The Rhetorical Style of Drama

There is a spectre haunting the internet, the spectre of drama. All the powers of the social media have banded together to not fight it, because drama increases engagement statistics like nothing else: Twitter and Facebook, Gawker and TMZ, BlackLivesMatter and GamerGate, Donald Trump and Donald Trump, the list goes on and on.

Where is the party that says we shall not sink to the crazy? Where is the party which argues for civil discourse? The clear, unarguable result is that drama is universally acknowledged to be an amazingly powerful tactic for getting people engaged on your important issue, the exquisite pain which so long you have suffered in silence, and are now compelled to speak out upon! But, reluctantly, draw back, draw breath, draw deep upon your courage before unleashing, you don’t want to, but musts be musts, and so unleashing the hounds of drama, sadly, reluctantly, but…

In this post, I’m going to stop aping the Communist Manifesto, stop aping drama lovers, and discuss some of the elements I see which make up a rhetorical “style guide” for dramatists. I hope that in so doing, I can help build an “immune system” against drama and a checklist for writing well about emotionally-laden issues, rather than a guidebook for creating more. And so I’m going to call out elements and discuss how to avoid them. Drama often includes logical falacies (see also the “informal list” on Wikipedia.) However, drama is not conditioned on such, and one can make an illogical argument without being dramatic. Drama is about the emotional perception of victim, persecutor and rescuer, and how we move from one state to another… “I was only trying to help! Why are you attacking me?!?” (More on that both later in this article, and here.)

Feedback is welcome, especially on elements of the style that I’m missing. I’m going to use a few articles I’ve seen recently, including “Search and Destroy: The Knowledge Engine and the Undoing of Lila Tretikov.” I’ll also use the recent post by Nadeem Kobeissi “A Cry for Help Against Thomas Ptacek, Serial Abuser,” and “What Happened At The Satoshi Roundtable.”

Which brings me to my next point: drama, in and of itself, is not evidence for or against the underlying claims. I have no opinion on the underlying claims of either article. I am simply commenting on their rhetorical style as having certain characteristics which I’ve noticed in drama. Maybe there is a crisis at the Wikimedia Foundation. Maybe Mr. Ptacek really is unfairly mean to Mr. Kobeissi. I’ve met Nadeem once or twice, he seems like a nice fellow, and I’ve talked with Thomas on and off over more than twenty years, but not worked closely with him. Similarly, retweets, outraged follow-on blogs, and the like do not make a set of facts.

Anyway, on to the rhetorical style of drama:

  • Big, bold claims which are not justified. Go read the opening paragraphs of the Wikimedia article, and look for evidence. To avoid this, consider the 5 paragraph essay: a summary, paragraphs focused on topics, and a conclusion.
  • The missing link. The Wikimedia piece has a number of places where links could easily bolster the argument. For example, “within just the past 48 hours, employees have begun speaking openly on the web” cries out for two or more links. (It’s really tempting to say “Citation needed” here, but I won’t, see the point on baiting, below.) Similarly, Mr. Kobeissi writes that Ptacek is a “obsessive abuser, a bully, a slanderer and an employer of public verbal sexual degradation that he defends, backs down on and does not apologize for.” To avoid this, link appropriately to original sources so people can judge your claims.
  • Mixing fact, opinion and impact. If you want to cause drama, present your opinion on the impact of some other party’s actions as a fact. If you want to avoid drama, consider the non-violent communication patterns, such as “when I hear you say X, my response is Y.” For reasons too complex to go into here, this helps break the drama triangle. (I’ll touch more on that below).
  • Length. Like this post, drama is often lengthy, and unlike this post, often beautifully written, recursively (or perhaps just repetitively) looping back over the same point, as if volume is correlated with truth. The Wikimedia article seems to go on and on, and perhaps there’s some more detail, causing you to want to keep reading.
  • Behaviors that don’t make sense If Johnny had gone straight to the police, none of this would ever had happened. If Mr. Kobeissi had contacted Usenix, they could have had Mr. Ptacek recuse himself from the paper based on evidence of two years of conflict. Mr. Kobeissi doesn’t say why this never happened. Oh, and be prepared to have your story judged.
  • Baiting and demands. After presenting a litany of wrongs, there’s a set of demands presented, often very specific ones. Much better to ask “Would you like to resolve this? If so, do you have ideas on how?” Also, “if you care about this, it must be your top priority.”
  • False dichotomies. After the facts and opinions, or perhaps mixed in with them, there’s an either/or presented. “This must be true, or he would have sued for libel.” (Perhaps someone doesn’t want to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers? Perhaps someone has heard of the Streisand effect? The President doesn’t sue everyone who claims he’s a crypto-Muslim.)
  • Unstated assumptions For example, while much of Mr. Kobeissi’s post focuses on last year’s Usenix, that was last year. There’s an unstated assumption that once someone has been on a PC for you, they can’t say mean things about you. And while it would be unprofessional to do so while you’re chairing a conference, how long does that zone extend? We don’t know when Mr. Ptacek was last mean to Mr. Kobeissi. Perhaps he waited a year after being program chair. Mr. Kobeissi probably knows, and he has not told us.
  • Failure to assume goodwill, or a mutuality of failure, or that there’s another side to the story. This is the dramatists curse, the inability to conceive or concede that the other person may have a side. Perhaps, once, Mr. Kobeissi was young, immature, and offended Mr. Ptacek in a way which is hard to “put behind us.” We all have such people in our lives. An innocent act or comment is taken the wrong way, irrecoverably.
  • With us or against us. It’s a longstanding tool of demagogues to paint the world in black and white. There’s often important shades of grey. To avoid drama, talk about them.
  • I’m being soooo reasonable here!. Much like a car salesperson telling you that you can trust them, the dramatic spend a (often a great many words) explaining how reasonable they’re being. If you’re being reasonable, show, don’t tell.

Not all drama will have all of these elements, and it may be that things with all of these elements will not be drama. You should assume goodwill on the part of the people whose words you are reading. Oftentimes, drama is accidental, where someone says something which leaves the other party feeling attacked, a rescuer comes in, and around and around the drama triangle we go.

As I wrote in that article on the drama triangle:

One of the nifty things about this triangle — and one of the things missing from most popular discussion of it — is how the participants put different labels on the roles they are playing.

For example, a vulnerability researcher may perceive themselves as a rescuer, offering valuable advice to a victim of poor coding practice. Meanwhile, the company sees the researcher as a persecutor, making unreasonable demands of their victim-like self. In their response, the company calls their lawyers and becomes a persecutor, and simultaneously allows the rescuer to shift to the role of victim.

A failure to respond to drama does not make the dramatist right. Sometimes the best move is to walk away, even when the claims are demonstrably false, even when they are hurtful. The internet can be a wretched hive of scum and drama, and it’s hard to stay clean when wrestling a pig.

Understanding the rhetorical style of drama so that you don’t get swept up in it can reduce the impact of drama on others. Which is not to say that the issues for which drama is generated do not deserve attention. But perhaps attention and urgency can be generated in a space of civilized discourse. (I’m grateful to Elissa Shevinsky for having used that phrase recently, it seems to have been far from many minds.)