warned about the bad actor.

A theory of the enemy

Zak had a theory of who the enemy is and why they are dysfunctional and attack others. If interested in the particulars, search for ”drama club” on his blog. The theory is supported by examples of behaviour.

There is plenty of literature online on narcissism and sociopathy. If someone behaves accordingly, connect the dots, lay down the case, and link to the those sources. For details, see below. This gives people a name for what is happening and allows them to point out that this behaviour here is typical and expected and you might feel like that as a result.

Knowledge is power and naming things helps. ”Harassment” does not point to a specific enough thing.

Concrete steps

In case of possible abusive person in the community:

  1. State what has happened.
  2. Why does this raise red flags? No blaming, speculation or moral judgment; only the problematic pattern.
  3. How does this make the community worse for its purpose?
  4. A concrete request. It should address the two previous points.

As per above steps, point one should stick to documented things to the extent possible. This makes it more persuasive and reduces the scope of frivolous arguments.

Number two should draw parallels to a known pattern of behaviour. Speculation and blaming do not contribute positively, but rather make it easier to have a debate about intentions. Intentions are vague and very hard to prove, and discussing them derails from the discussion of actual and concrete actions and their effects.

Number three understands that different communities might have different purposes. If a community has a goal of writing and publishing a particular game, then someone derailing conversations with witty commentary might not be welcome, while they might be acting appropriately in a different environment. Having smaller communities with different purposes and standards is both inevitable and useful, and point number three helps new people to adjust by making the purpose more explicit. For most communities, having a diverse and large cast of participants are positive things, and having people feel safe is a positive thing, and a bad actor is likely to detract from these before their awfulness becomes apparent.

Number four helps separate people who cause problems from people who do not know better. Do they try their best to act according to the request or not?

Those too distressed to fight

For many good reasons, not everyone can and will fight. It is exhaustive and takes time and energy. One has to be in a privileged position to do it, in many ways. No particular person can be responsible for answering all questions, providing evidence and creating summaries.

However, the community, as a whole, should do it, should it want to mount an effective defense. This means that some people must do it. This is not fun and it would be a lot nicer if this was not necessary.

Who is responsible for educating others?

A troll can exhaust others by asking a basic question after another. On the other hand, someone being introduced to a new subject, terminology, or way of thinking, is also likely to ask one basic question after another. Answering the new person is useful. Answering the troll might not be. Confusing a troll for a new person results in spending resources, while saying an earnest new person is a troll is a fine way of turning them away with a negative impression.

The solution is a combination of documenting the answers to frequently asked questions, and having someone have the discussions. The troll might not change, but if the discussion is public, other people are likely to follow and judge the behaviour of the participants.

If one is tired of answering the same questions, one should consider writing them down or making a video, or however one wishes to makes the answers accessible. I suggest following the concrete tips, where applicable, to make the questions and answers provoke as few frivolous questions as possible. Of course, linking to the work done by others, as long as it is good useful, is nice, as is having friends wield the questions. If they are basic, there certainly are many who should be capable of answering.

Insensitive trollish questions

I have asked insensitive questions in poorly thought out situations, and I will likely do it again, in spite of my attempts to improve. This is due to being interested in finding out an answer, and approaching internet discussions from a perspective of sharing information and learning. Awareness has hopefully reduced this.

Many others approach internet discussions from a perspective of signalling their allegiance or emotions, or of changing the world. To such a person, someone else asking questions can seem trollish, whether they are malicious or not. A large number of such questions can be very exhaustive and hostile.

I have had some success with telling people that the question they are asking is a reasonable one, but in this context it comes off as very insensitive and they are giving a very negative expression, perhaps with a short explanation. This has worked in a significant number of cases. I have made the request politely or in a neutral tone. Sometimes I have given an explanation of why the question might not be malicious, if the person has already received negative attention.

For example, two rough translations; English is not my native language, so imagine a more appropriate tone and choices of specific words: ”This thread is in response to a victim of sexual abuse coming forward. It is very difficult to do and very rarely done falsely. It is quite insensitive to discuss issues of due process in this situation; it comes off as minimizing the experiences of the victim. I suggest having that discussion when there is no such immediate context.”

”I think that the metaphor of public lynching is a crude way of pointing to the fact there there is a dilemma here: On the other hand, believing victims of abuse is necessary to stop abuse. On the other hand, due process and calm deliberation are necessary for justice. Many people choose to believe abuse victims and this is justified in light of statistics, but it is only done due to necessity; they would rather have the justice, too, but getting both is very hard. Discussing the matter in this context comes off as cruel, especially given the lynching metaphor.”

Why I used to support Zak and how to not have it happen again

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