This kind of thing is unreasonably amusing to me.

2013-01-21 13:31

Someone I had some run-ins with on a video game forum sent me what I consider just about the funniest thing ever. Now, normally, I don’t like to randomly repost private messages, but in this case, there’s some real value to commentary on the tactics here, because messages like this are emotionally abusive, and a closer look at how they work, and why that’s unambiguously abusive, may be of value. Knowing how it works can make it easier to resist the effects. Quoted text is from my correspondent.

TRIGGER WARNING: If you find emotional abuse upsetting, you may want to skip this one. (Normally I don’t much go for trigger warnings, but this is… Well, it’s pretty skillfully written, just poorly targeted.)

Subject: Just FYI

You make sense to me now. I didn’t really understand (I mostly understood, or I should say: I guessed) until I followed a link you have in your signature and I found out some more information about you… including pics and such… and it all just makes sense now.

Now, this is some very, very, skilled writing. It’s also emotionally abusive on multiple levels. First, the whole paragraph is about setting the writer up as qualified to judge the reader, and as being in a position of superiority. He understands you; he has the advantage of you. He has all the information about you, and you are completely comprehended by him. That makes him bigger, smarter, and in a position of power.

The elipses are intentional; they create the impression that there is more information here, which has been omitted, encouraging you to guess at it. This is a nice setup for future gaslighting in that if whatever you think of is bad, he can claim he didn’t mean it — but the entire point is to make you feel that he has extra information about you. For instance, “pics and such”. What’s “and such”? Most people feel that pictures of themselves are sort of personal; someone who’s looking at pictures of you and judging you has taken a position of power. And since most people are at least a little insecure about how they look, that’s a pretty powerful judgment to be making.

Note that nothing specific is asserted here, really. He doesn’t say which link he followed. He doesn’t say which information he found. That’s part of the game; if you don’t really have any idea where someone’s vulnerabilities are, the way to hurt them is to talk abstractly about their vulnerabilities as a class, and let them fill in the vulnerabilities for themselves. Nicely done. This paragraph should, for most readers, create a sort of yawning-pit-of-dread feeling that they are exposed and vulnerable, and the writer has seen through them.

I understand you… and where you come from… and why you have the attitude you do.

And he continues with that. Note how again it’s all unspecified. He doesn’t really say anything here except that he knows about me. I’m supposed to feel bad, because most people have things they’re ashamed of, and someone who really understands you and where you come from will presumably know the things you’re ashamed of. The “attitude” is then associated with this shame; “you’re acting in these unacceptable ways because you are a bad person, and I know it”, he says. Very powerful!

These forums define you. You fit in here… or you think you do. (You don’t, but that’s a completely other story.) This is the only place you have ever had this… (albeit: fake)… “respect.” You certainly don’t get it in your real life so this feels right for you. You don’t get to dominate a single second in your life but here on these forums you can (in your mind) be king. This is why you post the way you do… so arrogantly with zero wiggle room… this is why you come down so hard… because this is the only place you can get away with it without being put right back in the spot you belong.

Here, we start getting details. The details could be wrong; the point is, after two paragraphs you’ve spent imagining all the ways you could be vulnerable, you’re supposed to be worried enough that any attack stings a little, even if it seems wrong. He knows you! He understands you! Therefore, if you don’t think his analysis is right, it’s because he understands you better than you understand yourself. And here’s where we can start getting specific assertions meant to hurt. And boy, are there a lot of them.

Of particular note, the assertions are nested. In general, people can’t handle a large stack of counterfactuals; to consider a nested assertion, they have to temporarily concede the truth of some part of it, so a nested assertion makes them think as though the assertion were true; if it’s a painful assertion, that’s supposed to hurt.

We start off with the assertion that “these forums define you”. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was “defined” by forums. I just don’t think it happens, but it’s a lovely insult, because it strikes right to the fact that most people don’t have a very strong sense of self distinct from their participation in communities. Since people value their place in communities, telling them that a particular community “defines” them will be close enough to a true statement (that their place in that community matters to them) to feel as though it might well be true. This isn’t really the hurtful part; rather, it’s setup.

Now we get to the beautiful part. This is some fine writing, folks: “You fit in here… or you think you do. (You don’t, but that’s a completely other story.)” This gets an A+. You start by saying a thing that is likely to feel positive to people (humans value “fitting in” to their communities, in general), then say it’s false. Better, you first say it’s delusional, then say it’s false, then handwave it and avoid going into any detail or expanding on it. No evidence, no support, but it’s a way to make the recipient feel bad. You offer them a support and yank it away; nicely done! Coupled with the fact that you’ve reminded them that they are “defined” by this community, you’ve just struck right to the core of the part of their self-image they’re currently thinking about.

It continues, with similar skill: “This is the only place you have ever had this… (albeit: fake)… “respect.” You certainly don’t get it in your real life so this feels right for you.” That’s also very well done; qualify the “respect” (people value this), in a way that lets you play on insecurity. We all know people sometimes get fake respect; it is terrifying to think that the respect we get from the community which defines us could be fake. By this time, the theory is, you’ll be upset enough that the assertion that you don’t get respect in real life will be hard to challenge even if it’s obviously false; if anything, the uncertainty about the reality of respect could undermine any respect you really do feel you experience in “real life”. And, as a bonus, the forums that “define” you are dismissed implicitly as “not real life”. Strong setup for a sucker punch there; you’re defined by something, it’s not real, and even if it were real it wouldn’t be real!

This whole paragraph is beautifully done. “You don’t get to dominate a single second in your life but here on these forums you can (in your mind) be king. This is why you post the way you do… so arrogantly with zero wiggle room… this is why you come down so hard…”

Just admire that. This is some grade A malice, and very competently executed. Again the forums are contrasted with real life, and again we’re reminded that our sense of importance on the forums is fake. And here’s where we go from straight malice to the pitch: All these bad things about us are revealed because of a thing we do. Implication: Stop doing that thing, stop being vulnerable. (This poster’s actual problem with me is that I correct shoddy logic; the “wiggle room” he’s talking about is his right to say stuff that makes no sense and contradicts itself without being challenged.) And the elipsis for “and there’s more stuff, but I’m not bothering to say it.”

And finally, a lovely bit of handwaving; “the only place you can get away with it without being put right back in the spot you belong.” Implies that there’s a place you belong which is a bad place, and that you’d be put there anywhere else. This is emotionally-laden enough that you’re not supposed to realize how utterly stupid it is. If there is one place where you can consistently beat shoddy arguments, it’s an asynchronous written medium. If, as he suggests, I need to be “put right back in the spot you belong”, the forums would be an ideal venue, because I couldn’t dodge out of the things that were written and posted publically. But that it makes no sense doesn’t matter, because it’s not supposed to; it’s a reminder of how I have a very low worth and ought to have a very low social status, which I can only escape through such deceptions as “posting rationally”.

I pity you.

But I understand.

Condescension, and another assertion of power. Nothing fancy, but nicely done. The paragraph break is much more effective than a comma would be, even though normally you’d use a comma for this.

At least you have this as an outlet. That’s also very important for your mental well being and I would never try to take that away from you. I’m glad you have this place. With everything happening in the US, I think more people need “this” type of thing to feel powerful at least you aren’t taking that out elsewhere. I mean that too… not even trying to flame you at all.

Again, this is really very well done. First, there’s the condescension. Secondly, there’s the assertion of power; he could take this away from me, but he’s kind and he won’t. He has the power, and I should be grateful that he’s not using it. The “everything happening in the US” is a barely-veiled-at-all assertion that, were I not busy deluding myself into thinking I’m important on forums, I’d be killing people. Yeah, he’s “not even trying to flame you at all”, right? He’s just asserting that I have a desperate need to feel powerful and it’s good that I’m doing it on forums instead of killing people. That’s not a flame, right?

For that reason alone I’ve decided just to personally let you know privately why I will no longer enter into any discussions with you… because you need this, and I pity you, and while I may have had just a smidgeon of respect I no longer have that now that I understand you and seen you for what and who you really are.

And again: He’s got the power, he has all the knowledge, he’s the one taking pity on me. He understands me and all my flaws; I am powerless before his insight and ought to be grateful to him for his generosity and mercy. Also he used to respect me but doesn’t now. That is to say, I should be really grateful that he’s taking the time to tell me that he thinks that any belief I have that I am in any way valuable or of worth is wrong. This is grade-A material, again. If you want to abuse people, this is how you do it; you don’t just hurt them, you tell them how grateful they should be that you’re only hurting them a little because they’re not worth more than that.

This is probably the last you’ll ever see from me as a response because like if we bumped into each other in a food court, or mall: I also wouldn’t give you a second of my time or respect… only pity… so why should you get more on these forums? You shouldn’t.

More of the same, really. Interestingly, if you think about it, this makes very little sense too; if you just randomly bumped into someone, you wouldn’t have anything like enough information to make any meaningful judgments about them, so why’s he bringing that up? I’m guessing there’s some kind of implied social ranking he’s trying to refer to. Maybe he thinks people should feel bad about eating in food courts? No clue.


Ding! Passive-aggressive signoff for the win.

This is a really, really, good example of the genre it’s in. This is well-crafted. It has multiple layers of assault on the reader’s identity, self-esteem, sense of belonging, and all that. It asserts power, it creates implicit threats of future emotional violence to follow, it dismisses the reader as unworthy… This is excellent emotional abuse.

Sadly, it was poorly targeted. But it’s still really well-done, and I admire the effort that went into it.

Peter Seebach



  1. The example of meeting at the food court is very strange.

    — sta · 2013-01-25 18:52 · #

  2. You know, this is also a great guide to creating a Poe.

    — sta · 2013-01-26 18:42 · #

  3. i’m trying to imagine you in this alternate universe. hang on. almost got it….

    naw. it’s gone. fuck.

    — Luka · 2013-01-26 20:13 · #