In defense of online rudeness
A couple of weeks ago, the moderator of a certain website I frequent posted a message, reminding us commenters to respect each other. The warning wasn't random, of course; it was prompted by a discussion that got a little less civilized than normal for that site.
This kind of thing plays out all the time on thousands of different sites. But what bugs me about these "please be civil and respect each other" warnings is that they only target one general type of rudeness. I did a Google search for "message board rules etiquette," to get some examples of posted rules. A lot of them include something like this:
"Don't issue personal attacks, use profanity, or post threatening, abusive, harassing, or otherwise offensive language or images. Keep your messages appropriate and courteous at all times. Please disagree with other opinions respectfully."
Now, most of us follow this advice almost all the time. But, sometimes, we don't. When don't we? When we get really frustrated with someone. Why do we get frustrated?
Well, they might be repeatedly misrepresenting something we wrote. They might be ignoring our questions. They might be following the argument back and forth for hours, until they realize they're "losing", and change the subject. They might be obviously disingenuous, denying something they wrote in another post just days before. They might agree with what you say when it suits their argument, but change their mind as soon as it goes against them. They might be trolling for fun. They might be committing any one of a thousand logical fallacies, and refusing to be corrected.
But ... the rules don't prohibit that, do they? The rules say you can get kicked off the forum for calling someone an idiot. But you can't get kicked off for repeatedly (and perhaps deliberately) butchering your logic.
Here's a hypothetical situation I made up:
A: US citizens spend too much on foreign aid. We need to help our own instead. There are thousands out of work. I don't know why you don't see that.
B: I see that, but money spent outside the US can help a lot more people who are desperate. We can save hundreds of lives for almost nothing.
A: I don't believe you.
B: (Goes and searches the internet. Writes several paragraphs of illustration of various public health costs, and how cheap it is to save lives in Africa with cheap drugs or vitamins or something.)
A: Well, maybe, but the multinationals make too much profit when we do that.
B: (Goes and searches the internet) Here are some companies selling drugs at cost, or offering them for free, if we just pay to distribute them!
A: Yeah, whatever. And, regardless, we still spend too much. Charity is nice, but in moderation. We should spend only about half of 1% of our income on foreign aid. That's $1 out of every $200. That's my maximum.
B: Hang on, let me search the internet ... well, as it turns out, we spend only 0.1% of our income on foreign aid! So, we both agree that we could spend a little more, right?
A: I said we should spend half of that! See, we spend too much!
B: No, half of that would be 0.05%. You said 0.5%. Here, let me quote your post: "$1 out of every $200".
A: You're misquoting me. Besides, you can throw numbers at me all you want. They're just numbers. The fact is that we spend too much on foreign aid. We need to help our own instead. I don't know why you don't see that.
B: You're a dick.
What happens next? B gets in trouble for calling A a dick. But A gets off scot-free for BEING a dick. And that's a lot worse.
As far as I'm concerned, it should be A who gets kicked off the site, not B. But that'll never happen. See, B's offense was objective, and easily caught. He used the word "dick". Everyone can understand that, and you can easily make a rule out of it. "Why did B get kicked off?" "He called A a dick." "Oh, OK."
On the other hand, A's offense was subjective. It requires a judgment call from the moderator. And, there's no smoking gun. "Why did A get kicked off?" B would say, "He was a dick." But A's supporters would say, "It's because he didn't agree with B." "It's because the moderator didn't like his politics." "It's because nobody respects B's right to stand up for American workers." "It's because that website doesn't respect dissenting views."
It's hard to describe what A did wrong. The evidence is hard to describe. There's no smoking dick.
And so, the As of the world get away with it, and we just have to put up with them.
I don't think that that B said anything morally objectionable. A indeed WAS a dick. Sure, it didn't *have* to be said ... but, it was true. At least in the sense that "you're a dick" can ever be said to be true.
And I would argue that B, after investing so much time and effort in moving the argument forward, earned the right to say it.
Sure, you don't want discussions degenerating into name-calling. That's no fun for anyone. But, in the appropriate context, an occasional, controlled outburst is OK.
Strained analogy: think of a discussion as a pot luck, and insults like ketchup. If you show up at a pot luck, you don't just bring a bottle of ketchup. That's rude, and tacky. But, if you bring hamburgers for everyone, and you *also* bring a bottle of ketchup ... that's perfectly OK. In fact, the hamburgers you're providing are actually enhanced by the ketchup you brought.
The rule is, if you want the right to serve ketchup at the pot luck, you have the obligation to serve the meat to go with it. And, if B has just spent the better part of an hour researching foreign aid, and hundreds of characters typing rebuttals to a poster he thought was arguing in good faith ... that's a LOT of meat. You've got to say that B has earned the right to pound the ketchup bottle a little bit.
This is one of the problems we have with public discussion in general. Whether it's politicians, columnists, academics, or talking heads on TV, the unwritten code is the same. You can butcher logic all you want, and nobody will call you on it. But resort to name-calling, or other "uneducated" forms of language, and you get in trouble.
The public doesn't have the time or patience to judge what you've said. But it does understand *how* you said it!
You probably know what happened to Don Cherry a couple of weeks ago.
Over the summer, in separate incidents, three former NHL players took their own lives. They had all been "enforcers," players kept on the team for their willingness to start fights with opposing players. Speculation ensued that there was somehow a link between being an enforcer and having mental health issues. Three other former enforcers, Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, and Jim Thomson, apparently made comments that expressed support for that hypothesis.
Don Cherry went on TV and accused Grimson, Nilan and Thomson of hypocrisy. Those guys, themselves, once chose to make a very good living with their fists, Cherry said, knowing that they'd be out of professional sports if they didn't. Now, they're trying to deny the same choice to today's players, since, with their careers long over, banning fighting would not longer cost them anything. And this, Cherry argued, was on the basis of a flimsy hypothesis with no solid evidence behind it. Hypocrites!
Seems like a legitimate argument, right? I mean, you can certainly disagree with it, but it's not that unreasonable a point to make, in the context of a controversial issue that's already attracted a lot of discussion.
But Cherry got himself in trouble. Why? Because he didn't use educated language. He didn't say it formally, the way I described it. He used less fancy words. One word, in particular: "pukes." Cherry called Grimson, Nilan, and Thomson "a bunch of pukes."
Without the word "pukes," it's just another Don Cherry TV segment. But with the word "pukes," suddenly there's outrage. There were news stories, outraged columnists, and even newspaper editorials, all of them prominently featuring the word "pukes."
In the midst of all this, Grimson threatened to sue Cherry if he didn't apologize. That was more than an idle threat: Grimson is a lawyer, and his statement threatening "further recourse" was issued by his own law firm. Cherry apologized a few days later. Grimson issued a new statement that said, OK, he wouldn't sue, but maybe the CBC should fire Cherry anyway.
Cherry got a raw deal: not just because of the content, which wasn't really any more controversial than his usual, but because of the attention he got by breaking the taboo against name-calling. "If you call somebody a name," goes the unwritten, unspoken rule, "it signals that you're uneducated and boorish, so, accordingly, we will oppose your argument exceedingly vigorously."
The media and public would do better to take some now-famous advice from MGL: "If you guys can’t separate tone from substance, that is your problem not mine. Stop being such whiners about tone.”
P.S. Kind of off topic, but while I'm here ...
I don't agree with Cherry's logic that Grimson is a "puke" for speculating on the link between fighting and mental health. I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing for a former goon to wonder about.
But, I do have a problem with Stu Grimson's conduct afterwards.
I mean ... What kind of guy spends his career beating people up, then complains about a "lack of decency" because someone has the temerity to criticize his views about it? What kind of guy threatens to sue someone just because he's been called a childish name? What kind of guy speaks out on a position of public importance, and then when someone disagrees, tries to get him fired? What kind of guy would leverage his advantage -- knowing he's a lawyer and can cause all kinds of problems for Don Cherry at no cost to himself -- to extort an apology with credible threats of a lawsuit?
Maybe Don Cherry was right about Grimson, after all.