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Guest Editorial: Before You Lower the Boom

By Mark L. Berch

From Diplomacy World #31


Conflict and controversy have been an integral part of the Postal Diplomacy Hobby almost from the very start. By and large, this has contributed a great deal to the hobby. The changes made in the 1971 Rulebook were largely a product of extensive debates in the mid and late 60s over flaws in the 1961 Rulebook. Arguments have raged over how strict a GM should be; the relative merits of Florida, California, Texas, and Wisconsin oranges; scoring systems for Tournaments; the Vietnam War; “Strong Second" versus Win Only" playing styles; and dozens of other topics. These have added a vital liveliness to dipzines, and have created interactions between people beyond just playing games.


But all too often, these discussions have taken a nasty turn. Criticism becomes destructive, language becomes vituperative, and such bad feelings are generated that people have quit the hobby in disgust. This seems to happen much more often in the hobby than in the “real" world. Why? I have some perspective on this, both as a dispensor and a recipient of criticism. On occasion I have tried to mediate, to undo some of the damage that occurs when arguments have turned very sour. And in reading through hundreds of old 'zines in my archives, I've observed many arguments flare up, some constructive, some destructive. I've come to the conclusion that there are certain dynamics which are responsible for a great deal of unnecessary hard feelings.


1. The Unspoken Difference. We are all familiar with the give and take of spoken criticism in the “real world". Frequently, people assume that this process works pretty much the same in the printed world of the hobby. There are, however, important differences, and when people ignore them, or are unaware of them, they usually run into trouble.


The first is the repetition factor.  If you say something once, it hangs in the air for a fraction of a second, and then it's gone. It lasts only in memory. But if you say it in print, it just sits there staring at everyone.  Each time the target picks up your comments, he sees those same words aimed at him again.  And again.  And again.


Written sentences are often more ambiguous than spoken ones. In speech, the tone of voice, which words are emphasized, and facial and body gestures all can turn something intrinsically ambiguous into something fairly clear. But in writing, we have only punctuation and underscoring … a much more limited type of vocabulary and often ambiguous in its own right.


Third is the size of the audience. Most spoken criticism occurs when the speaker is one-on-one with the target, or in a small group. Criticism in a 'zine is akin to standing in front of a room or auditorium full of people. And that room may contain "reporters" (other 'zine pubbers) to spread the word further. In conversation, the target is likely to know most or all of those hearing the criticism, and can address them directly if need be. But criticism in a 'zine reaches a lot of "strangers”.


Perhaps most important of all is the ability to react immediately to feedback. Suppose you say something, and you see the target is, perhaps unexpectedly, taking it very poorly.  You have a number of options you can deploy immediately. You can take it back right away, before he has a chance to get really mad. You can defend it, explaining what you mean. You can claim you misspoke. You can modify it. You can make a joke out of it. You can belittle it (e.g., "Yes, and not only are you a fool, but I'm a bigger fool!")  You can rephrase it. In short, in speech, you have a variety of ways of immediately reshaping what you've just said to take into consideration how the target has reacted, if you so desire. Not so with print. Once it's out, it's immutable: Any action from you is a month or so off, far too long to modify what you’ve said effectively, in most cases.


There are other differences, but these are the ones which, as far as I can see, get people into the most trouble when they assume that spoken and written criticisms operate the same.  The bottom line here is that written criticism requires much more care in how it is worded.


2.  All Rules Are Off!    We all know how we want to be criticized.  We naturally want to receive a copy promptly, so we know what is being said about us, regardless of whether we want to respond.  We want the accuser to avoid abusive language.  And we want the right to reply in that 'zine.  Yet, all too often, when a attacks B, A gets so mad at B, or decides that B’s behavior is so despicable, that he decides that B is not entitled to the protection of some or all of these rules.  Time and time again, I have seen publishers say that certain people are not entitled to copies of an attack (because “it won’t do any good” or some such rationalization), or use the kind of language that they would resent being used against them.


3.  Penchant for Paraphrase.  In my opinion, (which I'll admit is not universally shared) the best way to begin a criticism of someone’s position is to quote exactly what it is they hove said on the topic. Yet, more often than not, people resort to paraphrase.  The great majority of paraphrasings I've seen involve significant changes.  I'm sure in most cases the changes are not deliberate. But it is all too easy to read into what was written something beyond what was rcally said: the implication that you think is obvious, but he didn’t actually say; the premise that he surely must have “assumed”.  If you want to point out the implications, or the hidden premises of what was said, fine, but label them as such – don’t paraphrase things so as to make it sound as if he actually said those things. Other times, people paraphrase things to simplify what was said. But such a simplification often erases a distinction which was very important – even though it may, in your opinion, but [sic.  be” – Ed.] a distinction without a difference. And people, when they paraphrase, often add an edge, a sharpness, to the comment.  They turn a criticism of a person's ideas into a criticism of the person himself.  Although paraphrasing is quite common, the dangers in doing this should not be minimized. I can say that personally, nothing irritates me more than opening a Dipzine and finding attributed to myself a position I've never taken.


4. The Private Contact. 

If a dispute is not public, the decision to “go public” is not one to be made lightly. In most cases, a vigorous attempt should be made to resolve the issue privately.  Public discussion tends to harden one’s positions, as few want to be seen publicly backing down. This is a particular problem for publishers themselves. They are in a sense cursed by their easy access to the public. They can dash off an angry editorial and – whammo – 50 or 100 people hear about it in 3 days. The distinction between a private letter and one's 'zine tends to blur for Pubbers, since the 'zine is often used in place of personal letters.  But if you are actually trying to change someone’s mind about something (as opposed to making a public defense of something you've done, or as opposed to trying to expose somebody's malfeasance), the private letter has a much better chance than a public one.


5. Write Not in Anger. There is an old Chinese proverb: "Never write a letter when you are angry."  Many people do not believe this, and believe that the white heat of anger is the best time to write.  In this way, the recipient will get their "true" feelings. This is usually true. But it ignores the fact that for most people, when the blood is pounding, they just aren't going to be as cogent. In this condition, you are going to overstate the case, or use language so harsh as to be counterproductive, and the only “solution” you are likely to present is one where the other guy capitulates completely.  In such a state you are unlikely to be able to leaven your arguments with any humor (except the most sardonic or bitter).  What you say is going to reflect more how you reacted to what he said than what he actually did say. So before you respond, wait a few hours or even days. This point is also applicable to game correspondence.  There are of course hard feelings that arise inadvertently, when you were just trying to be funny but somebody didn’t see it that way … but that’s another topic. 


I must emphasize that most arguments do not fall into any of the above traps, but far too many do.  No one (myself included) is immune.  And if one of these problems does occur, it is likely the argument will turn much less productive, or hard feelings will result. 


Finally, the above is strictly my own opinion.  There are those who feel that differences should never be aired in Dipzines, and those who feel that a bloody scrap is just fine.  But for the rest of you there are things to remember before you lower the boom.