IN THE NEWS
As you can tell from other posts on this blog, I’m a great believer in democratic debate. It’s not always easy as you'd like to have a productive a discussion, but there are ways to get there. Exercising patience, showing a willingness to listen, acknowledging each other’s points, finding standards or ground rules on which you can agree—the list of "tips and tricks" is pretty obvious.
What’s vexing, though, is when you run into someone who won’t play by any rules of fair comment. They jump from point to point, bury you in trivia, blast you with ad hominem attacks—you know the score. Trolls, blowhards—call them what you will, but they’re a consistent feature of the Internet.
The best you can do is…
- Try to play by the rules.
- Point out they’re not.
- Keep a level head.
- If nothing works, suspend discussion with that person.
I’m not saying the forum moderator should censor them. Instead, you should stop wasting your time with them. Offer to continue the dialogue, once they’re willing to treat you with the respect and open-mindedness that you offer them.
It’s hard to give up on people. It’s also hard to avoid responding to some of their invective. There’s always a price to pay for leaving outrageous accusations unchallenged.
But, of course, you haven’t failed to respond. You’ve really, really tried to take them seriously. And you’ve explained why you can’t continue the discussion. The marketplace of ideas can’t be overrun by noisy bullies who try to shout down everyone else. By insisting on the rules of democratic debate, and penalizing people who won’t play by these rules, you’re standing up for democracy. Turn your attention to the people who are willing to have a discussion, and let the blowhards fume on the sidelines.
Case in point: Norman Rogers, a frequent correspondent on the Washington Monthly discussion boards, where he’s made an enormous amount of mischief. Norman’s postings have some predictable features:
- He slings insults—idiots, Dimocrats, and morons—at nearly everyone.
- He swings between two caricatures of his opponents. Sometimes, they’re part of some overeducated, underemployed chattering class. On the other hand, he’ll snarl something about how someone needs to go to night school, or some other version of declaring how ignorant and undereducated they are. (Shades of the contradictory insults thrown at Clinton, who could apparently be an intellectual snob educated at an elite university and an Arkansas hick.)
- He nitpicks typos, grammatical errors, and other problems with the format of posts.
- He never sticks to the subject.
- He absolutely will not be pinned down to any common standard of political success or failure. Common ground is an anathema to him.
- He constantly declares victory in his arguments with other people, whether he deserves it or not.
He is, in short, the consummate blowhard. (Click here for classic Normanisms.) It’s a shame, because Norman may be a bright, well-educated person. What’s ironic about Norman is, for all his bluster about the Left, he seems to be doing his own version of what hippies used to call "freaking the mundanes." He’ll say something scandalous, wait for people to sputter in rage, and then laugh at their reaction. The only difference between Norman and the hippies is his drug of choice. The hippies preferred pot and magic mushrooms; Norman gets his rush from Coulter and Limbaugh.
I made an effort with Norman. I tried to answer his questions, and prod him to answer mine in turn. I stayed away from ad hominem statements, vulgarities, or anything else that could distract us from seeing reaching a meeting of the minds.
Unfortunately, at some point, I snapped. Despite my best efforts, Norman was as vile and disruptive as he ever was. I told Norman in clear terms why I was giving up on him for now, and encouraged others to do the same. Who knows—he might someday have a change of heart. Perhaps to his pleasant surprise, he’ll find a lot of people willing to listen to him.
Meanwhile, I’m not going to let him infuriate me further. Count this mundane as unfreakable. Since it’s just not worth taking Norman too seriously, good humor is the best resort.
To steer clear of Norman’s whirlpool of invective, I picture him not as a a fire-breathing ogre, but as something softer and a bit more ridiculous—like Harcourt Fenton Mudd, the hapless rogue from the original Star Trek series. Not a noble person, to be sure, but someone innocuous, and certainly capable of reason.
Plus, for anyone who remembers the original Star Trek series, Mudd is married to
this woman. (Well, actually to her robot duplicate, but it turns out to be more or less the same thing.) And there’s a little satisfaction to be had in that mental picture, too.
"Harcourt Fenton Mudd, have you been drinking again?"