Argument Sniping

This xkcd comic invented the concept “nerd sniping” and clearly hit upon something real. In short: a certain type of person, lets, for simplicity’s sake, say “nerds”, can get distracted by having an interesting puzzle thrown at them. This is nothing special by itself; the novel part of the comic was the insight that this tendency to get fascinated can be used for hostile purposes, suggesting something involuntary.

When sniped, nerds aren’t fascinated as an act of will. Instead the problem grips them by its claws and maintains hold until resolution, exhaustion, or distraction by some other predatory prompting perception. Being this way can be a problem if it keeps you from doing your job or administer your life-stuff.

Nerd sniping is rare in real life, thankfully. The cases that do exist are unintentional, and aren’t common enough to be an everyday danger. Unless you live in a much more interesting environment than me, you just don’t find many irresistibly fascinating math riddles just lying about. If you did daily life would literally be a minefield; as a nerd you’d have to watch your step (your saccade?) to avoid having your mind hijacked all the time.

But there’s another kind of sniping that is ubiquitous and does turn everything into a minefield. Argument sniping.

I wrote in Conversations Going Critical that arguing can be partially involuntary, just like getting nerd sniped. A debate grows uncontrollably if each statement leads to an even longer and more complex statement countering it. Argument sniping becomes possible in the extreme case: a very short statement inviting a very long response.

It happens when someone says something the reader/listener thinks is wrong but not in a plain, simple way. Rather, what they say rests upon incorrect/problematic/biased/heavily spun assumptions. One type of case is when a short statement is the spearhead of a larger cluster of thought you don’t find valid*. Seeing this kind of brief-statement-in-service-of-hidden-implications has two effects:

First: it’s short enough that you can’t avoid taking in the whole thing.

Second: the objections you have are complicated and require a thorough explanation.

It’ll happen when you see a headline in a newspaper, read a forum post or webcomic, hear someone say something—or God forbid, browse Facebook**—and it sets off a long simulated dialogue you can’t snap out of.

The principle of obsessive yet internal (masturbatory?) arguing well understood even if it doesn’t have a name (until now!). Rage bait basically uses it as fuel. I wonder how much time and mental energy argument sniping drains from people every day. SMBC even joked about how old people are slower because their minds get bogged down with imaginary arguments.

For me it’s become worse. I’ve been argument sniped often throughout most of my life, but now there just seems to be more of it, and it’s also started to happen with a much broader array of stimuli. Things that wouldn’t register as controversial to most now annoy me and make me want to argue.*** Just a mild trace of rhetoric are upsetting, often even if I broadly agree.

I could compile a list of examples that sniped me recently and this post would be better for it, but I don’t want to for the same reasons most people don’t want to start a “things with a terrible stench”-collection.

Becoming more aware of the failures of debate and the bugs and biases of the human mind has a downside: it makes all public discourse a potential hazard because even small problems wear you down when you notice them a thousand times. Just watching the news means taking a risk.

Is… is this what becoming a grumpy old man is like? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

*Validity for a partial narrative is a slippery concept, but in this case what I have in mind is thinking that a narrative is more popular and generally more pushed than its degree of partial truth warrants.


***This isn’t the same thing as a need to correct people (which I also suffer from). The sting of annoyance one can feel when hearing someone say something wrong won’t lead to a response an order of magnitude longer.


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