|Thursday, May 6, 2004
15:07 - Stupid forest!
Steven Den Beste has a post up that is undoubtedly already resulting in a deluge of reader mail, picking away at it point by point and (seemingly) deliberately missing the general thrust of his argument, which is exactly what he's complaining about.
Now, I'll be the first to say that deliberately missing the point is right at the top of the list of Things That Piss Brian Off. I don't like it when people deliberately miss the point that social conservatives try to make about gay marriage; I don't like it when people formulate opinions on George W. Bush without ever bothering to check the relevant facts. That really irritates me, and every time someone does it it makes me feel as though people are less interested in seeking the truth and a fair solution than they are in vindicating their own preconceived position on whatever they happen to feel strongly about.
But that's beside the point. Den Beste's post grumbles about readers who endlessly pester him with pedantic details about his essays, stinging him like a million tiny mosquitoes, driving him underwater just for the blessed relief—until physical need forces him to come back up for air, and write again.
I won't reach every reader no matter how hard I try. I don't even expect to reach the majority. But if nearly all the mail I get about a specific post is pedantic, then it suggests that I didn't reach hardly anyone. If that goes on and on, post after post, it makes me feel as if I'm not succeeding overall in what I'm trying to do when I write for this site.
That's what gets me down. Perhaps it meant that the forests I've been describing weren't really very important, or weren't there are all. Perhaps I failed to write well enough about them to make them real for my readers, and all they could see was trees. If nearly all the comments I receive about some article are nitpicks, it means that article failed. If that goes on day after day, post after post, then I'm failing as a writer.
I'm not about to accuse Den Beste of doing what he's accusing his readers of doing. But I will suggest that he's overlooking a possibility: namely, that the people who write to him to point out details like Jefferson was in Paris at the time of the Philadelphia Convention or Hey, we know lots about how the brain works, thankyouverymuch are not in fact doing so because they see a point of piffling detail that they can use to pry open Den Beste's armor and disprove his argument. They're doing so because they understand his larger point, and agree with it... but they think it would be made still stronger if all the technical details in it were correct.
"Fact-checking your ass" isn't just a tactic of attack. It's also a means of bolstering an argument you think is sound, by helping to remove potential weaknesses.
I'd wager that a good number of the people sending nit-picks to Den Beste, particularly those who say, in effect, "Long time listener, first time caller," are actually doing so because they want to forward the URL of a given article around to all their friends. They'd just like to be sure that some little detail that they happen to know could be phrased better or made more factual is ironed out, so the recipients of the forwarded URL won't be distracted by a factual error (which might be more glaring to certain readers than to the writer) from the main point of the article.
A while back, I read this by Den Beste:
Though African Wild Dogs reproduce sexually, packs of dogs reproduce by fission. When a pack grows too large, some members will split off and found a new pack. They'll take with them the learned behavior patterns from their parent pack, so that knowledge passes from the original pack to both of its offspring.
And with tongue planted firmly in cheek, I posted this:
Just look what Den Beste said today:
...Dogs reproduce by fission.
He said it! He did! Right there in black and white! I agree with Philip Shropshire-- who could possibly take this man seriously?!
I can't claim I was even thinking this at the time, but what this pokes fun at—besides Maureen Dowd—is the same forest-for-the-trees problem that frustrates Den Beste himself. People whose sole purpose in life seems to be to sit on Sisyphus' rock, jeering, and pelting him with pebbles in an attempt to get him to give up.
But that's not what I think is going on. I know that when I e-mail a comment to a blogger regarding a post that I agree with, as often as not it's to correct a factual flaw in hopes of making the article stronger, as well as to simply congratulate the author. I'll usually start off the e-mail with a paragraph that says something to the effect of, Hey, great piece! I agree with it wholeheartedly, and I appreciate the insight it offers. However, there's something I noticed...
Sometimes I forget to add that preface, though. It doesn't mean my motive is different.
If I disagree completely with the author, I won't bother sending a message at all. If I disagree completely with the author, more to the point, I'll find lots more factual errors and logical missteps to point out—and picking just one would seem silly and futile. The only reason I ever send a message with a nitpicky factual correction is because I'm trying to strengthen the author's point—that I hope the author will correct the bit that I deem mistaken, so future readers (who aren't as well-disposed as I am toward the author in the first place) won't be put off if they notice the error too.
If nearly all the comments I received about a post were pedantic, it would suggest to me that it reached tons of people—but that each and every one of them, from their individual perspectives, saw ways in which the point could be made yet more ironclad so they could add it to their "essential libraries".
So I don't think this is a question of people deliberately missing the point, or blinding themselves to forests in favor of poking at tree-borne cellular fungi with tweezers; I don't think this is a problem of readers who simply can't stop themselves from ignoring pleas of [DWL!] because they believe they see an opening where they can drive an awl into Steven Den Beste's eye. I think it's more a matter of people who take for granted that Den Beste will understand that they agree with his point, or else they wouldn't be "regular readers". They're not articulating their concurrence with the same number of words that they use to articulate their nit-picking, because they figure it's better left said by Den Beste himself.
They're only trying to help. Many of them could be better at putting that into words; but, well, look at the standard they're up against.