[Note: I have come to regard this post as misguided. I applied my long-standing “niceness police” theme to a situation where it didn’t fit very neatly and which was none of my business in any case. As such, I retract it and have closed comments.]
I have long been a critic of the “niceness police” who regularly patrol online forums. Such figures are often hung up on “tone” to a pathological degree, dismissing arguments based on an overly harsh tone while completely ignoring objectively “mean” statements that are stated in a superficially more even-handed style — and of course, they always feel empowered to cast personal aspersions on the person supposedly guilty of “meanness.” In the case of Graeber’s Crooked Timber tirade, there seems to be a general consensus that Graeber was “over the top” — yet I think that Farrell’s flippant dismissiveness is a much more serious problem, i.e., a much bigger obstacle to actual debate.
In the end, that’s what I dislike about the “niceness police” — it effectively prohibits debate. One thing about erring on the side of harshness is that it clarifies what’s actually at stake, whereas an overtly “nice” debate often proceeds by suggestion and innuendo. Critiques are enveloped in a haze of plausible deniability, such that every response to those critiques can be met with a “but that’s not what I’m saying at all, you’re missing the nuance,” and then the debate inevitably shifts onto the terrain of tone. Of course, the highlight is the omnipresent concern-trolling, the patronizing recommendations that “you’ll attract more flies with honey,” etc. The entire strategy of the niceness police is a strategy of delegitimation, a performance that places the niceness police on the side of reason and moderation while the violator is an irrational, easily irritated crank.
Now of course I don’t think we should be mean to each other, but what’s so pathological is that our social standards read disagreement as such, clearly stated opinions as such as somehow mean or inappropriate. That’s what I think that the (admittedly annoying) grad school posturing diagnosed by Tim Burke is reacting against — it’s an overreaction, and probably an immature one, but when the entire culture is mandating a “go along to get along, we all agree in the end” mindset, it might be valuable in its own way.
So in this particular case, Graeber went “over the top.” Fine, fair enough — yet I don’t think that a superficially nice response would’ve made the important point that Crooked Timber basically defines itself as the outer limit of acceptable “left” opinion and regularly attempts to delegitimate anyone further to the left as irrational extremists. It was mathematically impossible that a Crooked Timber book event wouldn’t have included the kind of dismissive, patronizing bullshit in Farrell’s post.
The only problem I see with the harshness of the response is a strategic one, because on some level Farrell had to know that Graeber would be pissed off, and expressing it in such an extreme way plays directly into the niceness police strategy: “See, I told you that he’s irrational and paranoid!” Yet a “nice” response (“well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about!”) would also play into the niceness police strategy, insofar as it would obscure the terms of debate and implicitly enshrine the “nice” asshole as a paragon of rationality and moderation. Once you’re in the frame, there’s no winning — and in that kind of lose-lose situation, it’s hard not to sympathize with the decision to indulge in a hearty “fuck you.”