Online harassment and the erosion fallacy


I used to spend a lot of time arguing with people online (see here for an artist’s rendition). Contrary to the conventional wisdom of “don’t feed the trolls”, I think there’s value in calling out bigotry and related jackassery, mostly for the benefit of people on the sidelines. Allowing bad attitudes to be aired unopposed normalizes them and might tempt people who haven’t encountered them before to assume that they must have some kind of merit or truth to them.

That said, I got thoroughly burned out on doing this several years ago and now largely stay out of comments sections and forums completely. Recently I got into a discussion on a thread that seemed safe (it was about an upcoming game I was looking forward to) that somehow morphed into yet another gigantic clusterfuck about online harassment in gaming (you could say it “entered the gamergate”). During the course of this I saw several terrible attitudes to the issue that tend to crop up repeatedly and formulated some thoughts on them, intending to post them to the thread.

Then I thought “hey I have a blog where I get to filter the comments, why not just post it there”?

The blame for online harassment is clearly on the perpetrators, but the people who disturb me the most are the apologists who flood any discussion on the issue to loudly insist that this isn’t a big deal, they’re making a fuss over nothing, why are we even talking about this? They create an environment where harassment and abuse isn’t just excused but actually normalized as something inherent to gaming culture and the internet as a whole. Possibly the number one move in the apologist’s playbook after just straight-up insisting that the victims are lying is something I’ve started calling the “erosion fallacy”.

Imagine a person who, upon hearing about the idea of erosion for the first time, insists that there’s no way a single drop of water could ever destroy a mountain. Similarly, users of the erosion fallacy will respond to harassment by focusing on the content of any one harassing comment/tweet/email rather than the volume of them aimed at victims of sustained harassment campaigns.

Sometimes the argument is employed by a person who has engaged in such harassment (“it’s just one tweet, grow a thicker skin!”), but more often it’s an apologist who wheels it out. In both cases the person is ignoring the fact that any tweet or comment or whatever might be one of dozens or even hundreds that the victim has received that week, just like the dozens or hundreds they received the week before that, and the week before that, and the week before that (remember, some of these people have been targeted for years).

A variation of the fallacy focuses on the apologist rather than the victim- “well I’ve been harassed before and it doesn’t bother me” they’ll say (or sometimes “everyone gets harassed online”, which by the way is not actually true), ignoring the fact that any harassment or abuse they’ve received is likely a fraction of a fraction of what the victims of a concentrated campaign receive.

If you point all of this out to them, the next move in the erosion playbook is to insist that if they were on the receiving end of that kind of harassment they’d totally be okay with it. In terms of our metaphor this is like someone accepting that erosion occurs to other mountains, but insisting that their particular favorite mountain is made out of an indestructible material and could never be effected by anything as trivial as a bit of water.

Obviously, the only way anyone can make such an argument is out of extreme ignorance. Most people will buckle under a sustained amount of psychological abuse, no matter how “thick-skinned” they are. In this case the most visible targets’ incredible resilience is being used against them, as their exceptional status is taken to be the norm. A lot of victims of online harassment simply withdraw from the internet, quietly deleting twitter, facebook and tumblr accounts and going off the grid. In some cases victims have quit jobs or even left entire industries without making any public announcement or fanfare. This is the actual effect of sustained harassment: a mountain vanishing in the geological blink of an eye.

In most cases these arguments are not being made in good faith. The person employing them either is a harasser themselves, believes that the victims deserve their harassment but doesn’t want to say that straight out, or just wants to shut the discussion down because they don’t want to hear about problems like this. I would wager most of these people probably understand the severity of what’s happening perfectly well and are being disingenuous when they try to downplay it.

Needless to say, we should not accept the erosion fallacy on any level. Online abuse isn’t normal or inevitable, it exerts a real and often devastating toll on those it’s aimed at and the appropriate response from victims isn’t to just shrug it off or “grow a thicker skin”. It takes a lot less to wear down a person than a mountain.


6 thoughts on “Online harassment and the erosion fallacy

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Freebies: things mostly about GamerGate | Go Make Me a Sandwich

  2. Ian

    The third bad faith argument you pointed out – of someone just wanting to shut down a discussion – I would not consider to be one that’s made in bad faith the majority of times; someone may not want to hear about something because they find it painful to consider, or because it simply challenges their notions that the world is a just place or whatever. The first would seem to indicate that they’d oppose the harassment if they ever accepted it to be true, while the second is them just throwing out new information that runs counter to their beliefs, which good people do all the time.

    I would only label this action as being in bad faith if someone was purposely sweeping the topic under the rug to keep anyone else from realizing the truth, and while I’m sure this does happen I don’t think it happens in the majority of cases. Not wanting to accept a hard truth isn’t generally a malicious act.

    1. Number27

      Frankly, the difference you’re talking about here is pretty functionally irrelevant. Someone who derails or shuts down a conversation about online harassment because they personally can’t handle it does exactly the same amount of harm as someone who does it with the intent to cause that harm.

      1. Ian

        I agree that the actions will probably have the same end (negative) effect. However, labeling all actions of a certain type as having been made in bad faith comes across as intellectually dishonest; it’s subtle hyperbole meant – intentionally or not – to be accepted by supporters much in the same way a political candidate knows his half-truths will not be challenged by his base.

        I agree wholeheartedly with pretty much all of the points made by RW’s article, and one of the reasons I come back to this blog is because his point of view on these issues generally makes the most sense (and so is the right position for society as a whole to take imo). Despite that, it’s mentally unhealthy to let inaccurate comments pass by just because the person making them is on my side of a social issue. The entire reason why I’m on this side of the issue is because it’s the most rational and truthful one.

        Of course this raises whether the consequentialist strategy of pushing for social change via whatever means necessary is the right one; it may be when in public, but never behind closed doors amongst people who already accept your point of view. Discussions between supporters need to be kept as truthful as possible to avoid groupthink, which usually ends up hurting your cause.

        TLDR: If you’re pointing out irrational thought processes when your opponents employ them, you obviously believe they should be avoided. And if nothing big is at stake, why not avoid them yourself?


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