Note: this was originally published under Facebook Notes, but as FB has discontinued everyone’s Notes, it has been rehomed here.

As online culture continues to develop, I become aware of neologisms that appear. I had heard of “sealioning” before in passing, and knew it had something to do with scurrilous and nasty debate tactics.

Then, when I questioned the veracity of a post from Bill Gilman, a fellow thinker and Facebook friend of mine, he replied, “Don’t sealion me Benn, you’re a better person than that (I think…?)

Now, if you know me, you know I take enormous pain to engage in discourse honestly and with great sincerity, so I thought I better figure out exactly what he was accusing me of! So I went looking for a precise definition.

Dr. Pete Akers, a scientist at Géosciences de l’Environnement, Grenoble, explains sealioning as “people who troll online by pretending to ask sincere questions, but just keep feigning ignorance and repeating ‘polite’ follow ups until someone gets fed up. That way, they can cast their opponents as attacking them and being unreasonable.

The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has published a collection of essays entitled Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online. In the essay “The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions,” Amy Johnson writes, “Rhetorically, sealioning fuses persistent questioning—often about basic information, information on easily found elsewhere, or unrelated or tangential points—with a loudly-insisted-upon commitment to reasonable debate. It disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate. Sealioning thus works both to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. While the questions of the “sea lion” may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously and have harmful consequences.

So, all in all, it appears that sealioning is a dishonest rhetorical strategy that consists of feigning aggressive cluelessness as a sincere desire to understand.

So, how in the world could a friend imagine I would engage in such a practice?

Well, perhaps he didn’t know me as well as I thought. Maybe he didn’t understand that I take both rational discourse and epistemological ethics very seriously. Perhaps, despite my openness on the topic, he was unaware how committed I truly am to reason and rational thinking, to the point I don’t engage in any elective inconsistent thinking. Maybe he thought my focus was on trying to win arguments, when all I really ever want to do is pursue truth, no matter where it may be found.

If so, I hope he knows me better now.

It’s true that I do sometimes ask questions that may seem overly basic, but I do that sincerely for one of two good reasons. Firstly, because sometimes so-called “common knowledge” positions hide ignorance or ill-defined ideas. For example, it would be pointless to engage in productive rational conversation about “god” without first getting the specific definition my discourse partner is using for that word. Secondly, by taking the conversation down to the basics, hidden or implicit mistakes in rational thinking can be more easily uncovered, rather than wading into it only to find out later that my interlocutor began with an unstated logical fallacy. Failing to address either problem is no good for finding truth.

Another possibility is perhaps Bill meant something different by sealioning. I have seen some others falsely accused of sealioning when their questions were sincere, just because their accusers felt upset that their dogma was being critically examined.

Picture a flat earther, shall we say. (Bill is no flat earther, this is just an example.) Ask them to defend their assertion and they may well accuse you of being a sealion, unwilling to accept their position. But a sealion isn’t merely someone who disagrees with you, its someone who asks insincere questions.

People who can’t easily justify their claims and positions might get upset when someone comes along who asks for the reasoning behind their thinking. I can easily imagine flat-earthers, antivaxxers, climate change deniers, and a host of others (not to mention the religious) who might feel quite beleaguered when leaving their enclave of like-minded folks and being suddenly faced with some difficult questions.

But asking difficult questions sincerely doesn’t make anyone a sealion. And neither does asking why people believe what they believe.

The only other reason I can imagine for being falsely accused of being a sealion is worse. Just as a true sealion is insincerely playing word tricks to harass or attack, someone falsely claiming that someone is sealioning them could be well aware that they cannot back up what they have said, and is hoping that throwing the epithet of sealion at their questioner might make their questioner go away or at least prevent themselves from looking foolish for being unable or unwilling to defend their positions.

Especially when you have a community bound by dogma that is not to be challenged, asking questions can be interpreted as an attack on the community itself, not just on its dogma. Witness how people mistakenly accuse those who dislike Islam as racists – when Islam is not a race, but a set of beliefs.

Especially in these days, when it seems that most people refuse to acknowledge evidence, facts, and objective reality, questioning incorrect dogma results in a very strong, thoughtless, and kneejerk reaction from the culture that embraces the dogma.

I find faith detestable – and no wonder when most dogma rests on mere articles of faith. When one questions such a basic thing, the believer may react with disbelief that anyone could not agree with them – and then accusations of sealioning would come next, as if to imply that the article of faith is obviously true and anyone who questions it can’t possibly be sincere.

This is my greatest concern with the concept of sealioning – that people will simply use this handy accusation to excuse themselves from ever having to justify bad thinking and incorrect conclusions – an ultimate shield against ever having to think critically or admit when one is wrong.

I suppose this is my attempt to educate people what true sealioning is: an insincere tactic to troll people you never had an intention of having an honest conversation with.

And for what it’s worth, if I respect you enough to have a real conversation with you, I will never engage in this practice.

So do me a favor, and don’t throw this particular accusation in my face just because you don’t like being asked why you believe what you believe. Otherwise, you will not keep my respect for long.

Thank you.