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    Here’s a caveat / corollary of “we don’t do that here”:

    How well “we don’t do that here” works is closely related to how much real freedom of association exists in the field or activity in question.

    I will illustrate with a couple of examples.

    Tabletop RPG gaming

    Typical gaming groups consist of 4-6 players (typically; it can vary a bit in either direction), plus a “Game Master” or “GM”, who adjudicates play. The GM typically decides what adventure / module / campaign the group will be playing; what variant of the rule set will be in use (and what “house rules” will be in effect); etc. (Usually, the GM will also schedule and otherwise organize game sessions as well.)

    In traditional TTRPGs (such as Dungeons & Dragons), within the context of the game, the GM’s word is law. The rules are what he says they are; what happens in the game world is what he says happens, by definition—the GM creates the in-game reality, by speaking. It is understood (by some people better than by others, as these things often go) that the social contract is thus: the players make a voluntary choice to join the group, to sit down at the GM’s table, and they can leave at any time; but as long as they stay, they acknowledge the GM’s authority on matters of the game.

    “We don’t do that here” gets deployed as a natural consequence of this. A new player joins the group; she’s used to doing things in a certain way (building her characters in a certain way; using certain interpretations of this or that rule; following a certain procedure in this or that part of gameplay). “No,” says the GM; “we don’t do it like that, at my table; we do it like this, instead.” There certainly isn’t (or, at least, need not be) any notion that the way the player is used to doing things is wrong. She may prefer it the other way. When she plays at the table of another GM, that other GM may do things the way that she prefers. (For that matter, she can run her own game (on alternating weekends, perhaps), and there, do things how she likes.) But in this game, at this GM’s table, this is how it’s done, and that’s all the discussion there needs to be.

    … except that… what if there are no other GMs? No other gaming groups?

    I once got into an argument about this with a fellow on a certain internet forum, who felt quite strongly that a GM has a duty not to exercise the autocratic authority I described above, but instead to be maximally responsive to the preferences of the players who have chosen to join his game—concerning what adventures to run, what rule sets / variants / interpretations to use, and so forth. To me this seemed not only absurd but vaguely offensive. (It’ll come as no surprise that I typically take on the GM role, in my own TTRPG endeavors.) The obvious pitfall, after all, is that this “democratic” approach would inevitably results in having to have arguments and long discussions about which way of doing things is “better”, which rule interpretation is “right” and which is “wrong”, and so on! What could be more toxic to a gaming group?

    I made (what I thought was) the usual knockdown argument: if the players don’t like how a GM does things, they get up and leave! (Or don’t join the game in the first place.) Everyone plays in only the groups that do things they way that they prefer; everyone is happy; and the GM need not surrender any of his authority.

    But my interlocutor was not nearly as knocked down as I expected. Our difference in perspectives turned out to stem from a difference in context. I was used to living, and gaming, in New York City, where, among eight million residents (or twice as many, if one is willing to travel a bit for one’s gaming needs, and includes the NY-NJ-CT tri-state area), I can always expect to find any sort of gaming group I like. As a GM, I know I can find players; as a player, I have a choice of GMs. Not so in some small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or rural Indiana, or a suburb in Virginia! There, you may be lucky enough to find even one gaming group, one GM (especially a GM currently running a game, willing to take on a new player, etc.).

    Which puts “we don’t do that here” in a different context as well. You want to play a certain sort of character, a certain sort of adventure, a certain sort of game; the GM tells you “we don’t do that here”; he’s the only game in town, so you put up or shut up. Or—you argue! What have you got to lose? You get kicked out? Well, the alternative is walking out on your own, so why not try to get your way? Conversely, if you’re a GM, and half of your players leave, you don’t have a game anymore. Find new players? Unlikely! And so “we don’t do that here” no longer cuts it; the opt-in, freedom-of-association-based social contract no longer cuts it; now the participants have to agree on how things are done, which means (inevitably) that they’re going to argue… Hence my internet-forum debate opponent’s position: be responsive, figure out how to meet everyone’s needs, make decisions democratically.

    In short: when exit is impossible, the only avenue for satisfying people’s interests is voice. “We don’t do that here”, on the other hand, is a fairly explicit declaration of “voice is not an option; choose loyalty or exit”.


    This analogy is almost too obvious, so I won’t bother spelling out the details. I’ll just note that comments like this one are, basically, an example of an almost perfectly analogous difference-in-perspective-due-to-difference-in-context to the one I described above, between me and the fellow I was arguing with about autocractic vs. democratic approaches to GMing tabletop RPGs.

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      Why not link to the original at http://www.thagomizer.com/blog/2017/09/29/we-don-t-do-that-here.html ? The tumblr link in the post seems to be just quoting from there.

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        Thanks, I wasn’t aware there was a larger post. The original is just a teensy bit more SJ focused than the excerpt version, but I’ll go ahead and swap the link out.

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          re: “teensy bit more SJ focused”:

          I actually think there’s a valuable insight here, which is this. The post author says:

          In the world I want to live in, we don’t have to set negative rules like “don’t harass people.” Instead, we could get by with positive guidelines like “be welcoming” and “be kind” and use our giant human brains to figure out how to apply those values to novel situations. When I get the chance, I try to create those spaces. When I have the energy, I try to educate and inform instead of correct. But I still keep this simple phrase in my back pocket as a tool for ending and defusing situations when other approaches don’t work.

          It seems to me that, in fact:

          1. Those “global” approaches don’t work more often than they do;
          2. The “local” approaches do work, and not just in the interim or as patches, but on a long-term basis;
          3. The “local” approaches result in a better “global” state of affairs than the “global” approaches do.

          (Relevant: Scott Alexander’s “Archipelago”; also, actual real-world sovereign countries.)

          It seems to me that—yes, letting go of attempts to use the “global” approach in all cases, and falling back to “local” approaches when need be, is a huge, a vast, improvement. But even better may be to take the next step, and abandon the “global” approach altogether!

          P.S. There’s a big hint, I think, here:

          Instead, we could get by with positive guidelines like “be welcoming” and “be kind” and use our giant human brains to figure out how to apply those values to novel situations.

          The author seems to be (perhaps without fully realizing it herself!) pointing at the notion that starting from really big, really general values, and trying to apply them to novel situations, is incredibly demanding, cognitively / computationally. To demand that people do this is essentially to demand that everyone personally, individually re-derive morality nearly from scratch! This is obviously unreasonable, especially since the nuances of ethical issues often depend on domain- and situation-specific considerations, or complex incentive structures, or introspectively non-obvious features of human psychology, or differences in mental make-up (such as the sort of which Scott Alexander has recently written). It is not obvious to me that the author’s ideal world can exist even in principle; how much less so in practice…?

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        Enthusiastically seconding “we don’t do that here” as a valuable approach. I’ve used it myself (it comes in very handy in the context of TTRPG groups, which, by the way, are a fascinating example of a decentralized, loose cluster of communities, and have some really interesting social/community dynamics that are increasingly hard to find these days).

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