blank, blanking, blanks
6 December 2004, 10:59 AM
A thread over at Baseball Primer that I had dismissed as worthless degenerated into a pissing match that would have stretched the limits of worthlessness even as applied to the internet, where Replacement Level is measured in Godwins, if it weren’t for having inspired the following ramblings. Whether this is positive value or not may be an entirely subjective judgment. At any rate, two longtime denizens of the board were arguing over netiquette, particularly the bizarre netiquette of insults. So, herewith my thoughts and questions.
First of all, we start with the initial offense. The context is a public bulletin board site, with frequent bouts of incivility and so on, and where our two exemplars post with substantial frequency, and where there are half-a-dozen topics known to lead to nasty invective. In a thread on one of those topics, somebody (we’ll call him Saul) posts a note that (quite probably deliberately but at least predictably) infuriates another poster (who we’ll call David). David then responds with fury, implying (but not stating) his contempt for Saul and Saul’s ideas, background and moral character. Saul then types “———— you, David.” David says “———— me? No, ———— you, you ————!” Have we all been witness to such an exchange?
Now, my purpose here is to talk about all of this in a moral sense, and before I begin I will point out that they are both, from a moral point of view, behaving like ————s. But morality, and offensiveness, and insult, and etiquette are not toggle-switch matters. It’s not the case that all polite things are equally polite, nor that all immoral things are equally immoral. There are hierarchies of behaviour here, and it makes sense to talk about it in terms of inequally shared culpability, and also of varying depths of incivility. Although I may not state it below, I am comparing their actions not only to each others’ actions, but to such possible actions as measured speech, remaining quiet, and private communication. The important thing, though, is that David and Saul may each recognize that they are both behaving like ————s, but each may think the other is far worse of a ————. Can they both be right?
Anyway, I think it’s reasonable for individuals to have a hierarchy of insults and of offense, so that it makes some sense to talk about escalation. I think it is worse to escalate the offense than to respond in kind. Going from implicit contempt to explicit profanity is escalation; whether it is a ‘first strike’ or not, it’s clearly a step up from argumentation that doesn’t use it. Then, if calling someone a ———— is ‘worse’ than saying ‘———— you’, then David has not merely responded in kind, but escalated. Whether it is worse depends on that hierarchy of offense. I don’t think it is worse, but Saul does.
You see, each individual has a hierarchy of offense; there are substantial overlaps (for people of substantially the same culture), but also some differences.
I for instance, recognize that it is worse to say “———— me” than “———— you.” I’m more offended at being called a ———— than a ————. Do all my Gentle Readers agree? Perhaps, perhaps not. Some might be called either a ———— or a ———— with such frequency that it washes over them, whereas it is ———— that really crosses the line. Others, however, might find ———— so far over the line that it’s just funny, and can’t really take offense at it. In baseball, I’m told, for decades the one thing you couldn’t say to a catcher with dark skin was ———, but that word applied to a pale-skinned man was only mildly insulting, and certainly not grounds for being tossed. In Bull Durham, the umpire famously tosses Champ for calling him a ———— - ——————, although calling the call a ———— - ——————— call was not grounds for dismissal. That hierarchy makes sense to me under the circumstances, although I have close friends who are actually ———— - ——————s, and I’ve said so in admiring tones on appropriate occasions, although referring to any other task they did as ———— - ——————— work could only be insulting.
Yes, it’s our old friend context. Recently, on another site, I insultingly used the word ‘Gosh’; in context, it was (and was meant to be, though I regret it now) demeaning, and far more so than ———— would have been (although not so much as ————— would have been, I think). In a bulletin board with substantial use of profanity, it’s quite possible Saul thought of his escalation as being minor, simply a move from an implicit to an explicit attack still on basically friendly terms. David, on the other hand, may only be used to being told to ———— himself in extreme anger, and already aggrieved, may see it as going nuclear, where his response is just higher tonnage.
Anyway, all of this is old stuff. What is interesting, here, is that it’s all happening on-line. That strips the conversation (if we can call it that) of a lot of cues that we can use to determine what the other person thinks is the context, and to determine the other person’s hierarchy of civility anyway. A conversation in a Somerville bar, for instance, has different ground rules than one in a library check-out line, and everybody involved knows which one they’re in. Further, you know that a grocery store, for instance, is more like a library than like a bar, and that a ball game is more like a bar than like a library. Those pattern-matching exercises are easy for humans. But does David think a Baseball Primer board is more like a bar or more like a library? Does Saul think it’s more like the bleachers or more like the box seats? Even in the library, Saul’s accent, clothing and speech patterns can give me (possibly misleading) clues as to where in his hierarchy of offense phrases like “———— you” and “you ————” lie. It’s not simply a matter of which emoticon to use; it’s a matter of thousands of hours spent building up a database of patterns to match. And then, of course, the patterns change; internet time is speeded up to the point where social norms are difficult not just to understand (bad enough) but to instill in our pattern-matching behaviour.
So, when Saul and David exchange their profanity, how do we think about their culpability? Particularly when such norms as exist require, it seems to me, defending the intended post, rather than the interpreted post as the ‘real’ one. Is it civil to call David on his rudeness? Is it civil to step in at the point where you feel David has crossed the line, and suggest that the matter be dropped? If you are by now disgusted by the whole thing, is it civil to suggest that others are, too, and that whatever David and Saul feel, it would be best for them to back off, rather than continuing to attack/defend/explain? If somebody suggests that, but you think that David is (more) right and Saul (more) wrong, is it civil to say so?
I think, for me, that the internet is a tremendously defensive medium. Perhaps it’s the solitary nature of typing, or the context-stripping, or perhaps it’s the odd combination of permanence (the post is still there, and can be Fisked) and transience (there’ll be five hundred more posts tomorrow). Or perhaps it’s nothing to do with the internet, and the real defensiveness is coming from our increasingly defensive culture. Or that there’s a feedback issue, with everybody’s view of being under attack is exacerbated by the internet, particularly when they experience (stripped of context) everybody else’s sense of grievance.
Anyway, I think it’s clear that in a discussion of this kind, using words like ———— and ———— or even ———— isn’t offensive, but the blanks are funnier.