Monday, May 04, 2009

The Role of Insults and Profanity on Blogs

A blogger friend of mine occasionally writes things like:

Mr. XXXXX, you're a lying sack of shit.
That bothers me. Is it just a difference of style? Is it just that my friend has spent time with fisherman and others who tend to use more colorful vocabulary? Is it just that I'm out of touch with the modern world where profanity is common?

Actually, it's not the profanity per se that bothers me. Though I think that when it is used as frequently as it is, say on The Wire or even Jon Stewart, the words no longer have the power that profanity once had. After all, if every other word in every discussion has 'fuck' as its root, what can you use when something truly worthy of profanity happens? The power of the truly taboo word is gone when there are no taboo words left. But that's a minor part of my concern here.

Probably I'm most disturbed by insults like this in political blogs because they divert the reader from the argument. Wikipedia explains this sort of attack:
Ad hominem argument is most commonly used to refer specifically to the ad hominem abusive, or argumentum ad personam, which consists of criticizing or attacking the person who proposed the argument (personal attack) in an attempt to discredit the argument. It is also used when an opponent is unable to find fault with an argument, yet for various reasons, the opponent disagrees with it.
This isn't much more than a third grade level argument. But there's no teacher around here to explain to the children why this is inappropriate and to get them past being miffed and to go back to playing together.

I think it is also bad strategy for political bloggers for several reasons.

  1. Calling others nasty things is a form of venting. It makes the ventors feel good when they are frustrated and feeling otherwise powerless to do something about a situation. (On the other hand it can be like kicking a victim who is already down and out. Perhaps that also is a sign that one knows the problem hasn't been solved.)
  2. So, as self therapy, being bitchy is appropriate when you are alone or with your close friends. But not publicly. Your friends know that you are using hyperbole and they may even encourage you. Your friends probably agree with you, it's not aimed at them, and they won't hold it against you tomorrow. If it is aimed at them, they know not to take you seriously.
  3. In fact, with your ideological cohorts, you may even build up a sense of solidarity and enthusiasm. Sort of like Sarah Palin on the campaign trail riling up all those anti-'them' passions.
  4. But when you do this publicly on a blog, everyone else can listen in. This invective is proof of your weak arguments to them. More likely these are seen as fighting words that increase the divide and justify their own counterattacks. This is no longer political, it's personal. I can understand Sarah genuinely feeling that she's being attacked personally by some of my fellow bloggers, that it isn't her actions that are being attacked.
  5. When someone starts calling you names, it's easy to react only to that and not even see the rational arguments that proceeded or followed. There is no trust for the motives of others. What 'they' say and do is merely strategy to defeat 'us.' So we don't listen to their arguments and they don't listen to ours.
  6. I believe that people are extremely complex and their behaviors and words are often intended to be masks to hide what they really believe or feel. Rather than call people like Sen. Larry Craig a hypocrite or worse, we should be asking what is it in our society that causes people like him (and countless others - including Bill Clinton) to have to dissemble and even be hypocritical about their sexuality? Or their other socially disapproved behavior? What happened in their lives that causes them to have to escape into alcohol, drugs, gambling, or making lots of money, or having a bigger house? Calling someone a lying bag of shit doesn't help our understanding of the behavior. Understanding might ultimately lead to ways to reduce that sort of behavior in the future. Not just of this individual, but others who have the same behavior patterns.
  7. In many Asian cultures, losing one's temper is seen as loss of self-control. It's natural to get mad, but it's generally better to be in control when you are dealing with your opponents.
I don't deny that it's important to stand up for what you believe. Standing up to bullies is a way to get them to back off. But one needn't be nasty and brutish. One does need to be firm and have solid facts and a stiff backbone.

I guess on a less important level, I'm dismayed by such language because it reflects a lack of rigor on the part of the writer. For me, a comeback should be witty and unexpected, so that even the recipient has to admire the mind that came up with it. Or it should be couched so that it takes a moment to realize that one has even been insulted. Ideally it should be closely linked to the issue at hand. Studying the words of masters - for inspiration, not for copy - such as Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde might inspire one to work at it a bit. Here's one from Churchill:
He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.
And Oscar Wilde reflects a theme I've been trying to get at here:
If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.


  1. Well done, Steve. You have treated virulent language with more compassion than I can. Probably it's due to my age, but profanity, especially the boring, repetitive, easy-to-spell kind, makes me judge the author as vulgar, immature, and ... boring.

    There is great power in naming, but you have to say the True Name. "Lying sack of shit" is possibly not a true name. "Mr XXXX, you are the unethical man who took house renovations and a statue of a barracuda from Mr. YYYY while you were in a position to support his interests." is closer to True.

    However, I just had to reword this statement three times to make it vague enough so it wasn't potentially libelous, by which point I am almost ready to retreat to option 1: "You are a lying sack..." which would be much harder to sue me for.

  2. Steve,

    I wasn't feeling very Churchillian Friday evening when I wrote my post about Colaveccio's brazen lies. My profanity probably best fit your explanation number one. I disagree with your number two, in that an ad hominem headline or header doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the argument contained in the post.

    To quote Churchill, his was an insult "up with which I could not put."

    I tend to use profanity, as used by my blog model Howie Klein - use profanity, but use it sparingly. Or Jane Hamsher, who has said, "When in doubt, DO USE 'fuck.' If you don't, you might regret it later."

  3. Good points to remember. Thanks for being our third grade teacher. : )

  4. Phil, I wasn't naming any names. Your example was just the most recent and graphic.

    The ad hominem definition is from Wiki. I agree with you that it doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the argument, and there certainly was back up argument in the cited case.

    I guess, as Kate suggests, it's better to call a spade a spade than to call a spade a sack of shit. But it's harder.

    Midnight Cajun, [Wince] I felt uncomfortable writing about the third grade teacher, but I didn't know why. Now, thanks to you, I do.

  5. argumentum ad personam = Executive Staff of the Govenors office and the Govenor, when responding to any ethics complaints filed.

  6. I'm so sorry to hear this argument and yet, I'll try to abide by your logic.

    When you hear the collective cry of a group in reaction to actions and policies detrimental to society at large, it is truly not the time to censor the expressions of discontent.

    The cumulative absence of check and balance or the lack of enforcement of the law creates a chaos and frustration that cannot be solve by the correct use of words or proper argument rules.

    Please stay away from this argument. You are turning the focus on powerless dissenters and making us the schizophrenics, when all efforts should be directed to contain and remove from power the expletive inducing public servant in name only.

    yes, there will be a time to vote, until then, profanity or not, voices should not be censured.

    It is with trepidation that I dare write to you, given the caveat on comments, but I did comment knowing that in order to block me you would have had to hear me.


  7. Reason and spirit are each available to discussion. Use them both as required. Listen to both as desired.

  8. Anon 12:05 - I don't disagree, but think how we react to that - total dismissal.

    Anon 12:54 - I'm not sure what you think my argument was. I didn't ban profanity. I didn't ban criticism. I didn't even ban insults, though I did put up the review of comments a while ago because I had one or two people being abusive and repetitive.

    Basically, I was saying that the use of insults and profanity weakens the argument, increases the divide, and generally isn't good for building community. I'm not making a moral judgment, but rather a judgment about effectiveness in terms of improving our community discourse.

    I didn't mean to discourage folks and I appreciate your commenting despite the perceived risks. I'm not blind to the fact that colorful speech gets a bigger audience than deliberate speech. Everyone plays a necessary role in pushing the boulder of dissent up the hill.

  9. Steve @ 1:38 - I understood you were saying that the use of insults and profanity weakens the argument, increases the divide, and generally isn't good for building community.

    I agree with you. The same can be said of public officials using demeaning and dismissing words in response to citizens that take actions against their poorly behavior.

    In short, I see a trend of oppression by the administration of Sarah Palin and I think that, albeit inadvertently, some bloggers and publications such as ADN are abetting her wishes by criticizing or blocking the dissenting voices based on their style or range of expression.

    So, it is the timing of your post, more than your argument that had me alarmed and "profaned".


  10. I think you point up, F words, and cussing mostly distract from some more substantive matters. And, on a blog, most do not know one another, have not a clue on the other person.
    I wonder if cussing, or F words really say that those who use those expressions are insecure, feel inadequate, feel they care not to get into some depth in some area, so they resort to cussing etc. Language is such a gift, it is what we have to communicate, what separates us from the APES, so it seems some prefer to lower the language useage to bring matters back to some jungle thing, some ploy, some disrespect, to deter real communication.
    Some people just as soon not communicate, or want to distract from such, or there are obstructors of communication, as well.
    Or, there is the feeling--or so and so is some
    smarty, i will tell him he is a POS, just a way of really attacking the use of language, some contempt.
    It is something about the human animal, and society.
    Plus, there is the thing about order, heiarchy, etc.. control.
    Also, the fisherman I knew were not cussing fools, but very intelligent persons with many different interests, and so articulate they rarely cussed. But, that was before the I-net, cyber spacing, presto blogs etc.
    I also wodner if the I-net blogs, etc produces such a sea of words--just a vast sea of words-- it people have a harder time discerning what is important, what is really significant writings.
    Fewer and fewer people read a daily news paper anymore, like they used to.
    With any new devices, gizmos technology there are downsides...
    For example, at first in the 1990's, the compuers produced a big increase in productivity.
    Now, people at work waste so much time on computers---other than working---there is a drag on work productivity.
    Computers, blogs etc are not all they are cracked up to be, there are downsides, too.

  11. OK, now I understand your point. I thought you were saying that I was blocking dissent here.

    In an attempt to stop the abusive tone of one or two commenters, I posted standards for how I would decide whom to block. The standards changed the tone of those commenters and I only blocked a few that were just abusive with no supporting evidence. And these were from repeat commenters, not one time commenters. (Yes, there are ways to figure that out.) Even with the standards it is hard to make some decisions - balancing someone's inability to express themselves better against posts that would, because of their frequency, change the tone of the blog. But I found if you raise the bar, people will meet that challenge. I suspect few people are being blocked because of their profanity or nastiness. If they choose not to adjust, that's their decision.


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