I don’t know why this 2008 bodybuilding forum thread suddenly started circulating on Twitter the other day, but I’m so happy it did when I needed a laugh (though, warning: offensive insults throughout).
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) January 4, 2015
But after I wiped away the tears of laughter and the tears of recognition that humanity is doomed, I realized it was a perfect example of how not to communicate. You can be as right as rain — as right as, say, someone declaring there are 7 days in a week — and you can still basically lose the battle if you can’t get your message across in a way your listener can absorb.
Josh never did seem to get that working out every other day means working out 3-4 times a week, aka an average of 3.5 times a week — not 4-5 times a week, aka no good lord that’s so wrong.
We see this all the time. We do this all the time. Everything is polarized, from politics to our TV preferences. We often feel we have to state everything in extremes to cut through the information overload. Todd VanDerWerff, formerly of The AVClub, has noted that bad reviews get more hits than glowing reviews, but nuanced reviews in the middle get far less than either. What’s wrong with you if you don’t LOVE THE WIRE MORE THAN ANYTHING IN EXISTENCE? (Really – I’m asking.)
Our social media feeds are generally comfortable bubbles where people more or less agree with us. So when we encounter a contrary opinion or counter-factual argument it feels like everyone – and therefore The Truth – is on our side.
The result is we can be that extreme and don’t need to craft our arguments, because we’re not really trying to communicate anyway. We’re just trying to shout down dissent and demonstrate the secret handshake that allows entrance into the club of People Like Me.
Years ago at the Banff TV Festival I heard David Shore of House, Family Law, Due South, etc. talk about an exercise he used to make his writers do: to write a scene from the antagonist’s point of view, ensuring the opposing argument was well fleshed out. Not to use in the final script, but to ensure they weren’t writing straw men.
Sometimes you’re debating with someone who thinks there are 8 days in a week because the first day doesn’t count (I think that was Josh’s argument, anyway – it was a little hard to follow such wrongheaded wrongness). Sometimes you’re talking to someone who just wants to whip up the smug frenzy on a bodybuilding forum. Sometimes, though, as Shore pointed out, you’re talking to someone who has the same facts you do and has come to the opposite conclusion. Sometimes The Truth doesn’t pick a side.
Don’t worry, I’m not coming to the conclusion that the number of days in a week is up for debate. But it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that insulting someone isn’t the recipe for him to have – or admit to — the epiphany that his brain muscle wasn’t working so well when he wrote his original post about workout frequency. “Oh yeah, sorry, I get it now.” Not gonna happen after he’s been ridiculed.
And so often (hi Richard Dawkins) being a jerk is a recipe for even those who agree with you to wish they didn’t. I mean, I firmly believe a week has 7 days but when the R word was slung around freely I almost wished I could make the 8 day theory work.
These are known features of our weird brains: we select facts that support our opinion and reject those that don’t, and our opinions get even more entrenched the louder our opponents shout them down.
It takes a special kind of person who doubles down on his wrongness and posts a picture of a calendar to (dis)prove his wrongness. I like to think most people in Josh’s position would have at least at some point thought “oh yeah, duh” to themselves, created a new profile and slunk away. But the way most people responded to him gave him no face-saving out, no benefit of the doubt … which it turns out would have been an unearned benefit but still, starting from that place allows for more civility and more understanding.
Instead, the debate started at Defcon 2. A simple “every second day is fine, and that means you’d be working out 3-4 times a week, not 4-5” would have sufficed to both answer the question and point out the So Not The Truth. In my happy fairytale land, Josh would have said “Thanks!” and Twitter would have had one less hilarity to pass around 6 years later.
It reminds me of another Banff TV Festival moment: when the Alberta Culture Minister denigrated Canadian television, and the Canadian television industry responded in a way that only those who already agreed with them would listen to. I wrote about it at the time, in Echo chambers and missed opportunities.
How often do we (aka People Like Me) rail against the stupidity of anti-vaccination proponents, climate change deniers or Rob Ford supporters? As long as we’re not talking to them, only preaching to the choir, it’s all fun and games and choral music. But what if we actually want to be heard?