by Claus Larsen
Sealioning is a term created by cartoonist David Malki in his comic strip Wondermark #10621.
Sealioning assumes that a conversation held in public between two people should not be unwantedly interrupted by others, be they ever so polite, because that is sealioning, a trolling or harassment tactic designed by elicit angry responses.
There are, however, several issues we must consider before we can pass judgment on whether an exchange is sealioning or not.
First and foremost, we must consider the medium. Has a request for participation been uttered in a public or a private forum? Malki shows us that the sealion first appears in public, which is clearly rude. From then on, the sealion persists even when the couple has expressed interest only in the sealion’s departure.
The case is different when it comes to online forums and social media. When you make a statement in public, you talk to the world with the intention that the world can listen and respond, if so desired. If you make an online statement that the world can read with the possibility to respond, you cannot claim to have invited only your closest of friends to comment or none at all. The scope of potential readership determines the possible responses you can get.
You are always free to ignore those you consider intruders and may even be able to apply technical measures to block them, either from your own perspective or from everyone else’s.
Should you choose to block them only from your own perspective, the problem is solved: You are no longer having your conversation imposed upon. But that is a choice of reconsideration on your part, not the fault of those you feel intruding.
Should you choose to block them from everyone else’s perspective, you are imposing your judgment on everyone else. If the medium is your forum, you can so decide, since that can be seen as the equivalent of your front parlour. But be aware that you are also making that decision for everyone else. Are you your brother’s keeper?
If you want uninterrupted conversations online, take them private. Sealioning cannot take place in private chats. That is why the logic in Malki’s comic strip breaks down in the fourth frame which shows the sealion inside the couple’s house, and continue in the final two frames.
Second, while genuine sealioning undoubtedly exists, the accusation of sealioning should be considered carefully, since it is easy to fall prey to one’s own prejudices and misapprehensions. How do you know that the person is trolling or even harassing?
If the questioning pertains to commonly known things, you may think it impossible to not have knowledge about it. Be humble, though, because you might be better educated than the person asking, or you may simply assume that what you know, everybody else must know. Sadly, that is not the case, as the proliferation of ignorance is all too obvious today.
Different cultures will have different focus on what is deemed necessary knowledge. Even people from other cultures may have an intimate knowledge of yours, but still missed out on some aspects of what may seem obvious to you within your culture. Learning is not a sequential process, it is a chequered and confusing one.
Fortunately, we can test if it is really a case of sealioning.
If you answer the question and ask a question or want a clarification yourself, the response will reveal the true intention: If your question is met with a reasonable answer, it is not sealioning. You are having a conversation.
Likewise, if the questioning is moving forward, where argument A leads to argument B and then to C, it is not sealioning. You are having a rational conversation.
In case you are confronted with a sealioning person, it is important to remember that you are always in control of your own behavior. Nobody can demand that you either start or continue a conversation.