Context-centric cultures & call-out cultures

John Ohno on 2018-08-18

The ‘right to be forgotten’ addresses a real problem, but does so by making that problem worse. The problem: people are willing to use information taken out of context as a weapon against other people.

This is not a technical problem. It is not a human nature problem. It is a cultural problem: we have allowed misrepresentation (whether deliberate or the result of insufficient effort) to become acceptable.

Misrepresentation should not be a major problem in a world like ours, where more context is more easily accessible than ever before. Technical or UI changes could be made to increase the accessibility of the context, and perhaps that’s worth doing, but increased access to context is not going to disincentivize creating and accepting misrepresentations. Misrepresentations are not treated as pieces of useful information to be further integrated, but as weapons. (This is called “call-out culture”. It’s not a new problem, and it doesn’t vary in intensity across the political spectrum.)

The ‘right to be forgotten’ tries to make out-of-context information useless as a weapon by removing even more context (in a scattershot way, driven by the whims of a corporate approval committee). This addresses one particular aspect of misrepresentation’s new increase in popularity — the ability to sift through more data in order to find possible criticisms — but ultimately fails to recognize that the full context is typically easily found & the success of misrepresentation is mostly due to factors that also apply to outright lies. Most misrepresentation is a mixture of out of context truths and complete fabrications — so that someone can point to the out of context truths as a defense of the lies. Too much information is not the problem. The problem is that lack of scrutiny is encouraged when particular types of topics are involved.

An armed society is not necessarily a polite society; however, those armed societies that do not become polite societies descend quickly into violence. Our society is armed more and more with information that, when taken out of context, becomes a weapon; as a result, in the same way communities with guns have cultural norms about trigger discipline, we have a responsibility to maintain cultural norms about context discipline.

To that end, we ought to look at the differences between a context-centric culture (where access to additional context deescalates conflict) and a call-out culture (where access to additional context causes the conflict to escalate).

A context-centric culture has good-faith norms. People who say incorrect things are assumed to be misguided, misinformed, or mistaken, but willing to learn and be corrected. Likewise, people are expected to take criticism in the spirit it is given and consider it carefully. People are expected to always assume that statements are intended as less accusatory or aggressive than they sound. And, people who are unwilling to correct their mistakes or continue to violate boundaries or act too aggressively are excluded from the community or shamed into compliance.

A call-out culture, on the other hand, is characterized by competition for social standing. This competition is waged through accusations, and status is based on the ability to criticize in an entertaining way (regardless of whether or not those criticisms are constructive or even true). People are expected to trust all statements made by the in-group and distrust all statements made by the out-group.

A context-centric culture has a courtesy system based on clearly and accurately indicating the confidence level of statements. Qualifiers are used heavily. Those qualifiers are interpreted as indications of confidence level, and so people who make heavily-qualified statements are not criticized so strongly when those statements are incorrect. However, people are expected to learn from criticism of even heavily-qualified statements: repeating the same heavily-qualified statement after it has been demonstrated to be incorrect is seen as dishonest.

A call-out culture has a courtesy system based on feeding existing power relations. Qualifiers are eschewed. Use of qualifiers is seen as an indication of total lack of confidence, and an absence of confidence is tantamount to weakness. Direct wording is more important than clarity or correctness. Having ever used qualifiers is seen as an indicator of dishonesty, and having ever been incorrect is seen as a sign of weakness and low status. Growth is no excuse.

A context-centric culture takes dangerous ideas very seriously, and carefully refutes them both on their own grounds and in terms of damage to society at large. Dangerous ideas are studied and their strongest points are countered first. Affiliations are discussed, instead of merely hinted at. People who want to damage the community or put it in danger are shamed or excluded entirely, if they cannot be reasoned with.

A call-out culture treats dangerous ideas as part of a calculus of social status, and associates people with them in a haphazard way. How affiliations affect status can change unexpectedly, so they are never made clear. People who want to damage or endanger the community are put in positions of power, if they are sufficiently cut-throat.

A context-centric culture recognizes that other people (including members of the out-group) are in circumstances not fully understood by the speaker. Part of courtesy is getting enough information to determine whether or not saying anything at all is useful. Another part of courtesy is giving people an out — allowing them to exit a discussion without losing status, if they are uncomfortable with it, tired, busy, or simply not in the mood.

A call-out culture considers only the situation of the speaker to be important. All call-outs are moves in a social status game, and their utility is calculated on a personal level — minimax — but never in terms of the good of the society. If the target of a message doesn’t respond to accusations louder than the accuser, the accuser wins.

In a context-centric culture, the people with the highest status are kind, careful, quiet, and thoughtful.

In a call-out culture, the people with the highest status are aggressive, reckless, loud, and stupid.

A context-centric culture has multiple spaces, each with its own rules. Visitors are expected to obey the rules of these spaces and to be mindful of the boundaries between them.

A call-out culture has multiple spaces, each with their own rules, but it is treated as though it were flat. Visitors are expected to criticize residents for not following the rules of the visitors’ own favorite spaces, and to treat the residents of other spaces as easy targets for accusations.

In a context-centric culture, discussion deescalates conflict because people try to understand each other.

In a call-out culture, discussion is conflict because people try to defeat each other.

How do we get from a call-out culture to a context-centric culture? It requires a collective willingness to no longer put up with misrepresentation & drama hounds, and a collective discipline about fact-checking and good-faith assumptions. We will need to begin expecting people to read the entire article before posting a comment, and to read the entire existing comment thread before adding their own. We will need to begin criticizing people for low-effort comments in a way that encourages them to intellectually engage, and we will need to make a practice of deescalation. We will need to stop boosting sick burns and start boosting great discussion. And, we will need to start acting with the recognition that we don’t know the whole story.