Let’s go ahead and get Reader Request Week started, shall we? To begin, this question from SMQ:
You have a well-earned reputation for snark and the art of the thought-out-but-blistering retort, but unlike many you usually seem to avoid crossing the line too far into personal attacks (and are even quick to mallet those who do so in comment threads). Where do you see the line between snark and ad hominem? Is it a sharp line or a fuzzy one? Other than raw talent, how do you personally maintain that balance?
First, to be pedantic, an ad hominem argument is different than a personal attack. Here’s a personal attack: “You’re a worm.” Here’s an ad hominem argument: “You’re a worm, therefore your opinion on the Republican primaries is worthless.” You may or may not be a worm of a person, but it does not follow that because you’re a worm, your opinion on the GOP primaries is invalid; it may be that you’re extraordinarily versed on the Republican candidates, their positions and their relative strengths in each primary, and that, independently, you have worm-like personal qualities that mean you’re not worth spending time with on a regular basis. It’s also the case that not every ad hominem argument is a poor one, to wit: “You’re appallingly ignorant, therefore your opinion on the Republican primaries is worthless.” If one is indeed appallingly ignorant, particularly on political matters, it may put one in a poor position to have a worthwhile opinion on the GOP primaries. That said, most people don’t employ ad hominem arguments in this fashion.
Pedantry aside, I think what’s being asked here is how do I keep a written piece involving a person from crossing over from legitimate criticism to simple (and mere) insult. I don’t have an actual checklist for these things, but when I’m writing an entry, here are some of the things I think about.
1. Public or private figure: I’m more likely to be more free with my snark if the person at whom it is aimed is a public figure — a politician, celebrity, writer, etc — than I am if it’s just some person. This is partly years of working as a professional journalist inculcating the practical aspects of New York Times v. Sullivan into my brain, and partly a recognition that I natively have tens of thousands of daily readers and can on occasion, with the right topic, produce an exponentially larger number of readers through links, reposting, and media coverage, thus making it easy for me to really mess up someone’s day. So I do choose my targets.
For example, when Kirk Cameron shows up on Piers Morgan’s talk show and expounds on his views regarding homosexuality, he’s doing so in his capacity as a public figure: he was on the show promoting his latest work, he’s a person who actively courts the public eye to express his religious and social views and the show is broadcast to a national audience. An example of the opposite end of things: A teenage girl writing in her blog criticizing something I wrote, which I felt could use a response. This was a private individual expressing her view on a blog which while ostensibly public was not at all well-trafficked and for which there was no expectation that the opinion would circulate beyond her own personal circle of friends and readers.
Do I treat both equally? Of course not. Kirk Cameron is an adult and a public figure and however much he whines about how it’s unfair that people are mean to him, is eminently capable of handling criticism of any sort. The teenage girl was not courting the public with her commentary, and would likely have been embarrassed by an influx of visitors to her site wanting to engage her on the topic. So Kirk Cameron I feel fine unloading on; the girl I was careful not to, up to and including not linking to her site (or quoting her directly, which would have made it easy for the ambitious to find her).
Mr. Cameron’s indubitably a public figure, and the anonymous teenage girl is indubitably a private figure, but what about, say, Lori Jareo, who several years ago tried to sell her Star Wars fanfic on Amazon? Or Judith Griggs, former editor of Cooks Source? A not unreasonable number of people who I comment on fall somewhere in the middle of the line and my choice to comment on them or not — or to publicly identify and link to a comment — really is a judgement call. Whether I make that call correctly in every case is open to question.
2. On point vs. pointless: Let’s go back to Kirk Cameron, as I have discussed him most recently, when he described homosexuality as “unnatural” and detrimental to civilization. Quiz for you: Which of the following do you think I think is legitimate to call him, and which do you think is less so?
a) “Ignorant bigot”
b) “Pestilent toad”
The answer: a). It’s legitimate to suggest Mr. Cameron’s an ignorant bigot because one, he doesn’t appear to know that homosexuality is in fact totally natural and well-documented as occurring in the natural world (thus, “ignorant”), and two, he believes that homosexuality is detrimental to civilization, and also that “unnatural” is a negative thing in his assessment (thus “bigot”). And call Mr. Cameron an “ignorant bigot” I did.
(I’ll note here that in the comments thread to the piece, some folks offered a number of defenses for use of the word “unnatural,” among them theological and philosophical concepts reaching back to Aquinas. In my opinion that gives Mr. Cameron, champion of the Crocoduck, rather a lot of unearned credit, but even if it’s true what it essentially means is that Cameron’s using “unnatural” in the sense of “opposed to a philosophical construct of the concept of ‘natural’ which in itself has no rigorous scientific relationship to what occurs in the natural world.” Which to my mind does not improve things dramatically for him.)
It’s rather less legitimate to label Mr. Cameron a “pestilent toad,” because, well. He seems pretty clean. But more to the point, calling him a pestilent toad doesn’t really do much other than call him a name. One may argue that he spreads the pestilence of intolerance and that his antipathy toward gays is positively amphibian, but you have to explain it and it seems the long way around, sort of like suggesting how “unnatural” really refers to philosophical concepts pioneered by Aquinas. It might be better to keep things simple, or if not simple, then immediately relatable to the subject on hand.
Now, ironically, should Mr. Cameron ever attempt to sue me for libel, my defense would be marginally better if I did refer to him as a pestilent toad than an ignorant bigot, because I could claim “pestilent toad” as an example of hyperbole, since I don’t really believe he’s an actual pestilent toad, whereas I suspect he may be an actual ignorant bigot. But this goes back to the whole “public figure” thing.
3. The whole “there’s a person there” thing: Public figure or not, Mr. Cameron’s a human being and I suspect on a day-to-day basis he’s perfectly nice to his wife, family members, etc, as are other people who have particular opinions or actions I might disagree with or oppose (Note: this is not your cue to haul out stories of Mr. Cameron being a terrible person from his Growing Pains days, or to remind me that Hitler surely loved his dogs). And while the Internet does make it easy to forget that you’re responding to or about an actual human being rather than a bunch of words on a screen, that’s all the more reason to remember there’s a person there. So I do operate on the principle of not saying about others that which I would not have said about me. This fact must necessarily be tempered with the understanding that I am someone who gleefully collects one-star reviews and sends back hate mail for being insufficiently creative, with the demand that the writer revise and do it better.
Even so, it makes me less inclined to go head-hunting just for the thrill of head-hunting. That was fun once, but now I’m in my forties and the thrill of pounding on someone just to pound on them has lessened considerably. I do try to have a point to it.
Which brings us to the final point:
4. Having a point: When I bang on someone, it’s usually not just to bang on them for existing but to talk about something they said/did/believe. Also, when I bring them up, generally I’m not talking to that person specifically; I’m talking to the people who are reading here. And while I know everyone loves watching me get my snark on, I flatter myself — and my readers — in supposing they are not just here to watch me explode; they want a cogent point in there somewhere. That being the case, there’s a point at which any snark aimed at the person stops being a persuasive part of the argument and starts being its own thing to the detraction of the larger argument. The trick is staying on the right side of that. The three points above help me make that determination, but it’s also the experience of writing this sort of way that helps me know where that line is.
And, you know, sometimes I don’t know — sometimes I screw up and make an ass of myself unintentionally. Sometimes I might decide I don’t want to be constructive and just want to vent, in which case I may make an ass out of myself intentionally. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve toed the line perfectly but any one of you (or more) will decide that I’ve gone too far — this is often but not always correlative with whether the person or subject I’m going off on is one you’re passionate about. Toeing the line isn’t an exact science. Fortunately, I don’t have problems apologizing when it’s obvious that’s what needs to be done.
Which is another topic entirely, so let’s end this piece here.
(It’s not too late to get questions in for this year’s Reader Request Week — add yours here).