tumblr diving

Over on tumblr, people are arguing as ever about “why do groups tolerate violators? why do accusations get dismissed?” and someone responded at length:

[deep breath]

If there’s one single solitary thing that humans are good at doing –

– if there’s one thing for which our brains have evolved to prepare us, since the days when we wereHomo erectus

– that thing is “managing conflicts and tensions within small tightly-knit social groups.”

Like, seriously, people have really amazingly good instincts for handling social drama.  If you look at the right kinds of traditionally-structured communities, you can see it in action, it’s like fucking magic.  And even in “normal society,” amongst close groups of friends and suchlike, similar principles hold sway.

(Some restrictions apply.  There are individuals who are not neurotypical and who have abnormally-formed social-management modules in their minds.  Also, communities start to work very differently when, e.g., it’s easy for people to leave…or when it’s plausible to call in social artillery support from outside the sphere of a Dunbar’s-number-sized society…which means that most of the social drama we actually see these days involves people flailing around with misguided instincts.  Etc. etc.  Even so.)

The mechanisms by which this drama-management gets handled tend to involve lots of quiet talks, lots of shuffling people away from places/situations where they’re likely to cause problems, lots of soft pressure to keep things from spiraling out of control.  These mechanisms are often not fair.  They’re certainly not principle-driven.  They on focus avoiding and containing conflict by the most expedient means possible, and that’s it, damn all other considerations.

In some ways, this is pretty OK, at least in the abstract.  “We’re going to make sure that the issues between Alice and Bob don’t expand to swamp the lives of Carol and Dwayne and Eve; we’re going to help keep things behind closed doors so that the damage to others gets minimized.”

In some ways it’s just awful.  “Alice is a powerful and aggressive person who can make life miserable for lots of people if she’s upset, and Bob is basically a nonentity with no power to cause trouble, so we’re going to appease Alice regardless of the merits of the situation.”


By the social logic of the tribe, the conflict-minimization logic, the “correct” solution to an abusive situation probably won’t be even remotely acceptable by modern moral standards.  (Classical liberal standards, social justice standards, whatever.)  In the worst cases, the logic devolves to “the victim’s just got to suck it up and deal, the abuse is all happening in private and from a community perspective it therefore doesn’t exist, but any attempt to interfere with it would be messy and conflict-heavy.”  Sometimes you can do better than that.  Sometimes you can quietly get the victim out from under the abuser, and quietly create distance and barriers, and quietly let the whole thing fall into the memory hole.  But however you slice it, it’s going to involve minimizing the conflict, because that’s the whole point.  Labeling someone a Bad Wrong Norm-Violator, and casting him out / making him undergo severe punishment, is a huge and costly step from a community-health perspective – it creates divisions and ill-will, it sucks up lots of attention and energy, etc. – and so that kind of thing gets reserved for people who are genuinely posing a danger to the health of the whole tribe.  Which abusers, generally, are not.  As the common wisdom has it, they are dangerous only to their victims, and often pretty damn charming and helpful to everyone else.

The tribal logic isn’t dispositive these days.  A abuser’s victim, once he starts standing up for himself as such, isn’t going to accede to whatever conflict-minimizing thing the tribe would want to do; he’s going to yell and scream about how he’s been mistreated and about the restitution / retribution demanded by justice.  Often he’ll get his way, because pretty much everyone buys into those modern moral standards, including a number of Big Powerful Social Institutions that he can call for support.  But whether he wins or loses, along the way there will be a big huge honking fight, with divisions and ill-will and lots of lost attention and energy, just the thing that the tribal logic was trying to avoid.

And people will notice, and resent that.  They’ll resent it even if they don’t fully understand why.  They’ll have a sense that everyone is angry and everything hurts, and that the fabric of the community is being damaged, and that it wasn’t supposed to be that way.  Instinctively, they’ll expect the abuse to have been quietly managed and swept under the rug, and when things are messier than that they’re going to get mad at the person who seems to be making it messier.  That person, of course, is the victim.

Which gets at something, but I think is pretty wrong. Tightly-knit social networks are in fact very good at managing conflict. But most of us do not interact in tight networks, these discussions are about loose-knit social networks. People are talking about networks where most people know each other, but aren’t sure what others think of them, and they come to the group to have fun or accomplish some goal, but not as their meaning in life or because these are the people they have fully committed to. And loose-knit social networks are very different.

Specifically, the worst thing you can do in a LKSN is rock the boat. People’s problems are hard, and confusing, and fed by a dozen different factors, and can require a lot of hand-holding and dissecting and reassurances to untangle, let alone solve. This is what is known as the “social antagonism” – it’s real and it’s irreducible. And well, you don’t come to your club or your tumblr circle for that shit. As the famous line about prostitutes goes “I don’t pay them for sex, I pay them to leave afterwards,” it can also be applied to most of our social groups.

So there are the two easiest ways a LKSN can deal with a complaint of truly troubling nature. In descending order.

  1. Pretend it didn’t happen.
  2. Pretend it’s all the fault of one person, and purge them.

Once you’ve done either of those, you can go back believing there is harmony in your LKSN and not worry about the messy problems someone raised. They were “Dealt With Decisively” after all.

Now, one political ideology got truly sick of #1 and has made that response unacceptable within many groups. I applaud them for that. Unfortunately many groups have then defaulted to response #2, which costs a little more (the person rarely goes quietly), but still is much easier than saying “What really happened here? What should the people involved do differently? What sort of commitment are they making to change? What can we all learn from this?” I have all the respect in the world for the people who want are willing to do the bloody work of that, but they are as rare as… something very rare and valuable.

Instead, groups and leaders are increasingly choosing #2 (though this path is as old as the word “scapegoat”.) This is not just pop-theorizing, but you can get evidence for this by asking anyone involved in these decisions as these crises explode. Their overwhelming sentiment is “I do not want to be dealing with this.” They’ll say they’re busy, that it’s unpleasant, that no one signed up for this. Which is all true, but inevitably leads to the easiest and simplest solutions no matter how hard the problem is.

And as the old saw goes “every question has a simple answer. It’s just usually wrong.”



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