Insults Deter Quality Debate

Something worrying is happening to column readers. They are becoming rude. Menacingly rude – and just plain mean – when they don’t agree with you.

Get a load of this. “Your article was stupid. How dare you leave out [thing I felt was really important here]. You are totally unethical and should not be allowed to write in the newspaper ever again”. Or this one. “You liar! I have forwarded your article to all my friends so they can see the left-wing drivel passing for informed comment these days”.

Perhaps the problem is the role models.

The tabloids have always done it, but in the last few years, the quality papers have also begun running columnists who describe those who do, say or believe things they don’t agree with as stupid, obnoxious, smug, selfish, ignorant, idiots, yobs, whackers, louts, fools, barbarians and harpies.

The editorial justification defence for this new “conversational” style is simple: it gets readers going. And there seems little argument that this is true. Technology takes the guess work out of how many times such articles are read, forwarded to friends and blogged about on media and other sites in comparison to their more traditional cousins. The number of furious and indignant letters to the editor they attract and the book contracts, TV guest spots and radio gigs offered to their authors are also beyond dispute.

But at what cost? Insults are not a substitute for argument. In fact, they may get in the way of it. Traditional opinion writing was designed to persuade but tabloid comment polarises. And while it’s true that insulting people makes them angry, defensive and resentful – and angry, defensive and resentful people are more likely to throw quick, thoughtless counterpunches designed to defend their honour and get their own back – its hard to see how such “engagement” advances the noble goals of public debate that opinion writing was designed to serve: the achievement of consensus about the causes and priority of social and political problems. A consensus necessary, though not sufficient, to those problems being addressed.

It’s important to be clear here. My concern is not with conflict. We should not be afraid to disagree, strenuously if necessary, about things that matter. The issue is how we express such disagreements, and react when others disagree with us. In the academic philosophy department where I worked for years, we might spend all morning in a seminar describing one another’s arguments as illogical, premised on a falsehood or just plain incoherent. Then we’d all go to lunch. Like Christians who hate the sin but love the sinner, philosophers are trained to draw their swords against ideas they believe erroneous, but to maintain respectful – if not fond – relationships with those expressing them. Conflict over ideas is just that: nothing personal.

Making it personal – playing the ball, rather than the person – may spark people into action in the short term, but there’s little evidence it engages in the long run. Indeed, it seems possible that when readers react to being described as insecure or stupid,“ by firing off a furious comment to a blog, or calling into a radio station that is using the piece as a jumping off point for talkback, they achieve the catharsis required for them to move on despite having done little – perhaps even nothing – to achieve meaningful or lasting change.

In contrast, though it’s harder work than throwing bombs, winning the battle of ideas through persuasion – the old hearts and minds trick – lays the foundation for achieving the intellectual engagement and moral outrage that sustains a long-term commitment to making the world a better place.

If columnists want to open mail from readers that doesn’t make wince or feel physically threatened, they are obligated to collectively model debating styles that are intellectually rigorous and respectful – implicitly and explicitly – of the entitlement of others to disagree.

I can hear the counter-arguments, now. That young people find traditional styles of opinion-writing boring and unengaging. That paper and web-based newspaper opinion pages are large enough to accommodate all sorts of styles. That persuasion is not the only legitimate goal of an opinion piece. Provoking, amusing, entertaining, comforting and educating readers are also worthy goals.

That’s fine. Disagree with me all you like. Just take care how you put your case.

Publication history

Insults Deter Quality Debate  The Age (Melbourne)
Insults Deter Quality Debate  The Sun-Herald (Sydney)