JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.* Recently on this virtual stoop, questions have arisen about the “tone” of discussion generally, and particularly in the comment section (I refuse the neologism “combox” as an ugly stain on a beautiful language).
I regard these kinds of questions to be a symptom of blog flu, which may be fatal, and which tends to spread virulently through any new socially networked egocasting venture such as FPR.
There is only one tonic in my experience that can cure blog flu, and that is to put to death certain cherished vices that most internet chatterers tote around like pet chiwawas bedecked with ribbons and bows and a health insurance policy.
I speak of the mindset that insists, even if only to itself, that everyone must “respect my opinion.” As in “I respect your opinion and you are certainly entitled to have it, but …” This is a ritualized genuflection that cloaks the sharing of “opinions” and comes in all kinds of forms, subtle and overt. I find that nearly all discussions about “tone” are knee-jerk reactions to an instinctual recognition anytime and anywhere those genuflections are not present.
To put it simply, people want to be able to say whatever they want and still feel accepted, liked, and respected. But the truth is that many opinions are worthy only of contempt, disgust, mockery, or at the least, disapproval. This is a well established characteristic of all classic and other pre-liberal modes of discourse.
As Graeme Hunter noted of Pope John XXII’s damning and reproving of Meister Eckhart as “heretical, indiscreet and ugly,”
What pleases … about these words is not so much their truth, about which I am still undecided. It is their self-assurance, that hits you like a snort of vodka at a Baptist picnic. Even our previous and current pope, who stand above their age like giants, even they might learn a thing or two from such medieval predecessors.
It is a severe fact that one cannot take clear stands on many critical issues without expressing contempt for the deeply held convictions of others with whom one disagrees. The proper attitude toward a person or position one regards as contemptuous of, say, human life, is contempt—which need not preclude pity, fear, and even compassion. Anything less indicates one does not really take the matter seriously. It is always the fitting implication and sign of honesty in even the most “civil” disputes that the disputants are clearly antagonists whose differences cannot be reconciled or infinitely deferred without there being a winner and a loser.
This has always been the reality of “civil” or political discourse. And when confronted with people who are so profoundly disordered so as to advocate policy that breeds individual and social disorder, the “difference” is not a mere matter of “opinion;” it is a deep spiritual difference of great consequence.
It is one thing to issue ignorant and facile polemic; it is another to speak the truth and to occasionally decorate it so as to maximize rhetorical impact and advantageous political ends. For example, an ounce of quality sarcasm, bawdy humor at another’s expense, rhetorical exageration, and so on, is often worth a pound of argument. If you don’t believe me, you need only observe the common machinations of shrewd Machiavellian campaign strategists.
Like it or lump it: the more heated politics of the day frequently merit returning fire with fire, firing pre-emptively, or deploying “nuclear options.” Of course things can get out of hand, and one might be wrong in one’s thinking and choices—that is always the risk of any serious exercise of power. But short of the danger of touching off real, bodily conflict (which hardly seems a pressing risk), and absent the bonds of loyalty and fidelity and affection present in a real community (the internet is not your community!), I would not even consider erring on the side of caution. That side is also the side of false friends, dangerous appeasements, and emboldened enemies which leads, in the long run, to the entrenchment of hostile interests insulated from removal by normal political means.
* I speak only for myself, not for the editors of FPR.
UPDATE: My fellow editor Jason Peters sends along this fine quote from Samuel Coleridge:
“Tolerance a species of pretentiousness …. But notwithstanding this deep conviction of our general fallibility, and the most vivid recollection of my own, I dare avow with the German philosopher, that as far as opinions, and not motives; principals and not men, are concerned; I am neither tolerant nor wish to be regarded as such. According to my judgment, it is a mere ostentation, or a poor trick that hypocrisy plays with the cards of nonsense, when a man makes protestation of being perfectly tolerant in respect of all principals, opinions and persuasions, those alone excepted which render the holders intolerant.”