Ontological assholishness

I often complain that I am singled out as being an “ontological asshole,” even though people are routinely much meaner to me than I would ever dream of being. I think this exchange is a good example of the phenomenon. If you read the comment, you’ll see that it basically says that everything we’re doing at AUFS is completely worthless if not outright farcical — and it does so at great length. That, in my mind, is mean. When Anthony responds angrily, as any human being would, several people leap to the original commenter’s defense and shame Anthony for overreacting, in the process seriously understating the negativity of the original commenter.

This happens again and again — the only possible sin in blog conversations is “tone” (which is, incidentally, the most difficult thing to pick up as intended in online communication!). Any kind of content gets a free pass, as long as the “tone” is right. When the sacred law of “tone” is violated, suddenly we’re locked into procedural conversations about how we all need to show the proper respect. And weirdly, it’s always the people with the minority opinions in a given setting who need to be lectured about respectfulness.

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35 Responses to “Ontological assholishness”

  1. James K.A. Smith Says:

    For what it’s worth, I only think of you as an epistemic asshole. My Augustinianism prevents me from attributing ontological assholeness to anyone. ;-)

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s interesting that you should be the first person to respond to this post.

  3. James K.A. Smith Says:

    How so?

    Again, for what it’s worth, I see you guys playing a different game. So in a way, I think we’re dealing with apples and oranges, which is why it seemed to me that you all were talking past one another at Halden’s blog.

    As I see it, you can play your game of guild-centric theology. I play a different game. But the criteria for critique here at game-relative so I wouldn’t be able to marshal a critique of what you’re doing that would ever be convincing to you. And I don’t resort to mocking or scorning what you’re doing.

    So again: how is it “interesting” that I post first? (I was honestly just picking low-hanging fruit for a lame joke.) I don’t have a dog in this fight.

  4. James K.A. Smith Says:

    Sorry, should have said: “the criteria for critique here ARE game-relative…”

  5. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m not sure that Adam, DBarber, and I all share the same conception of theology either though. But, surely we can all talk about this since apples and oranges (and bananas and even tomatoes) are fruit!

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s just that comments from infrequent commenters here stand out more. We haven’t heard from you in a while, and this is the post that you jump on almost immediately once it’s been posted. It’s an event that calls forth reflection.

  7. Brad Says:

    It just doesn’t make sense to me at all that the most proper venue for theology is the church. That seems akin to saying that art is meant for the museum. Or literature for the library.

  8. Jeremy Says:

    He has a good point if you guys believe in the death of God I think he’s allowed to be as big of an asshole as possible, it’s in the Bible.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Granted — but where’s the verse that says we’re not allowed to say we don’t value his opinion and didn’t intend to cater to him with our blog?

  10. Jeremy Says:

    My default verse for disputes between two men is Deuteronomy 25:11-12: http://tinyurl.com/yzjeyzy

  11. Evan Says:

    I used to dismiss AUFS as some assholes that had interesting stuff to say but were rather difficult to interact with. I can still find it difficult to jump in here, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’ve really come to value just following your thoughts. Especially some of what you’ve said with regard to the work of theologians and the Church, Adam, has been helpful.

    The critical voice just doesn’t seem very easily received in ecclesial contexts; I think there’s a fear of it standing “against” these contexts in some way that threatens the Gospel, or the Church, or something like that.

    For many who are in the academy, though, threats to the legitimacy of critical inquiry standing on its own two feet seem pretty hollow. This leads (me, at least) to suspicions about projects of baptizing certain theological work or else casting out other work as not properly ecclesial. Your points about academia being its own legitimate community, about insisting that theology can say something to the Church rather than simply receiving from it, etc., all hit on this.

    The “tone” of my own blogging is quite different than AUFS, but that’s an editorial decision on my own part just like you all have made editorial decisions for the best way to approach your work here. I agree that too much appeal to an institutionalized niceness seems rather beside the point when our interest is presumably constructive interaction of one sort or another. And as you say, standards of etiquette are in the eye of the beholder, and often experience significant blind spots because of ideology, pet projects, or prejudices. Just because one doesn’t play nice according to another’s lights doesn’t mean that their work suffers from it.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I appreciate that comment, Evan. Thanks.

  13. Evan Says:

    I think the best way to describe AUFS is that it’s an acquired taste for lots of people. Because of that, I can see why people get pissed at you guys — that is, it’s not as if their reaction should be unexpected. But it’s a reaction to initial impressions rather than longer exposure (or else longer but superficial exposure), and so I think it’s also fair to say that this reaction isn’t as legitimate as others might be.

  14. James K.A. Smith Says:

    I would like to second Evan’s comment. If I didn’t think you all had interesting things to say, I’d just delete AUFS from my Reader. But I don’t. So most of the time I’m just listening in and appreciate hearing a very different take on things.

    And I hope my opening comment demonstrates I’m don’t valuie being “nice.” Indeed, I just came through a maddening service yesterday which made it seem like the Gospel is just supposed to make us “friendly.” I’m with you in this respect: If we really lived out the Gospel, more people would think we were assholes. (Don’t thereby congratulate yourselves by a fallacious affirmation of the consequent.)

  15. James K.A. Smith Says:

    By the way, I thought I could get away with that opening joke/comment because we had built up some rapport in our Mad Men exchange, which I thought quite civil and constructive. So that was almost an olive branch. (I’m just about finished season 2 of Mad Men by the way. But won’t say more because I don’t want to sidetrack this thread.)

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I hope you’re able to catch up soon, because season 3 has been amazing so far.

  17. Procedural Blogging « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR Says:

    [...] Downs’ Ineffective Second, Adam Kotsko on “ontological assholelishness”: This happens again and again — the only possible sin in blog conversations is “tone” (which is… “Ontological assholishness”? Kotsko should just calm [...]

  18. Scu Says:

    Why is it that basically everyone I talk to on academic blogs seem to have a reputation as assholes? Why are none of these people assholes to me? Or maybe you all are and I just don’t pick up on it.

    Anyway, I think it is really weird for people to criticize someone’s comments policy, especially when that policy is: This blog is for us, deal.

    That seems perfectly fine to me.

    Anyway, I just got my copy of The Beast and the Sovereign. So, I’m going to go read.

  19. Hill Says:

    Thirding Evan’s comment.

  20. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    God Scu, why won’t you just shut up! Jeezzzzzz!!!!

  21. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Again, the sarcasm tags did not work.

  22. Jeremy Says:

    Something I found strange in that exchange over at Halden’s blog was everyone’s severe insecurity over posting at AUFS. I have next to no formal training in theology or philosophy, and am in graduate school to become a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Needless to say all of my theological learning has taken place in my free time. I’ve never felt like I have to walk on eggshells to post over here. If I say something relevant/constructive it will get a response, if it’s not then it’ll likely get ignored. Everyone’s reaction to comment policy strikes me as quasi-paranoid.

  23. Brad Johnson Says:

    Speaking of the comment policy, I’m wondering if this post (and thus the comments as a whole) breaches our no-meta policy. Might I have to delete this very comment, even!?!

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ll admit that I didn’t predict that the comment policy would lead to so many people venting about us on F&T and Halden’s blog. Perhaps naive of me, I know. And that leads to a situation where potentially a lot more people are reading criticism of us than ever get around to reading us first-hand. Yet not having to deal with worthless horseshit like the comment I link in the post has been invaluable for my mental health. Reading it at other blogs is qualitatively different from having someone come and smear shit all over the walls at my house.

  25. Brad Johnson Says:

    And, really, it’s not that draconian. If you prove your conversational worth, we’ll allow almost anything. Unless we just happen to be in bad humor that day. And, well, that’s just life.

  26. justathought Says:

    I couldn’t find an email for you guys on the site so I am leaving this as comment. But I don’t think it really needs to be posted.
    The comment I left at Halden’s blog was a over zealous piece that was a poor characterization of what goes on here. I guess that makes me as well an “ontological asshole.” I actual thought it would be largely ignored and maybe chuckled at out for how outrageous and sarcastic it was. The only reason I found out that anyone read it was because of this post. I have been a long time reader, and while I have my disagreements, I do think parts of your project are worthwhile for those of us still left in the church. My main point was that I wished they were expressed (sometimes) more accessibly for the layman, but that might an unrealistic expectation on my part.
    So here is my apology for being a wise-ass in a way that was just unhelpful and was disrespectful to the gifts you guys do bring. Sorry. If you want shoot me an email back please do, and I open to posting some there as well so my poor characterization doesn’t stick.

  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks for the apology. If you could follow up on your comment to clarify your intention, that would be great. None of us know you at all, so we didn’t have any idea you were just being sarcastic.

  28. Grant Says:

    I greatly appreciated that the AUFS post singled out by the dismissive commentator on the other blog was about Ted Jennings. Speculating about the sexuality of Jesus is of course only “mental masturbation” when you’re a heterosexual male.

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m more tired of the phrase “mental masturbation” than you can imagine.

  30. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    What’s wrong with masturbation?!

  31. Adam Kotsko Says:

    By the way, I know that this post skirts the line of our own anti-meta policy, but I needed to vent somehow, because I am extremely tired of people using my “tone” as an excuse to constantly insult and dismiss me — it’s been going on for years and years, and every so often I reach a breaking point with it. It may seem like I’m some kind of invincible contrarianism machine or whatever, but I’m an actual human being who wants to be shown some basic respect and recognition. Here I basically do because I’ve set up the system to get rid of people who violate that, and I don’t make any apologies for it. As soon as I become involved in a conversation elsewhere — practically anywhere else — pretty soon the niceness police have their knives out. It could be that I’m just an asshole, right? Or it could be that my opinions tend to be in the minority wherever I go, and people are threatened by a forceful voice challenging them.

    I continue because I take ideas seriously and have had enough success finding others online who do too that the risk of continuing seems worth it — but I’m increasingly thinking that the mainstream of the theological blogosphere simply is not worth it. The type of people who hang around in Halden and Myers’ comment threads are, by and large, the same old passive-aggressive intellectually insecure churchy types I’ve had to deal with all my life. The people who are worth talking to have, for the most part, already become commenters here. And let’s not even talk about the other theology blogs — like the one where Anthony was accused of rape, but that person is still apparently a respected point of reference in the conversation.

    Beyond that, I’m frankly sick of the lack of respect we get in terms of links. We had a book event and no one linked to it until it was over. We were integral to the conversation about the morality of theologians, and Myers linked to Halden without linking to us. Same goes for the posts on film violence — jack shit in terms of links from the big guys.

    They’re the gate keepers, and apparently they’ve decided the gate’s closed. It’s the same thing that keeps happening to me in these settings — too religious for the non-religious “theory” blogs to pay us much attention, not pious enough for the religious blogs to be willing to take us seriously.

  32. James K.A. Smith Says:

    Is there a “mainstream” of the theology blogosphere? It seems like you rail against this “mainstream” quite a bit (if memory serves), but it seems like it would be possible to determine this. What makes you think “Faith & Theology” and “Inhabitatio Dei” are the mainstream in theology blogging? I’m guessing, for instance, that there are probably some really conservative evangelical blogs out there that are huge, but they don’t even show up on our radar. So what counts as “mainstream?” [Maybe there’s actually traffic data out there or something you’re referring to; in which case, I’m open to correction; but as it stands, I think your idea of a mainstream is a construction that says a little bit about who you _want_ to be reading you.)

    Beyond, I have this hunch that if we had first met at AAR, we would have disagreed in some session but would have been introduced first, and would have realized that neither of us were really assholes, and then maybe would have had a beer afterwards. There’s something weirdly passive-aggressive about the entire theological blogosphere that tends to bring out the worst in us. After all, you really want to be notorious, don’t you? So this posts sound like you’re upset that you don’t get enough links to be _sufficiently_ notorious. Is that all _our_ fault?

  33. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So, let’s review. The first time we encountered each other in blogs, I made a generalization you were unhappy with, so you insulted my entire group of friends, claiming our opinions were motivated by resentment, and then for good measure you randomly insulted my former teacher Craig Keen, who had not been a part of the conversation up until that point. This was what you felt was an appropriate response to me claiming that a fixation on a strong ecclesiology was keeping people from processing Nate’s argument in his book. Then you backed down a bit and said that you’re a very busy man and Nate should be grateful you even took the time to read and respond to his article at all. Overall, it wasn’t an encouraging beginning to our relationship, nor was that totally covered over by our conversation about Mad Men — especially given that you never admitted any fault whatsoever, even after I repeatedly admitted that my sarcasm was out of place. That’s why it was “interesting” that you responded so quickly to this, because you are probably the worst offender in this regard that I’ve ever encountered in my entire six years of blogging.

    I try to be cordial when you come around, because I’m not an asshole. But you just push and push. And now that I’m being honest about my own personal struggles blogging, you’re back at the psychologizing game. So I’ll just say: No, I don’t need personal loving attention from either Halden or Ben Myers. I’m not constructing them as the mainstream because of my admiration for them. I’m constructing them as the mainstream because I’ve been blogging for long enough that I’ve been able to witness a clear gate-keeping “mainstream” emerge in a few different genres of blogs and they have all the earmarks of it — especially Myers. Is it paranoid to notice that virtually everyone blogrolls him? Is it just my paranoid fantasy that he gets review copies sent to him because of his blog, for instance? Is it a fantasy that my publisher put his blurb on my book’s web page, even after I requested that they replace it with the blurbs from the back of the book? Is it paranoid to notice the fact that Ben Myers made Nate’s book into a success basically single-handedly through his very favorable review and constant promotion of it? Sounds pretty mainstream to me. Maybe I have an exaggerated idea of Halden’s reach, but I feel confident on my judgment of Myers’ place in our local ecosystem.

    I don’t want to be notorious, either. Perhaps I’d like to be well-known, but not notorious. Basically, I’d like to be known as someone who’s funny and smart and worth listening to — is that so pathological? I don’t want to be known as an asshole because I don’t think I am an asshole. I don’t want to be known as a contrarian because I’m not one. I’m just trying to act responsibly within my context, and that means responding to things that I think are lazy or unconvincing, at least once they reach a critical mass of repetition.

  34. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    This is all getting a bit too metablogging and James KA Smith has thrown down the “beer summit” gauntlet. I’m voting to close the thread, but if there is anything that is still helpful to discuss I’m open to keeping it open.

    I will say this, I don’t think anyone here wants to be “notorious”, well, maybe in the sense that we’re all a bit too real and raw like The Notorious B.I.G., but not notorious in the sense that we want to terrorize anyone. Obviously we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want to have some impact on the way people think and enter into conversations with people who do think.

    As for the “mainstream” comment. I don’t know about the others, but the guy who accused me of being a rapist (I’m not, obviously) is consistently the highest trafficked “biblioblog”. He has yet to apologize to me or take down the offending comment and keeps it just on the legal side so it doesn’t technically constitute slander (I checked with a lawyer friend). He’s an ontic asshole.

  35. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ll shut down comments.


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