Friday, April 10, 2015

WTF is Sealioning

The term Sealioning, or Sea-Lioning, originates with the Wondermark web comic in issue #1,062, The Terrible Sea Lion. In the comic a Victorian couple are riding in a steam powered car when one of them remarks, "I don't mind most marine mammals. But Sea Lions? I could do without sea lions." This comment then brings on the terrible sea lion who barrages the couple with overly polite questions demanding proof to substantiate the stated opinion. These questions seemingly occur throughout the day without regard for the couple's privacy or unwillingness to further discuss the matter. The term would soon find itself being used more commonly in the wider internet community as a shorthand for dealing with people who are intentionally trying to subvert an individual's statements by asking polite, yet persistent questions. 

Where the original term appears to have been designed to denote individuals who are expressly arguing in bad faith and using their questioning as a way to deflate and defeat their target it has since become a way to undermine anyone who questions an unsubstantiated statement that's been expressed publicly (for example, "John Q. is a bigot"). The logic behind this change is difficult to fully express but a lot of the reasoning was described by James Murff in his article, Why Sealioning is Bad.
". . . The biggest reason why people hate sealioning is because responding to it is a complete waste of time . . .  [T]hese questions are not asked because the person genuinely wants to know. If they did, they would do their own digging based on your statements, and only ask for obscure or difficult-to-discover information. This is the 'debate principle'; when you go to a debate, you educate yourself on the topics at hand, and only request evidence when a claim is either quite outlandish or unflinchingly obscure . . ." (Why Sealioning is Bad)
The problem is that this line of reasoning presupposes that the person asking the questions is doing so in bad faith while the person making the statements is not. That isn't always the case. Let's look at our earlier example, "John Q. is a bigot." If John is actually a bigot then there should be some proof. Asking for it is a reasonable act as the accusation is unsubstantiated at this point. Now the author making the argument can claim that the person asking the questions is 'sealioning' as they haven't done their research. After all, it isn't the author's responsibility to educate you when you go entering into a debate. 
Only you're not entering into a debate but rather you're actively asking a for proof of an unsubstantiated statement. It's a tricky situation and as sealioning actually happens and part of it is expressly designed to bury an individual under a sea of questions to drain their energy and prevent them from defending their statements. Yet as it continues to become a more main stream term it's being used more often by bad actors attempting to stifle debate around their unsubstantiated statements.

Telling the difference between actual sealioning and not is difficult for observers but not impossible.
". . . When the target is continually asked questions - especially the same question under a different phrasing, which is very common when sealioning - it's rattling. They have to fight the natural instinct to respond in good faith to neutrally-phrased questions, as answering them will only bring more. It's a forced violation of the empathy that a compassionate person feels towards others, as it pushes them into noticing that their questioners are not particularly interested in the questions themselves . . . Compound this with being sealioned but multiple people, as is common on Twitter, and you've got a recipe for a very frustrating and fruitless timeline. If you respond, you are bombarded with even more questions by people who aren't asking to actually be convinced. If you do not respond, you are insulted as somebody who doesn't wish to participate in reasoned discourse, despite the clear and simple fact that such a discourse is not reasonable; it merely has the appearance of rationality . . ." (Why Sealioning is Bad)
Under these conditions it's relatively easy to notice when someone is sealioning; however, even here there is a possibility that what's happening isn't sealioning. It could be that you have made an unsubstantiated statement without actual proof and only substantiated by rumors, hearsay, and innuendo. Under those circumstances you have become the bad actor and the people asking you questions are acting reasonably. 

While the term was created with good intentions, as a way to deal directly with people who are attempting to undercut and devalue your statements, in recent weeks it has become the favorite tool of bad actors attempting to stifle debate and force their unsubstantiated comments to be taken as fact.

Works Cited

Maliki, David. The Terrible Sea Lion. 2014. Wondermark. Web. 4/10/2015

Murff, James. Why Sealioning is Bad. 2014. Simplikation. Web. 4/10/2015


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