Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Intrepid Scholar Discovers Forum Hell

Courtesy of titusonenine we have a posting from "Alan Mendelsohn" concerning Academic Flame Wars. Now, anyone who has a sufficient thick hide and has spent enough time on a religious forum or, for that matter, any on-line group where people take the topic Very Seriously has encountered the kind of behavior in his narrative.

Now, it seems to me that the employment discussion veered off the rails most obviously, falling straight into the pit of tolerance forsaken. A "reactionary candidate"? Suck it up! Learn to live with someone with radically different views! And a "Clarence Thomas"? In a literature department? The university in question is unnamed, but frankly English departments, on the average, impress me as a climate where W.E.B.deBois would come off as maybe something of a rightist. (Just my unenlightened prejudices at work.)

It's well-known that on-line interaction appears to lower the stakes for heated responses. There's a subtle twist in both incidents where things fall apart because people are told that they have to take sides. It shows up most clearly in the strike discussion because that's the issue that sets off the flaming-- I think somewhat accidentally. One has to trust, of course, in the narrative as recounted, but I think John's post contains a mistake which is found all over religious discussion.

The problem is that the potential strikers didn't have two choices; they had three. Perhaps he meant to say that the choices of non-involvement and denunciation of the other strike would be conflated by outsiders into denunciation. If he meant this, he was probably right. But it jeopardized the argument by placing allegiance ahead of discourse, and it's inevitable in any group of people who pride themselves on their rationality to react to such a maneuver with a flood of emotion.

Which is why religious arguments break down even more readily. In the midst of bunch of sinners, the transformation of opinion into sin is itself going to set off a whole lot more sinning. It is impossible to keep a religious discussion going if the participants cannot restrain themselves to talking about theology as ideas instead of moral justifications/transgressions.

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