html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I take it all back. Being judgmental is great.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I take it all back. Being judgmental is great.

I was reading Mark Kleiman’s entry on getting a threatening email in response to his political blogging. I was reading along approvingly, as I do for most of his posts; I share his worldview and very often respect his thought. So I was interested to see how he was handling the aggressive letter.

I had two sort of side thoughts as I was going along. “Oh, how nice it must be,” I thought “to get menacing letters that go straight to the death threat without first describing your sexual torment.” “Oh and look! The letter writer tangentially addressed the content of your posts without commenting on your looks! Male bloggers get such better death threats.”

And then I was so glad that Professor Kleiman referred to the letter writer by honorific and last name. I am a huge believer in treating names respectfully. My Dad scolded me very sharply one time as a kid. “Never make fun of anyone’s name,” he said. “First, it is disrespectful. Second, you can not come up with a joke about someone’s name in thirty seconds that the person has not heard in a lifetime of having that name.” I believe that mocking someone’s name is mocking their very self. I also believe that it is shoddy thought. It causes disproportionate hurt and anger for a cheap and unfunny joke; that’s a terrible bargain. Mocking names is one of my earliest clues of a discussion I don’t want to be part of; it shows a willingness to be uncivil combined with shallow thought and I have better places to be.

So I was pleased with Professor Kleiman’s response to the letter; I liked that he published it and called out the author for bad behavior. So far, so good. And then we got to his reply after an exchange with the letter writer.
Since, according to the Holy Bible, the Inerrant Word of God, "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger" (Prov. 15:1), I kept my reply gentle:

VERY Christian? And you consider fellow human beings -- each one, according to Genesis, the Image of God -- "animals" fit to be tortured? No, Ms. Currier, I very much doubt that you are VERY Christian yet. Keep trying.

Here's a suggestion: take a deep breath, read the Sermon on the Mount, and stop writing threatening emails to strangers.

P.s. "Infer" is not properly a synonym for "imply."


I wouldn’t critique this, except that Professor Kleiman says that he was trying to write a gentle reply. I do not think that reply is gentle. I think Professor Kleiman used his considerable smarts to zero in on and attack the letter writer’s core identity, and I think Professor Kleiman fell victim to his anger, which made him condescending and mean.

I am only projecting, of course. I’m guessing that Professor Kleiman responded the way I would, so if you read condemnation into this, please also apply it to all of us who mean to be reasonable people discussing contentious things and dealing with difficult people on the internet. And, of course, I could be off base on any of these guesses; they’re based on what I would do.

Professor Kleiman is bright, well-trained and verbal, and had two paragraph-long samples of unpleasant text aimed at him. He did what you do after a lifetime of extracting meaning from texts, and found the information he wanted. The writer capitalized a Christian self, more than a political identity, and when Kleiman wrote back, it was ad hominem. He didn’t state that he disagreed with the characterization of Muslims or the letter writer’s predictions for the future of our country, which was the bulk of what both letters were about. Nope, he found the four sentences that described the letter writer:

… I LOVE my safety, and my freedom. …
… I lean MORE AND MORE right …
… and am VERY Christian …
… I will not tolerate being minimized by you and your associates. …

And Professor Kleiman, perhaps entirely subconsciously, prioritized then attacked the point that was most important to the letter writer. He bluntly contradicted the writer’s identity as Christian and implied that the writer should keep trying to achieve a better Christian identity, one that Kleiman understands but the writer doesn’t.

That wasn’t gentle, but I think the overall tone of his response is worse. I think Professor Kleiman wrote from anger. I think it was anger from two things. First, Professor Kleiman was scared, slightly or briefly or a lot, by the convergence of the nasty emails and the phone call. You can dismiss it rationally, and he does. But no matter what you tell yourself about the fear, the residue of fear is anger. From what I’ve read at his site, I’d believe that Professor Kleiman is much angrier over what he views as a misappropriation of Christian beliefs. Professor Kleiman participates in a Tanakh study group, so I have every reason to believe he has a good deal of reverence for holy books. In addition to personal anger, I’d guess he feels protective of them and gets real mad when people use them as a source for vicious ideologies.

Understandably, Professor Kleiman is angry as he responds to his letter writer. His response is remarkably condescending for six short lines; the rest of his post is worse. That pissy “Keep trying”, “Here’s a suggestion” and correcting the writer’s grammar? That wasn’t written from openminded engagement with the writer. He wasn’t trying to guide the reader to a better Biblical interpretation or to improved grammar. He wouldn’t answer me that way if I’d emailed him with a genuine but poorly written question. Kleiman wanted to reassert his superiority in both fields, to make the writer know he was less than Kleiman. He wanted the writer to feel that, to punish the writer for making Kleiman scared and hurt. I get that impulse; I know how it feels and I’ve done it. I don’t think it is the best of us, though. And if our long-term goal is re-engagement with our nutcase fellow citizens, it isn’t helpful. They already feel that acutely; they feel it all the time. It was one of the four things the writer said about him or herself, that he or she can’t stand “being minimized by you and your associates.” That hurt and anger is always there for that letter writer, and Professor Kleiman gave him another small dose.

It is so hard not to answer like that. I use Professor Kleiman because I think he is an example of a fine person and thinker who fell into this trap. If he did it, we are all at risk of doing the same. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way to avoid it. Here’s the best I’ve come up with so far. I don’t think we can judge our own writings when we’re angry; I think that is for the enlightened, not people like us. So I don’t trust a decision rule based on thinking. But I’ve noticed there is a feeling you get when you fire off an angry post or email. The feeling is a rush, with complete focus, combined with a flushed face and faster breath. Pulse is accelerated and the words just flow. They sound incredibly, inarguably right. If you feel this feeling, you should stop. You have stopped being considered and respectful. If you are going back to make the zing even a little sharper, really show that person how fine your words are? If you are getting a real flourish and even more of a thrill when you hit send? You must especially stop, because you are being an asshole. This is hard self-awareness; in the angry moment, the feeling of rightness is all-consuming. Stopping feels like a splash of cold water. But it prevents escalation, and that horrible feeling later that you were partially at fault. Much as it sucks, this is the only way I can think of to self-police; Professor Kleiman's uncharacteristic post shows us we all need to self-police.

16 Comments:

Anonymous mrh said...

I can't get to Kleinman's site at the moment, but am I reading you correctly? Are you criticizing Kleinman for being rude in response to a death threat?

5:33 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

HAH HAH HAH hah hah hah ha ha ha ha. (That is me, laughing at myself.)

Yes. I am criticizing Professor Kleiman for being rude in response to a death threat. You're right - I'm being ridiculous. But I still mean it.

5:38 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

It isn't really a death threat. I agree with Megan that he could have had a more intelligent response.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Not intelligent. His intelligence isn't lacking. He was temporarily less considered than he usually is.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bah, that wasn't a death threat. Kim never once said, "I'm going to kill you." And even went on to explain S/he wasn't making a threat.

S/he just came across wrong.

Here's a death threat.

Justin

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

This is off-topic, but I saw an article and I thought of you-it's called "A Dam Connects Machakos, Kenya, To Archbold, Ohio" in today's Wall Street Journal. It's about how aid from a group of Midwestern farmers has allowed residents of a Kenyan village to build a water-retention dam, and how much difference it's made in the Kenyans' lives.

I hope you like it.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Kim Currier is yet another example of the Islam-will-Conquer-the-World panty piddling cowards who have largely taken over political discourse in America.

Newsflash for Mr./Ms. Currier, in case you happen to stumble across this: Islam is not going to Conquer the World. Trust me on that one.

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

The last time I wrote in anger, with elevated heart rate and everything (even some alcohol to boot) I sent the message without sleeping on it as I usually would. It was a private response to a rude message in a public forum.

The next day, sober and rested, I went back to read what I had written, afraid that in the light of day it would seem petty and unreasonable. I was surprised to find that it seemed pretty well-written and even-handed. I wished that I had sent it publicly rather than privately.

So yes, some people need their internal editor strengthened, but that's not universally the case. Instead, some of us need to have the guts to actually say what we think, to stand up to bullies, and call people on their bullshit.

If your approach to conflict is pure avoidance, you may fall into the second category.

I agree that Prof. Kleiman's response may have been sub-optimal, but I think she (he?) could have written angrily and still not belittled the letter-writer. As long as you're angrily standing up for yourself rather than angrily cutting someone else down, I think the anger is a very useful tool. And sometimes that anger is exactly what people need to hear.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Megan -
I don't consider my snarky comments about Kim Currier to violate your affirmative-kindness policy (which I very much respect) because as far as I know he or she doesn't actually comment here. Still, if you want to delete my comments, that's fine with me.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Dear Megan:

Thanks very much for the kind words,and the gentle rebuke. You're certainly right that I was anything but gentle with Mr. (as he turns out to be) Currier.

However, I wasn't trying to be gentle; my quotation from Proverbs was intended as ironic. I intended to be as insulting as possible, within the forms of politeness. Gospel Christianity, as I understand it, is in many ways an admirable ideal. But it isn't my ideal.

Yours,

Mark

10:49 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Megan, I don't agree with you even though you make some very interesting points.

I agree that there is the trap of being self-righteous but this should not negate the possibility of genuine, righteous anger. No?

And I'm all for being reasonable with reasonable people (and the range of meaning of 'reasonable' must be a broad sweep)but I still think there are times when it is necessary to say abrupt things to nasty/crazy people.

From my own experience I think it is very difficult-if not impossible-to have a reasonable discussion with most fundamentalists. Can one be open with people who are not open themselves? And there is always Browning's (I think): he hated so much because he loved so much..he hated the things that prevented him from loving..

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your analysis of the intentions and feelings in the text is wise. I wish political blogs would do such analysis from time to time.

Benjamin

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

The best course of action would have been to not respond to the email, either gently or cruelly, publicly or privately.

A) Response, in any form, only encourages crazy letter writers.

B) It is not possible to change crazy strangers' minds with emails, and you don't have time for the intensive one-on-one conversations that might really change a person's mind.

C) Letter was not written in such a way that public examination and deconstruction will enlighten readers.

D) Silence is in any case the response most likely to generate regret/embarrassment/thought on the part of the crazy letter writer.

My model animal in such scenarios is the giraffe, who can see danger from afar and avoid it.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Paul:

Thanks for letting me know about that article.

Mitch:

That is awesome that you sent that. I've seen enough of your comments to know that it was a great letter. OK. You I trust to send letters while you're pissed.

Mark:

OOOOOoooooohhhh! The "gentle reply" was ironic. I have heard of irony! Sometimes I recognize it, too! I missed that this time. I wouldn't have critiqued a rude letter I knew was trying to be rude; I really thought your anger was unintentionally leaking through. Wow. All that thought, applied to a problem that wasn't there. Well, the stuff about names and self-regulation is still good.

With the new goal in mind, I'd say you did a great job. That was a really insulting letter, within the bounds of politeness.

Benjamin:

Dude, it has been a bad few weeks around here for the comments policy. Please, no compliments to me. I'm glad you liked the analysis, though.

t-n:

D - Silence... I don't know if I agree; they already feel ignored. Better people than me, with no time constraints, could engage in longer conversations. But that's the only option for long-term change, and it is very demanding.

Do you take the giraffe chair at dinner?

8:04 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous susan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:43 AM  

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