Impalement is too good for fence sitters …

April 2, 2007

The issue of moderation and restriction of free flow of debate is a hot topic for me, partly of my own making given my interventions in various list serves. In respect of moderation I came across this lovely use of story by Peter Marshall. Peter is a fellow disputant on several list serves and is rivaling me for my role of curmudgeon, calling out platitudes and stupidity by being prepared to say that the Emperor has no clothes. The story is delightful, even if you don’t know the list serve and the moderator targeted; f you do it is a belly laugh.

Now the free flow of debate, and the value of a good argument does not seem to be appreciated in some circles. The desire for everything to be harmonious, to equally value different arguments (regardless of their quality) is I think damaging to knowledge. This is not a matter of not seeing things from different perspectives. In fact a formal debate is one of the best ways of achieving that. We have also found that ritualised dissent can improve the capacity to detect weak signals. Harmony, discourse etc. can be an enemy of learning. Now a list serve dispute is not going to shake the world, but the question of taking sides is also present in major ethical and political debates; we do not have to be relativists. One of my favorite quotes in this respect is from Dante Alighieri:

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

Looking around I could not find a good quote for people who attempt to sit on fences, but I am sure there is one.

So back to list serves, which seem to be uncomfortable with any real disagreement or substantive discussion, particularly if it is a right on wrong question. Now while debate can go over the top and become vitriolic, it is far too easy to confuse disagreement and debate with vitriol and attempt to reduce the exchange. There are of course different forms, three come to mind but there will be more:

  1. A substantive dispute between protagonists who feel strongly about a subject and are prepared to exchange views in a robust way.
  2. Dealing with stupidity, this happens when someone flies a kite with some item of controversy in an area where they have little knowledge or experience. Here slapping them down seems to be a social good. However a quality defense may move this into category one.
  3. The innocent who enters a space with a naive question and gets flamed.

Of these I think the last is unfair, but the first two are reasonable, and educational in nature. We can take another quote here, this time from Roosevelt:

Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.

Sometimes there is a right and a wrong, and trying to say that both sides are right is foolish at best.

Now I have noticed that when disputes in a list serve are coming to a natural end, there is a particular breed of participant who delights in leaping in to attempt a psychological explanation of the dispute seeking to occupy the moral high ground of the “middle”. It’s a sort of “I am the adult you are two little children” or variations on that theme; well meant (sometimes), not very useful and faintly patronising. Rather like Peter’s grandmother come to think of it. To my mind such an intervention generally indicates a failure to engage with the content of the debate or understand its nature, coupled with a air of smug and somewhat patriarchal superiority.

To return to my Dante quote and the link to fence sitting. For those of you who don;t know, at various times in its history European countries practiced impalement as a form of execution. The Nordics as well as the Balkans by the way. Proper management of the insertion could ensure that death would take several days. I acquired this and other unpleasant knowledge in the course of various campaigns against the death penalty over the years. (before anyone worries as to the why.

For perverse reasons Dante’s ability to create punishments in hell or purgatory appropriate to the nature of sin, my dislike of fence sitters and my knowledge of execution methods all came together in one vivid (and to my shame, delightful) picture …..

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