Wednesday, March 06, 2013

How To Fight Politely

Probably you kick someone in the groin and then mutter a polite "excuse me" and offer them a cucumber sandwich and some China tea?

Fighting politely on the Internet can be a real problem for us womenz because the rules are different.  If you fight nasty, then you are a horrible bitch.  If the opponent is also a woman, then it's a cat fight (Have you, by the way, ever seen a real cat fight?  It's a frightening experience.).

But if you don't fight at all you a) become inaudible and invisible and b) lose the argument.  So it goes.

Still, the question of good manners doesn't apply to just women, as this opinion  on Paul Krugman shows us:*

Bloomberg's Sara Eisen reached out to author and global thinker Niall Ferguson, who had this to say about the New York Times columnist and Princeton Nobel laureate (emphasis ours):
In my view Paul Krugman has done fundamental damage to the quality of public discourse on economics. He can be forgiven for being wrong, as he frequently is--though he never admits it. He can be forgiven for relentlessly and monotonously politicizing every issue. What is unforgivable is the total absence of civility that characterizes his writing. His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma. It is a pity that a once talented scholar should demean himself in this way.

Krugman's answer:

What a pathetic response. Notice that he is doing precisely what I never do, and making it about the person as opposed to his ideas. All I have ever done to him is point out that he seems to not know what he is talking about, and that he has been repeatedly wrong. I would never stoop to speculating about his childhood! If he can't handle professional criticism -- which is all that I have ever offered -- he should go find another profession.
Hmm.  If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  Which is, interestingly, one of the few saws about aggressiveness that is set in a female setting.

This whole topic is quite complicated and I find myself skipping all over the place:

1.  In principle, I believe in politeness, in the idea that whoever I debate is most likely a human being (there might be demons and hence the reservation) and should be treated with that basic courtesy.

2.  But, and this is a big but:  I have learned, in the course of my long blogging career, that the fact of my femaleness elicits aggression and comments (a foaming c**t) that I would not get had I blogged under a handle such as Brawny Bob For Christ.  No amount of divine politeness completely works to rescue me from those comments or the very nasty threats.  So how to respond to all that?  Should I employ my viper tongue?  I have that gift but it's largely kept under lock-and-key.

Despite my explicit endeavors to be polite, I came across one site where my writing was described as vitriolic and vicious.  And me such a sweet and gentle and caring goddess!  The world is so unfair.

3.  The further implication of the gender difference in attacks is a troubling one.  If women are attacked more (which seems to be the case) then those attacks can have a silencing effect on women and may reduce their participation in online debates.  Or require the veil of a false handle, at least.

4.  The wider problem with politeness on the Internet is an obvious one.  We have now learned what people might say when they can say it anonymously, and much of that is truly nasty.  Read enough comments threads, and no amount of chanting "these are outliers, these are the extremists" will stop you wondering if you live in a world inhabited largely by a breed of secret bigots and misogynists.

5.  But the Ferguson-Krugman exchange is not about that.  It's about what quite famous male experts can say in public debates, and in that sense it poses an interesting question.  It also notes one of the no-nos in public debates (personal insults), followed by a possible insult about not being equipped to participate in hard give-and-take debates.

I think there is a difference in how right-wing and left-wing debaters are treated in this sense.  Think of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.  One can get away with real rudeness on the right, whereas the same level of rudeness from the left is pointed out.

6.  Finally, one can have the most polite debate in the whole world on some topic such as "Are people like  Echidne persons or just vacuum cleaners for penises?" and that, my friends, is the type of rudeness that mostly goes unnoticed.  Witness also the debates about race, about group differences in IQs,  about whether criminality has a racial genetic component, about whether women are essentially rather stupid and so on.  The participants in such debates are all assumed to hold the same level of politeness but the debate itself is extremely rude to only one side.  That side is not expected to take any kind of offense at all.

And it's a great principle.  If only we could apply it in reverse a bit more often, to see how well the required calmness prevails on the other side.

*To be honest, I often speculate (silently) about the childhoods of some vociferous misogynists out there, because of the few cases I happen to know in which the basis for the hatred of a whole gender is in the mother relationship.  Sorta like taking one's revenge on the whole world.  If that's the case, by the way, the person should seek therapy.  Whatever happened in one's childhood is no justification for spreading vengeance on the innocent later on.  We all are responsible for what we decide on such questions as adults.

But that has nothing at all to do with the Ferguson-Krugman exchange, of course.