Comment Section Kayfabe

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Forums and comments sections are, to all appearances, scripted performances. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the web has let us see just how scripted unedited arguments between regular people can seem. You see this also with first year philosophy students; their objections to the classics are often quite predictable. Why is it that people with varying levels of familiarity with a subject will provide seemingly scripted responses? How does apparent spontaneity take on the air of professional wrestling?

The answer, I think, is that each discussion is a game, which the players were prepared for in advance. For the most part they are not even aware of this, especially if they are young and relatively unstudied on the topic under discussion. But they are prepared nevertheless, by the communities they are a part of, which induct them into certain traditions.

Following the script is a healthy and necessary part of wrestling with existing ideas yourself and making them your own. But it can also become a dead end. You can fall into the same patterns endlessly without any potential for growth.

In The Anatomy of Peace, it is argued that ongoing conflict can be sustained only by a kind of collusion among the participants. “Everyone begins acting in ways that invite more of the very problem from the other side that each is complaining about!”

In Leadership and Self-Deception, another book by the same authors, it is argued that we often feel a need to be justified in our side of the conflict, and thus ignore opportunities to find peace. One character shares an anecdote:

“On a particular Friday night, Bryan asked if he could use the car. I didn’t want him to use it, so I gave him an unreasonably early curfew time as a condition — a time I didn’t think he could accept. ‘Okay, you can use it,’ I said smugly, ‘but only if you’re back by 10: 30.’ ‘Okay, Mom,’ he said, as he whisked the keys off the key rack. ‘Sure.’ The door banged behind him.”

“I plopped myself down on the couch, feeling very burdened and vowing that I’d never let him use the car again. The whole evening went that way. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at my irresponsible kid.”

When her son returned right on time, she “felt a keen pang of disappointment.”

“After he came in the door — having made it in time, mind you — rather than thanking him, or congratulating him, or acknowledging him, I welcomed him with a curt, ‘You sure cut it close, didn’t you?’ ”

Though he had done his part in this instance, she rewarded him with immediate hostility which invited a response in kind.

In this instance it looks like it’s primarily about personal relationships between specific individuals, but it is at least as much about roles. This aspect is prominently featured in Edwin Friedman’s discussion of what he calls “emotional triangles” in his book A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman says that “there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship,” as we bring in context from our other relationships, often without noticing. For Friedman, all relationships involve at minimum three people; hence “triangles”.

The way I would put it is that a two way relationship involves playing many different games, all of which are made possible by institutional, cultural, and personal context. In these games, as Friedman observes, “it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding our functioning in any family or work system.” This is the emphasis on role; in his examples, roles within a family or business. But for our purposes, it can be extended to roles in an argument—I’m the Black Lives Matter person and you’re the Blue Lives Matter person; I’m the conservative and you’re the socialist.

Once we take our roles, the various games we play in them “interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner,” as Friedman puts it. So much so that the dynamics are perpetuated even as there is a complete turnover in the individual players.

Seeing these engagements as games should help clarify why that might be. Novices in chess who play one another often play very predictably. A veteran could guess what they’re going to do a few moves ahead. The structure of the game invites certain approaches; you can only learn the pitfalls of those approaches with time and experience.

In the realm of arguments, studying the classics can help us see how it has played out in the past, and prepare us somewhat. This can only get you so far, however—like boxing, while the training is important, nothing can replace experience in the ring. And like boxing, mere experience can also lead to bad habits and plateaus in growth.

There’s no escaping stepping into the arena, one way or another. But be wary about falling into the same patterns over and over. If you find yourself rooting against a peaceful resolution, it is probably time to change the game.

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