Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult

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).

25 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult

  1. Well, applying my personal criteria, John is seldom reductive in his intent, even with figures like Cameron who were sort of born to be reduced, and seldom poses at knowingness (even though many of his fans in the comments do pose at knowingness, and invite him to). So to me, anyway, he not only refrains from the key elements in snark, which I talked about a few eons ago in my blog, but makes a point of publicily refraining. By doing that, he at least appears to wade into the arena and get into a fair fight.

    Most of us instinctively like boxers better than snipers.

  2. As an addendum to this reader request question, how long do you often take to consider a response/what is an adequate cooling off period for you before posting something?

  3. It’s one of the things I like most about Whatever. When someone is being a jackass, if you choose to write about it, you have such an eloquent way of calling that jackass a jackass, without actually calling them a jackass.

  4. K.W. Ramsey:

    I usually try to think about what I want to say before I say it, because I recognize sometimes writing immediately will make me look like a complete asshole. I have to rein in my “Shoot first, aim second” impulses.

  5. Very well spoken, but I couldn’t help wondering if using the “pestilant toad” insult for contrast was tied to the fact that Cameron’s ignorant, bigoted comments were part of an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, who actually IS generally accepted to be a “pestilant toad”. (I have reports from past interviewees of his who required treatment of warts and other afflictions afterward)

  6. 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.

    This.

    Snark is cheap. Even your artistically-designed snark, while amusing, would be less admirable if it was just free-floating snarkiness.

  7. Re. pedantry: in trying to not be overly specific (so you could interpret the question as narrowly or broadly as desired) I strayed into imprecision. I should have known better. :-)

    Thanks for the reply; it is indeed insightful. (And also, *that’s my question there on Whatever*! I Squee!)

    –SMQ

  8. Yes, watching or reading an intelligent argument is not merely entertaining, but also thought-provoking, and often educational.

    BTW, I think you dropped a verb in point 4: “I flatter myself — and my readers — in supposing they not just here to watch me explode”

    I assume there is supposed to be an “are” between they and not?

  9. Good stuff. I’d never have mentioned this otherwise, but I lost my temper this weekend with a weirdo son of two old-school Communists (lets call him “Braggart”) on the dole in Canada who emails me from a public library, calling me a liar, saying that I’m not a real scientist, and his only comments on my published fiction being “I couldn’t get past the first sentence” or telling me to buy a style guide to understand commas.

    He’s just sent me a hotlink to a site whose caption was:

    Blah blah blah book
    Just words blah, blah and blah, nothing more.
    The pleasure of reading!
    Concept/idea: gogelmogel

    I lost it. Jet-lagged, short of sleep from my dog waking me up for alleged breakfast-time at 4 a.m., , stressed by entertaining houseguests from England, Australia, and Denmark, and shot back:

    All my writing is equally meaningful to you as is this book, because you do not understand:

    * Subatomic particles and the forces that act on them
    * Atoms and the nature of the chemical bonds between atoms
    * Molecules and their chemical interactions between them
    * Supermolecular assemblages and their chemical physics or biophysics
    * Organelles and their functioning
    * Cells and their activity
    * Tissues of cells
    * Organs of specialized tissues.
    * The human body, in anatomy and physiology
    * Group behavior of human beings in organizations.

    You do not know ANY of the above, either qualitatively, nor quantitatively.

    You can understand neither fiction nor nonfiction written by people who know a lot about ALL the above.

    You are like a dog named Braggart who, listening to humans converse, hears only:
    blah blah blah Braggart blah blah blah.”

    You poor ignorant marginalized semi-human bastard.

    ====================

  10. This is a very clear and concise statement of principles. Given these principles and your statement that, “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 wonder if you’ve given any consideration to changing your Whatever tag from “Taunting the tauntable” to something that may better reflect your current approach to internet interaction?

  11. Does the ionic/covalent couple metaphor exist anywhere else besides this Whatever comments section? It’s kinda neat, but I think it would require a fair amount of explanation if released into the wild.

    I tried search ionic wedding and got hits for honeymoon destinations in Greece.

  12. Regarding the whole “there’s a person there” thing, does this mean that it’s more acceptable to our host, or people in general, to bait people who aren’t, by common standards, capable of being pleasant in non-controversial areas such as watching football, sharing a coffee, discussing TV shows that don’t have daft endings?

    I’m particularly curious after the recent death of Andrew Breitbart where some criticism seems to have been held back not just because you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but because he had left behind a wife and children, and the implication seemed to be that if he had died alone and without issue ripping on him would have been fair.

  13. Looks like that last comment (Mike, 4:49p) was supposed to go on the previous thread.

    And to be even more pedantic, it’s “different from”, not “different than”. =) Though employing the former construction can make for some annoyingly convoluted sentences.

  14. @CS Clark
    I’m not sure if ‘fair’ is the right idea. Honestly I don’t really like the idea of trying to apply ‘fairness’ in anything but simulations like sports or video games or any other areas where the artificial concept can be properly enforced.
    But I’m leaning into a tangent here. I really just meant to say that I think people feel it’s more socially acceptable to light someone up postmortem if they don’t have a slew of grieving folks doing all of that..grieving stuff for them.

  15. sends back hate mail for being insufficiently creative, with the demand that the writer revise and do it better.

    Damn it, now I want to send in something just to elicit a response.

    SCAAAAAALZIII!

    Jamie

  16. I once had a long argument with somebody elsewhere about your point 1. I had pointed out that they were using (newspaper) as evidence to support a position. I replied that as (newspaper) was owned by a certain Rupert Murdoch, that anything reported in that newspaper was rendered suspect due to Mr Murdoch’s ownership.

    I was informed that that was an Ad Hominem attack on Mr Murdoch.

    I had to reply that this was not the case.

  17. On Mr Cameron.

    The conclusion of the argument is that he is an ignorant bigot. The premises are the reasons put forward as to what makes an ignorant bigot and whether Mr. Cameron also displays those premises.
    In a secondary argument one could state that One should not follow Mr. Cameron because he is an Ignorant bigot. Which is still in a grander tested sense logically fine when there is a good set of premises on why one should not follow a Ignorant Bigot.

    To actually say that Mr. Cameron’s arguments are invalid because he is an ignorant bigot.
    Is actually just an ad hominem fallacy. There is nothing is Mr. Cameron being an ignorant bigot that makes his arguments right or wrong. Ie. Mr Cameron’s arguments can make him an ignorant bigot (if you agree with premises) but just his being an ignorant bigot is not reasons against his argument.

    People frequently are prejudiced against people that they have a preconceived notion as to whether they are an authority or not. IE they are more likely to consider the opinion of an expert over someone they have decided is not. This appears to me to fall into the appeal to authority informal fallacy. It is not the credentials or not of the proposer that makes a difference as to the validity of the argument.

    In the point “You’re appallingly ignorant, therefore your opinions of the Republican Primaries are worthless” is actually a pretty standard Ad hominem attack. There is an assumption that increased knowledge always outweighs insight. And without listening to the argument and weighing on its premises versus just being prejudicial, some might say bigoted, against the individual proposing it. It is only the ignorant bigot that rests an argument on some else’s appalling ignorance.

  18. It can be hard sometimes to remember that those public figures are actual human. It can be even harder to reign it in if I’m pretty convinced they won’t ever stumble upon the piece I just trashed them in. If I had to write a piece on Glen Beck in the New York Times then I’m likely to be far more diplomatic and censored in my write up then if I wrote a similar piece on my blog. The venom would likely spew forth and burn any who are too close in proximity. But it is good advice to remember to actually have a point for any venom and to be careful what you’re saying even if it is about an “intolerant bigot.” It was a good piece and gave some stuff to think about for my own writing.

  19. 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.

    This.

    Snark is cheap. Even your artistically-designed snark, while amusing, would be less admirable if it was just free-floating snarkiness.

    That (refraining from free-floating snark) is a noble and admirable goal and I would be a better person if I achieved it more often than I do, though I try.

    The problem I encounter is that many people don’t know why they say/do/believe what they say/do/believe and therefore can’t separate what they say/do/believe from who they are. (This is related to, but not the same, as people who insist that being a Christian/Bisexual/Libertarian/InsertAnnoysOtherPeopleWhenEndlesslyHarpedUponTraitHere is so fundamentally part of their identity that they can’t just “turn it off” and they have to make it part of every… SINGLE… social interaction they ever have in their lives.)

    So when you do bang on the fundamentally ignorant thing that they just said, they literally don’t understand that you are not attacking their basic value as a sapient being. Now, obviously the thing to do is gently back away and flee the vicinity on foot, but you don’t always know in advance that that’s what you’re going to get: some reasonably intelligent people act like this. It’s a mess.

  20. “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.”

    Clearly, I need to learn not to drink my coffee while reading Whatever. My computer barely escaped with its life. Also, half of the student lounge is staring at me. Then again, it’s midterm season over here, so maybe they think the hysterical laughing is just a sign that I’ve finally cracked.

    But yes. You, sir, are now my favorite writer whose (fictional) work I’ve never read, based on that sentence and that sentence alone. (I’m another one of those new blog readers brought here by the “Where is the Physician Outrage” post). And I intend to go forth and find some of your fiction so I can remedy my ignorance.

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