Rationality is overrated, specially amongst scientists and geeks. There’s method to the madness, however. Irrational means can be used rationally. Here’s how.

Prevent Gaming the System

One of the points of SoftSecurity is that it relies on soft factors such as your actions being observable via RecentChanges, and undoable via edit buttons available to all. There’s no exact rules governing PeerReview: Nobody decides who is going to check what, nor how often, nor how mistakes will be fixed.

Similarly, communication mediated electronically has had its own specific set of problems from RadicalInclusiveness inviting trolls to the lack of BodyLanguage inviting inappropriate reactions. As Sunir said: “Remember, you do not have the ability to punch them in the face, or more to the point, the ability to shove them out the door and call the cops.” [1] Clearly, the fear of punching is not the only force controlling our behaviour in the real world, but all the body language that goes with it. Looking, staring, hissing, posture, walking away or approaching, and so on.

Without all of this, how do you control people online? People who believe in rules often suggest writing down the rules and imposing sanctions. The problem is that this turns of people who don’t believe in rules, and it invites gaming. Is “fsck” equivalent to “fuck”? Is “gay” an insult? Are generalisations – and specially generalisations involving race – signs of racism? Adding more rules will neither stop the provokations nor change anybodies mind.

Often the idea of writing down the rules is vaguely inspired by the law, eventhough the law itself is quite the opposite of clear and specific: The rules are vague and provide for a lot of leeway. This allows the judge to make individual judgements, taking into account all the circumstances.

Some will argue that what we therefore need in computer mediated communication is not more rules, but process: Judges, appeal, and so on. But not so fast! After all, we rarely go to court. Judges are not necessary in classrooms, restaurants, meeting halls or malls.

One way to solve this conundrum is to rely on the irrational in the sense of PoeticReasoning: Instead of documenting your decisions and arguing your points, just feel the anger, and act upon it. Kick people who you find annoying from your channel, without bothering much with explanations. A simple “wash your mouth” or “have some respect” would be enough. Having no written rules makes it hard to game such a system.

Understanding Empathy

After a divorce, the ex-wife said: “I never knew what he felt. Whenever I wanted to discuss something, he seemed so cool, so glib. I never knew whether he was angry or sad, hurt or happy. I tried to push him, I cried, I threw things at him, but all I ever got was ‘I’ll not lower myself to this kind of discussion. Let us wait for you to calm down and then we can talk about it again.’ And even now, years after the divorce, I still don’t know what he felt about the entire thing.”

Clearly, the ex-husband trying to stick to a rational discussion was doing the wrong thing. He didn’t understand the need for an irrational response.

Maybe you feel like you’re involved in a discussion, and don’t understand why you’re taking all that flak. Diatribes, taunts, insults – you just don’t get it. Why did you deserve this? At such a point in a discussion, it might make sense to abandon rational thought. Forget about arguing your point. Forget about being right. Tell the bugger to get a life, shut up, piss off, be gone. Sometimes, hurtful things need to be said to make a point, end a discussion, clear the atmosphere.

I’m not saying that everything will be fine after such an erruption. But at least the illusion of a rational discussion will be undone, and the irrational roots of the miscommunication will be revealed. Now everybody knows what he is up against, and can react appropriately. Now one can leave, or shut up, or ask for help from somebody else.

Understanding Understanding

Ever noticed that sometimes politicians seem hardly coherent and yet they still get elected? Ever reached a dead point in a discussion because your partner listenend to and agreed with all your arguments, and yet refused to accept the conclusion? Ever tried to console a friend using cheesy one-liners such as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “everything is there for a reason”?

Conviction, belief, courage, gratefulness, understanding – they can be explained by rational argument, but they cannot be caused by rational argument. If you’re affraid of the darkness in your celler seeping in behind you and taking the shape of psycho or a vampire or a spirit of the elder days – you can try to calm your fears by talking to yourself. “It is nothing. Just my imagination. Ignore it. There’s the light. Switch it on. Just take the steps and unlock the door…” On and on you mumble to yourself.

Are you convincing yourself? I don’t think so. All you’re doing is talking and trying to distract yourself away from your fears. Distration works! Rational thought does not.

If you want to work for an irrational response, you’ll have to use irrational means. You can’t make people happy using strong arguments. Happiness requires foolishness and laughter, irony and secret understandings, shared values and sunny weather. “Love is a many splintered thing.” So are most other things that we hold dear.

See Also




I often has this kind of problem with people who “try out” how far they can go. If I forget to shout or swear, or at least pout, they just don’t understand a simple “stop it”, or maybe think that I’m joking. In the end they feel somehow cheated, even when they knew the rules.


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