On Internet Debates and the Tone Argument

You may remember the debate sparked last month by Paul S. Kemp’s explanation why he writes masculine stories (link round-up here and here).

Well, now Paul S. Kemp has seen it fit to respond to the debate caused by his initial post and basically states that he doesn’t care about internet outrage fits and that he will continue to write what he writes, namely masculine stories. He also calls his critics “donkeys”.

Now I have zero problem with Paul S. Kemp writing what he considers masculine stories. He’s free to write whatever he wants, just as I am free not to read it. And since there seems to be an audience for his stuff, then more power to him.

However, I do take exception to the way Paul S. Kemp characterises his critics by talking about an “internet outrage culture” which holds regular “outrage-a-thons” and consists of “hangers-on” with psychological issues whose sole aim is to “chasten and humble their targets and elicit an apology and a promise to engage in ‘rightthink’ thereafter”. And that’s before he called people who disagreed with him “donkeys”.

I can’t speak for the others who criticised Paul S. Kemp’s post, but I have absolutely no intention to get him to change what he writes. There are more than enough of writers writing books that interest me, so I don’t need to persuade writers whose works aren’t my cup of tea to change their ways. And indeed the only part of his post that I agree with is “Do your thing and go your way.” So let Paul S. Kemp write what he wants to write, just as I’m writing what I want to write.

However, those who criticised Kemp’s original post were not engaging in an internet “outrage-a-thon”. They simply saw a stupid post and decided to respond, cause that’s the way conversation on the internet works. Now I’m not saying that internet debates can’t get overly heated and that they can’t turn into personal attacks and houndings. I occasionally had that feeling during Racefail, which started out as an important discussion and after a couple of months degenerated into outings, counter-outings, threats, letters sent to employers, blacklists and the like.

However, the reaction to Paul S. Kemp’s post was actually pretty mild. No one told him to die in a fire, no one sent him death or rape threats, no one published pictures of Kemp’s family, no one wrote to Kemp’s publishers threatening a boycott, if they continue to publish Kemp. All people did was disagree with him and maybe get a bit snarky at times. Welcome to the internet.

However, I have seen several posts of late – usually by men for some reason – that complain about the “internet outrage culture” (which has been part of the internet since the days of Usenet) and call for more civil discussions. They often use similar language, too, e.g. I recently read a post (forgot where) comparing internet uproars to the “two minute hates” of Nineteen Eight-Four fame, while Kemp uses the newspeak term “rightthink”. Uhm, the only thing Orwellian on the internet is the constant NSA surveillance. People disagreeing with stupid blog posts is not “two-minute hate”, it’s a debate.

Not all criticisms of heated internet debates are like that. Take this post by Alastair Reynolds in which he complains about the toxicity of the online SFF community as exemplified by the responses to Adam Roberts’ anti-awards-eligibility posts and the responses to Alex Dally MacFarlane’s post about post-binary gender in SF at Tor.com (which I didn’t get around to blogging about, so just read this summary by Foz Meadows). Now I actually agree that the SFF community can be toxic at times, though I find it striking that Alastair Reynolds has issues with the tone of Amal El-Mohtar’s (IMO reasoned) response to Adam Roberts and even mentions her by name, while he spends much less time on criticising Larry Correia for taking some time out of his busy schedule of trying to persuade people to please, please nominate him for a Hugo to pick apart Alex Dally MacFarlane’s post in great detail and accuse her (though Correia kept mistaking Alex Dally MacFarlane for male throughout) of trying to destroy the SF genre through political correctness, even though Correia’s tone was much more confrontational than Amal El-Mohtar’s. But maybe Alastair Reynolds simply didn’t get trough Larry Correia’s lengthy rant – I can’t even say I blame him for that.

But while I’m sympathetic to calls for more civil debates in the SFF genre, such calls can also veer dangerously close to the tone argument, especially if the tone in the arguments criticised is not even all that confrontational (and none of the responses to Adam Roberts or Paul S. Kemp struck me as crossing the line, though I may have missed some).

Besides, reasoned calls for civility and comparing internet uproars to Orwellian “two-minute hate” sessions both fail to ask an important question, namely why there are so many heated debates in fandom and why they seem to be circling eternally around the same few subjects. And the sad answer is that these debates continue to be necessary, because people keep saying and writing stupid and offensive stuff like this, so critical responses like this one continue to be necessary as well.

Maybe one day we won’t need to have these debates anymore. But for the time being, we still do.

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8 Responses to On Internet Debates and the Tone Argument

  1. Awesomely put.

    I also find the use of Orwellian references especially annoying because 1984 was about a specific kind of majority-backed authoritarian state power, and these guys are flipping out over bloggers who strongly disagree with them. People voicing their own opinions, exercising zero authority over them. How is that infringing on their right to free speech? Or forcing them into rightthink?

    • Cora says:

      I suspect that those who make the Orwellian references have either never actually read 1984 (it used to be a highschool reading list staple, but at least here in Germany it’s disappeared and so my university students had never read any Orwell until I assigned one of his essays) or they have no idea what dictatorships are actually like. Or maybe they are just regurgitating what they’ve read on right-leaning political blogs, which seem to really like using Orwellian references without knowing anything about the man himself.

      It’s also stunning how the same people will say that online stores hiding or outright banning erotic or GLBT content is totally not censorship, because stores have the right to sell what they want (and customers don’t want to see the icky GLBT or erotic content anyway), but someone disagreeing with them on a blog, a forum or on Twitter or moderating comments on their own site is a horrible infringement of their freedom of speech. I wish they’d at least be consistent, but I guess that’s too much to hope.

      Honestly, quite often these people make me wonder what parallel universe they are from.

    • Fail Burton says:

      I disagree. 1984 was about perception and the dangers of using identity rather than principle to make judgments of the world about us. The central theme of “doublethink” is about being able to hold and express self-contradictory viewpoints, and that is the sense people usually use the term “Orwellian.” For example “‘Lazy’ is such a code word for white people to use to denigrate & dismiss non-whites.” is an Orwellian sentence, since it is at once racist and anti-racist.

      • Cora says:

        Orwell was quite explicitly writing about Stalinism, including its effects on political or any kind of discourse. And “doublethink” as a concept was still very evident in Communist East Europe in the late 1980s, where people would be totally committed to the party line in public and say something very different in private.

        There is nothing Orwellian about someone saying something controversial on the Internet and others disagreeing with them.

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