On The ‘Net: Letting ‘Em Have The Last Word

I began arguing on the Internet some twenty-seven years ago. I haven’t stopped yet. At first, it was all about the Usenet newsgroups; later it was mailing lists–private and public, online conferences, blog posts, blog comments spaces, IRC channels, Facebook and Twitter timelines. I read, I wrote, I flamed; I was read, I was flamed. I was infuriated, I was provoked; I infuriated, I provoked. No matter where you went in cyberspace, there you were, arguing with someone.

And these interlocutors, they drove you batty. You knew they were wrong; they knew you were. (You both cared what your audiences thought of you.) You wrote quasi-treatises, clear and limpid in their rhetorical and dialectical simplicity; they were free of argumentative fallacies; they were responded to with obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Your interlocutors’ arguments were so aggravatingly wrong that at times you suspected you could not unpeel the layers of provocation they laid on; you began to doubt whether you could do an adequate job of unmasking these imposters.  You thought your extensive catalog of this world’s intellectual sins and charlatans was complete; your experience with the folks you argued with online demonstrated that many more entries needed to be made in it.

These folks online, friends and strangers alike, they were not like the ones you met and talked to in person. When those folks spoke, their words were transient, evanescent; they came and went, vanishing, leaving only some traces, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleasant, soon to be overwritten by some new stimulus. These folks online, their words were written; they were committed to ‘memory’ of several kinds; they acquired a permanence; they became lasting accusations of the lack of all kinds of uprightness and rectitude; you were indicted of a multiplicity of sins. Sticks and stones could break your bones, and these words, by virtue of their durability, threatened to do as much.

And all in public, because when you argue on the Internet, you always have some kind of audience; perhaps a small one, like your departmental mailing list, or perhaps a colossal one, like a popular newsgroup or the comments space of a leading blog. You aren’t just arguing for yourself; you are arguing because you’ve ‘got a rep to protect.’ (With probability one, a rejoinder from a Facebook commenter that you will respond to with great alacrity and vigor is one that you disapprove of, but which has received a ‘Like’ from another reader. Here, the gauntlet has been thrown, the offender has already acquired some support of dubious moral quality, some irritating cheering from the peanut galleries. You must speak up for yourself and do double duty; not only must you show the original offender he was wrong but show his worthless sycophant that he backed the wrong horse in this particular race.)

Small wonder that famous ‘Duty Calls’ cartoon from xkcd is, er, famous:

Duty Calls

You laugh, because you know it’s true: you can’t let go, unanswered, some affront to your pride and your sensibilities. You cannot let an internet interlocutor have the last word. (A friend once told me–in the early days of the pre-WWW internet i.e., in the days of Usenet newsgroups–that he would not log on once he got home for fear of not being able to log off again all night. In those days, users dialed in to access newsgroups; when you stayed logged on, whether at 1200, 2400, or 9600 baud, you ran up your phone bills too, so there might have been some economic prudence that gave my friend’s resolution some much-needed heft.)

So there it stays, that unanswered comment on your blog, the idiotic comment on your Facebook page, that chirpy, offensive tweet, burning a hole in your cranium, threatening to keep you awake as the full horror of its being read by every single user of the internet slowly dawns on you. You draft your reply as you go about your day’s business, waiting for the moment when you will be able to pour out your furious rejoinder, your nail-in-the-coffin response that will seal the deal once and for all.

But it won’t. And you know it. Another cycle awaits.

Letting that ‘last word’ remain unanswered is key, of course. The expert internet user comes to size up, quickly enough, what kind of creature his interlocutor is. Most importantly, is he the kind who will let you have the last word? If not, step away from the keyboard. No one cares very much; there is a lot to be distracted by; something will come along, sooner rather than later, to divert the attention of us all. Let the evidence of your inability to come up with a witty rejoinder, a snappy response, an exposure of the operative fallacy, a devastating demolition job on a weak argument persist; let it remain as an example of how not to ‘win’ an internet argument.

Few listen to such good advice. I often don’t. Sometimes I will let the last comment on a Facebook thread or a Twitter thread bother me, insidiously burrowing its way around my anxieties and insecurities, before, finally provoked, I snap and respond. But I have some cause for optimism too; I have often found it easier to just terminate a conversation; I have grown wiser about the demands on my time and energy that these endlessly prolonged conversations can make. Simple economic prudence rules the roost; here may be found many zero-sum games, extracting costs that will have to be paid for somehow, elsewhere in my commitments.

So, I have walked away from fields of battle. I have let my partially composed and insufficiently pungent replies die on the vine; I have left my sword buried in the ground. I have let opposing generals come out on the battlefield and reassure themselves after they have surveyed it that they have seized the day and the moment and bested their opponents, who have slunk away under cover of the night. I am content to let them think me lacking in all manner of intellectual qualities.

I’m busy writing this post instead.

Mad Max: Furiosa Road

It’s entirely appropriate that Mad Max: Fury Road end with Max bidding a quiet farewell to Imperator Furiosa and slinking away into the crowd that has gathered for what appears to be her coronation. For as you sit through the extended closing credits, listening to a pounding reprise of the movie’s epic score at full volume, you realize you didn’t really need Max in the new Mad Max movie. Sure, Max Rockatansky–AKA the Road Warrior–gets into a few fights,  drives a bit, and even comes to the aid of a few womenfolk, but when the smoke clears, it is pretty clear some rewriting could very easily have resulted in a movie all about the Imperator and her ambitious plan to liberate the captive breeder wives of Immortan Joe, the apocalyptic warlord of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is now the earth. The new incarnation of the Road Warrior is strangely subdued and diffident; he is happy to play sidekick; he is traumatized, as numerous rapid-cut flashbacks let us know, but his trauma has resulted in a personality markedly different and not straightforwardly evolved from that of the Road Warrior. We could have done without him. And concentrated on Furiosa and her band of Furies.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie from start to finish, with one chase scene following another, and all paying homage to the epic chase that ended The Road Warrior. Indeed, the entire movie may be thought of as one long chase scene; an interval workout of sorts–intense activity followed by a brief rest, rinse and repeat—-that shows off the technical wizardry of its makers. The music and visuals are extravagant, gloriously, recklessly so, with some flourishes–the drums and guitar truck, complete with flamethrowing axeman, the sandstorm that effortlessly picks up vehicles and consigns them to flames–that seem designed to bring smiles to the faces of the viewers with their sheer effrontery. There is a story, no fear, but it could have been stripped down–as I note above–with no serious loss.

Mens Rights Activists are idiots. This is no feminist classic. (Even if it were, they are still idiots.) Women still need help; Furiosa cannot do it on her own; Max is there to help out. The women who help her are Gaia types perhaps; perhaps some Sapphic cult in the desert sands that is into fertility rites. There is still an archaic reliance on images of sexy, underdressed women. But. Furiosa is a serious ass-kicker, as are some of Immortan’s wives. Just for that–though remember Ripley was here before–Fury Road deserves kudos; women are all too often wallflowers in action movies.

There is the usual post-apocalyptic setting: alternative societal forms ruled by vicious tyrants; water and gasoline are scarce and as precious as gold (though many scenes in the movie are rather cavalier in their wastage of the former); life is reduced to its most elemental variant. Form alliances carefully; look for water and fuel; and ride hard.

The Road Warrior is still the best movie of the Mad Max franchise, but with this installment, it has received a visual reboot. I look forward to the sequels.

Doris McIlwain On The Rationality Of ‘Irrational’ Love And Hate

In Living Palely: On the rationality of a certain fullness of feeling (Artlink, Vol 29 No. 3, 2009), Doris McIlwain writes: 

Friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises. They become strangely symptomatic when we approach them as if they are….To me the sign that you really like someone is when you cannot quite offer a full answer when asked why. You could offer reasons, but they would not be the full story….the hot, less thoughtful bits of emotion can contribute intuitive information that we couldn’t get in any other way, as when we experience an inexplicable discomfort at what someone has just said and realise we are being lied to.

McIlwain would have agreed, I think, that if ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises’ then neither are enmity and hatred. We cannot quite explain why we do not like someone; why they make us uneasy, why they ‘just rub me the wrong way.’ We are asked to explain why; we find we fail; our explanations ‘run out somewhere.’ We are helpless in the face of an ‘intuitive’ feeling that something is amiss, something we ‘cannot put a finger on,’ something that pushes us away, that repels us. (We might find, in the course of an analytic session, on the therapist’s couch, that these wellsprings of emotion stream forth from an unresolved, unintegrated childhood experience; perhaps there are encounters we need to have with the past before we can confront the present and the future. The unconscious holds on tightly to emotions and memories alike.)

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

A desirable one, of course, one that speaks to the irreducibility of this mixed up creature we know ourselves to be, this blend of cold and hot, calm and turbulent, this always elusive subject–to the merely reasoned or affective. Reason and emotion working together ensure we always break the mold; they make this world richer and more variegated; we are grateful we see this world through the stereoscopic vision these two lenses afford us.

Heard The One About Fascists, Socialists, And Murderers?

In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (W. W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 6-7), Amartya Sen, in the course of asserting how ‘our freedom to assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinarily limited in the eyes of others’, slips in the following:

[S]ometimes we may not even be fully aware how others identify us, which may differ from self-perception. There is an interesting lesson in an old Italian story–from the 1920s when support for fascist politics was spreading rapidly across Italy–concerning a political recruiter from the Fascist Party arguing with a rural socialist that he should join the Fascist Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Fascist Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Fascist recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the rural socialist, “if your father had been a murderer and your grandfather had also been a murderer? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Fascist Party.”

Dunno about you, but when I read this, I chuckled long and hard. This is genuinely knee-slapping stuff.

Analyzing a ‘joke’ is a decidedly unfunny business, but I’m going to press on regardless.  There are three levels on which this story ‘works.’

First, of course, is the partisan one. We laugh because we think the Fascist recruiter, the representative of a murderous regime, received a rather effective and witty, even if perhaps unwitting, comeuppance from someone he might have considered his political and intellectual inferior. It’s good to laugh at Fascists–pompous, brownshirted, jackbooted types, all of them.

Second, the story conveys the impeccable logic of both interlocutors quite well. The Fascist recruiter, as Sen notes, picks apart the ‘fallacy’ of the socialist: Why should your ancestors’ political commitments be so determinative of your current political commitments? The socialist, in response, relies on a supposedly inductive extension of what seem to be his family’s predelictions in the counterfactual state just described for him: All members of this clan thus far indulge in activity X, therefore so will I (in the current political manifestation of X.)

Third, and this might be the reason for the story’s enduring appeal, we recognize within it an abstract formal schema that can be pressed into service across variations in time and space and political commitment. This may be easily demonstrated by my twist on the tale:

There is an interesting lesson in an old American folktale–from the early 2000s when support for Republican Party politics was spreading rapidly across the US–concerning a political recruiter from the Republican Party arguing with an urban progressive that he should join the Republican Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Republican Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Republican Party recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the urban progressive, “if your father had been a hypocritical sexist racist and your grandfather had also been a hypocritical sexist racist? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Republican Party.”

 

 

 

Schopenhauer On Disillusioned Lovers

In On Human Nature: Essays Partly Posthumous in Ethics and Politics (1896:1957, Allen and Unwin, London, pp. 14), Schopenhauer writes

Every human perfection is allied to a defect into which it threatens to pass; but it is also true that every defect is allied to a perfection. Hence it is that if, as often happens, we make a mistake about a man, it is because at the beginning of our acquaintance with him we confound his defects with the kinds of perfection to which they are allied. The cautious man seems to us a coward; the economical man, a miser; the spendthrift seems liberal; the rude fellow, downright and sincere; the foolhardy person looks as if he were going to work with a noble self-confidence; and so on in many other cases.

And then there is the converse of this uneasy co-existence of the sublime and the sordid that Schopenhauer refers to. One that is painfully familiar to disillusioned lovers, to that pair of humans whose crossed stars are just their psychological dispositions.

For as those whose relationships flounder know all too well, the very qualities that first attracted us to those who subsequently repel us are the ones that have now morphed into their ‘allied defects.’ The gay, carefree, quick to laugh social raconteur now strikes us as impossibly frivolous, incapable of entertaining a solitary serious thought; the blunt and refreshingly straightforward shooter from the hip comes across as a tactless boor; the affectionate dispenser of physical touches makes us cringe from their cloying, overpowering invasion of our private spaces. There is a reason why the mutual hatred and fury and anger of a pair of humans engaged in the deconstruction of their former love is quite as appalling as it is, both on the inside and the outside: the disappointment and shock at the transformation of the previously beautiful into the ugly is among the most acute sensations we will ever experience. We are betrayed; we have been cheated; our most precious illusion has been shattered; the ramparts of this most sturdy fort we had built against the advances of this world have been breached by the most insidious Trojan horse of all.

It was there all along, that snake that raised its head and bit you as you trod on it; it’s tempting to think that you just ‘mistook’ it for something else. But it was what it was, the ‘same thing,’ now understood and experienced differently. For the partners in the relationship are now different; their lives and circumstances and dispositions changed (often in response to the presence of ‘the other one’, the ‘significant other.’) Many are the rueful words written by former lovers that speak of how they ‘knew it all along’, how they were ‘blind’ to ‘not see this coming’ when ‘it was there all along.’ And, of course, of how they went on and on, blithely ignoring the warning klaxons, hoping the rocks rising out the waters, looming above them, would simply sink beneath the waves.

Women Raping Women And The Frightening Ubiquity Of Rape

A woman I used to know told me–in the course of recounting her political journey from timid, sheltered suburban dweller to a passionate feminist and advocate for abortion rights–that she had been raped twice. On the second occasion, she had been raped by a workplace friend; she became pregnant and required an abortion.  On the first occasion, she was raped–repeatedly, over the course of a semester–by her college roommate. Her roommate was a woman.

Whenever I have repeated the abstract details of this story to others, one reaction seems to predominate–it does not matter whether the audience is a man or a woman: “How is that possible? How can a woman rape a woman?”

This response displays a severe misunderstanding of the nature of sexual assault. (I did not ask my friend for any details of her rapes, but she did add a couple of significant details. Her roommate was much ‘bigger and stronger’ and, ‘she told me she would fucking kill me if I told anyone.’ My friend left the university after that semester and moved back home; she did not report her experience to the university and she did not tell her family her true reason for changing universities.) Without getting into anatomical details, it should be clear that if women can have sexual contact with other women, they can also have unwanted, unsolicited, non-consensual, violent, sexual contact with them. And that is rape. (See, for instance, this harrowing tale recounted by a young woman on Reddit–and the responses it elicited.)

Rape is not synonymous with, is not defined by, the forced genital penetration of women by men. And this definition is often supposed to be operative in only tightly circumscribed circumstances: the woman should not have been friendly with the rapist, ‘led him on’, had non-sexual contact with him, or a variety of other conditions. These seem to be the ways our common cultural and legal understandings would have it. Understandings, which conveniently enough, not only let sexual offenders off the hook, but also those who, by their indifference, implicitly condone such behavior and ensure its perpetuation. Such a narrow definition and understanding elides the basic nature of sexual assault. This impoverished understanding underwrites not only the responses I received to my recounting of my friend’s story but also a refusal to see the many varieties of sexual assault and violence that go unnoticed, unreported and thus, not understood.

My purpose in writing this post is not to make the facile point that it is not just men who rape, that women are also capable of sexual assault and therefore, should be included in the usual condemnatory responses whenever a high-profile rape case catches our easily diverted attention. Rather, it is something a little broader. As the statistics pertaining to the rape of women by women, men by men–a far more commonly noticed phenomena thanks to our knowledge, sadly enough, of prison culture, and men by women shows, rape is frighteningly ubiquitous. (Statutory rape perhaps deserves a separate discussion. Needless to say, the statistics of men raping women dwarf all the aforementioned figures, and thus understandably dominate our current discourse on the subject.) I will not, now, speculate about what this says about our species and its various cultural and political formations, but I do know that much of our current discourse about rape–and our frequent pessimism about being able to diminish its presence in our world–is doomed to continue proceeding along distressingly predictable lines till we achieve greater clarity about just what it is that we are talking about.

Sam Harris Should Read Bernard Williams

In Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks’ conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:

[T]here is another aspect to responsibility, which comes out if we start on the question not from the response that the public or the state or the neighbours or the damaged parties demand of the agent, but from what the agent demands of himself….

Oedipus’s response, when he made his discovery, was self-imposed: “I have done it with my own hand,” he says of his blinding….he says that he afterwards came to think that what he had inflicted on himself was excessive. He also, at Colonus, says that he did not really do the things for which he blinded himself—and in a notably compacted expression: “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them…What these words express is…Oedipus’s attempt to come to terms with what his erga, his deeds, have meant for his life.

For what, if one can ask a very ingenuous question, is one supposed to do if one discovers that not just in fantasy but in life one has murdered one’s father and married one’s mother? Not even Oedipus…thought that blinding and exile had to be the response. But should there be no response? Is it as though it had never happened? Or rather, to put the right question: Is it as though such things had happened, but not by his agency….The whole of the Oedipus Tyrannus , that dreadful machine, moves to the discovery of just one thing, that he did it. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? Certainly not: we understand it because we know that in the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.

In recent days, Sam Harris has, by virtue of an embarrassing–for him–email exchange with Noam Chomsky, made much of how some actions which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents should be subjected to far less moral condemnation (if any) than those which resulted because of expressly ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ intentions. Bill Clinton’s orders to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese innocents thus gets off the hook rather lightly – as say, compared to the ISIS‘ slaughter of innocents (you may, if you like, substitute your favorite act of Islamist mass murder here to get the flavor of Harris’ arguments.)

In the course of the email exchange cited above, Chomsky rather effectively eviscerated the simplistic understanding of politics and human nature this view of Sam Harris’ rests on. Furthermore, as I noted in my initial response to a podcast in which Harris makes this claim in ponderous and pedantic detail, Harris’ view leads to the worst excesses of utopianism:  “I intended to bring about this future desirable state, therefore, all else is excusable, as I certainly didn’t intend to bring about any of these intermediate states. My mind is fixed firmly on the state to be realized, the one I intend to bring about. ” Or more colloquially, “it’s ok to climb over heaps of bodies if you are going to a ‘good’ place.” This sort of argument has the bizarre consequence of considering Dick Cheney to not be a war criminal for the mass murders he is responsible for–after all, Cheney did say he was doing it all for democracy.

As the excerpt above shows, Harris, who considers himself an educated man, should really read some Bernard Williams, and using him as an introduction, read some more about the ancient Greeks. Otherwise, he will find himself, time and again, getting schooled by those who know better.