Friday, March 04, 2005

The Language of Bloggy Hate

Teresa Nielsen Hayden of Making Light pointed to this essay by Phil Agre on the style and rhetoric of hate mail. Agre writes:

I am talking here about people who are emotionally
abusive, and who have obviously invested effort in learning a
whole technology of emotional abuse that they are deploying in
a systematic way for (what they regard as) political purposes.
I am talking about people who express themselves in snide,
sarcastic, scornful tones, who express themselves in
innuendoes, who invest incredible effort in provoking an
intemperate response so that they can portray themselves as
victims, and who engage in complicatedly indirect forms of
rhetoric that deniably presuppose things that are false.

When I first started reading blogs, I was astonished by the language I found on commentary threads: the back and forth, the quick deployment of jokes and wit, the insider language, the endless citation of obscure sources and reports, and above all, a willingness to stereotype and demonize not only other people but other commenters. There was something exhilarating about the insults and chaos. Comment threads like those at Eschaton seemed like an irruption of demotic energy. Jerome Christensen in his The Romantic Movement at the End of History (Johns Hopkins 2000) characterizes "demotic utterances" as challenging
traditional systems of social control not with pikes and pistols but by the uncanny repetition of stereotypes circulating without respect to region or kind, resisting protocols of recognition but soliticiting acknowledgment of one stranger by another, from United Irishman by United Briton, from United Briton by Yorkshire weaver, from Yorkshire weaver by Lake poet (26).

I saw the energy on all sides of the Mighty Blogosphere as an extraordinary and maybe insurrectionary rush. But for this language to have a genuine demotic energy, it's got to be able to react against some other, more formal language of power. I'm not sure the formal political discourse is much different from the informal bloggy discourse. Agre calls it "the new jargon," and Jon Stewart knew what to do with it.

More and more, I'm tiring of this language. It's not just that people are overwilling to be nasty, it's that, as Agre points out, there is a cultivated technique of meanness: there are specific rhetorical protocols, not just "repetition of stereotypes," as Christensen would have it. I had my first warning that my idealization of bloggy language was flawed when the Whisky Bar imploded. My second warning was a couple of months ago, when I visited a French blog that discussed literary trends, and the comment threads operated in precisely the same manner as do American threads. The style was the same, the argumentative fallacies were the same, and the regulars engaged in the same pointless holier-than-thou witty, tangential debates.

The reason I'm turning away from seeing this sort of language as demotic and energetic is that it mimics real argument and often takes itself for sincere discussion of issues. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings discusses the moral imperative to engage in sincere and openminded debate even with ideological opponents. Agre's essay is valuable because it begins to catalog the all-too familiar rhetorical protocols of this kind of language.

Here's an example from the essay:

The same writer continues as follows:

Yep, you must really enjoy democracy if you feel that Al [Gore]'s
team is absolutely with clean hands while W is totally

Having worked himself into a state of righteous indignation,
he starts in with the sarcasm: "yep". Then another
characteristic pattern of the new jargon: reframing issues in
terms of straw-man extremes. He ascribes to me a view that is
framed in terms of absolutes. Notice how the straw man is
amplified even further through imbalance: it's Al's team
versus W (alone). Notice, too, how this view is not quite
ascribed to me in a straightforward way; he doesn't say "You
believe that Al's team is absolutely clean and W is totally
wrong". Rather, he puts this proposition, for which he has
presented no evidence, into an "if", thus sheltering it from
the rational examination that it would invite if he had
squarely asserted it. This is part of what I mean when I say
that the jargon is subrational: it continually places its
assertions out of the reach of rational inquiry, either as
innuendoes, or rhetorical questions, or presuppositions, or
beneath ambiguities that also admit trivial interpretations.

We've all seen blog comments (and posts) that work like this. And the reason I point to Agre's essay is that it makes the important point that blogs are actually training people to write (and think) in these patterns. On many sites, you've got to write this way to participate, to get any response.

As blogs gain importance, it seems important to distinguish between the demotic energy that expresses itself in stereotypes and reactive comments and that "New Jargon" that mistakes itself for real political argument.


Blogger bitchphd:

Hm. Thought-provoking.

3/06/2005 10:45:00 AM  

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