Creeping Authoritarianism

The crew "Stench" from the 7th Sea CCG. An undead human crawling towards the camera. It is green and rotting.

It’s generally sad when I get disappointed by fellow anarchists online, but I don’t make a big deal out of it always However, sometimes, I feel a need to point out where I see a failing -  when there is a salient point to be made on an issue. Such is the case with the recent interaction I had in /r/anarchism.

The story so far

/r/anarchism has until now been fairly laissez-faire in moderation, something which changed somewhat after the The Great /r/anarchism Shitstorm of 2010 when it was accepted that oppressive speech and people would be removed from the premises. However, it was commonly accepted that all other aspects of moderation, save combating outright spam, would be left to the organic moderation of the community.

One month ago, one of the newer mods in the team, wanted to start manually removing so-called reposts, by which they meant the same story published on different webpages and posted to /r/anarchism within a short amount of time from other versions of it. They asked the community for comments and the general sentiments was that they should remains hands-off about it and that was that.

Yesterday, as I was reading a post about some anarchistic rants from Eric Raymond, I noticed this mod had left a single comment saying “No platform”. I decided to check if that meant what I thought it did, and sure enough, that post had been moved by said mod to the spam filter. Alarmed, I checked the recent additions to the spam filter and found it half-full with reposts (as well as similar “No platform” removals1 ) that this mod had started doing, pretty much since the community asked them to remain hands-off.

I kinda exploded about it on /r/metanarchism, not so much about reposts being removed, but about the mod acting unilaterally and despite the decision reached in the past. My tone led this mod to try and troll me, and in the process revealed just what an authoritarian sentiment they hold, and how little they regard the people in the community they moderate.

More specifically, when challenged on the fact that they are not only removing the agency of the community and disregarding democratic decision-making, they replied with two very telling phrases.

Sit down and shut up.

This is significant because it sets the tone of the discussion. The mod is taking the clear role of the authority figure which reinforces the fact that lately, whatever this mod has wanted has been done despite all opposition.2 So I needed to be told my place obviously, a trend which continued throughout the thread by the mod in question continuously mocking my concerns.

What an opinion to have for one's comrades...

Then they followed with this very telling comment:

It became apparent to me after having to beg to edit the sidebar that people around here tend to oppose things or sit on their ass if you ask, but go along with them if you just do them.

This must be the most cynical justification of authoritarianism I’ve seen. And from a self-professed anarchist no less! This is practically saying that the mod consider their comrades weak-willed and apathetic, so they’ll give lip service to democratic processes but will go through with their plan anyway since nobody is going to stop them anyway. I noted the quote in the thread, which only elicited more mockery from the mod in question, while everyone else just twiddled their thumbs.

It is no wonder that this mod has started acting as if /r/anarchism is their personal fief.

So since then, I’ve been trying to explain to people, that it doesn’t matter how small or trivial the act of authoritarianism was. The problem is that it was a unilateral act that went against what people expressed they wanted. People kept trying to argue with me that “deleting reposts is no big deal, and why should we not do it anyway?” which is frustratingly beside the point.

It doesn’t matter if removing reposts is not a significant act. It matters that this mod cynically rams through their own preferences and anarchists just let him do it. Of course the same people then argued that since people don’t bother to show up and argue the point, then obviously removing reposts is “not a big deal” and round and round we go.

To perhaps make it more understandable why allowing some people to act this way is problematic, I wanted to tell a little story which might make an apt analogy and the point I’m making more obvious:

A story of leftovers

Imagine if you will, a large community with communal kitchens and dining areas. After each meal, the leftovers are left in a pile in the kitchen and there are also a few people in the community who use them for various purposes. Some make compost out of vegetable leftovers, while others make soups out of meat leftovers such as bones.

Now imagine also that there are a few others who really dislike seeing those leftovers hanging there for hours until the ones who wish to use them come around to collect them. After a while, they make a meeting to discuss the situation. They would like to throw them away immediately with the normal garbage. The meeting is not very large because most people don’t care about leftovers, but some who collect them and some who want to throw them away show up, as well as some who don’t feel strongly about it either way.  Various arguments are made for and against, with the ones who want to throw them away mentioning that  they are unseemly, smelly or unhygienic while the ones who collect them make the case that those effect are very minor and easily avoidable while there are others benefits. After some back and forth on this issue, within this small meeting, the general sentiment is that most people don’t mind the leftovers staying around until they are collected and everyone leaves it at that.

People in the community go on with their lives and nobody really thinks about the issue anymore. However one of people who was the most vocal about getting rid of the leftovers, starts going around throwing away the leftovers when they notice them anyway. They don’t throw all of them away, and they always leave a small cryptic post-it note somewhere in the kitchen area that is fairly easy to miss. The people who gather them don’t really notice it other than simply finding less leftovers around.

Eventually one finds the post-it note and starts to investigate. They go through the normal garbage and notice a large quantity of leftovers in them. Enraged, they call another meeting about it and call-out the one throwing the leftovers away: “Why did you start doing this, when we agreed to let us handle it?”. Various people from the old and new meeting arrived to see what all the fuss was about.

The answer comes back: “But leftovers are unseemly and smelly.” Some people in attendance murmur in agreement, some of the ones collecting the leftovers start explaining again why they want them, and the discussion on if the leftovers should be stored or thrown away starts again. Only this time, the framing is different. This time the ones collecting them need to provide a reason to convince people to let them do it, and they need to find enough support to peer-pressure the one doing it unilaterally to stop. They will also need to get into confrontation about it which is not worth it for something so minor. “Why are you making a big deal out of this? They’re only leftovers!” Those who didn’t want leftovers lying around don’t speak up because they got what they preferred now. And unfortunately, not many care about leftovers anyway, so most remain on the fence or don’t provide any input at all.

The real problem was ignored.

The issue here was not on whether leftovers should be collected. The issue was about one person who put their personal preferences above everyone else. The fact that most were apathetic enough about it to let them is part of the problem, not the justification! At the end of this hypothetical story, the people who were doing something harmless were alienated from their own community. Their wishes, their decision-making, their agency were diminished. In the future they will not even go to such meetings. “Why bother”?

The one who disregarded them and did their own thing anyway? Now they think their comrades are weak-willed and pushovers. And next time they try to ram their preferences though, they’ll find even less opposition as more and more people are alienated. If anyone raises concerns about previous such incidents, they’ll silence them through mockery. “Yeah, fear my hygienic authority. Imma coming for your garbage!”. Those who get their way while in the minority will go with it, because, “why not?”, while those who are against it, even when they know there’s more of them, will be the silent (perr-pressured if necessary) majority, going through with it just to avoid confrontation and belittlement.

Authoritarianism starts to creep in. Some people learn that they can manipulate their more confrontation-averse, apathetic, or facilitating comrades to their own ends and realize that disregarding the wishes of others works better. The ones whose wishes are disregarded will defer more and more from decision-making and may even internalize this behaviour. Soon enough you have an authority-leader figure and followers. And unless the authority figure does something egregious, they will only increase their unofficial influence.

Reaction

I fully expect to be further mocked for this piece. “All this though about doing something as beneficial as removing spam?”, some will disingenuously asset, once again missing the point I’m making:

Authoritarianism and hierarchy does not always assert itself in one fell-violent-swoop. These sentiments creep into even the best-intentioned communities and rot them from within. Until a point comes where people either finally wake up and a splinter occurs, with the previous authority figures retaining control of the space along with those who’ve internalized the unsaid hierarchy most, while the rest go and found a new community and vow never to succumb to the same traps…until new people join and everyone grows lax once more.

It’s easy to declare vigilance against the obvious authoritarians and entryists who are painfully obvious to everyone. It’s much more difficult to be vigilant to all the small erosions coming from trusted friends, who are getting just a bit too comfortable in being seen at the leader. The stories of anarchist communities being subverted this way and eventually imploding or dissolving are numerous. Some times there’s a happy end with the petulant authority figure being expelled (and sometimes even being found out to have been an agent provocateur), but even then, the wounds done to the community are deep. Sometimes fatal.

The reason I’m starting to call out people on these apparent trivial things is not because I’m a slave to process or “stickler to procedure” as the mod in question described me. The reason I’m doing this is because I am concerned of authoritarian tendencies. No matter how small and no matter if I personally agree with the end result. The price, the rot within, is never worth it.

Authoritarians don’t like being called on their shit, and self-professed anarchist authoritarians even less and will always attempt to divert the discussion to discussing the merits of their perspective, rather than the problems of their tactics. People avert to conflict, or convenienced by the apparent end result, or just looking for lulz will indulge them and join on the assault, ridicule and marginalization of those of us raising attention to the small violations of anarchistic principles. I’ve seen it time and again, coming from all people in positions of authority. Ridicule comes first. If this doesn’t work, then they fight you, clean or dirty. Already some people in /r/anarchism are trying to paint me as a concern troll for raising issues like this, regardless of the fact that I’ve been here active in this community longer than they have. Read the thread above to see just how absurd the accusation basis becomes later on.

But putting the idea out there that I’m concern trolling and repeating it is a rather ingenious tactic. Repeat the lie often enough and then the idea will stick…somewhere. Soon enough, calling me a concern troll will not immediately sound so absurd. “Haven’t they been called a concern troll multiple times in the last few months?” the subconscious will remark.

Oh, and did I mention that it just so happens that lately they’ve started banning concern trolls in /r/anarchism?

And to pre-empt some people, no, I am not a martyr, nor I consider myself one. I am not looking to get myself banned to make a point, nor am I trying to bring down /r/anarchism. What I am is disappointed that a community that is theoretically made of a larger concentration of anarchists than most, not only lets the small violations pass, but they mostly don’t care for a democratic decision-making process. I am dismayed that when a mod cynically refers to their comrades as weak-willed sheep to be led around and shamelessly admit that they do so, nobody bats an eyelid. I am alarmed that there is so little vigilance…

Am I giving too much thought to the going-ons of a small online community on the net, compared to the grand scheme of things? Perhaps. But I find that the “grand things” tend to mask the small ones until it’s too late.

To put it another way: When you’re battling pigs on the street daily, it’s difficult when you come home to notice or be upset about some guys throwing away your leftovers…

  1. The same moderator has also expressed explicit desires to remove “anarcho”-capitalists from the discussion, something which was historically tolerated in /r/anarchism for the purposes of open discussion. []
  2. For example, someone requested that I be added as a mod again, this had significant support, but this particular mod blocked it on the ground that I would prevent mods from acting too much. Obviously they meant that I would stop them from doing what they just did, which I would. The request then moved to modified consensus, which was supported by 10 people and blocked by this one mod. The last request to make the mods follow the rules of their own community, also fell flat []