Volleyball has an unusual scoring system. You must already have the serve to score; if you don’t have the serve, you must win a rally to get it. Another unusual thing about volleyball is that the players on a team rotate into different positions whenever that team gets the serve. These two rules combine to create a distinctive scoring pattern. Sometimes there are extended “side out wars” where the two teams trade the serve back and forth without either actually scoring any points. Eventually one team’s strongest server rotates into the service position, or the receiving team has all of their strongest front-row players in the back row or vice versa, and the serving team runs off several points in a row. Smart coaches and captains even plan for this, and arrange their players to take advantage of these effects.

Given these dynamics, what do you think would happen if the members of a volleyball team decided they weren’t going to “run up the score” when they’re already ahead? Maybe they’d switch to serving underhand, or refuse to spike, if they’re up a point. I’ll tell you what would happen: they’d get creamed. If they were up by one point they’d promptly lose the serve, and their opponents would be one step closer to staging a run of their own. If the other team ever got ahead, though, they’d have no qualms about extending their lead and it would be hard for the “keep things equal” team to catch up. The net result (heh) is that such a policy would be tantamount to suicide.

Oddly, though, this behavior really exists – not in volleyball, but in online political debate. Many liberals are pacifists. Many are taught to respect others’ opinions. Quite a few are simply wimps. No matter how you slice it, though, these attitudes put liberals at a distinct disadvantage when debating conservatives and libertarians (collectively, “anti-liberals”) who don’t believe in “playing nice” at all. Liberals rein themselves in, and stop to listen; anti-liberals don’t reciprocate. Put ten liberals and ten anti-liberals in an online forum for a while and you’ll see a predictable little scenario unfold. The liberals will limit the tactics they use, while the anti-liberals will not. One by one, the liberals will get tired of enduring the same old personal attacks and rebutting the same old fallacies, time after time after time. Rather than respond in kind, most of them will quit. Before long you have three liberals and nine anti-liberals left (there’s always some attrition on both sides). In addition to everything else, one of those liberals gets tired of being outnumbered three to one in every conversation, and quits too. That’s all bad enough, but now you add ten more to each side. The new liberals start out being outnumbered nineteen to twelve, with many veteran opponents and few veteran allies, so the situation’s even more lopsided than the first time.

OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but the effect I describe exists even if there’s only a tiny difference in “typical attitudes” between groups, and I’ve seen this scenario play out many times – on M-Net, on Usenet, on any number of web forums. Over time, every forum seems to become more conservative, and more mean-spirited. People often seem surprised to encounter someone like me who’s liberal or moderate but also willing to bite back, because we’re relatively rare. None of this occurs because liberals’ beliefs are less valid, or because their arguments are weaker. It happens only because liberals handicap themselves. They’re like the player in the Prisoners’ Dilemma who always cooperates, and always get screwed. In an ecosystem where cooperators predominate such a strategy can actually work, but the net is not such an ecosystem. Defectors already predominate, and cooperators don’t stand a chance. Maybe that’s something to think about the next time you join your voice to the conservative/libertarian clamor in an attempt to “convert” that one last liberal who’s still holding out in an online forum. What honor is there in “winning” because your opponent gets disgusted and quits?