Friday, May 12, 2006

In Defense of Civility

Civility?  What’s so fucking hard about it?  I’m serious.  It’s just so easy to be nice.  And fun too.  And yet some people have such a hard time with it.  That if they disagree with someone, they just can’t help but be rude about it.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I like insulting people just as much as the next guy.  And I use supposedly foul language and really lay in to people that I don’t like.  I’ll call them douchebags, and nitwits, and assheads; and all kinds of other fun things.  But never to their face, and never if I suspect they might read it.  That stuff’s just for other people, but I really don’t like to offend people.  It’s one of my big no-no’s.

Insulting Jonah

In fact, one of the most widely read posts I ever wrote was a short ditty to Jonathan Chait regarding an online debate he was going to have with Republican nitwit Jonah Goldberg.  I wrote it over a year ago, when I was still fairly new to blogging (I started in January 2005); but it’s held up pretty well over time.  And I wrote stuff like: “He's nothing but a two dollar whore for the GOP and thinks of ideology as an arsenal used to defend his political team. For people like him, the purpose of debate IS debate, and not policy change; and his intent is not to persuade or understand, but to attack. And he's not even good at that.”

And it was just for fun, though I really did email the post to Chait, hoping he’d somehow link to me.  But there was one person I hadn’t intended to read it: Jonah Goldberg.  And I was all excited when I checked my blog stats for the day, and saw them going off the charts, literally.  Even now, the only posts that have done better are two that Glenn Greenwald linked to.  I had somehow thought all the attention was for a different post that I had liked better.  But then I saw where they were coming from: National Review Online.  Jonah himself had linked to me.

And I was mortified.  I couldn’t believe that Goldberg had actually read what I wrote about him.  That wasn’t meant for him.  Hell, if I had thought he was going to read it, I’d have written something much better than that.  Not a bunch of insults and truths he wouldn’t want to accept; but a well-crafted argument that would have caused much consternation in that thing Goldberg calls a brain.  In fact, my subsequent posts detailed my realization that Goldberg was a liberal Republican living in a conservative Republican’s world.  But Goldberg had read none of that.  He read a rude liberal insulting him; and is unlikely to have understood anything else.  So my one shot at convincing this famous pundit amounted to exactly nothing.  I only reinforced what he already thought about liberals.

But part of it was that I couldn’t believe I had been so rude.  Not that the little turd didn’t deserve it.  Because he did.  But just because I don’t like being rude to people.  It’s just plain wrong and it serves almost no purpose.  Sure, a properly applied insult can do wonders for your argument; but only if executed properly.  And otherwise, you’re just cutting off any hope of comprehension by your target.  Even had they been willing to listen before; they’re not going to listen to you now.  And so you’ve essentially just destroyed your argument before you’ve even started.

And even worse, assuming that your argument is correct (and thus, their argument is wrong); they’ll use your rudeness as the excuse for not listening to you.  And they might even secretly acknowledge that you have a point; but they’ll insist that your rudeness automatically disallows them from considering anything you might have to say.  As if rude people are inherently incapable of being correct.

Style over Substance

And we see this again and again.  Both Jim Brady and Deborah Howell of the Washington Post complained endlessly about how rude their critics were, and how that shut-off debate (and their messageboard).  And that was totally full of shit.  Sure, many people were rude.  Some went well beyond the boundaries of decency.  And there’s always the possibility that some of them really were crazy.  I mean, come on.  There are truly crazy people out there, and there’s no particular reason to believe that at least a few of them haven’t latched onto the liberal cause as their own.  

But that’s still no reason to dismiss a valid argument; to deny the obvious truth.  That’s a rationalization.  That’s their excuse for not admitting to their own mistakes.  And in that incident, the liberals were wrong for being so rude, but the Washington Post was just wrong.  And to this day, Jim Brady is likely to still not fully acknowledge his own errors in that incident.  His own stupid, stupid errors.  And in that regard, each and every one of those emailers had their point undermined by the folks who found it necessary to be rude.

And we see this with dopes like Richard Cohen.  Sure, he was wrong about Iraq, and we were right.  But what the hell do we know?  We’re so rude all the time.  And sure, Stephen Colbert’s keynote address in front of Bush wasn’t bad because it was wrong; but because it was so right.  But he was so ruuude about it.  That just wasn’t right.  And so Cohen isn’t going to address the points of substance that Colbert made; and there were a lot of them.  No.  He’s going to focus on the incivility.  Not because Colbert did anything wrong with his speech.  In fact, I think it was almost perfection.  Even the parts that weren’t as funny were still delivered with robotic perfection; with his one big goof helping to highlight how awesome Colbert truly is.  I honestly think that the biggest insult to Bush wasn’t what was said; but how Colbert made speechifying look so damn easy.  But because dopes like Cohen want an excuse for dismissing Colbert’s performance; incivility was all that Cohen remembers.

Breaking the Cocktail Circuit

And they explicitly tell us this; that they’re dismissing what we say due to the way we say it.  And sure, maybe they shouldn’t be so thin-skinned.  People are dying because of these elitist scubs, and they’re worried about a comedian bullying the president with satire?  Sure, that’s petty.  But that’s how it works.  Your opponent is looking for an excuse to dismiss your opinion; and rudeness is one of the best ways to do it.  If not, they’ll rely on labeling you a “Bush-hater” or too young to understand, or some other absurd means of dismissing you.  But rudeness is the quickest and most established ways to dismiss anything you might say.

And what good does it do?  It makes you feel better.  But that’s it.  You’ve cussed them out to their face (or to their computer screen), and you feel that smug bit of satisfaction because of it.  Really pleased with yourself.  You’ve called him Bush’s lapdog and suggested that he likes to fellate Cheney on a regular basis.  Great.  But is that really all you wanted?  Or did you want to convince someone?  Did you simple satisfaction?  Or did you want to end the war?  Or get the pundit to challenge Bush more?  Or get them to think outside their Beltway-Cocktail circuit?  Or anything real?  Of course you did.  You’re not just an insult-machine.  You wanted to convince the dude.  To break through the cheap pundit façade and have them experience something real.

And that’s the thing: Cohen wants a reason to dismiss you.  And you gave it to him.  The excuse he needed. And now he won’t listen to anything you say.  You’re wrong by default.  But not only that, he’ll use that as a reason to dismiss anything that anyone who agrees with you might say.  You’ve not only silenced your own voice; you’ve silenced millions of like-minded people.  And for what?  So Cohen won’t read your email?  That’s what he told us he does.  So what good did it do?  Nothing.  If anything, you hurt your cause more than any good you might have done.  You might feel better.  But you didn’t do anything else.

And sure, he’s a big baby.  There’s no doubt about it.  Mr. “Liberal” Cohen is a big crybaby who can’t handle a real argument.  I’m sure I wouldn’t like to get two thousand hate letters; and I seriously doubt I’d read them all.  But I’d certainly read a big sample of them; and would probably give a mass rebuttal in my column.  I mean, it’s not like the dude has a real job (unlike yours truly, who still has the time to write more than Cohen); so he might as well read the emails people send him.  And while I might mention the rudeness; I’d mainly deal with the substance of the criticism.  Not because I’m better than Cohen (though I am); but because that’s just the kind of guy I am.  That’s what makes me so good.  I like to know what other people think, and to show them how they’re completely and totally wrong.  That’s my thing.

But Cohen’s not like that, so get the fuck over it.  He’s not going acknowledge your point.  He is going to focus on your rudeness and act like a spoiled brat who’s taking his ball and going home.  Deal with it.  Insults won’t infiltrate his defenses; and if you’re not planning on convincing him, you might as well not bother.  And that’s the thing: I don’t think you could convince a guy like Cohen of jackshit.  Not by a relatively anonymous email from the horde.  I’m sure he’s a more reasonable guy in person (though still a giant twit); but if your email’s not supposed to convince him, then why bother?

Discounting the Hordes

And mass emails aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  He’s going to automatically discount anything that seems to be sent to him from the Atrios or Kos hordes; but mass emails really will have an effect.  It’s important for these people to know how many of us are out there, and that we’re not some small minority of freaks.  

But not if they’re rude.  Not even if 5% of them are rude.  Then they lose all effectiveness.  Then they’re just seen as braindead liberals following their evil master’s commands.  This isn’t a thousand emails from Atrios’ well-informed readers.  This is an assault by the big guy himself.  Atrios said “sic ‘em” and they got sick.  

And Cohen and Brady and Howell and everyone else has their readyset reason for ignoring them.  And not just to ignore them, but to hold against them.  Not just the individuals who made these personal attacks (some of which I truly believe were quite rude); but the liberal horde as a whole.  Not that there is a liberal horde; and not that these emails were nearly as rude or angry as these sissies want to believe; but that’s the point.  These people will dismiss anything as being rude, so it just doesn’t work.

Be Polite

And so the answer is simple: Be polite.  It will get you so much more and it feels better.  I love it when some uptight ninny starts trying to pressure me or hone in on my territory.  I’d rather they not exist, but I get a certain satisfaction from my technique.  Because no matter how rude they are or how much they deserve to be insulted or ignored; I just don’t take their bait.  Because that’s exactly what they’re wanting from me.  A challenge.  An opponent.  A reason to hate me.  And I don’t give it to them.  I just act professional.  As if nothing is happening at all and their behavior is perfectly normal.  And then I show them the proper way to act and how I’m so much better than them.  

And it works great.  And it feels great.  You act like you’re a regular reader of Cohen, and that you’re just adding to his work by telling him how he’s totally wrong.  Or maybe you’ve got some polite correction to make.  He’d eat that up.  That’s how you’d get his attention.  That’s how you could convince him.  Not by a frontal assault which won’t put a dent in his nitwit armor.  But by plying his ego with compliments and as if we’re all above pettiness and disagreements; and that we’re all on the same team trying to work out the same problems.  Cohen’s not a big baby.  He’s your mentor, and you’re wanting to impress him by telling him something he doesn’t know.  This isn’t a blast to the face.  This is a pat on the back.

And a well-crafted argument like that is a work of art.  Not that I do that regularly, as I’m fairly sure that our pundits won’t read my emails, so I won’t bother.  But it always feels good.  Plus, you can usually use it as blog material on your own blog; using the “Open Letter to…” format and so you get points for having a new blogpost too.  But for god’s sake, save the insults for when you don’t think they’re listening.  I honestly love a properly used insult.  But only in the proper place.  

I use funny insults in my posts as a way of conveying ideas and making my stuff easier to read.  I’ll call Cohen a titty baby because it’s funny and true.  But I’d never use that while writing to him directly.  That’s what the double-agent stuff is for.  You act like you’re just a concerned reader who has a minor disagreement with a columnist you normally love.  It might not convince your target; but it’s far more likely too than an insult, and at a minimum will help you score points for your side.  Because when you write-in as a liberal, you represent all liberals; and I don’t want my thoughts dismissed because of yours.  Besides, insults are soooo rightwing.  And you don’t want to be a rightwinger, right?

BTW, as the final kicker to my big Jonah Goldberg insult post, it did bring me far more traffic than I had ever seen (pre-Greenwald); and was solely due to the harsh nature of the post.  But it didn’t amount to anything.  Because they were all fucking Goldberg readers.  And so not only were none of them going to stick around; but I’m fairly certain that I didn’t want them around.  But then again, with that post, I did endear myself to Publius, who eventually added me to his blogroll.  So I guess my rudeness wasn’t a total loss.   Oh yeah, don’t forget to smile.


whig said...

Sometimes a public insult serves a very useful purpose. It flags a person for others, so they know to disrespect him or her. As an advocate of non-violence I strongly believe this is a positive and good thing to do, it is the best way of punishing bad behavior, to shame the person who engages in it.

A private insult is mostly only to be used when someone is annoying you personally and you want to get him or her to leave you alone.

You have to be careful in either case. Just because I don't prefer violence doesn't mean everyone feels the same way. When you insult someone, you cause a loss of face, but you might provoke a violent reaction. If you have plenty of witnesses you are probably safe, but if your target knows where you live and can seriously threaten your safety you'd better think about what you're doing.

In the case of Stephen Colbert, he did an excellent job of shaming the President. Deservedly. No, it didn't convince him of anything. It doesn't matter. Part of the effect is seen in the steadily declining polls. Just one small factor among many, but important nonetheless.

Likewise the various public exposes of Richard Cohen. And as far as Jonah Goldberg is concerned, do you really think anything you could have said to him, however politely, would have made him any less a douchebag?

Richard Quick, Millionaire said...

Is unfunniness a form of incivility?

A national poll conducted by Quick Research Group determined conclusively that not only is Stephen Colbert unfunny, he is pathetically unfunny. Embarrassingly unfunny.

His address to the White House press core was not offensive because of his politics, but because of his wasting the time with a video presentation that ranks of there with the worst SNL flop in their most unfunny year.

See the poll results at:

Larry said...

"they’re dismissing what we say due to the way we say it."


From now on, when I want someone to stop fucking me, instead of possibly giving offence by saying,
'Hey. Stop fucking me," I'll try, "Pardon me. May I inquire when it might be convenient for you to remove your member from my fundament?"

I take your point, but really, most of these people are well beyond reason.