On Rudeness as a Rhetorical Tool

For those of you who are interested, I put a comment here (it’s the one dated 12/30/04 at 1:35 pm) on how I will occassionally be rude in online discussions as an intentional rhetorical maneuver. A snip:

It’s no secret to anyone here that I can at times be rude and confrontational. I think what generally less known is I’m not *always* rude because I’m a hothead; I’m sometimes rude because I find it’s a surprisingly effective rhetorical device that causes people to focus and clarify their arguments, and occasionally to understand how someone (and specifically, me) might find the formulation of their statements offensive and dismissive.

I think the assumption is that when you’re rude online, people will automatically be rude back, but I’ve found much of the time that’s not the case… Often times when I am rude to someone online, they take a step back examine, why I’m suddenly antagonistic and move to clarify.

You can read the full piece in the comment thread; if you have comments of your own on it, please leave them in that comment thread.

To clarify: Sometimes I’m simply rude because I’m as much a jerk as anyone else. I can’t claim the “It’s all a master plan!” defense every single time I act like an ass online.

27 Comments on “On Rudeness as a Rhetorical Tool”

  1. On the tactic of “deliberate rhetorical rudeness:”

    Some of the best moments in debating are a little rude on the surface. Recall Lloyd Bensen’s remark to Dan Quayle “Senator, you’re no John Kennedy.” (During the 1988 election) Ronald Reagan could also be quite rude at times.

    In the previous thread, Adam Nelson brings up the worthwhile question of “how one gauges what’s an acceptable level of discourse beyond the bland and cautious.”

    The best and most enjoyable debates are a little heated. Personally, what I like about the company at Scalzi.com is that there are a lot of intelligent people here who frequently see the world differently than I do. I have enjoyed sparring with John, Kate Nepveu, and today, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Worthy opponents all…

    However, good debaters don’t rely on naked ad hominem attacks. When you sink to the depths of saying, for example,”What Do You Think? Or, so-and-so is an Asshole” (as Mr.Duemer did) you have stepped over the line.

    This isn’t rhetorical rudeness, it’s just plain rude. It’s shouting. There is no way for your opponent to de-construct your argument and turn it around on you, so it isn’t any fun for anyone involved.

  2. Joseph Duemer writes: “I’ll be happy to agree that I stepped over the line, but I had pretty numerous company on the other side, no?”

    The entire debate seems to be spread over several blogs, and I admittedly focused on your more recent post about PNH.

    What I can say is this: I frequently disagree with John Scalzi, and I have found him to be tolerant of my views. I disagree even more frequently with the views of Patrick Nielsen Hayden,(in fact I think I pretty much disagree with ALL of PNH’s views) but he responded with civility today to my criticisms of his website content. I invite him to challenge my views as well.

    I guess the moral here is that you can engage those you disagree with in a way that attacks the idea–not the person. I can cheerfully and forcefully debate with both Scalzi and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. We can challenge each other’s arguments, ideologies, and judgments, but I hope that we are never reduced to shouting “asshole” at each other across cyberspace.

    If the tone ever sunk to that level, I personally would just withdraw from the debate rather than respond in kind. There some things that a gentleman just doesn’t say in public.

  3. Another quick note here: I will on occassion say to someone “You just said something really stupid.” I generally try verd hard not to say something like “*you* are stupid.” As a general rule, I think calling ideas (and the presentation of the ideas) stupid is within bounds; smart people say stupid things all the time, and I would hold myself up as an example as much as anyone. Calling someone stupid seems a bit rude.

    Of course, now I need to go back through the Scalzi-Duemer debate and see if I actually *did* cross that line. Uhhhhhhh…..

  4. Well, naturally, I disagree, as in my experience smart people come up with as many stupid ideas and actions as anyone else, they’re just better at hiding them, recovering from them or (in the case of writers) making sure no one sees them.

    I would agree that when people are told they said something stupid, they often feel as if they have been told that *they* are stupid, and perhaps in those cases a prefacing comment is in order. For example, when my wife starts a statement with a heavy sigh, followed by “You, you are such a *smart* man…” which is followed by her complaining about something stupid that I have done.

  5. “For example, when my wife starts a statement with a heavy sigh, followed by “You, you are such a *smart* man…” which is followed by her complaining about something stupid that I have done.”

    At least at those times she’s talking to you. Beats the silent “Wife Eyes of Doom,” I would imagine (says she, whose own well-honed WEOD can make other women’s guilty husbands twitch in a 30′ radius)

  6. This is not meant to start a discussion but rather to be a statement. Feel free to discuss, but I will not be participating.

    I have gained something very positive from this Duemer/Scalzi rhetoric festival. I have discovered why this site has become less entertaining to me over time.

    What were funny posts accompanied by diverse opinions and arguments have become bombastic statements of opinion followed by near universal agreement. When these opinions are challenged in any but a cursory way, they are treated as an opportunity to flex rhetorical muscles.

    Rhetoric does not uncover new truths. Reason searchs for truth. Logic checks the fruits of reason for consistency. Rhetoric attempts to “win” an argument through techniques aimed toward victory rather than mutual comprehension and (God forbid) a possible adjustment of one’s own position.

    The truth is that arguments in the grey areas (people “should” do X, this or that opinion is more indicitive of superior intelligence, coolness, and so on) cannot be resolved through reason and logic as they are so imprecise. All that is left to be done with the poor subject matter is to run it through the primate social exercise of seeing which side can gather the most supporters and make the other side look bad.

    Yes, this is playing to the “peanut gallery”. Rhetoric always is, no matter how you slice it. The techniques never uncover anything new. For example, how much entertainment am I to find in a series of arguments that are invariably speckled with deliberate contradictions meant for no other reason than as strategy. I am deliberately not quoting comment threads as this will invite posters to comment on the minutia of the quotes, and I am not looking for feedback.

    What would be nice is if the regulars, not so regulars, and especially John, would quietly and privately think about what they have been posting and why. Do you get a warm fuzzy from being agreed with? Do you get a warm fuzzy from “beating” someone with impressive credentials thus afirming you belief in your own coolness?

    The bottom line is that you can’t announce that you don’t fight fair, it’s your sandbox, I’m only serious half the time and guess which half, etc., then expect arguments to end up being anything but a 400lb gorilla beating up on some poor slob while his chorus declares victory after every statement. Dennis Miller saying, “Then again I could be wrong.” is cute after a monologue, but if he followed that by trying to have any substantive debate nothing useful could possibly be accomplished.

    Finally, there have been some very flip statements made about having to announce all professional attachments between commenters on a thread to avoid accusation of collusion (ie. “you should have said that X was your Y and that you knew each other”). It is easy to dismiss such compliaints and respond with an accusation of naivete or childishness. Rhetoric dictates this kind of response, but it is counterproductive. We all know damned well that nobody likes to argue alone in an established group. We all know why. We can pretend that a good argument should stand up in any setting. We can claim that our friends often disagree with us. The truth is that members of a group know what plays well to that group and what does not. Any newcomer is at a serious disadvantage. It is annoying when people play dumb as if they don’t realize this and aren’t using it as a rhetorical advantage.

    Bottom line of this rant: This site used to be more fun. As John becomes more successful and popular he needs to realize that when some people are congratulating him on making some poor slob look foolish others are sadly shaking their head at the waste of potential. This is beneath you, John. Use your powers for good and stop going for the “quick kill” that proves nothing. Lose the fluff and get back to the substance.

  7. Feakhelek:

    Actually, I quite like my site as it is; I think it’s diverse, and interesting, and frequented by interesting people. I also disagree with your assessment about the uses of rhetoric, and also about the depth of discussion here on the site: Head over to the disussion on the “Maxims for Non-Believers” entry for an example.

    I would also disagree I made a “poor slob” look foolish, anymore than I’ve made myself look foolish: I’ve been pretty open with what I’ve done and why, where my failings were and what I could and should have done better. I’ve also made it clear on this site that this “poor slob” is welcome to visit at any time and will be treated with due respect, as part of my amends for the more unpleasant aspects of my part in the little drama.

    The thing is, I’m human. Sometimes I’m funny, sometimes I’m petty, sometimes I’m wise, sometimes I’m a jerk. I do try to project an aura of intelligence and moderation, but I fail from time to time, and that is how things are. I correct from errors, but I also make new ones. My commentors, so far as I can determine their motivations, are myriad in their impressions, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some think it’s fun when I get snitty; some, like you, think it’s beneath me.

    However, generally speaking, I don’t model my own behavior here on what is popular for the crowd. I don’t have the time to devote to that sort of thinking. I am as I am, and as implied by the title of this part of the site, I write about whatever I feel like writing. Sometimes it will be to your liking and sometimes not. What is the case is that is always to *my* liking.

  8. So… does that mean that the ways my eyes light up, and I cue Winamp to play the Star Trek fight music (ta ta TA TA TA ta ta ta!) when I visit the Whatever, makes me the cyber-equivalent of Romans in the colluseum watching slaves being fed to lions?


  9. Rudeness, in and of itself, is not a useful tactic in an argument. There are many people (fans of Ronnie Reagan, for example) who oft confuse being bluff, direct and honest with being a complete and utter prick.

    But sudden, surprising sharpness from an unexpected source can be as useful as a slap to someone in hysterics. If (let’s pick a random name) John and I are having a discussion on (oh, say) the dubious merits of the patent crop-rotator, and it’s been perfectly polite and well-reasoned throughout, and suddenly he says something incredibly short and rude, I’m going to step back and analyse the argument so far to try to find out why.

    On the other hand, if Joseph (also a random name…) and I have just started talking, and he screams “it’s because you need your crops rotated, YOU DIPSTICK!”, it’s safe to say that nothing’s being added to the debate there.

  10. Mark, I really don’t get the distinction you are making above. That is, what difference are you pointing to between John & Joseph? I am not being arch or ironic or even provocative. I just don’t understand your point.

  11. I’m trying to make a distinction between “rudeness as a rhetorical tool” from someone with a proven track record of being capable of serious argument, and some random guy being rude because they think it makes them look forthright.

    It has nothing to do with your recent spat with John, of which I know little (it seems too complicated and childish for me to want to learn about); I just used the names “John” and “Joseph” to see if you’d bite.

  12. Joseph,

    I think the point is the placement in the conversation: “On the other hand, if Joseph (also a random name…) and I have just started talking, and he screams…” I think Mark is trying to show the difference between a reasoned technique (like when Mr. Spock claims to have acted in an emotional manner because logic told him it was the right time for it) and a display of emotion. I think that the “science” of communication draws such a distinction between emotional expressions and emotional *displays* in the same manner.

    My problem with rudeness as a technique does not hinge on effectiveness though. To me, use of such techniques comes across as exteremely arrogant. Using techniques aimed at making the person you are arguing with re-examine their position or look more closely at their arguments is really a way of telling them that they are your inferior and need help and psychological manipulating to bring them around to what clearly makes sense to everyone but them. Very condescending in my opinion.

  13. Sorry Mark, we must have been posting at the same time. Didn’t mean to speak for you.

  14. “Using techniques aimed at making the person you are arguing with re-examine their position or look more closely at their arguments is really a way of telling them that they are your inferior.”

    Hmmmm. I disagree. Just because someone argues poorly doesn’t mean that they’re an intellectual inferior — it may simply be that they don’t put well into words what their point may be.

    I do agree you can come across as arrogant, however, and again, that’s why rudeness as a tool is not meant for use on everyone or for every occasion.

  15. Stephen, on the internet, we are ALL just some random guy. YOU may be familiar with Scalzi & not with me, but there are a lot of people in the opposite camp. If that is what Mark was driving at, I don’t buy it. Arguing with respect assumes that the person you are arguing with has some standing, some track record; arguing by rudeness & insult assumes that the person you are arguing with lacks standing, that he doesn’t have a right to challenge you because he is some random guy, i.e., nobody. Both John & I are writers with fairly long records of publication on & off line. I think his initial unwillingness to recognize that fact really got my back up.

    By the way, I’m working on something extended which seeks to make a more general argument along these lines. Also, I make an exception to the above objection to rudeness for the carefully aimed sharp remark or satiric barb. Unrelenting rudeness is, I think John & I probably agree, not terribly productive, or at least that it produces diminishing returns the longer it is employed. Thus, John’s intelligent & effective switch to a more genial tone near the end of our initial encounter.

    Finally, John, as you’ll see if you read the piece I’m working on, I don’t think I “argued poorly”; I think we were each using entirely different modes of discourse.

  16. “Finally, John, as you’ll see if you read the piece I’m working on, I don’t think I “argued poorly”; I think we were each using entirely different modes of discourse.”

    Excellent — I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    I do agree that unrelenting rudeness is indeed a bad tactic if one intends to be anything other than rude. As I note in the initial comment about it: “if it does work in a positive way, you need to step down from rudeness *very* quickly to keep the conversation going.”

  17. Personally, I just ignore rudeness from strangers – it’s no way to start to a civil relationship.

    Rudeness from a friend is okay. Helpful even.

  18. I’VE always found that the judicious application of a baseball bat to a discussant’s cranium will cause him or her to stop to reassess the validity of arguments offered. Thing is, no-one seems to want to discuss with me any more.;>

    Seriously, John’s technique seems to me to violate the principle of justice; rudeness should be earned, not offered freely to all and sundry. Simply being wrong, or not having clearly thought out the implications of your argument are not sufficient offenses to merit this kind of treatment. Perhaps with a side of imperiousness, though…

  19. “Simply being wrong, or not having clearly thought out the implications of your argument are not sufficient offenses to merit this kind of treatment.”

    Well, again, one does not use it in all occassions.

  20. I think it’s possible that we’re making the mistake of assuming that “rudeness” is a binary function that is clearly true or untrue. Clearly many things can seem rude to only a subset of people, while others will flinch at nothing. Even more confusing is that different people can have inverted perceptions of what is rude, where one person recognizes that another person is offended but their very attempts to be less rude are actually perceived as more offensive.

    I suggest that instead there is more realistically “perceived rudeness” and “intended rudeness”, and that how close the two are is a function of both the author and the reader.

  21. “Ed, I’ll be happy to agree that I stepped over the line, but I had pretty numerous company on the other side, no?”

    I don’t care who started it! If you two don’t quit bickering I’m going to turn this blog around RIGHT NOW!

    Okay, it’s not my blog, but I really had to let that out.

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