Sealioning: The Fastest Way to Shut Down Dialogue

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Social media brings out the worst in people. Many people take the opportunity to spew their thoughts onto the screen with relative anonymity and little self-reflection. This has wreaked havoc on civil communication for the past decade, leaving hateful comment threads and a tendency to always assume the worst of intentions in its wake. We have many colorful words for obnoxious people who harass others on the Internet, from “trolls” to “gaslighters.” A few weeks ago, I was introduced to a new term: the “sea lion.”

What Is Sealioning?

Apparently, the “sea lion” (or, as a verb, “sealioning”) has been around since 2014, but it seems to be making a resurgence in both social media and in-person conversations. The term originated in an online Wondermark comic by cartoonist David Malki. In the cartoon, a sea lion obnoxiously follows someone around asking for sources, evidence, and explanations for their opinion, all while loudly demanding a reasonable discussion.

Wondermark cartoon about sealioning

In short, sealioning is largely considered a form of harmful speech and even harassment in which someone persistently asks questions of a target, often feigning cluelessness, in order to force them to spend time and energy explaining a point of view. The questions are often easily searchable or common sense information—not things you should need to ask in an online conversation. Constant comments about the need for civil conversation (implying that the target is preventing good dialogue) are a sure hallmark of a sea lion. Amy Johnson noted in her essay “The Multiple Harms of Sea Lions” (in the collection Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online published by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard):

Rhetorically, sealioning fuses persistent questioning—often about basic information, information easily found elsewhere, or unrelated or tangential points—with a loudly-insisted-upon commitment to reasonable debate. It disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate. Sealioning thus works both to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. While the questions of the ‘sea lion’ may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously and have harmful consequences.

What Makes Sealioning Harmful?

Sealioning is legitimately harmful. It is neither good nor helpful to the state of civil discourse in society to ask constant, obnoxious questions of someone who disagrees with you. Sea lions ask incessant questions back to back, demand answers immediately in a condescending tone, and constantly remind you that they are the only ones being reasonable in this dialogue. Good clarification questions, on the other hand, bring—you guessed it—clarity to the conversation by fostering understanding and mutual respect. In short, sealioning shuts down a dialogue; good clarification questions keep it going. Please don’t deliberately be a sea lion, whether in person or on the Internet.

But here’s the problem: because sealioning “disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate” it can be difficult to prove that you are not a sea lion when you are legitimately trying to understand someone else’s point of view. Thanks to the Internet’s uncanny ability to decontextualize everything and cause people to assume the worst of intentions, it is incredibly easy for people to fall into the trap of the boy who cried sea lion. They can simply point and yell “Sea Lion!” at anyone who asks them to explain or defend their point of view, shutting you down and saving them from the need to think about or answer your questions. Sealioning can be extremely harmful to productive dialogue, and so can the ability to falsely accuse someone of sealioning.

You can probably see where this is going. If you’ve ever tried to engage with anyone about abortion, you know that those dialogues, whether online or in-person, are already often tense. At ERI, we train pro-life advocates how to de-escalate these conversations and lower people’s walls so that we can actually engage with their ideas. In order to keep these walls down throughout a conversation, it is crucial to avoid both sealioning and being accused of sealioning.

Clarification Questions: The Sea Lion Danger Zone

I am a firm believer that asking good clarification questions is a key part of any productive dialogue about abortion, or anything else for that matter. It just makes sense: if I am going to stand a chance of actually changing someone’s mind, I need to know what is driving their view so I can address that thing. It does me zero good to rattle off pro-life arguments that aren’t related to the reasons behind their position. I would argue it even makes the conversation worse because they’ll begin to feel frustrated that you don’t care what they actually think. I need to show genuine care and love for the person standing in front of me, getting to know them for them rather than assuming they’re just some pro-choice stereotype. Asking clarification questions is crucial both to understanding the other’s view so that you can address it and to making it clear that you care about them and what they think.

However, the use of clarification questions can be misinterpreted—genuinely or maliciously—by pro-choice people to accuse you of sealioning them. Whether in-person or online, the principle holds true: asking clarification questions is important, but asking clarification questions well is absolutely crucial.

Be Clear About Why You’re Asking

How you frame your clarification questions can make a world of difference in how others interpret your intentions. When I ask questions in a dialogue, I’ve found it extremely important to explain why I’m asking. This transparency helps the pro-choicer believe the sincerity of my questions and feel less threatened by them because they don’t feel like I am trying to lead them somewhere. I might ask a question about their view and follow it by saying, “I’ve heard a lot of pro-choice people say that before but mean very different things. I just want to make sure I understand what that statement means for you.” 

Explaining the “why” behind your question is even more important when what you are asking seems like a ridiculous, common sense question. If I just spontaneously ask a pro-choice person whether they think a squirrel should have an equal right to life, that might easily come across as really absurd sealioning. But, if I ask the same question and begin or follow it with “I know this question might seem super weird, but I ask because I want to understand how you think about rights more generally,” that shows my question has purpose and is neither malicious nor tangential, two hallmarks of the sea lion.

Don’t Be A Reporter

One of the most common mistakes I see when I’m teaching the importance of clarification questions is the tendency for well-meaning “rookies” to turn the conversation into an interrogation. 

“What do you think about abortion?…Okay, what do you think about restrictions on abortion? Do you support abortions for all 9 months of pregnancy? Or do you think there should be a cut-off somewhere? Like the third trimester? Second trimester? First trimester?…Well, what do you think about sex-selection abortion? Abortion because of disability? Down Syndrome? Spina bifida?”

All the questions in and of themselves were more or less fine, but the mere fact that they were asked back to back to back got my blood pressure up just writing it! If you’re averaging one question every three seconds, they probably feel like they’re on the witness stand and you’re the prosecutor!

It is very possible to have too much of a good thing. Questions are great, but turning into a reporter or a prosecutor in your conversation is obnoxious to the person you’re talking to. Work on folding your questions naturally into the conversation instead of rattling them off like you just memorized a monologue or a list of questions for winning abortion debates. Using clarification questions tastefully in the natural flow of your conversation can help them realize your questions are actually genuine.

Give An Escape

One obvious problem of the sea lion is that he demands evidence, sources, and explanations for the other’s view immediately. If you can’t back up your claim with hard facts within five seconds, the sea lion will invalidate your claim. Quite frankly, that behavior is ridiculous and rude in a dialogue. Don’t expect that the person you’re talking to is going to have all the answers to your questions right now. Chances are, you’ve spent much more time thinking about abortion than they have, and that’s okay. You’re in this conversation to help both of you think about abortion more clearly, so give them the necessary space to do that too.

If you are asking a question requesting evidence or an explanation for something, try giving them an “escape” by offering that they don’t have to answer your question or offer sources right now. For example: “That’s a really interesting claim; I don’t think I’ve heard that before. Where did you hear that from? If you don’t have sources on you right now though, that’s totally okay.”

(Note, demanding evidence, sources, and explanations immediately can be very appropriate in a debate setting. For more thoughts about offering an “escape” in dialogue and the ways in which debates and dialogues differ, check out Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?)

Be Okay With Going First

If you’re doing all of the asking and none of the answering, it is all too easy for the pro-choice person to feel on the defensive in the conversation. If they ask what you think, tell them! Even if they haven’t answered your latest question yet, tell them anyways! Don’t insist that they always tell you what they think first. If you’re transparent about your own beliefs and the reasons behind them, the pro-choice person will be too (probably).

When expressing your thoughts first, make sure to frame the thoughts as your own and then ask for their opinion at the end. For example, “For me, I think that __________________. What do you think? Come back at me here.”

You can also offer to provide your thoughts first if they seem to be struggling to answer a question. Like offering an “escape,” giving your thoughts first buys them some time to digest the question more fully, and it also offers them the ability to craft a response based on what they agree with and disagree with from your thoughts. If the person I’m talking to seems to be stumped, I might say something like, “It’s totally okay if you don’t have an answer right now. If you like, I can tell you what I think, and then maybe that’ll help you articulate what you do and don’t agree with.”

Shutting Down a Sea Lion

As I was researching this article, I found a lot of example responses to a sealion, and most of them were super snarky. Don’t get me wrong; if someone is sealioning you in an online or in-person conversation, you shouldn’t just have to put up with it. But if a pro-choice person is sealioning you with constant questions denying the biology of the unborn, don’t just reply “Google is free.” (Yes, that was literally a suggestion I found on the internet.) 

If you are engaging with a sea lion on social media, remember that your comments are more for the benefit of others reading the thread than for the sea lion. How you handle yourself in the conversation is on display for the whole world to see, and being snarky isn’t going to change the sea lion’s behavior or convince anyone else that your points are worth reading. You don’t have to and shouldn’t put up with sealioning behavior, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to be obnoxious right back. Instead, always model the kind of behavior that you would like to see in return, and graciously end the conversation by pointing out their behavior.

For example: “I’d really like to have a great discussion with you about this. It seems like you have strong ideas and opinions and you’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m really interested in helping us understand each other better. But your approach right now is so aggressive that I’m not sure we can have that kind of productive conversation.”

For more on graciously dealing with an aggressive conversation, check out our article Don’t Be Too Nice.

No More Sea Lions

When someone is sealioning you and you’re tempted to shoot back with 500 questions of your own, just stop, take a deep breath, and remember why you’re having this dialogue in the first place. Clarification questions aren’t weapons, and this dialogue isn’t a war. Ask your questions genuinely, explain why you want to know, don’t require an immediate response, and be willing to answer questions yourself. If you model the kind of dialogues you want to foster, you can help cast the sea lion into oblivion

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The post Sealioning: The Fastest Way to Shut Down Dialogue originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Incoming Speaker / Writer / Coach

Emily Albrecht is an incoming speaker, writer, and coach with Equal Rights Institute. She is currently in her third year as the Co-President of Oles for Life, where she has worked to transform campus culture using ERI’s apologetics to foster respectful and productive dialogues about abortion. At ERI, she is using her educational background to write, develop curriculum, and teach pro-life advocates how to change minds, save lives, and promote a culture of life in their communities.

Emily is particularly passionate about reaching the youth of the pro-life movement. As a recent college freshman, she understands what it feels like to walk unprepared into a culture that is overwhelmingly pro-choice. Until she found ERI, she was faced daily with challenges to the pro-life position that she didn’t know how to answer, and she was afraid to speak out. She wants to equip pro-life students with the tools to intimately understand and articulate their pro-life convictions in a productive and compassionate manner.

"The future of our movement lies with our youth. It is pro-life students who sit in classrooms daily with the very women who are most likely to seek an abortion. It is pro-life students who study philosophy, biology, and social justice in their coursework. It is pro-life students who can foster a culture of dialogue, respect, understanding, and intellectual-consistency in academia. I want to empower pro-life students to turn the caricature of the pro-life movement on its head, becoming known as the most loving, respectful, and logical students their campus has ever seen."

Emily is also on the Board of Directors for Cradle of Hope, an organization that provides financial and material assistance to families and pregnant women. Cradle of Hope partners with over 180 agencies throughout Minnesota, including 7 of the 11 Minnesota Tribes, to prevent evictions and homelessness while giving families education and resources that empower them to choose life and care for their young children.

Emily will graduate from St. Olaf College in 2021 with a B.M. in Vocal Music Education.

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