I decided to post this here instead of in the Fat Head group on Facebook. The subject of the post is in response to conversations in the group, but I think it’s relevant to the blog as well.
One of the many doctors whose lectures I’ve enjoyed (it may have been Dr. Eric Westman) told a story about his first day in medical school: a professor told the students, “Over the next twenty years or so, we’ll learn that half of what we’re teaching you today is wrong. Trouble is, we don’t know which half.”
Yup. Twenty years ago, I still thought saturated fats clog our arteries and Grape-Nuts with skim milk was a healthy breakfast. Heck, back in the 1980s, I was writing for a small magazine and telling people to avoid saturated fats and eat their grains. Bad advice straight from the USDA, repeated under my byline. Shudder.
I know better now because people disputed what I thought I knew. They asked questions. They posed challenges. They provided evidence that what I believed was wrong. Thank goodness I didn’t just close my ears and cling to my beliefs. If I’d insisted on maintaining my beliefs because changing them would remove me from my comfort zone, I wouldn’t be as healthy or happy today.
I’m pointing that out because of two equal-but-opposite forces that seem to pop up regularly in the Facebook group — and probably pop up in all kinds of online discussion venues:
1. Trolls who deserve to be banned.
2. A tendency by some to label anyone who debates a point as a troll who deserves to be banned.
I’ve said it in comments on the blog, I’ve said it in the Facebook group, and I’ll say it again now: debate and discussion are good. Disagreements and challenges and counter-challenges aren’t always pretty, but they enable the Wisdom of Crowds effect to work its magic.
We’ve had a few people in the group announce that they’re leaving because they don’t like seeing comments or links to articles that dispute the benefits of low-carb or ketogenic diets. They want a supportive atmosphere, dangit, not never-ending debates.
Well, sorry. I’m not a fan of the “safe space” mentality. That’s the kind of nonsense that’s ruining American universities – our supposed centers of learning. The teachers and administrators who create “safe spaces” for students are doing them a huge disservice. They’re discouraging critical thinking. They’re encouraging group-think.
That doesn’t prepare students for the real world. In the real world, people are going to disagree with you. They’re going to challenge you. If you’re convinced your beliefs are legitimate, you’d best be prepared to defend them … and a namby-pamby “supportive” environment doesn’t prepare you for anything except being an intellectual lightweight.
Facebook groups and blogs aren’t universities, but if you visit them because you want to learn, then you’ll be doing yourself a favor by adopting the attitude that should exist in universities – i.e., the attitude expressed by that medical-school professor: much of what you think you know today will turn out to be wrong. If it’s wrong, you’re better off finding out that it’s wrong – and the sooner, the better. People who pose challenges to your beliefs are doing you a favor, because they might just lead you to discover something you believe is wrong.
But what about when people challenge our beliefs and we’re not wrong? Well, in that case, there are two likely outcomes, and they’re both good: 1) you develop a strong argument to support your belief, and 2) that strong argument supporting your belief is convincing to someone who wasn’t previously convinced.
Someone expressed concern about a hypothetical newbie who isn’t well informed and might be swayed by an article warning about the dangers of eating meat. Surely we must act to protect that newbie by banning such articles from the group.
Uh, no. As I replied to that comment, would you rather the newbie be exposed to a “meat kills!” article in the Fat Head group, or by receiving it in an email from a well-meaning relative or co-worker? I’d rather the newbie see it in the Fat Head group … because we have hundreds of intelligent, well-informed members who can (and will) explain why the article is nonsense – complete with links to evidence that it’s nonsense.
So as I wrote in the group, let’s avoid the temptation to simply dismiss or (worse) heap scorn on anyone who asks challenging questions or dares to debate a point. If you’re sure they’re wrong, explain why they’re wrong. Prove them wrong. We’re not going to ban people for engaging in debates. As one member aptly put it, this isn’t about defending the tribe.
Now … having said all that, I don’t have any problem with banning genuine trolls, so let me define genuine troll. A genuine troll is someone who obviously joined the group (or who shows up in comments here) for the sole purpose of trashing low-carb diets. Often they post and post and post and post and post, apparently believing whoever argues the most automatically wins.
I don’t feel any obligation to indulge or tolerate those people, because frankly, they’re just jackasses who can’t stand it when other people don’t agree with their beliefs. They remind me of two quotes from Eric Hoffer’s terrific book The True Believer:
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than a deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.
If you’re happy with yourself and confident in your own beliefs, you don’t feel driven to go find everyone who doesn’t agree with you and convert or belittle them.
I’m a fallen-away Catholic, but I would never join a Catholic discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing the church. I think many vegans have kooky beliefs about meat, but I would never join a vegan discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing vegans. I’m a libertarian, but I would never join a Democrats For A Bigger And More Activist Government discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing Democrats.
Why not? Because that’s jackass behavior. People who engage in that kind of nonsense aren’t interested in an actual discussion, because they don’t believe they have anything to learn from the group’s members … but by gosh, they believe they have plenty to teach the group’s members. So they feel compelled to join groups where the inferior or misguided minds have gathered and try to enlighten them – for their own good, of course.
As I mentioned in a post on Facebook, I don’t have time to read most of what’s posted in the group. I could spend entire days just trying to catch up. So I’m not always aware of when a genuine troll is polluting the group.
I do remember one, however. In response to charges that he was trolling, the guy replied something like, Gosh no, I’m just curious and here to learn! I ask all these challenging questions and post all these articles about the dangers of low-carb diets so people can tell me why those articles are wrong. It’s all part of my learning process.
So I went searching for him online. Turned out he runs some group promoting a low-fat diet, and he makes plenty of comments in that group about how low-carb diets will kill you and low-carb dieters are crazy. Okay, now that’s a genuine troll. I banned him.
(Next two paragraphs added Tuesday based on comments and emails from readers.) Unfortunately, some people who don’t fit my definition of genuine troll also need to be given the boot because they’re incapable of engaging in debates and discussions without hurling insults and perhaps even threats. It’s not about creating a “safe space” where ideas aren’t challenged; it’s about maintaining a tone that invites participation. If I visited, say, a Facebook group on raising chickens out of curiosity, and the first thing I saw was members hurling insults and threats and four-letter words at each other, I’d leave.
I’ve only banned a few people personally, but one of them got the boot because when Chareva asked him politely to stop calling people c%@ts and f#$@tards in our group, he came back at her with a nasty and aggressive reply. (He likes to tell people he was banned for arguing in favor of eating potatoes, because that story makes him the Free-Thinkin’ Hero instead of the jackass who insisted on maintaining his “right” to yell F@#$TARDS! at other people in a group he doesn’t own.)
If you’re aware of genuine trolls in the Facebook group, let us know. If you’re aware of people who can’t discuss or debate an issue without engaging in personal attacks, let us know. We’ll deal with them. But let’s not label anyone who expresses a doubt or a disagreement as a troll. We don’t learn with our eyes, ears, or minds closed. And we all still have plenty to learn.