Slugger’s ‘play the ball’ rule and the [ever urgent] quest to bridge diverging communities

So as David has noted, we got a nice mention from Noel Whelan, a long term reader of Slugger, in his OpEd in the Irish Times.

He’d been ruminating on an unsettling trend in southern politics for direct protest, and in the case of Fine Gael Michelle Mulherin in Sligo something a great deal more Northern Irish in flavour.

That, much more than the vocal protests against the President, is particularly worrying aspect of a more general trend towards vocal public protest in the Republic.

Mr Whelan was kind enough to point to our long time maxim, play the ball, and not the man as an examplar of how a rules based engagement can create what is known in the jargon as pro social behaviours even amongst people who profoundly disagree.

He wrote:

Thirteen years ago, when the Northern Ireland blogger Mick Fealty first launched the news and opinion site, he introduced one rigid rule for posts and comments. He sums it up as “play the ball not the man”.

In 2002 online comment was more courteous. Notwithstanding the ongoing peace negotiations, Northern Ireland politics was still brutish and divisive.

Fealty saw the need to ensure that while contributors could and would be encouraged to engage in robust debate on the issues, he and his moderators would not permit personal attacks.

They maintain and monitor that policy to date, which is why Slugger has developed a reputation for hosting a mostly intelligent dialogue on a range of controversial and important issues in Irish and British politics.

A “play the ball, rather than the man (or woman)” rule would be a good starting point for greater civility in our wider public discourse. Our politics is likely to be even more volatile as the election approaches. The potential for an even more abusive political atmosphere is therefore greater.

Now, I am not sure that in 2002 the net was more courteous, but Slugger when commenting first began certainly was, in the sense that people were strangers to each other.

It helped too that we were putting a lot new and often surprising material (archived here, under Unionism: beyond process) from our Long Peace research interviews. The need for the rule only came in when that initial civility began to wear off.

First it was no ad hominem (the word was new to me, I cribbed it (as I do many things) from a readership that was often and remains in aggregate much smarter than me or indeed my fellow bloggers.

The much plainer play the ball and not the man, came from Ian Parsley I think (yep, that long ago Ian!).

I liked it straightaway, one because it wasn’t in Latin and could be easily understood, and two because it was gamesy and fun, and could be seen as encouraging the natural competitiveness of politics.

It’s particular value lies in the fact that the moderator is faced not with the question of what’s politically correct, but what addresses the issue at hand, and what doesn’t.

It evolved further into notional red and yellow cards (the black spot came later) so that we could signal our desire to keep people in the game for the longest possible moment before administering a ban.

From the beginning I was minded to encourage two things: pluralism of view, and strong contention over whatever issue of the day we’d put out for discussion/debate.  It is not one or the other, but both.

In the context of Northern Ireland alone, the toughest challenge has been how to encourage people with diverse identities and backgrounds to work together productively. As Lu Hong and Scott E. Page have noted:

…identity-diverse groups often have more conflict, more problems with communication, and less mutual respect and trust among members.

That’s most often couched in terms of the Outgroup Homogeneity effect, or “they are alike; we are diverse” bias. There are also problems with framing biases, which is one of the reasons we’ve always been keen to bring in a wide variety of voices/perspectives.

In this way we can see the play the ball and not the man rule as a simple heuristic device which allows diverse groups make some form of collective sense of the unfolding chaos around them.

In the Republic the new civic rudeness is less about the mishandling of ethnic diversity than a more generic breakdown of trust between the power centre in Dublin, and those struggling for survival on the edge.

The gap between the disgruntled stories local people tell each other and the absence of a broader narrative is filled by fractured, contradictory and unconvincing stories from government [and opposition] spun from the centre.

And yet whilst the anger may be both palpable and genuine, it is unlikely that any of the problems being endured through the government’s cack handed roll out of Irish Water can get fixed (a wicked problem if there was one) without matching the resources of the centre with those at the edge.

Populism has always been an essential part of representative democracy, but it’s the departure between wet populism and an increasingly dry unlistening technocracy that’s bringing many countries in the west to a crisis.

Yet as much as anger may be transformative, it can also produce suboptimal agency for those genuinely looking for functional change. The critical gap is between between what people want, and what the system can be made to deliver. Or how.

Playing the ball forces people towards thinking about things that matter, rather than just telling us, one by one, who it is they hate. Immigrants, Gays, Protestants, Brits, Greens, Americans: the list is endless dull and repetitive.

And, what’s probably worse, it’s also incapable of generating the new lines of thought [and concrete action] needed to take Ireland into an already turbulent and uncertain 21st Century.

That requires some form of careful bridging that sees ordinary people not as an external group to be bought off, but as a well of essential knowledge about who and what the nation is and what it needs to grow. But, as UK Labour MP John Cruddas put it recently

Our established political parties are in danger of being past their sell by date. Their tribes are shrinking and memberships declining; their hierarchies and bureaucracies too slow and cumbersome.

Arguably they stifle initiative and innovation which hinders adaptation to new circumstances.

Our political parties were once vital, intermediary institutions between the people and the state. But in some parts of the country they have become so disconnected from society that they can no longer fulfill this role properly.

As with open government, there’s no ready pro forma for a way forward. But if there is a wider value for the play the ball approach in politics, it’s as an aid to shared understanding and the identification of ways forward in a complex society.

As Margaret Wheatley has said…

“We need to replace the questions ‘what’s wrong?’ and ‘how can we fix it?’ with two better ones – ‘What’s possible here?’ and ‘who cares?’”

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  • Kevin Breslin

    Oh, I hope my ad hominum arguement was not a serious one, I seriously didn’t try to offend, merely test the limits of this blog’s moderation. Honestly I agree with the playing the man thing, the woman can be “the man” in a way without implicit sexism. My point was not made as ironic as I hoped.

  • Jag

    Both playing the ball and playing the man have their places in society. The former facilitates debate and education, the latter is certainly an escalation but history tells us it is sometimes effective at achieving change, and is always effective for expressing strength of feeling.

    Calling Enda Kenny a “c*nt” at the GPO protest, calling the president a poisonous corrupt overpaid midget, or whatever, calling Joan Burton practically every name under the sun, won’t have added to the issues at the core of the water charges debate, but it will certainly convey the strength of feeling of protesters – opinion polls which show the government having less than 35% support does the same – and short of a snap election, is arguably an effective challenge to power (if it weren’t would that Establishment shill, sorry political commentator, be criticising it)

    I can tell you government ministers and TDs now consider these challenges on a daily basis and are forced to justify to themselves their actions. These politicians may not change course or do U-turns, but they will have at least considered their actions more carefully. To that extent, direct protest, as you call it, is effective.

    Obviously fire-bombing a TD’s office was wrong, as was some of the abuse directed at the TD. On the other hand, she displayed what some saw as a cavalier attitude to taxpayers money and provided explanations which were unacceptable to many people. She is now in no doubt as to depth of feeling towards spending €2,000 on telephone calls to her friend in Kenya.She’s repaid the money though insists she’s done nothing wrong.

    Equally Michael Higgins may be more considerate of future legislation which comes his way, he has certainly been reminded of his Labour parentage. And ditto with Enda Kenny. That direct protest may not ultimately change his mind on water charges, but he will certainly treat the subject more carefully than he has in the past.

  • Janos Bingham

    Suggesting that, although “wrong” firebombing an elected representative’s office, or purile abuse directed at the head of state in the hope he thinks twice about legislation in the future (the implication being that he did not ponder too deeply first time around), is in anyway legitimate on the basis that it expresses the strength of feeling on a given issue is dangerous in the extreme.

    That type of thinking allows an active minority of people the power to advance their positions simply because they take ‘direct action’.

    The only legitimate ways to change things in a democracy are peaceful protest and winning at the ballot box. Championing a fear of violence as an acceptable agent of change leads to the law of the jungle.

  • Jag

    In Northern Ireland, there’s always been healthy hostility and disrespect towards some views (reunification versus partition, principally). In the South, there’s no such implacable division – there is division between the elites and the masses, but as the latter aspire to becoming the former, that has kept a lid on direct protest.

    Since the late 2000s when Noel Whelan’s party bankrupted the State, and the IMF had to rescue the country, with Noel’s party being directly responsible for ballooning our national debt from 25% of output to well over 100%, since then, Irish society has become more bolshie (literally, given the rise of the socialist party, people before profit and independent left wing TDs) and less respectful. Who’s going to trust a shower of clowns who have brought the State to the brink, and in the case of Fine Gael have kept the State close to the brink?

    I’m frankly more surprised that there hasn’t been more direct protest.

    I agree with you John that the civil unrest in the Republic pales into insignificance when contrasted with the Northern Ireland civil war and uneasy peace process. A cynic might suggest Noel was trying to scaremonger – “if you don’t soften your coughs in the South, then you risk becoming Northern Ireland”. I don’t think much heed should be paid to his “concerns”.

  • mickfealty

    Interesting interpretation Janos. I intended (but perhaps failed) to mark that the endangerment of human life as anomalous to legitimate protest not to mention freedom of assembly [a right, we should probably note, which remains heavily circumscribed at the discretion of the NI state].

  • mickfealty

    It’s well noted in what they call ‘the literature’ that we started small and got bigger as the Troubles went on. I think it is perfectly legitimate to mark out what happened to Ms Mulherin as unacceptable and undemocratic.

    At the very least pointing to the much lower standards we hold to in NI (which we got to only after a very nasty and prolonged civil conflict) is a poor recipe to be offering the Republic.

  • mickfealty

    Classic man playing Jag… and a great example of why it’s socially unproductive, not to mention non generative.

  • Barneyt

    Difficult to distinguish the man from the ball sometimes…or is it the other way round.

  • mickfealty

    You aren’t the only one. Even on the moderation side, I think we get it wrong sometimes. Jag’s post (no doubt well intentioned: below is a good example of what a lot of people think is acceptable because it isn’t really what you could call objectionable or abusive.

    Most of the time it is a pretty simple case of ‘look, this guy is not qualified to speak with us in our digital Aladdin’s Cave, because of… x, y and z’. The habit long pre-dates Slugger. And in fact there are wins to be had for both sides in focusing on the subject matter rather than on who is qualified to contribute and who is not.

    Play the ball, assumes that everyone is qualified, whatever their politics, perspective, experience and that the conversation is enriched by diversity. I think this is why Slugger has continued to thrive as a viable conversation space throughout the social revolution..

    There are some folk who keep great FB profiles, but most only have people commenting with whom they share a worldview. The challenge and commitment to a given space and diverse conversational audience is not there.

    As an aside, I thought this from Ezra Klein ( on the imminent departure of Andrew Sullivan from the US blogosphere is worth repeating in this context:

    The need to create content that “travels” is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share.

    I think we’re getting better at serving a huge audience even as we’re getting worse at serving a loyal one.

    As Sandy Starr noted ( some long time ago blogs are only as good as the things they do, and the real drag remains in a general vacuity and lack of content in some ideologically led pressure groups.

    Playing the ball, is not a guarantee of quality of thinking, but it does have a counter action on this general impulse to draw back into confirmative conversations with people we like and against people we don’t like…

    Hong and Page again:

    diversity in perspective and heuristic space should be encouraged. We should do more than just exploit our existing diversity. We may want to encourage even greater functional diversity, given its advantages.

    As I say above, the play the ball rule promotes diversity (that’s its agenda if you like), but it also gives us the means to tolerate or accept the legitimate right of others to hold their views.

    And to energetically go about proving them wrong. 🙂

  • mickfealty

    If we take Mulherin as an example, I’m afraid Ireland has already fallen off that purity wagon. But I take the spirit of what you’re saying.

    But in a sense the argument I want to make here, and more broadly is the positive for what arises from the rule itself.

    Not least because I argue that listening/paying attention to what your opponents actually say makes you more powerful in the marketplace for ideas.

    If it is not an innate characteristic of the technological revolution there has been a rock drop in levels of tolerance for diversity. Aside from the sheer terror of the middle conflicts from Gaza to Kobani, one of the more remarkable and distressing aspects have been the trailing out of minority religions (Mandaeans, Ezidis, Zoroastrians and Yazidis to name a few) that have been embedded in muslim majority states for 100s years for particular attention and destruction.

  • mickfealty

    To paraphrase Wired Magazine’s maverick Kevin Kelly, the internet is just a barrow load of cool tools. What we do with them is our business, not just the other way round John.

  • aber1991

    “We are now in “Pre Conflict” mode”

    I thought that I was the only person who feared that. I hope we are both wrong and very wrong.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As I’ve just been attempting to say on another thread, thinking and expressing something is one thing, effecting those ideas in a manner that is against the public good is quite something else.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Mick for a helpful and very lucid posting explaining much detail I’d personally find very useful in composing my future postings.

    My own concern is that all ideas and opinions should be given a careful analysis for inconsistency, simplifications and evasions, and that such things should be respectfully and courteously argued through. While “good faith” anecdotal comments should be treated as such, any hard analysis that would intend to seriously direct opinion should be fully and honestly examined. Of course all this serious analysis only happens when I’m not rambling on in an inconsequential manner anecdotally over in some virtual-corner of Slugger to anyone who will listen.

    The current project to enable more of those supporting the Union to comment intelligently is all important, for the habits of courteous discussion across the range of opinions will be core to enabling any future version of the wee six that would finally pass on from simmering conflict to do so. Nothing but good can come from honest, intelligent discussion, and I’ve certainly found my own endless discussions with my wider family and their friends, most of whom would think of themselves as Unionist in politics, endlessly stimulating and an enormous help in honing my own, (I hope!) more liberal attitudes.

    However this has pitfalls! Sometimes I bring into Slugger some of the habits of robust personal exchange developed in this kind of conversation where a base line of civility between those engaged is taken for granted. In the context of Slugger this may become something I recognise as all too easily leading to a descent into man playing such as the big English broadsheets web comment columns are sadly all too full of. Especially when offence is occasionally taken by anyone not face to face with me and perhaps misunderstanding my caricaturists habits of sharp visual image and hyperbole for malice. So as St. Just wrote in his diary on the eve of his Jacobin career, “I have done badly, I will attempt to do better”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Especially when, Barneyt, as a Los Angeles wall graffiti I once saw says;

    “The people who are destroying the world have names and faces.”

    I suppose we should try and remember that although the ball must sometimes need to be kicked hard and skilfully to score a goal, doing this with the man seldom scores any real goals, at least since we generally stopped playing with leather bound heads.

  • Barneyt

    look at it this way. When someone gets a yellow or red card, or indeed worse, most of us (I would suggest) do some digging to see what juicy comments they posted. Its a small part of the attraction on this site…a bit of sleggin.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Al too true, but entertaining as it unquestionably is it really does keep the goal count down!