Giving offense, again

by CarlD

Hate to repeat myself, so here’s a repost of one of this blog’s earliest posts (go to original for orienting links and context) reacting to a previous blogtastic etiquette poo storm. When things irritate me I either ignore them or try to make sense of them. This is the latter.

(April 28, 2008) As I get more and more drug into the world of blogging I find exciting new friends to swap ideas with. This is a great pleasure. I also find all sorts of tender feelings to trample upon, virtual shoulders covered in virtual chips. I’m still thinking this all through, although, as a lifelong bull in a china shop, I’ve already got some firm ideas on the subject….

It strikes me in a half-baked way (I’m not even sure if I’m just talking about the blogosphere or I have a larger historical point to make) that there are two basic ways to give offense, with corresponding ways to manage courtesy. The first is to offend a role, position, or status with which the person is identified. The second is to offend the individual as such. Following Durkheim (tongue in cheek, since he ended up regretting this formulation), I’ll call these mechanical offense and organic offense. I am not making fun here, although I am personally very hard to offend and emotionally baffled by easy offense-taking. Both mechanical and organic offense are ‘robust’ in the sense that they connect back to the deepest ways in which our societies assign sacred values.

The core of mechanical offense is an idea of special privilege or “honor” within a status hierarchy as exemplified by “nobility.” Those nobles guarded their special privilege with a fierce sense of honor backed up by ritual violence (the duel). One had to be really careful what one said and how one said it to nobles because they were really chippy and spent a lot of time training with the weaponry at hand. Elaborate rules of courtesy were devised to intercept any possible infraction. As the nobles lost control of the means of legitimate state violence during the modernizing process (I’m talking, as usual, mostly about western Europe here) their private honor became even more chippy and even more ritually violent, until eventually you just weren’t a man in central Europe if you couldn’t ‘give satisfaction’ in a duel, weren’t in a dueling society and didn’t have duelling scars on your cheeks.

I’ve noticed a fair amount of dueling on the blogosphere. In a nietzschean way I kind of enjoy it as an enactment of a robuster form of self-assertion. But the core of any taking of offense is insecurity; and most of the offending and defending I see is of the second, more overtly insecure type which I’ve called organic offense. Here it is the individual her/himself who is considered sacred and inviolable, not their role, position or status. Accordingly, the person may assign offendable meaning to anything about her/himself whatsoever; in principle, only she/he can decide when a line has been crossed. This makes any detailed system of courtesy like the nobles had impossible.

It is therefore courteous to announce what one’s delicate areas are, but in the free flow of the web such announcements would need to be constantly refreshed or they would be left outside the reasonable attention of any given interlocutor. This would create quite a lot of clutter. On a blog where there may be dozens of commenters it is unrealistic to suppose that each new one would ascertain the personal rules and boundaries of all the others before posting. As a result, there’s a lot of casual giving and taking of offense, as well as clustering of offense communities. There’s also a lot of not saying anything but ‘excuse me, pardon me, coming through’ as all of the possible hurt feelings are anticipated and intercepted. The fussbudget veto is powerful and the pressure to self-edit is enormous. And the aggregate of offendables is virtually infinite; it may be impossible to say anything that would not offend someone.

All of this ties back to a more general feature of modern societies, again diagnosed by Durkheim. As traditional role and status hierarchies break down and the division of labor creates massive networks of functional interdependence, the individual becomes the focus of societies’ sense of sacredness. We just don’t know enough about each other to regulate each other, so self-regulation becomes the norm (within general systems like professional ethics and civic morals). These new morally-empowered individuals therefore enjoy all the personal sense of entitlement that the old nobilities did, only now there are millions of them, all out there with their fierce sense of personal honor, their chippiness and their sense of violence when violated. Yet it’s hard to really feel special when what makes one so is shared by everyone else.

What a mess.


16 Comments to “Giving offense, again”

  1. Yet it’s hard to really feel special when what makes one so is shared by everyone else.

    Carl I think the really offensive thing about the behavior of the Horror Triumvirate, which provided both the usually restrained Eloise Doyle and that bitter old fart Mikhail with reasons for the recent campaign, is that they’re really privy to blawging hierarchies instead of treating their work as a populist pleasure available to anyone. Dr Harman certainly by her own admission embraces intellectual snobbery. So while they’re performatively socialists, in facto they are Marie Antoinettes. This is not the same as to say that Eloise doesn’t have her own secret little envies and jealosies hidden behind her famously balanced response, just that I think the Horror Triumvirate is undergoing just corrective action.

    I feel that some characters got away, however, e.g. Dominique Dworkin, who is still busy with indecipherable math formulas to her genitals, and who turned all her Trolls into Fans. These kinds of divas can’t be allowed to exist without Trolling, because that’s the only way to attract their narcissism.

  2. “I also find all sorts of tender feelings to trample upon”

    Every night I cry myself to sleep knowing that I’m being called Eloise, mocked for my cultivated kindnesses, for my sense of etiquette and politesse, for my sensitivities to the tender feelings of others, even of those who would trample on mine. I wonder how many blog readers don’t comment because they fear the public smackdown. The blogs are like a manliness training center, toughening our hides, making us insensitive to nuance and subtlety and the subtle aroma of gardenias wafting in through the kitchen window…

    “It is therefore courteous to announce what one’s delicate areas are”

    Yes, because this exposes your specific vulnerabilities to exploitation without having to rely on those possessed of exceptional parodic gifts to identify them for us.

    “Yet it’s hard to really feel special when what makes one so is shared by everyone else.”

    That’s why it’s called common courtesy.

    “they’re really privy to blawging hierarchies instead of treating their work as a populist pleasure available to anyone.”

    I think that’s right — hence the trolling/vampiring constitute a democratizing (socialistic?) counterinsurgency.

  3. and the subtle aroma of gardenias wafting in through the kitchen window…

    Eloise I LOVE gardenias!

    hence the trolling/vampiring constitute a democratizing (socialistic?) counterinsurgency.

    well yes a kind of a XXX rated insurgency you might call it against Politeness.

  4. My beef with the Egyptian temptress is that I would ALSO like a provost salary, several world trips per year and a bunch of well-endowed sycophants trailing me around the world, but she never doles out any cash, she just wants me to READ her stuff, like, read, read, read, almost as if I were earning a Ph.D on her goddamn blawg!

  5. Hi John, thanks for your reactions and for your own posts. I especially liked the idea of a ‘hermeneutics of sneerage’. And I too have been struck by the central position sneering seems to occupy in our blog-friends’ perceptions. I admire that you resisted the all-too-easy diagnoses this odd fact brings to mind.

    I take your point about common courtesy. My response is telegraphed in my remarks about offense communities. What counts as courtesy is not a matter of universal agreement. For a trivial example, my wife and I grew up in subcultures that value efficient directness and emotional self-containment. We consider it our responsibility not to make our feelings an issue for other people and experience others’ solicitude for our feelings as an intrusive breach of etiquette. This puts us at constant odds with the courtesy culture of the South, where we live.

    You’ve also cited generic masculinity as a departure from courtesy (which you therefore feminize), but rich man’s masculinity is not the same as poor man’s. So to get all the way to street cultures of ‘ranking’ or ‘the dozens’, in which mortal insults are traded as signs of respect and even affection, we’d need to add class and subculture dimensions to the analysis. In this frame, the disciplines of ‘common courtesy’ begin to look like power moves by dominant groups, which is a big part of what legitimizes Dejan’s ‘bad behavior’ as cultural critique.

    In Distinction Bourdieu talks about ‘cultural goodwill’, which is the docile acceptance of the legitimacy of dominant cultural practices by subordinate groups. This is especially characteristic of the rising petite bourgeoisie, who invest their reverent good intentions in haute bourgeois tastes in hopes of clawing their way up a grade. I’m afraid this is so self-evidently and painfully the case in the present instance that for the most part I’ve tried to avert my eyes, but as usual the hermenaut’s calling to hermeneuter has won out in the end.

  6. When common courtesy crosses cultural boundaries, intuition has to give way to negotiation. I’d say that there’s a relatively common courtesy for the well-educated bourgeois knowledge worker, partly due to marketplace globalization. Should this metropolitan civility be resisted in the name of multiculti diversity? If crass “bad behavior” becomes cultural critique, then so does extreme formal civility. They’re interesting, they make a point, but at some point you’d like to settle into a way of communication that doesn’t get in the way of what you have to say. It’s great to feel comfortable enough with people that you can pull their legs without fear of giving offense. I suppose we’re still trying to figure out whether blogs work more like the corner bar or the UN. The impersonality of the medium also lets people sling shit with impunity — like highway “etiquette” during rush hour.

    Regarding street culture and cultural critique, have you ever seen Be Black Baby by De Palma? Links here and here. I’d say that this is part of Dejan’s motivation for “bad behavior” — how much shit will bourgeois bloggers put up with in the name of interpersonal tolerance?

  7. Hey, no offense, Dejan. I mean I respect your art, really creative, really makes me think, etc.

  8. I did LOL about the gardenia response, I have to admit.

  9. Well anyhow, people are emotionally invested in what they do and say, otherwise they probably couldn’t mount the energy to be bothered. Direct blogging encounters between combatants can usually be patched up, or else they eventually blow over. I delete personal attacks from comments on my blog, whether directed at another commenter, some other blogger who’s not part of the discussion, or (more recently) myself. Hard feelings don’t typically go away completely, and some people’s personal styles just seem to rub each other the wrong way. And it’s also clear, as Mikhail and Dejan have pointed out, that anger at some other asshole can fuel creativity.

    I tend to take a dim view of talking behind another blogger’s back; e.g., alluding to someone else’s post/comment and then discussing it on your own blog in negative terms. This seems rather passive-aggressive to me: why not have it out “face to face”? I don’t think all these backhanded discussions are ill-motivated — mine on trolls, for example, were of course motivated by only the best of intentions (winky smiley). And someone else’s post can trigger a reader’s longer thought that does distract and deviate substantively from the original context, so a separate post is merited. And then there are the bloggers who’ve disabled comments altogether, all but forcing the rest of us to talk behind their backs. But I suspect you know what I mean.

    Gosh, I’m just rambling on over here, Carl — you’d think I don’t have a project of my own or something…

  10. Ramble on, John. This is more of a corner bar-type blog. 😉

    Thanks very much for the Be Black Baby links. They look awesome and should come in handy.

  11. Carl,

    Sorry I’ve been away for a few days and only now have made my rounds — If I can offer an organic offense, though some terrible character flaw of your own you stopped blogging for far too long, Carl –. What a wonderful, delicately put post. Perhaps one of the least energy-draining posts I have read in a long while.

  12. Thanks Kevin! I stop doing anything at all on a regular schedule when I’m on summer break; in fact, I sort of go feral. And it is indeed a terrible character flaw.

  13. Hey, no offense, Dejan. I mean I respect your art, really creative, really makes me think, etc.

    I haven’t been floored by this sneerism at all, Eloise. Your problem is you just CAN’T BE BAD even when you want to.

    The problem with the Parody Center is that my correspondent so frequently lapses into live tranny journalism instead of doing her work, for she specializes in musical/vaudeville – an essential ingredient of any good parody. Right now she’s scribbling these long-winded letters about nothing instead of exploiting the full possibilities of the new blawging skirmishes related to Trolling and the Michael Jackson-Becoming.

    Carl regarding what you see about the South, I just saw a great movie (DRAG ME TO HELL by Sam Raimi) which explores the issue with great comedic insight but is none the less genuinely SCARY for precisely that comic insight.

  14. Oh cool, that’s going to the top of my must-see list. Thanks.

  15. Admit it, Carl: not only do you feel more comfortable in the plain-spoken, thick-skinned Yankee culture — you think it’s BETTER than mannered Southern gentility. And you regard yourself as a carpetbagger emissary of Northern bluntness, practicing it in your neighborhood and especially in your classroom. When you’re voted teacher of the year your crass vulgarity is reinforced, yet you fail to acknowledge that the North won the culture wars a hundred years ago and that your students are happy to learn Yankee ways because that’s where the money is…

    I’m from Chicago and my wife is from rural Virginia, so the cultural divide lives inside our home. I’m glad at least you guys think I’m nice.

  16. Totally. I totally think that. But I’m not sure the North won the culture wars; having lost on the battlefield, the South retrenched to a subtle campaign of cultural subversion… I mean, look what happened to the Republicans…

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