The Art Of Being Offensive

Recently the subject of ethical interaction and in particular how offensive language is used in the game has entered the general discussion again with three posts by Rixx Javix and two of his guest writers, Guillome Renard and Opeth Ivey. I also happened to read an academic study on trolling and cyberbullying this week which, in my opinion, wrongly conflated those two terms. While I absolutely do not want to endorse abusive hate-speech or even casual racism and sexism in the game, I decided to approach the subject of trolling and smack-talk as we encounter it regularly in EVE from a historical viewpoint, because something I often observe with contemporary commentators and researchers is the tendency to focus too much on the present. To give an example, some would criticise that a medium like Twitter degrades written communication by reducing it to snappy one-liners because of the 140 character limit, but they forget that in the past telegraph communication also severely limited the amount of words that could be transmitted over land because people had to pay per letter. Even earlier, messenger pigeons posed a similar problem because of the limited size a message could have. Likewise, trolling and smack-talk are not phenomena of EVE, modern gamer subculture or online communication in general, but have been prevalent throughout history.

Trolling History

The practice we call trolling today is recorded to be in use as early as ancient Greece. One man who used it publicly and even to his detriment was the philosopher Socrates. Throughout his life he had made provocative statements and did things which infuriated many, and that eventually lead to his trial during which he was accused of “corrupting the youth” among other things. The record of this trial is called the Apologia which means “to speak in defense”. The title in itself is ironic, because defending himself is actually the last thing Socrates does there. Rather than that, he ridicules and antagonises the judges, the whole proceeding and society at large. The account of this trial was actually written by Socrates’ disciple Plato, who continued his work and coined the term “social gadfly” to describe both Socrates and himself as people who “sting society into action”, just like the gadfly would sting a sluggish horse and make it move. In the end Plato himself was trolled extensively by someone who was even better at the game of exposing his opponents: the founder of cynicism, Diogenes. This philosopher took the idea of deconstructing conventions and moral codes even further and he made a sport of provoking Plato. In one famous story, he ridiculed the conventional Socratic wisdom that humans had evolved from featherless birds by plucking a chicken and bringing it to one of Plato’s lectures exclaiming that he had brought another man to attend the class. He also mocked the high and mighty. When Alexander the Great approached Diogenes and offered to grant him anything he desired, the philosopher simply said that he wished Alexander would get out of the sun he was enjoying. tumblr_lt9ooa1Jjr1qfpjv8 The use of provocation, exaggeration and deliberately extreme statements to expose an opponent’s failures or prompt a reaction from them which would make them look like fools continued throughout history. The writer Jonathan Swift used it in his satirical essay A Modest Proposal where he suggested that poor Irish should sell their children to the rich as food or maybe eat them themselves and thus solve the problems of their economic malaise. His purpose was to criticise and lampoon contemporary social engineering of his times and the attitude of the government against the Irish people and the poor in general. More recently, the Yes Men also used trolling methods to expose the dispassionate ways of international corporate capitalism with such media stunts as speaking on behalf of Dow Chemical and claiming that the company would pay compensation to the victims of the Bhopal Disaster; a claim which the company later refuted much to their detriment in public opinion. At another occasion they gave a presentation in front of the World Trade Organization (WTO) delegates where they explained what a financial waste the American Civil War had been in the face of the fact that African countries willingly provide slaves these days. Many of the delegates present seriously considered the merits of the argument and made a farce of themselves. jude finistera Smack-talk as a means to taunt, intimidate or ridicule an enemy is also as old as history itself. Thanks to the film 300 many will be familiar with the boast of the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae that their archers are so numerous they will blot out the sun with their arrows. The Spartans answered with mock appreciation of the fact that this will allow them to fight in the shade. That historical example may appear rather eloquent and many critics of contemporary smack-talk may lament the fact that it is full of toilet humor and simple insults, but history also has examples of such things. The 17th century Swabian knight Götz von Berlichingen supposedly said “you can lick my ass” to the leader of an army that was sent to capture him and demanded his surrender. In the Second World War, General Anthony McAuliffe was even briefer when he received demands from the Germans that the surrounded 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne should give itself up. He replied simply with “Nuts!” Whole cultures of conflict have evolved around methods to demoralize the enemy through displays of prowess, fearlessness and disrespect for the enemy. Some Native American tribes occasionaly met on the field of battle solely to perform impressive stunts and make the enemy give up simply by demoralizing them with a display of their skill or otherwise try to achieve a token moral victory.(1) Similar rituals exist in urban street dancing contests and rap battles of today. Samurai duelists would sometimes just stare each-other down until one gave up before a single blow fell. European armies of the early modern era used intimidation as well. In today’s warfare it would be inconceivable to have regiments of soldiers march onto the battlefield in brightly coloured uniforms with feathers on their hats and a marching band playing, but up until the end of the 19th century it was common practice to make an impression on the enemy with a show of strength and confidence.

The Context Of EVE

Trolling and smack-talking in EVE has to deal with the general problem any online interaction poses for such irony and sarcasm. At the basis of any provocative lampooning lies the conundrum of Poe’s Law:

Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

3c8c07299169d371615218fc791e9cd2204c74d773b4b10d3d82a7ed60dbfd93 Of course any written form of trolling will face that problem, but online interaction exacerbates it. In the past most written or publicly displayed provocation usually had a rather limited audience. The poor Irish that Jonathan Swift used in his parody were likely unable to read, and so his message mostly reached the educated English gentry whom he actively wanted to challenge. Even the Yes Men’s actions had limited audiences, even though some were transmitted on television news, but not everyone watches BBC or CNN business reports. In EVE, the audience is of course limited to players of the game, and while that includes mostly white males between 20 and 40, it covers a rather widespread and diverse part of that particular demographic. What an English person would clearly recognise as lampooning could be highly offensive to a German or U.S. citizen, and the online medium with its ubiquitous and fast transmission and retention of information makes it easy for a trolling action to reach any random audience. On a more direct interaction level, it is difficult to know who the actual person you are addressing is, except if that individual is well known. It would be one thing to troll Progodlegend personally, but the results can differ a lot when doing the same to any random Nulli Secunda player. For a “positive effect” it is therefore important to tailor one’s provocation to reach the intended audience and have the desired effect. With that I am not saying that trolling should be tame or even politically correct so as to not offend anyone, but being offensive in the right way is an art. When we look at its origin with the Greek philosophers, the purpose is to break the mold of established conventions and consensual wisdom by challenging the underlying notions or making fun of them. Those men did not simply want to make people angry for the sake of doing so, but they chose their targets with the intent to make society reconsider what they thought was right and to think out of the box. A significant part of achieving this is the choice of the appropriate subject and the right moment. Socrates chose a public trial with a large audience, and his opponents were among the most well respected citizens. Diogenes challenged the authority of Plato and Alexander the Great to demonstrate that nobody was beyond reproach no matter how respected or powerful they are. When he wanted to lampoon the general social consensus he used public places as the stage for his actions. Offending and disturbing the wrong people while leaving the intended target unaffected does not serve that purpose. Neither will a scattershot approach of being simply offensive at all times achieve the goal of making the recipient think about their ways or become unsettled. There has to be a deeper meaning behind a trolling action to create an actual effect. razor_carebear_flowchart Similar aspects affect smack-talk. In the real world the marching bands, war-drums and screaming hosts of old may have served their intimidating purpose, but in the online environment they simply become white noise easily filtered out. In EVE, direct challenges in the local channel rely on getting the opponent’s attention. Maybe a tackler, a logi pilot or even an FC gets distracted and types a retort instead of concentrating on their task? Maybe some docked pilot can be provoked into undocking because their self-image can’t abide being called a coward? If that were to work at all, it has to be pointedly aggravating. Just spamming the channel with a stream of random stuff makes such incisive taunts impossible. At best it serves to highlight without a doubt the identity of the local spike and saves any potential targets the hassle of guessing, while those who spam local waste mouse clicks and keystrokes which could have been used to follow the orders of an FC or otherwise be effective in the fight. Provocation, lampooning, taunts and challenges are timeless when it comes to the clashes of conflicting ideas or opposing groups of people, and as such they also have their place in EVE. To demand that all interaction should follow strict rules of correctness fit for a court hearing or a parliamentary debate is not only unrealistic but it would also be unnecessarily stuffy for a gaming environment. There is, however, a right time and most importantly a right way to do this. The anonymity and detachment of online interaction makes it seem very easy to provoke without apparent consequence, but that is an illusion. A troll or taunt repeated too often becomes a hollow phrase, and acting like a horde of monkeys screaming at the enemy will most likely miss the mark. Even if the enacted behaviour remains offensive, it will just be seen as a nuisance that serves to disregard those who deliver it completely rather than provoking a reaction in the recipient other than dismissal.  
  1. Interested readers can find examples in Hirsch, Adam J. “The Collision of Military Cultures in Seventeenth-century New England.” Journal of American History 1988. That article deals with war between Europeans and Natives, but numerous examples of “prestige warfare” can be found in literature about the tribes of the Great Plains
Tags: tarek, trolling

About the author

Tarek Raimo

Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.