Monday, July 23, 2007

Guilty with an expurgation.

I've now heard off-blog from a few people who felt that this last thread—which, by the way, has obliterated all previous benchmarks for comments, at 66 and counting as I write this—strayed outside my usual standards for "civil dialog," as one critic put it. Evidently some of you felt that I permitted the blog to devolve to an uncomfortable he-said/she-said; that I stood passively by as people called each other out by name. A second emailer, who some months ago had had her own hand slapped for crossing the line, quite reasonably observed, "You explained to me then that you don't want ad hominem attacks. If calling somebody a 'racist' because you don't like their ideas, or linking their name and the word 'ignorant' doesn't qualify [as ad hominem], then what does?"

Folks... I am sorry if anyone was offended by some of the views expressed in that thread, which started out with Rhonda Byrne and somehow got into a spirited, free-ranging debate covering rap music, the feminine mystique, human nature as a whole, and even (to some degree) the nature of discourse itself. In my defense, a lot of sensitive, emotionally charged cans of worms got opened along the way, and I guess I felt that I needed to let the worms* crawl to wherever they seemed inclined to go. I also felt that the discussion deserved a denouement, and in my eagerness to host it, I suppose I was willing to tolerate a bit more of the bad along with the good. It is clear that I suspended some of the rules that I've upheld for two years insofar as personal courtesy and, especially, name-calling. Again, I apologize to anyone who came away thinking that the debate sank beneath the usual SHAMblog standards. It is difficult to make some of these judgments on the fly, in the midst of a philosophical free-for-all where people are commenting back-and-forth almost in real time, and one wants to be as fair as possible to all parties and their respective positions. It does become something of a slippery slope. ("Well, heck, I let the last person say such-and-such, and so-and-so is entitled to respond, and what he says here isn't that much worse....") Particularly in a case where two or three individuals are "having at" one another, if I suddenly bring down the curtain on one of the participants, or even just censor a comment that seems slightly more flagrant than the prior one, I worry about being accused of taking an active hand in rigging the "results." Yes, I know that that explanation doesn't address or justify everything that happened in that previous thread; it's just the best I can do, looking back.

I want to applaud those who kept their cool as things got hot. And just for the record, there were a couple of comments that came through—not from regulars—that I did spike because I felt that they added nothing and were simply from outsiders who wandered by, saw the developing scrum and decided to pile on in an over-the-top (and in one case genuinely racist and profane) manner.

On that score, I want to emphasize again that I see no legitimate reason why any of us would need to call one of our philosophical opponents "ignorant," or "an idiot," or any other labels that apply specifically to the person rather than the ideas that person expressed. If you think someone's ideas betray ignorance, that's us how by refuting the ideas. Just please leave the labels out of it. (Let me also point out that you can call somebody ignorant without actually using the word. An ad hominem attack that avoids epithets and is phrased in erudite language is still an ad hominem attack.) And please also consider that none of us is, or should ever be, defined or categorized based solely on one or two opinions we hold. I may have a belief about some particular thing in life that is incredibly naive and untutored...but that belief, in and of itself, does not make me an idiot. I happen to know, personally, a number of people that I consider extremely intelligent who have purchased The Secret and unabashedly subscribe to its themes. Go figure.

One final note to the two people who felt that I should've done more "refereeing," even in terms of the ideas themselves. This would be a good time to add that I have always had a tendency to value words more than content, and that may be a flaw of mine. This is probably because I'm not nearly so certain as some people seem to be about what's objectively right and what's wrong, or about whose god is the God—if anybody's is. Thus I tend to give all ideas equal footing**, especially if they're well-put, and bespeak some degree of self-consistent evidence. If Osama bin Laden turned up on SHAMblog with a passionate and eloquent explanation of why it was important to torture and kill American women and children, I would run it. It's not my job to decide that he's "wrong." He's entitled to feel that way. (And I'm entitled to feel that he should be tortured and killed. How do I know which of us is "right"? As I've said before, I kinda go with Bill Maher here: If you haven't actually sat down with The Big Guy, don't presume to know what He's thinking.) And though, at least where writing is concerned, I've never had to face situations that involved life and death, I have put my money where my mouth is within my own sphere of influence and activity. When I taught at IU, I told students on Day 1 that regardless of the school's official policies, my class was going to be run as a PC-free zone, and if students didn't like it, they should drop the course now, or write the dean and try to get me removed. One student, who thought he was being very clever, noticed the vowel at the end of my name and challenged me: "Suppose I want to write an essay about how Italians have brought nothing but misery and death to this country, and should be deported or even imprisoned. How about that?" And I told him, sincerely, that my first and only thought would be, "Let's see how I can help you write such a piece for maximum impact, to make it as credible as possible." (I would've done the same thing if he wanted to write a piece arguing for the restoration of slavery, or another Holocaust, or what-have-you. It was not my job as a writing professor to tell people what to believe—merely to show them how to communicate those beliefs effectively.) Later in my career, another student who had a bitter dispute with me over her grade took me at my word, saying she intended to write a letter to the dean demanding that I be fired. I asked her if I could see the letter first, so that we could work together to shape her arguments as persuasively as possible. I would've been fully willing to follow through on that, too, though she never took me up on my offer.

I'm not patting myself on the back here, and I realize that my attitude may not even make sense to some readers. Can't be helped. Just telling it like it is.

* Please note: I am not using worms as a pejorative, i.e. to characterize the individuals who posted. I'm simply following the "can of worms" metaphor.
** When I'm acting as a host, that is. In my own writing, I'm entitled to sell my own beliefs. I try to separate my own beliefs, on the subjective level, from my intellectual uncertainy about the nature of objective truth.


RevRon's Rants said...

We obviously view the act of writing very differently. Where you seem to view it as an end unto itself, I view it as a valuable tool for communicating ideas. As you know, I make my living helping people write their books, or in many cases, actually writing the books for them. There have been a number of prospective clients whom I have chosen not to work with, simply because I did not want to promote what I perceived as destructive goals. Not merely ideologies with which I disagreed, but overtly harmful ideas, such as murder, physical abuse, and the like. Was I acting as censor? No; I didn't work to stop their projects, but chose not to be party to promoting them.

A similar example occurred when I was in college, teaching an elementary chemistry lab. One student wanted to formulate an especially powerful explosive. Had I been devoted purely to the advancement of his knowledge of chemical reactions, I would have taught him the most efficient way to make his bomb. I chose to deny his request, because his application of that knowledge would serve no positive purpose, and could well have proven harmful. I take the same attitude toward writing; if the inevitable effects of a given piece are obviously destructive, I choose not to be party to that piece's promotion, just as I would not hand a bullhorn to someone who wanted to shout "fire" in a crowded theater when no fire existed (to use a clichéd example of the difference between censorship and accepting responsibility for participation in a harmful activity).

In the previous thread, you allowed elements of dialog that served no purpose save the degradation of a civil exchange, IMHO. Where you advised your class that political correctness was not allowed, I cannot help but wonder whether your decision to allow those elements to be published was not driven - at least in part - by the very application of the political correctness you decry, borne of some need to appear simpatico with the commenter.

Having been publicly labeled as ignorant, a fool, and - by clear implication - racist, simply because my aesthetic preferences do not mirror those of another poster should not have passed muster on this blog, at least according to your previously stated standards. As I stated privately, I have to wonder at your motivation for relaxing those standards in this case. While I have certainly seen more acerbic exchanges on other discussion forums, I would typically avoid participation on them. Life is too short to spend much time in the middle of the online equivalent of a schoolyard pissing contest. I had assumed that this blog would be maintained with a higher level of decorum and civility than what was evidenced on the previous thread. What I feel would have been an appropriate reaction to some of the more offensive offerings would be to contact the individual off-blog and suggest that their comments would be included only upon the removal of ad hominem attacks and broad-brush denigrations. If those elements were essentially the core of the person's remarks, I would have no problem refusing to publish them.

In summary, I feel that there is a broad gray area between censoring someone's ideas and actually promoting those ideas. It is within that gray area where lies our greatest responsibility to readers and contributors to the exchange. Silencing ideas with which we disagree is clearly censorship, yet common sense should be exercised in deciding upon what offerings we are willing to place our stamp of approval and actively promote. There will always be an abundant source of hatefulness and misinformation, and I personally cannot agree with the notion that these elements should be promoted, so long as they are elucidated reasonably well.

In the final analysis, as I'd previously said, this is your blog, and you are of course free to apply to it whatever standards seem appropriate to you, just as your readers are free to decide whether it represents the kind of forum in which they will be enriched and enjoy participating.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I will allow your comment to stand largely on its merits, which are considerable, of course. (And you don't need me to tell you that.)

I would say only this insofar as my approach to writing, because this is "my kitchen" we're cooking in: The critical distinction between idea and application, between thought and action, is one of the very cornerstones of American democracy. In this country we have an "action police"; we should not have a thought police. All ideas should be more or less equally welcome in the marketplace of free expression, where they are tested and bounced around, and then we decide, as a collective, what to implement. (Which still doesn't mean that we've found Truth, once we decide to implement something. We've just found what's most popular.) But to impose artificial restraints/constraints on that process in an a priori fashion--well, I guess you put it best in your opening: We view the act of writing very differently.

RevRon's Rants said...

Remind me not to go to the theater if I see you entering with bullhorn in hand! :-)

Our country is, indeed, founded upon the right of freedom of speech. It is also founded upon the notion of accepting personal responsibility. That concept of freedom does not imply the *requirement* that we must promote speech that is overtly abusive or slanderous. I've seen things on the internet that I find repulsive, yet which share my right to free expression, and I don't think I'm assailing their freedom by not putting their stuff on my website.

As you noted, it *is* your kitchen, and you can "cook" whatever you want. But it isn't an affront to your freedom if someone chooses not to praise your repast because it tastes bad.

Steve Salerno said...

That is a true statement, Ron. And at the risk of adding some levity, let me say that if you were to sample some of my actual cooking, I think you'd feel much the same way.

RevRon's Rants said...

One more thing - Regarding your distinction between thought and action...

Publishing, distributing, and otherwise promoting ideas constitute actions. There's a big difference between allowing others their ideas and taking *action* to disseminate those ideas. That, IMO, is where the ball of responsibility passes from the idea's initiator to the promoter. I can *think* whatever I choose about someone, but the minute I *promote* an idea by making it more widely available, I assume a degree of responsibility for its content. Such is the basis of laws written to offer protection from libelous and slanderous statements.

If I had a preference for kiddie porn (which I do not), and wanted to share that taste with others on your website, would not your devotion to freedom of expression compel you to publish my offerings on the subject, including graphic examples, so long as my o=prose was compelling and well-crafted? My own personal reaction to such an offer would be to decline, and to advise the presenter to seek help. I would also feel compelled to report the individual, since the very act of satisfying those tastes involves harming children. I realize that this is an extreme example, but feel it reinforces the notion of personal responsibility for our actions in response to the ideas of others.

Steve Salerno said...

Look, we live life on a continuum, usually somewhere in the middle between absolutes. You have cited a number of the traditional (dare I say cliched) examples that people use in arguing against unabridged free speech--"fire in the theater," kiddie-porn, libel, etc. I am simply saying that the restrictions--if they are needed at all--should be kept to a minimum. That is where the debate and consensus come in. You know, Ron, when Cindy Sheehan first went public with her grievances vs. Bush and his war, there were legislators who wanted to see her cited for treason. Then of course the media picked up on the story and the extreme right wing backed off. But the point remains: One of my main problems with permitting ANY restrictions on free speech is that the process is too easily bastardized and corrupted for political or other motives. And then we're left with the question, Who gets to make those calls? To address your question about porn, however, while it would be pretty stupid for me to sponsor kiddie-porn on the site, since it is presently illegal, I would certainly entertain an argument for why society's policies on kiddie-porn are misguided. That's an idea, not an act. What's wrong with that?

Steve Salerno said...

And if it leads to widespread discussion in which a consensus of Americans decide that we really do want to exploit our young children by showing them in sexual situations, then that is what the nation wants, and so be it. You and I may despise the idea, and may grab our own kids and grandkids and depart the U.S. for Canada (well, maybe not Canada), but it's the will of the people. The point is, the idea gets broached, tested in the marketplace of ideas, and accepted or rejected. Period.

Steve Salerno said...

I will let Ron and anyone else say anything else they want to say without further comment from this point. I've dominated this discussion too much already. I know what I think, and I'm more interested in what others think.

RevRon's Rants said...

"since it is presently illegal, I would certainly entertain an argument for why society's policies on kiddie-porn are misguided"

If the only inhibiting factor is the threat of prosecution, the notion of accepting personal responsibility for the eventual results of one's actions is essentially abandoned, thus increasing the need for tighter external controls. I would hope that, even if such activities were made legal, you would still choose not to promote the dissemination of kiddie porn, simply because its effects are damaging. Allowing a debate on my admittedly clichéd example of kiddie porn - or racism - is quite a different thing than engaging in or promoting them. The one is natural and healthy, while the other serves no positive purpose whatsoever.

If you are truly committed to promoting the ideas of others sans restraint, it would seem difficult to justify your failure to publish *all* the comments you received. After all, if you feel it is your duty to disseminate others' ideas despite their acknowledged offensive nature, integrity to that "duty" would demand that you not refuse a voice to anything and everything submitted. There comes a point, however, where one must accept responsibility for their contribution to public discourse. I believe in a person's right to their ideas, but do not feel duty-bound to participate in or encourage the dissemination of hate speech, untruths, or other libelous allegations. If that makes me a censor according to some people's definition, so be it.

RevRon's Rants said...

One more example - I think we'd agree that a study of the etymology and social connotations of the notorious n-word could conceivably have a place on a blog such as yours. However, you have acknowledged that you would refuse to publish a comment in which the author used that word to describe another contributor, which I applaud. Yet you allow - and even speak highly of - posts that directly called me (and other contributors)ignorant, fools, and by clear implication, racists, all terms that are simultaneously inaccurate and highly offensive to me and others. If you can't see the double standard there, I'll just shut up.

Anonymous said...


In each of the horror stories there's a person, who is always cool as a cucumber, as they cause destruction to others who are all freaking out. The cool person takes that as a sure sign there's something wrong with the others - not with what they're doing. Sometimes, not being placid is the reason the cool person thinks they can do the things they do to the others. It's their punishment, for not promoting the new ager's idea of peace, which could be summed up with "Let me do what I want." Right and wrong doesn't come into assessing their own behavior.

If I could put the perspectives on this site on a graph, based on the comments, Moi and Connie (and, possibly, Rev) would be on one end (people who have used new age but found problems with it) with Steve in the middle (a non believer who's familiar with the cracks in the facade and calls it "nonsense") and me on the other end (someone who just became aware of the "movement", sees it as dangerous, and wouldn't mind seeing it destroyed). I think our styles of discourse are reflective of this.

I don't use "the n-word" but "nigger". It's a word, and I'm not going to be reduced to baby-talk because someone - even a black person - decides to be "sensitive" about it. I'll fight - physically - to defend that position. Rap Music is a form that defends that position: words are to be used - not expunged - because it's "ideas" that are bad or evil. To me, being "nice" isn't about being "cool", otherwise parents who apply discipline are "mean" when they get pissed and say to acknowledge certain guidelines.

I chose to apologize - on my own - for calling Rev a fool. He obviously doesn't acknowledge that apology, just as he's blocking out my argument about his warped perspective on Rap. But I did make it - while still thinking he's wrong about music - because, as I've said, it's principals that are important to me.

The new age ideal doesn't share that perspective. They think violence, or "bad words", or anything they deem "negative" are the worst things in the world. Feminists - who I consider part of the new age movement - laugh at men who consider "honor" a high ideal (Steve, how many times have you heard rappers say, "Word is bond"?) and any instance of a clash is blamed on the person who decides to clash - not on who or what started it. Needless to say, to me, that's where evil lies.

I think Steve does a good job of moderating his space. It's not PC, but does acknowledge the need for limits, and I, for one, am more-than-willing to follow his lead.

That said, Rev, you don't have to shut up: I'm backing out. I need a break from discussing new age, and being around new agers (or former/reluctant new agers) anyway. It's become clear to me that only by living my life - proudly - is my very-male perspective going to gain some currency over the "new paradigm" of femininity that's trying to be introduced as the way we should live now. I'm having none of it. And, I think, the best way for me to play a part in defeating it is just to not play along.

Steve, you're great, man. Keep it up.


a/good/lysstener said...

Sam, I admit, I don't always understand where you're going or how you make links between things, but after reading all of the words over the past few days I think you are sincere at heart. And if I may say so I always detected a lot of hurt beneath the surface of what you were saying and however you were saying it. I felt you were writing from a place of pain even before you began openly eluding to it. Personally I now think you are not the one who's stringing this out and making the issue more complicated than it needs to be. (Some people just have to have the last word.) I think you did an especially good job of explaining yourself in that last comment you made on Steve's post about Rhonda Byrne. It really clarified a lot of things for me. My only question would be if rap is so diversified as you say, how can we even really discuss it as one genre, whether we're going to praise it or attack it?

a/good/lysstener said...

Oops, I realized I used the wrong word for "alluding"!

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, some of your examples are a little scary but I'm trying to keep an open mind and I am greatly impressed by your commitment to writing and especially mentoring. However I do agree with Ron that it's not that easy or neat to separate words from actions and the effect words can have on society. After all, what is Rhonda Byrne guilty of except using or misusing words? And look at the effect she has had, by your own admission. Or since you mentioned the Holocaust, Hitler's propaganda chief (I forget his name) with his Big Lie?

Steve Salerno said...

(Keep 'em coming, I'm listening. I'm just going to withhold comment, for now, until we get further along in the discussion. Assuming we do....)

RevRon's Rants said...

"He obviously doesn't acknowledge that apology, just as he's blocking out my argument about his warped perspective on Rap."

I give up. I think I'll just go talk to the cat.

"I now think you are not the one who's stringing this out and making the issue more complicated than it needs to be. (Some people just have to have the last word.)"

Alyssa, you should read Vonnegut's treatise on the value of ideas in "Breakfast of Champions." You might find it interesting. And I'll gladly leave that last word to you.

Cosmic Connie said...

I wouldn't want to see anyone backing out of this discussion -- not Ron, not Sam, not Alyssa, and certainly not Dr. Swill :-). I enjoy reading everyone's point of view. I just felt moved to stick up for Ron on that other thread because I felt Sam was attacking him. I still think that despite the clash of opinions -- and the obvious anger -- that has been expressed here over the past few days, the level of discourse is still much more intelligent and civil than it is on most online "disagreements." And that is due as much to Steve's moderation as it is to the ideas expressed by the participating SHAMbloggers.

It's difficult sometimes to know where to draw the line regarding which comments to publish and which ones to reject. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way. I got raked over the coals by some skeptical bloggers a few months ago because I arbitrarily chose to cut an ongoing argument short. I was accused of being lame and intellectually dishonest. In retrospect I should have either just let the battle go on and on until it played itself out, or not let it begin in the first place.

I won't address all of the points on this thread because I'm still mulling over some of them, but one thing sticks out for me at the moment. Sam -- and Steve, too, for that matter -- I understand your points about the "feminization" of our culture (Steve wrote about this in SHAM, particularly in regard to our educational system). But a completely "masculinized" culture has its own evils. When either gender is dishonored or diminished, we all suffer. I wish we could find a balance, and maybe we will some day. Actually, I think that the balance of the masculine and feminine was one of the nobler ideals of New-Age culture, but the New Age screwed it up, as it did just about everything else, producing not happier men, for the most part, but a generation of whiny SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guys). Go to any Unity Church singles group and you'll see what I mean. Even the "wild-man" stuff from the late 80s and early 90s wasn't so much about "honoring" the masculine ideal as it was about turning guys into better SNAGs for their SHAM-obsessed women.

Good Goddess, I'm rambling again. And I lost my train of thought, to boot. If I find it again later, y'all will be the first to know. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

(btw, it's Goebbels)

RevRon's Rants said...

"In retrospect I should have either just let the battle go on and on until it played itself out, or not let it begin in the first place."

Having seen the progression of comments in that discussion, I think you did the right thing. It would be sad to completely avoid discussion, simply because someone might want to come in and turn it into a toxic exchange. Better to weed out the toxicity, while allowing civil dialog to continue. Babies & bath water... :-)