Beware the Sea Lion

I learned a new term recently. It can be a noun or a verb. One may encounter a "sea lion," or someone may "sea lion."

The term is drawn from a cartoon in the Wondermark series drawn by David Malki. I've included the image here for your interest.

When I encountered the cartoon, I knew that I had found an amazingly accurate description of a certain online persona.

This cartoon can be found at: 

This cartoon can be found at: 

A sea lion is the sort of person who cannot allow a balloon to go unpricked. Seeing someone post something in public, the sea lion jumps into the conversation. However, the point is not to add anything to the conversation, it is to waste the time of the person who is making the comment.

To be clear, there are times that online conversations can be meaningful, but by definition, the sea lion is not interested in such conversations. Typically he is interested in a) proving himself smarter or more culturally enlightened than others, b) disrupting a conversation he disagrees with, without acknowledging that another person may simply have a different set of presuppositions, c) just generally being a nuisance all while pretending to be the truly mature and civil one, d) silencing speech that he disagrees with and which rely on a different worldview.

Sea lions are annoying, but they are simply a part of internet life. They can sometimes be confused with people who are legitimately asking questions about a topic that they know little about. Recognizing the difference (and avoiding being one) is important.

Some Characteristics of a Sea Lion

1. A sea lion typically recognizes that the comment was not necessarily about him, but chooses to engage it anyway. Some people simply have too much time on their hands, and being the vigilante of the Facebook wall or comments section seems to be their preferred disservice to the world. Never mind that the comment may have been made in jest, intended as a light hearted generalization, or be entirely tangential to the main point; the sea lion boldly goes where no one cares to hear his opinion.

2. A sea lion often plays dumb, attempting to get their victim to fall into a script that they have carefully crafted a rebuttal to. Online debates are often tedious and they tend to fall into certain patterns. College sophomores spend a great deal of time diagnosing those patterns and learning to rebut them so they can look smart in debates. Often the rebuttals are neither fair nor focused on the main point under debate. However, the sea lion is always ready for the unsuspecting fool to play along.

3. A sea lion is often characterized by attempting to move the argument back several steps or by refusing to accept an assumption the other parties have agreed upon. Rarely does the sea lion state that this is his tactic, but attempts to drag the conversation back to his own presuppositions. Often the sea lion is arguing about elementary level concepts when the conversation is on advanced topics that build on a common set of elementary assumptions already agreed upon.

4. Sometimes the sea lion is unaware he has presuppositions. There is an army of ignorant online warriors who seem to be unaware they have a worldview. All reasoning must be done on their terms, because they and only they have rightly reasoned from first principles to final conclusions. They represent truth and all difference in opinion represents a tainted deviation of their truth. This sort of sea lion asks the Christian to prove God when the Christian is debating theories of the atonement. (Let the Christian recognize that of course the atonement is silly and unnecessary if there is no God.) But the sea lion is oblivious that the faith assumption there is no God requires as much suspension of disbelief as any other faith assumption.

5. A sea lion often takes being ignored or told off as "victory." The other parties couldn't face the crushing logic of the sea lion, therefore they banished him. More likely the sea lion is just a bore and was shushed or blocked for habitually trying to subvert conversations.

6. The sea lion assumes that if someone makes a comment, they must follow up if he replies. This is part of the narcissism of the sea lion. Being the sole mind in the universe and sole arbiter of truth, the sea lion assumes that justice entails dealing with his (often erroneous or ignorant) arguments.

7. The sea lion is usually prepared with links from friendly sources that support his position. (Often he selects his topics by the ones where he's found articles and studies that he can use as irrefutable support.) If the victim does not have rebutting sources at hand, then his argument can be dismissed as being unsupported (and likely unsupportable, of course). If the victim does have rebutting sources, these are dismissed as being hack science, paid for by the Koch brothers (or Soros, depending on the topic and side). The sea lion's sources are, of course, irrefutable because Science and Peer Review. If sources are used from a different field than the sea lion is prepared to defend, then these will be rejected as from a flawed discipline.

Dealing with the Sea Lion

There is no perfect way to deal with the sea lion. Often ignoring them is the best way. Blocking Uncle Bob is probably going to lead to tense times at the Thanksgiving table.

Sometimes the sea lion has a point, your argument may be flawed or in an inappropriate venue. (At this point, the person may actually not be a sea lion, so it's important to evaluate the pattern of the person's interactions.)

However, often the true purpose of the sea lion is to silence dissenting opinions. Often this is perceived as a part of social justice on the part of the sea lion. At its best it is a form of annoying thought-policing, at its worst, sea lioning turns into a form of harassment or bullying.

Sea lions are often attempting to raise the social costs of online interactions by being persistent, argumentative (though in their minds always civil), and pedantic. They are typically off topic or in the wrong forum, but they typically aren't the vitriolic troll.

Unfortunately, there is no good way to avoid all sea lions, except by not engaging in online speech that disagrees with them. That is exactly what they want.

Therefore, the best thing to do, it seems, is to speak well, use evidence appropriately, and ignore the sea lions until they go away. Very seldom do people change their minds based on online arguments (I have no support for this, but I know it to be true). I will venture to suggest that no sea lion has ever changed his mind based on an online debate, however much time the victim has wasted.

However, if someone has a peer reviewed study to show me, I might just change my mind.