Frances Bell

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Between Athenians and Visigoths: what lies between polar positions in public discourse online


“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (variously attributed – Google it)


Travels of badger - Ancient Agora of Athens with the Temple of Hephaestus


The Visigoth versus the Roman


In his graduation speech, Neil Postman characterised two groups from history, the Athenians and the Visigoths, each of which has since disappeared but has left their mark on subsequent cultures. For Postman, they were ideas, around which we could express values: Athenians exalted knowledge and the quest for it; while Visigoths placed themselves at the centre of the universe with no sense of community. We can see that the Athenians are the ‘goodies’ and the Visigoths are the ‘baddies’.

We could observe that Athenians and Visigoths are evident in our face to face and online worlds, as Postman suggested, but this dichotomy obscures a more complex reality.  On a forum in the late 1990s, I shared the thought that the world could be divided into two types of people, those who thought that the world could be divided into two types of people and those who didn’t. I have since discovered that this isn’t an original observation but that’s no obstacle to applying the concept

When the Athenians/ Visigoths goodies/baddies is used as a dualism to categorise people, we can lose the opportunity to explore ideas and behaviours that might be changed (in ourselves and in others).  If we were trying to understand Gamergate, then we could characterise Anita Sarkeesian as an Athenian exploring the tropes of women within games, and the anonymous people issuing death threats as Visigoths. Already, this could be a problem because people who had some (possibly valid) critique of Sarkeesian’s work might be polarised by my valorisation of her as an Athenian. Those who persist in seeing Gamergate as about ethical practice in gaming journalism would feel misrepresented. What interests me is what lies between the two extremes: We could use Athenians and Visigoths as a duality to explore the behaviours of people who are not at one extreme or another but that is personalising the issues rather looking at the behaviours. It seems to me to be pretty clear cut that people online issuing death threats should be investigated and prosecuted, and I would not waste my time trying to reason with them. It’s much less clear how to respond to behaviours such as deliberate false claims, accidental misunderstanding (I do this frequently) and misreporting that I see daily on traditional and social media.

Debates can quickly become polarised especially on short-form media like Twitter. Andy Baion analysed tweets from a 72 hour period to visualise acitivity on #gamergate on Twitter.

Each point is a single person in the #Gamergate universe, the lines connect who they follow, Andy Baion

He concluded that “Roughly 90–95% take a clear side either in favor or against Gamergate.”

Although #gamergate was not the only site of discussion about the issue, my observation from my search and from my slice of the Internet (inevitably skewed) confirmed that dialogue as Buber meant it was rare

where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them”.

Curious about who was aware of gamergate and more general hating against women online, on 15 October, I polled some of my more connected Facebook contacts:

“Dear FB contacts with an interest in things technical/ gaming, I am interested in what might have appeared in your socmed stream in the last 10 days – Ada Lovelace Day, Brianna Wu death threats, Kathy Sierra leaving Twitter, Anita Sarkeesian threatened with gun massacre at Utah State University?

The response was interesting – there was very little awareness of most of these, with a few exceptions. I think the responses might be a bit different now that some of these issues have hit mainstream media but it does seem that neither social nor traditional media can be relied on to surface important stories quickly. Two contacts held a respectful and insightful exchange about #gamergate that certainly added to my understanding.  Another commented later

 “the reason why I as a bystander don’t tend to get involved in the debate is mainly because of the polarising language of those who challenge the harassment. It’s commonly that any white, CIS-gendered, middle-aged (gamer) male tends to get lumped in with the dickheads. I mean fine, if people want to do that, but then that means I’m not going to engage with either camp.” (he does not want to be named as he doesn’t want to be drawn into the debate)

So fierce exchanges can be taking place in separate echo chambers; or we may be unaware of issues because of the limitations of our networks and of traditional media; or we may be unwilling to engage with topics for various reasons.  Noelle-Neumann came up with the theory of the spiral of silence to explain the growth and spread of public opinion, and characterises the media as muting the minority in the spiral  A recent Pew Internet report on research into discussion of Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records confirms the Spiral of Silence, with people being less likely to discuss the issue on social media than they were in person

Kate Bowles speaks of the difficulties of practicing generosity under pressure to take sides “Where we end up with this demand to take a stand, I think, is that our interactions with others become a constant, and exhausting, requirement to show ourselves as good before we speak. Even one of the most beautiful and courageous political interventions that I’ve seen all year couches itself in this way: which side are you on, friend, which side are you on? But if we accept this practice of camp loyalty as the minimum standard for being worth listening to, and no other, I think we’re also running some risks as these standards have to be expressed in terms of the grossest possible generalisation to work at all. And this means that we are already prepared to relinquish what is particular and complicated about any interaction between two people.”


I think that polarisation might to contribute to ‘bystander’ behaviour of those whose views lie between the poles in a given debate.  In a previous post, I pondered some strategies for

  • We can look at how we can understand and appreciate the experiences of others by really listening
  • We can take a break like Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano have done
  • We can challenge hostile and malignant cultures by
    • mocking them like #ghcmanwatch did
    • or when a grave injustice has occurred by campaigns like #justiceforLB


Increasing the diversity of our networks and the quality of the media that shape our opinions might help but we need collective approaches too I think.  But this presents its own challenges. The communities to which we are drawn can be in tension with the need for diversity as they will tend to promote conformity unless we are vigilant. I think we need to resist thinking of others as Visigoths and ourselves as Athenians, and acknowledge more complex combinations of Visigoth  and Athenian behaviours.

#scholar14bystandersgenderhomophilymediapolarisationspiral of silence

francesbell • November 6, 2014

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  1. Kate Bowles November 6, 2014 - 8:06 pm Reply

    This is so thoughtful. I really appreciate the very hard question: how we activate collective capacity to assert shared values without inadvertently setting off other, fresh spirals of silence. What this means is that we are less likely to find our own assumptions tested in a meaningful way (and like you I don’t find “well you suck”—as the mildest possible version of what’s currently vile online—to be the meaningful test of ideas we’re searching for).

    Yesterday I watched a live thing happen over a period of time on Twitter, that had an outcome that the dominant combatants would certainly describe as a victory. I shared their views, more or less. But I was really interested to see a single voice raised in honour of the more troubling complexity of the confrontation, that wasn’t picked up, because the sense of triumphalist celebration had no way of including it while remaining coherent.

    I think maybe one task of networked scholars is to offer a keeping practice for the pieces that make polarised debates incoherent and so get ejected.

  2. francesbell November 6, 2014 - 11:24 pm Reply

    I was interested in what you said about the voice not being picked up. I have watched exchanges in blogs and comments where this has happened. I am fairly sure the protagonists are unaware of their practice of ignoring the comment that might distract from the war of words. This is my second post on these issues and I am still struggling to think about how we can explore ideas, disagree, make mistakes, recover from them in the space between polarised positions. I will just have to keep blogging my way through my thinking. Thanks Kate.

  3. francesbell November 8, 2014 - 9:07 am Reply

    Great reply from Mariana that for some reason is not auto-linking

  4. mdvfunes November 8, 2014 - 10:21 am Reply

    Hi, Frances.

    First a couple of links I read today that may send a few more thought vectors in concept space 🙂 [deleted to check it is the links that are causing posting problem. Links from Alan Levine and Mike Caufield blogs.]

    I will not refer you to my animated gif of barking dogs and the alternative as it will lower the tone.

    We frame the idea of dialogue online in many ways and explore how it may be encouraged instead of polarising sides. In a cool web space like this blog this can happen and we can take time to read and reflect. Yet mostly our social media experience is not this. It is more akin to what Mike Caufield describes in the post I linked to above:

    “Minority voices are squelched, flame wars abound. We spend hours at a time as rats hitting the Skinner-esque levers of Twitter and Tumblr, hoping for new treats — and this might be OK if we actually then built off these things, but we don’t.

    We’re stuck in an attention economy feedback loop that doesn’t allow us silent spaces to reflect on issues without news pegs, and in which many of our areas of collaboration have become toxic, or worse, a toxic bureaucracy.

    We’re stuck in an attention economy feedback loop where we react to the reactions of reactions (while fearing further reactions), and then we wonder why we’re stuck with groupthink and ideological gridlock.”

    HIs solution is to create a a technology that encourages a cool web of ideas. I am not sure about his solution, perhaps he is more optimistic about what humans being do when they come together than I am.

    My fear is that any technology, even one that has cool web affordances, will be used by people in both I-it and I-thou modes.

    Unsurprisingly, for me the answer is in how we develop our psyche not our technology. A discipline of dialogue with critical reflection that holds lightly multiple conflicting perspectives for exploration, is something that requires commitment and a desire for a commons rather than resources….It is about psychology, ideology, politics, and much more.

    As we talk to these issues I keep being reminded of the movie Mind Walk. In the movie, they quote Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is: infinite.” I seem to remember. Cleaning those doors is damn hard work, most humans have no interest in investing the time it takes. They just want the easy button. Just as most humans would not take the 2 hours it takes to sit through Mind Walk today and it was never a block buster 😉

    Let’s keep talking.

  5. francesbell November 8, 2014 - 10:24 am Reply

    (Copied from withknown)
    Thanks for this Mariana. I have just commented on Alan’s post. I am really pleased that quite a few people are exploring the perils of polarisation and the space in between. I haven’t seen the film Mind Walk so I’ll press the easy button and look it up on iMdb – maybe watch it later.
    Mike Caulfield’s post is a tour de force. It also resonated with me because I had done some work with ex-colleagues on science fiction prototyping with organisations.

  6. mikecaulfield December 11, 2014 - 3:23 am Reply

    Frances — so glad you are going to join our little experiment. It’s exactly these types of questions that motivate me to explore other options.

    I’ve been really happy to see that my post touched a nerve with so many smart people — although I suppose smart isn’t the metric I want here — perhaps, so many people who CARE.

    I’m a bit worried that the little piece of software we demo together will disappoint people — we will actually be the first community outside my classes to use it. It’s mature in some ways but very young and flawed in others.

    I don’t know what it will be like with other people, but as Ward and I have pinged stuff back and forth I’ve found that when you get jazzed by writing up ideas, and examples, and data instead of making arguments, you actually enter a different world. You get jazzed even when someone changes your work in ways you disagree with, because ultimately they are building off your work.

    That sounds very odd, and maybe it doesn’t hold up with more than two people. But ideas wrapped in rhetoric are hermetically sealed to your “opponents”, which is an odd thing, since supposedly they need them the most..

    Expect an email soon about starting up in the happening.

    • francesbell December 11, 2014 - 3:21 pm Reply

      It all sounds very exciting and I can’t wait 🙂

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