Sorting Through Sophistries:
Enter the Sea Lion

By Faith Walessa

The bailey of sophistries is oddly peopled, indwelt by the Hominems, scarecrows, and Wile Ethelbert Coyote; with this next addition, the motte may become unbearable.

As touched on in our sophistry post from two weeks ago, and the one from three weeks before that, not all informal fallacies are primarily offenses against logic.

If someone were to call you an absolute sea lion, I think you could safely assume that this is not a compliment. However, in the spirit of being informed, it might be nice to know the offense worthy of such a title. That way, you can identify sea lions yourself.

At this point, it is worth noting that sea-lioning is not a formal fallacy, but can be grouped with the other fallacies in this series because it has similar effects—preventing a real argument from continuing through some sort of fabricated barrier or inconvenience. Truthfully, sea-lioning is half poor manners and half actual fallacy, being more disrespectful than illogical. However, it is still worth knowing how to identify and disarm for its popular appearance in modern conversation, particularly through social media.

The term “sea-lioning” comes from a webcomic series published by David Malki known as Wondermark. In a 2014 comic he named “The Terrible Sea Lion,” a couple is out for a drive when the woman makes a disparaging remark towards sea lions in general. Suddenly, one of these same creatures materializes at her side, and follows the couple through the next half a dozen frames of the comic, at increasingly inconvenient times (breakfast, nighttime, etc.), demanding a thorough, well-researched explanation for her statement—because, really, has a sea lion ever personally hurt her? When the couple attempt to ignore the sea lion, it accuses them of being uncivil and disregarding rational debate.

This comic gives us the key traits by which we identify sea lion tactics. To begin with, there are several elements to the sea lion’s approach. The first of these is a heavy pretense that the sea lion is actually seeking reasoned, civil debate—and their opponent is ignoring them! The sea lion attempts to reframe the whole situation, forcing you to defend your claims even though they were the one who began the discussion in the first place. They may play it off innocently, professing to care deeply about the truth and “getting to the bottom” of an argument, but the truth is that the sea lion simply wants to argue, and will not accept any other response. If you refuse to engage with them, the sea lion falls back on the assumption that you are incapable of defending your original view, rather than simply unwilling or frankly bored of the whole situation. Charmingly, they will find that this makes you the irrational, uncivil member of the argument. Altogether, it can be a tricky trap to get out of, because both engaging and not engaging seem equally dangerous.

Manners consist in pretending that we think as well of others as of ourselves. Manners are necessary because, as a rule, there is a pretense; when our good opinion of others is genuine, manners look after themselves.

The second aspect of sea-lioning borrows its name from a different animal—badgering. The surest way to identify a sea lion is to look for someone asking an absurd amount of questions. This can be accomplished in several ways. A sea lion may profess total ignorance on a basic topic, forcing their opponent to over-explain a simple subject in a way that trips them up and subverts their expectations. They will discount any expertise the other person has, demanding sources and evidence for every position. They will also reuse questions that have already been answered, approaching them from a different angle or just with different phrasing. All of this is done to trap their target in an argument that seems like it will never end, and which they really cannot win.

The overall goal of these tactics is simple: exhaustion and exasperation. If they frustrate you to the point of retiring from the conversation, they can fall back on their strongest, most aggravating argument—you do not want to argue with them anymore, when they have been nothing but polite and curious, so you must be an uncaring, unreasonable, uninformed person (and therefore wrong). If all they do is force-feed questions to anyone who disagrees with them under the cover of seeking truth, the odds that their opponent will either make a mistake or resign increase. Either of these outcomes allow the sea lion to declare victory, without ever proving a point of their own.

Such a fallacy appears especially frequently on the internet, a place without physical representation or sufficient accountability, which encourages argument in a fairly counter-productive way. Through social media, ideas are being shared at a faster rate than ever, which also means that we are seeing more public disagreements than ever. Simply by opening an app on your phone, you are exposing yourself to endless content, a large portion of which will conflict with your own views; one click further leads to the comments section, where everyone is encouraged to share their own opinion in whatever language they choose. Oftentimes, this leads to argument for the sake of argument, where individuals will just begin to attack whenever they dislike something they see—and in order to win such arguments, they fall back on a weapon like sea-lioning. Someone exasperated them with an opinion, so now they are going to exasperate the offender tenfold with endless questions wrapped in disingenuous interest, until the other side finally breaks and the argument is over—though no one involved has really won anything.

Sea-lioning, just by its existence, is quite harmful to the state of modern social discussion. Argument and debate are both good things, but they are hard to encourage after a negative experience with a sea lion, when someone’s viewpoint has been picked apart by merciless questions and false curiosity. This damages the communication skills of everyone involved, but makes the victim of sea-lioning less likely to engage in debate when a real opportunity is presented to them. The presence of sea-lioning in online spaces also makes it more likely for false accusations of sea-lioning to be thrown around: sometimes, innocent questions really are just innocent questions. Being able to recognize the difference between a genuinely curious person and a sea lion is important. Watch their language closely; look beyond the words themselves for the underlying intent. Make sure whoever you are debating is affording you the same respect you give them.*

And if all else fails? Look for flippers.

*Of course, the reliability of this tactic does depend on you showing your interlocutors respect.

Faith Walessa is a rising senior from Ontario, Canada. She hopes to study English at Hillsdale College, write books, and someday travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can learn more about fallacies from our other posts in this series. Or, if you feel like turning from communication to the stuff we communicate about, try some of our installments from the Great Conversation series, completed last year—ranging over multiple continents and going back four or five thousand years, we have introductions to ideas like evolution, magic, piety, revolution, and much more.

Published on 6th June, 2024.

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