I had a view, and my view was this: Serial sexual abusers should submit to castration. Castration, I believed, would sideline the abuser’s compulsions and thus keep the world safe from him (or her lol). While castration hasn’t been tested on abusers in the Harvey Weinstein style, it’s been used with success on child molesters, bringing the recidivism rate, or so I’d read somewhere, from 75 percent to 2 percent. (Another upside: Castration is rumored to forestall male-pattern baldness.) Of course I meant an entirely bloodless course of hormone therapy. Not a hatchet. I’m not some harridan. The abusers would just get shot up with something called an anaphrodisiac, a brew to suppress androgens and other traces of Aphrodite in the blood.
My opinion was built on a couple of statistics, but less rational motivations were also in play. Like many who have held jobs, I’ve served my time in taxis and at happy hours showing down with groping goats in the garb of VIPs. I’ve either wised up to or aged out of this dispiriting cycle, but now, I imagined, with a touch of grandiosity, I might stop it dead. My view, if I really advocated for it, might not only redeem my own experiences, it would revise my earlier meekness with a Valkyrie-like reversal—and avenge the sisterhood.
Yet another contingency undergirded my pro-castration platform: a church-trained, perhaps sentimental worldview that even the worst among us can be delivered from evil—if not by prayer alone then by the ministrations of a compassionate endocrinologist. My hormone-therapy prescription was designed both to recognize the suffering of the sinner—he’s “sick” and treatable with medicine—and to punish him with that pitiless word. Castration.
So I had this opinion, and as you can tell I adored it; it made the crooked places in my brain straight and the rough places plain. As the opinion gave me comfort, I grew more tenacious. I amassed an arsenal made of words sharpened to a fine point. I was all but spoiling for a fight.
At the same time, something seemed sinister in my view. Castration? It was zealous. It was maybe mean. At once I realized: I dearly wanted to have my opinion changed.
Because, look, as righteous as I felt, my conscience was also appalled that I wanted to disable the testicles of any mother’s son, however much that son liked to masturbate into potted plants and force frottage on colleagues at the vending machine. To recommend that those in power sterilize, spay, and geld the people they don’t approve of—that seems the very essence of barbarism. Had my desire for revenge made a Mengele of me? Worse still, was I trying to pass off my personal revenge fantasy as high-minded and rational, inspired by Google searches I dignified as “scientific data”? And so I signed on to Change My View, a section of Reddit where people post opinions and ask to have them changed.
Change My View was the brainchild of Kal Turnbull, a musician who was just 17 when he launched the subreddit in 2013, roughly three years before intransigence became the guiding principle of all debate everywhere. As a high school senior, Turnbull could have been forgiven for digging in his heels on teen truisms like punk’s not dead or—he’s Scottish—alba gu bràth. Instead he rebelled against all sloganeering and groupthink.
“I was generally surrounded by people that all think similarly,” Turnbull told me by email from near Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, where he records music in a farm shed. Back in 2013 Turnbull and his mates tended to discuss Breaking Bad, Scottish independence, and indie rock, but Turnbull won’t say what the group’s consensus on those things was, because he’s assiduous about avoiding bias now. “In the grand scheme of the world, we all thought similarly,” he told me. “This led me to wonder, what does someone actually do when they want to hear a different perspective or change their view?”
Turnbull didn’t want to attract the chippy you-talkin’-to-me? crowd that was already adequately represented on Reddit. He meant to populate his forum with people sincerely in quest of lively and honorable debate. At first Change My View did attract rancor and ad hominem brattery, but Turnbull was patient and true to his vision of civil discourse. He enlisted moderators from among the more fair-minded regulars, and for five years now they have policed not just name-calling, rudeness, and hostility but superfluous jokes and mindless agreement. (Turnbull deletes what he calls “low-effort” comments.)
Change My View looks like a standard subreddit, a message board on which threads are organized by topic. (The parent company of Condé Nast, which owns WIRED, holds a majority stake in Reddit.) Yes, you have to trudge through the Caledonian Forest of Reddit’s UX and, as usual, risk being hazed when you trespass against Reddit’s clubby customs. But it’s worth it. CMV is a little heath of reason.
If you have a view, you post it. You’re a “submitter.” Then those who aim to change your view roll in, posting their views of your view. These are “commenters.” Submitters are not supposed to look for fights on Change My View; that’s for … everywhere else on the internet. Instead CMV posters foreground their flexibility—and maybe some insecurity, which brings with it a poignant willingness to be transformed.
Once you submit a view, you’ve committed to a mental marathon. The rule that makes Change My View different from a freewheeling chat room is that a submitter is required to respond within three hours to brook respectful challenges to their view. You can’t just post and skedaddle for the day. If a submitter doesn’t respond to commenters in good time, they’re considered AWOL, insincere, or obdurate, and the board moves on.
“What’s astounding about Change My View is that no single radioactive topic—not Trump, Brexit, sex, guns—has overrun it.”
So you train your attention on the topic, and stay and debate. In come the comments, raising questions and courteously testing your conviction. If you’re unmoved by the comments and refuse to modify your original submission, the debate comes to a close when commenters get tired of it. But if you are persuaded to change your view, and only when you decide it’s changed, you award a delta, the mathematical symbol for change, which is rendered by Option-J on a Mac. The delta goes to the commenter who you believe made you modify, or overturn, your view. To have your view changed or to change someone else’s view are both counted as victories.
Recently a poster called Sherlocked_ plowed into a time-honored lion’s den: “I lean left but believe abortion should be illegal in most cases.” What appeared, however, were not lions at all. Instead, gentlemanly commenters filed in to make debating-society points about physical autonomy. Sherlocked_ heard them out, asking for clarification here and there, but refused to budge.
Finally Penny_lane67 moved the subject from the status of the fetus to the woman, saying that pregnancies can affect women in many ways—some physical, some otherwise. Sherlocked_ acknowledged that this thought was new to him. He mulled it over, ruminating in a few paragraphs.
At last he wrapped up the thread in a small internet miracle: “As I type this and think about it more I think you’re right, even if it wasn’t abuse and it was simply an accidental pregnancy, there is a chance the pregnancy could cause psychological harm to the mother. And because that would be so hard to diagnose, if I allow abortions in those cases I think I effectively have to in all cases.” Delta. ∆
Now I wanted nothing more than to have Sherlocked_’s intellectual curiosity, flexibility, generosity, broad-mindedness. But I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I entered Change My View with trepidation. I felt like I was submitting to chemical castration myself.
Turnbull’s good gardening has let a thousand flowers bloom, and what’s astounding about Change My View is that no single radioactive topic—not Trump, Brexit, sex, guns—has overrun it. Instead, eclectic subjects, most far from the headlines, pile up like a tone poem. Submissions include “Chiropractors are pseudo-scientific BS,” “Palestine will be completely annexed by Israel within 50 years,” and “In Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) Daniel is the villain.”
The diversity supplies a surge of faith in our fellows. In our era of idées fixes it’s almost disorienting to read an opinion that’s held lightly, so lightly it’s presented expressly for overhaul. Submitters here are by definition skeptical of their own views or otherwise dislike holding too fast to them. But initially I couldn’t fathom how to phrase a view as pre-undermined and prime for demolition. That is, until I started looking closely at the submitted views, which, as in the case of my castration view, contained hints of minds at war with themselves. The submitter who finds chiropractors quacks seemed to hope one might relieve their joint pain, where the Mrs. Doubtfire connoisseur, who took the controversial stand that lovable Daniel (Robin Williams) is the villain of the piece, appeared mostly to want to match wits with other fans of the film. As for the bold opiner on Israel, maybe this person feared for the future they nonetheless foresaw and was hoping someone would disabuse them of the prophecy. Sometimes an opinion seems like a burden you long to lay down.
If submitting is an act of trust, it follows that commenting on a submission is an act of dominance. Commenters on Change My View are a much more familiar internet type than are submitters, whom they far outnumber. After all, they prefer being right to doubting themselves. They also like debate, persuasion, and the sweet, swift QED of winning an argument. They crave those deltas.
When I first heard about the preponderance of commenters, I wondered whether CMV simply reproduced the power dynamics of ordinary internet shouting matches, with the sole innovation that it had found people, like me, entirely willing to play the fish at the poker table. I pushed Turnbull on this. “Those who are good at challenging views would not necessarily be good at being challenged themselves,” he admitted.
“Only one gets to be right!” I persisted, seeing a chance to win.
And that’s when Turnbull—who at 22 is less than half my age—opened my eyes. His reasoning instantly modeled exactly the civil, and enjoyable, discourse he’s promoting.
“Assuming the view change is correct, those who have gained new perspective also ‘get to be right,’ ” he wrote. He even wishes we were all more pleased when we find out we’re wrong about something. “I would try to celebrate it,” he went on, “but I agree it’s not always as simple as this. It seems to be in our nature to focus on how we were wrong over the fact that we’re now right (as if we can’t be works in progress), and we often attach our egos to what we believe. This is an idea we are trying to challenge at CMV. A view is just how you see something, it doesn’t have to define you, and trying to detach from it to gain understanding can be a very good thing.”
Racking up deltas is how you get on the leaderboard at CMV. But in some ways, the subreddit rewards change on either side. One of the highest scorers in delta-acquisition to date is a Brett W. Johnson, management consultant, Eagle Scout, and member of Mensa based in Houston.
Johnson emailed me at length explaining that he believes in regularly challenging his own views, and Change My View is the first place he has discovered where you can demonstrate a willingness to change course without being perceived as weak. “In many places, if someone is open to having their mind changed on an issue, they are often met with scorn or ridicule for not already believing the alternate view,” he wrote. “There are few places I have ever found where someone can come in and say, ‘I’m not sure why people don’t think like I do—can anyone help me understand the other side?’ and be met with honest, civil, and straightforward discussion.”
Johnson is now a moderator on Change My View, and he understood my anxiety about submitting a view for challenge. I realized I was abashed both about my view and my reasons for holding it. And I was about to expose both things to the internet. What if my logic was found wanting?
He wrote, “Personally, I love being wrong! Being shown that I was wrong means that I get to remove a little pocket of ignorance I had and gain a more complete understanding of the world.”
My fear of being polemically impotent now seemed embarrassing. I was ready to love being wrong. So at last I submitted my case for the chemical castration of sex abusers to Change My View. You have to post the reasons for your belief, however imminently erroneous; I did that. But I didn’t say why I was anxious about my view—that I feared I was a monster for holding it.
The commenters were exceedingly civil. With what seemed like plain curiosity, the first ones asked whether I imagined the men in question would have to have criminal convictions before they were considered serial abusers. I admitted I hadn’t thought of that; most of the men I had in mind were the ones who’d been exposed by extensive reporting, but they hadn’t been tried. I conceded that it could be an elective therapeutic treatment for men who acknowledged they were sexually compulsive and destructive, but compulsory castration would be appropriate only for convicts. That taught me that actually administering the kind of program I was advocating would be thorny. Then Moonflower, who has been awarded 60 deltas, wrote, “The problem with any kind of permanent-physical-damage punishment is that occasionally an innocent person will be convicted, and these medications do carry health risks which it would be unethical to force upon a person who might turn out to be innocent.” I liked that Moonflower raised the specter of innocence among alleged sexual abusers without politics or stridency. In other forums—like, say, Twitter—anyone who extenuates sexual abuse is considered a traitor to the sisterhood. But “occasionally an innocent person will be convicted” was nothing but an acknowledgment of the imperfection of the criminal legal system. So far, I couldn’t tell anything about anyone’s political allegiances, gender, or cultural positioning; usually a conversation about sex, gender, and penises brings out the most entrenched ideologues. But here we were discussing logistical, practical, and ethical questions. It came to me in a flash: This had nothing to do with Trump!
That alone was a surprise. We were somehow free.
Damn do these people like to debate. ThomasEdmund84 pulled up as a fellow traveler: “I can’t believe this topic came up today (been debating this issue all morning).” I asked him how he and his people had framed the conversation, and he said, “The nature of the debate was quite complex—as best I could tell from the literature, chem castration is very effective in some people and ineffective in others—high chance of side effects in both. I think in the end worth a shot if the person agrees, unfair without.” There was something in the “as best I could tell” that suggested he knew he was fallible, and that was the house style on the forum. We’re doing the best we can, trying to get to the truth, and no one of us has a monopoly on it.
Eventually I awarded deltas to three commenters who had helped me modify my view: I now allowed that the hormone treatment for sexual abusers would have to be post-conviction, voluntary, and reversible. My opinion was no longer a “take” fitted to Twitter or an op-ed. It was a responsible perspective, honed in a collegial atmosphere. There was something else surprising about this gang. Not one of them had called me a castrating bitch.
In a culture of brittle talking points that we guard with our lives, Change My View is a source of motion and surprise. Who knew that my most heartening ideological conversation in ages would involve gonads, gender wars, and for heaven’s sake Reddit?
And in the end Change My View did change my view. It lifted—for a time, anyway—a set of persistent doubts about the sturdiness of my opinions. Yes, my opinions generally sound plausible. As a rule, I substantiate them. But occasionally I suspect with a shudder that I’ve conceived one in partisan bias, scattershot anxiety, or even outright malice. In short, I question my capacity to reason impartially. What if, in this case, my view was prompted exclusively by rage at widespread sexual mistreatment of women? Or even blind fury at men? I tried to see the bright side: At least I was questioning my beliefs and their underpinnings, which would make me fit right in on Change My View.
While I’ve been anxious about my moral character more times than I can count, I hadn’t realized that I was bringing all that private brooding to my first post on Change My View. What I wanted, in coming to CMV, was to drop my self-doubt—to be relieved of that view of myself.
In this I wasn’t alone. I suspected the antiabortion submitter had felt as I did, worried that his view of abortion was at odds with the rest of his ideals, and that the contradiction suggested something was wrong with him. Just as I feared that misandry motivated me to favor castration, this submitter, who said he was generally liberal, seemed anxious that in wanting to recriminalize abortion he was a closet misogynist.
Maybe what we share when we submit views for changing is not the view itself as much as those poltergeist doubts that haunt all of us—about our motives, our capacity to reason, our politics, our principles, even our essential goodness. It’s that profound vulnerability in users of the forum that makes Change My View such a trusting and rewarding community.
There’s something wrong with me. That was an opinion that felt like a burden I’d longed to lay down. That was a view it felt like a triumph to change.
- Tech, Turmoil, and the New Censorship: Zeynep Tufekci explores how technology is upending everything we thought we knew about free speech.
- “Nice Website. It Would Be a Shame if Something Happened to It.”: Steven Johnson goes inside Cloudflare’s decision to let an extremist stronghold burn.
- Everything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You: Doug Bock Clark profiles Antifa’s secret weapon against far-right extremists.
- Please, Silence Your Speech: Alice Gregory visits a startup that wants to neutralize your smartphone—and un-change the world.
- 6 Tales of Censorship: What it’s like to be suspended by Facebook, blocked by Trump, and more, in the subjects’ own words.
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