On Pitilessness

“A masterful young jockey, that;—’ll have his own road, if ever anybody would.”

“Yes,” cried Ursula, in her hot, overbearing voice. “Why couldn’t he take the horse away, till the trucks had gone by? He’s a fool, and a bully. Does he think it’s manly, to torture a horse? It’s a living thing, why should he bully it and torture it?”
D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love

For this post, I’m putting the thesis right out front, so you can read it even if you have only one minute to spare: D. H. Lawrence once wrote that a living thing should not earn our contempt just because it can be destroyed. Actually, its vulnerability is what makes it a living thing. We are under no obligation to extirpate weakness by seeing who can survive bombshells. I like to hear what people say when they feel they will be treated respectfully.

The cost of a flame war is not something we know, for the following reason: the tendency of flame wars to produce a lot of links back and forth, and a lot of enthusiastic comments, makes them look terrific. However, we have no idea how many people decide they will never write a comment, or decide not to start a blog, or decide not to weigh in on their own blogs on a given subject. If that decision is based on trouble refuting well-made counter-arguments, so be it. But if it’s based on verbal abuse? Where is our triumph then?

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(NB: A lot of people hold up BlackAmazon as their apostle of righteous anger, and I like what I’ve read of her [including her newest piece on Children of Men, my #1 movie of last year] so I’m adding her to the blogroll.)

It’s been an interesting day in the blogosphere, to put it mildly. Queer Dewd has just posted, sort of in response to my recent post, an essay about flame wars where he argues that he enjoys flame wars, and considers them a legitimate response to oppression, and then gives the entirety of some other guy’s essay on Milton and Rush Limbaugh. (Queer Dewd’s gender is complicated; I’m using the male pronoun because I think that’s what he would prefer.)

Of course I got into the blogging world in order to have interesting conversations, debates included. (My debate with surlacarte over Paul de Man is still going, and at no point has even faintly resembled a flame war.) Our opinions about politics and culture are not some essential part of ourselves, beyond the reach of legitimate reproach. It is furthermore a good idea to put our arguments in the strongest possible terms.

However, we are not talking here about disagreement. We’re talking about a particular kind of disagreement that primarily makes use of mockery, damaging speculation, name-calling, and reiteration. At its core is the philosophy of pitilessness: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

I’m going to respond specifically to Queer Dewd and his spokesperson, but I think the issue is broadly applicable.

a. “Only the bourgeois oppressor wants us to conform to his standards of etiquette, which are designed to neutralize us.”

Sure, I believe in being uncompromising about political ideals. But the flip side of the justification for argument — that a position is not essential to the person holding it — is that attacking the person rather than the position is actually wrong. I don’t believe in being wrong. I like to leave that to my opponents. We can be angry. We can write angry. But if anger starts to muddy the message and decay our words into generic insults, then it is the sign of powerlessness. Powerlessness is going to make all the wrong people happy.

A word about this nonsensical appropriation of Marxism. What the bourgeoisie really wants, 23 hours of the day when it isn’t tea-time, is for us to believe that life consists of eliminating the weak and promoting the strong. They’ll let us take just about any position we like as long as the mode is competition. That’s what being assimilated means. Anybody whose position can be summed up as “let the rest of the sniveling babies go crying to their mommies” is being both pitiless, and, frequently, sexist. For example, in the Hawkes essay cited by Queer Dewd, we learn that “misplaced morality” condemns us to “eternal impotence.” Pro-flame preening can’t go ten seconds without lapsing into masculinist rhetoric.

b. “Flaming is what makes the right wing great. We should learn from them.”

We could learn to imitate nasty, unscrupulous bullies. Or we could stick to our strengths. You know what makes the progressives great? Their sense of humor. They can be very, very funny.

There’s a difference between humor and nastiness, which sometimes likes to pretend it’s humor. Nastiness makes another person out to be a plague, a poison, a sick or defective individual. Humor makes another person out to be foolish. We are all foolish sometimes; that takes forgiveness. Nobody should be treated like a plague. There is an obvious correspondence between types of thinking, types of rhetoric, and personal politics. If you think it’s harder, more risky, to take the high road, you’re right. There I don’t feel any pity.

If you think any of the bad karma that’s been going around is really funny reading, you’re looking at different threads than me.

We have other strengths too. Recently we have heard a great deal dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King. He didn’t sound at all like Limbaugh; nor, for that matter, did Malcolm. Were they less effective because of it?

c. “The opposite of flaming is boredom.”

The opposite of having a strong opinion is boredom. The opposite of flaming is reason. Anger is not entertainment; it’s a call to action. Meanwhile, a simply entertaining post is not a flame war post.

I’m not going to write angry so other people can feed off that for thrills; maybe they will anyway, but that’s not why I write. Furthermore, this principle of negative entertainment is a bad habit, nothing more; writers like uncomplicatedly give us the opportunity to be engaged by clarity, pathos, compassion, insight — all things that sound like and are the opposite of war.

d. “People who plead for gentler proceedings are hypocritical, because we all have sadistic impulses.”

Hypocrisy means saying one thing, and doing another. It does not mean the difference between your imaginary X-ray of my head, and what I write or do. If this is supposed to be a brilliant insight derived from Freud, then believe me, Freud was 100% in favor of that kind of hypocrisy, and termed it “sublimation.”

Sure, we all feel angry and contemptuous in the midst of proceedings like these. On the other hand, we have other impulses, too. Like our impulse towards unheard voices. Not to speak for them, but to make them unafraid of speaking. Meanwhile, I’m always astonished when a writer switches fluently from rhetoric to the jargon of authenticity, as though these things were the slightest bit compatible.

Since many of these arguments read like a second-rate version of what somebody thought Friedrich Nietzsche was saying, let me end by quoting Nietzsche on intellectuals who found their thinking on “impulses”:

Alas, I knew noble men who lost their highest hope. Then they slandered all high hopes. […] Spirit too is lust, so they said. Then the wings of their spirit broke: and now their spirit crawls about and soils what it gnaws.

That is saying enough for now.

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