Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How I Became a Vampire

There is an Internet message board of which I am a member, but I hadn’t posted on it for at least a year and probably hadn’t read it for at least 6 months. For some reason, I wandered on in a month or so ago, read several threads, and made one or two posts. Like Persephone with the pomegranate or Snow White with the apple, I sealed my fate. Only in my case, I became a vampire.

I should go back and explain. This message board was started by a group of former members of another message board, when the first one banned a large portion of their membership for protesting the banning of one of the administrators. Any discussion of the situation became grounds for a ban. In reaction, the group that started the second board wanted a freer format, in which administrators would be chosen by vote and could be recalled by vote; and in which discussions regarding banning or disciplining members would be made openly and subject to appeal. Appeals are heard by a committee of five members, chosen from among any members who had posted in the previous month.

So shortly after I posted, I got a private message from an administrator asking if I would be willing to serve on an appeals committee for a member who had just been given an indefinite suspension. Since I have time on my hands since I retired, I saw no reason not to.

In following links and reading some threads in preparation for the appeal, I saw references to such committees as a COU and sometimes a COV. Before I had to break down and ask, I finally saw COU spelled out as Council of Umpires. Okay, that made sense, but what was a COV? 

Well, due to the board’s transparency requirements, appeals threads were available for all members to read, but only administrators, the member making the appeal, and COU members can post in them. So there are parallel “peanut gallery” threads in which members who are following along can post. Some of these members had renamed the Councils of Umpires “the Coven of Vampires.” That, dear reader, is how I became a vampire.

You will notice I have not named the board in question. While we haven’t been told specifically not to share details of the appeal on blog posts, I feel bound not to share too many of the particulars, especially as violation of privacy is one of the issues in the appeal. Let’s just say that the last time I dealt with this much finger pointing, it was before I retired and I was dealing with eight year olds.

It’s not such a stretch getting from “Umpire” to “Vampire”. The “f” in the word “of” is really pronounced like a “v”. Elide the words “of” and “umpire” and you get “of Vumpires”. Then all you have to do is shift the vowel represented by “u” two steps on the vowel circle, and there you are. Analyzing the pattern of such changes in children’s speech is what I used to do in my former life.

We often speak of rules in speech and language. For instance, there is a rule that the morpheme “ed” which indicates past tense is pronounced like “t” when it follows a voiceless consonant; i.e., “washed” is pronounced “washt”. This isn’t a rule in the sense of the rules that people make up, like curfews and dress codes. This is a rule in the sense of an observed regularity, like mathematical rules. It can change as speech patterns change. I’ve written before about the distinction between two types of laws, legal and scientific. The word rule has parallel meanings.

And this gets us back to my stint as a vampire. What our committee needs to decide is whether the member in question, did in fact break the board rules regarding harassing another member. It has been fairly pointed out that the rules as written are vague. I think the problem does not lie with the people who wrote the rules. I think the problem is that while there are rules we follow in distinguishing harassment from mutually acceptable teasing and the occasional angry statement, these are rules in the scientific sense, not in the legal sense. We don’t make those rules, anymore than we pass the law of gravity. We try to tease them out from a mass of behavior and make them explicit, and that is a task that is not easy to do.

You can go into any high school in the country and hear students insulting each other. Listen long enough and you can tell which are the acceptable insults that create bonding between friends and which are bullying, meant to demean the target and not indicate, “I love ya, man.” There will be gray areas, sure, but the ends of the continuum are easy to distinguish. 

What is not easy is to write a set of guidelines that outlaws bullying without including the kind of joshing, teasing and horseplay that nobody objects to. It’s not that the difference isn’t there. It’s that we process the information that lets us tell which is which in the non-verbal areas of our brain. My brother-in-law calls this the Grandmother Principal. “How do you know that’s your grandmother?” “What do you mean? I’ve known her since I was a child. I see her everyday. She looks like my grandmother.” You don’t go through a verbal checklist to determine that’s Grandma; you know her when you see her.

I need to make clear at this point that I am not against making rules, in the sense of person-made rules, against bullying and harassment. Not everyone intuits the unspoken social rules against such things, or is willing to obey them, or comes from the same sub-culture that obeys the same rules. Some things need to be spelled out for everyone, even if spelling things out is difficult. 

But the problem we vampires are having in our little committee, council, or coven has to do with the two different meanings of rules. The person who has been suspended may not have broken the formal board rules, which are vague; but that person, as practically everyone can see, breaks the unlegislated, intuited social rules all the time, and either can’t or doesn’t want to see when we try to explain the difference between hir behavior and the everyday shit-talking that goes on in a lot of the threads. Some people have prosopagnosia and just can’t recognize Grandma.

So it’s difficult for me to know what to do. A strict interpretation of the rules as written would lead to overturning the suspension, until the next time this person crosses the line. A different understanding of rules, in the sense of the rules we intuit from the way people actually behave, prompts me to uphold the suspension, but doing that isn’t allowed under the rules as written.

It isn’t easy being a vampire. Or the vampire’s Grandma.


  1. I admire your bravery and ethics. I could not in a million years be an umpire (or a vampire) - I find it very difficult to work out tone at times, particularly cross-cultural tone. (I also have low tolerance for certain types of... um... I'm trying to think of a nice way of putting it. Rubbish, maybe.)

    It would be so much easier being the normal, New Orleans-type bloodsucking vampire. (Not least because the nightlife there is so good...) Minimal ethics, unless you're the True Blood variety. Heh.

    1. Found your blog on your talk rational experience interesting. I look forward to reading some of your others. Having been a fairly active member there for about 5 years I have perhaps a rather jaded view of the site, but I will tell you most of the CoV's were far less straight forward than the one about Bart's suspension. He should have been reined in way back, and only escaped any consequences for his behavior owing to the cliquish nature of the site. That affects the way admins and mods are selected and who any action is taken against. The last 3 admins resigned with one recalled, and if you look at the history TR it is indeed a strange and rather anti-social experiment. I can expatiate on this if you're interested.