Jason McQuinn discusses the lack of critical discourse between different tendencies of the radical Milieu.
Evasion of Rational Discussion in the Radical Milieu
All too many anarchists – along with most other would-be radicals – seem to have mastered the evasion of rational discussion. This can be rather annoying and disappointing for those who would like to participate in the creation of a coherent new revolutionary movement which could genuinely confront and subvert state and capitalist power on the basis of anarchist theoretical principles and uncompromising practice. This evasion of sensible discussion seems to be the worst on the web, but often it is nearly as bad elsewhere.
On the internet this evasion is facilitated by the ease, immediacy and lack of responsibility – especially with regard to pseudonymous or anonymous posts – involved in writing for message boards, e-mail lists, and web sites. It may be partly a function of immaturity, since from my observations it appears that younger people more often seem to have the worst problems engaging in thoughtful and respectful discussion. (To be fair, this may also be more a reflection of the demographic of the contemporary radical milieu, in which people are sometimes already considered “older” when they’ve reached their mid- or late twenties!) It usually involves the refusal to reflect, self-critically evaluate and self-edit responses. The more unthinking, belligerent and vociferous participants tend to drive out the more thoughtful and considered opinions by making a never-ending stream of attacks, demands, and frivolous comments that must be dealt with (or, at least, patiently and consistently ignored by everyone else). With a plethora of ongoing irrational or illogical arguments, no one can engage in very intelligent discussion because anything self-critical and thoughtful – generally requiring carefully nuanced interpretation – is immediately lost in the tumult of relatively mindless noise.
In other anarchist media the evasion of discussion tends to be most obvious in the letters columns of periodicals (including, of course, the letters column in this magazine), and in some of the rants that sometimes pass for personal, point-of-view articles. These are also formats that tend to lend themselves to those writers too irresponsible, unprepared and unself-critical to put together more coherent essays that would need to be more thoroughly thought through, more logically structured, and more self-critically examined in light of other perspectives.
Wherever the evasions and whoever employs them, they most often seem to boil down to strategic or tactical decisions (whether conscious or not) to avoid dealing with particular perspectives or arguments simply because these writers have no intelligent arguments or rebuttals to make in their turn. We’ve all seen examples of this many, many times. Frequently, in response to a thoughtful and carefully worded essay that takes a principled stand on a controversial subject, an irrelevant (and often irrational) attack is launched on the author of the essay (she or he is castigated as “racist,” “sexist,” “elitist,” “bourgeois,” “fascist,” etc. with no convincing justification, or no attempted justification at all). Alternatively, or sometimes simultaneously, there is often an attempt to put some other undefendable ideas into the original author’s mouth, which can then be easily knocked down; or an attempt is made to change the subject and talk about something else, in order to ignore the controversial topic at hand; or else there is an attempt to bend over backwards making the most flimsy of excuses for the targets of the author’s critique, while in turn criticizing the most irrelevant details of this critique to excess.
In past editorials I’ve tended to interpret some of these gambits of evasion as examples of simple bad-faith. But I’m increasingly beginning to realize that many, if not most, of these gambits are the result less of bad-faith than an inability to make a rational defense of one’s own perspective. Perhaps there is less irrational hatred in the radical milieu and a bit more inarticulate ignorance than I originally perceived. Still, the cures will be similar, whatever the bases for the evasion of discussion.
1) Always attack the comments rather than the author.
This is accomplished by avoiding a number of things, and by accomplishing one simple goal. Avoid making spurious, irrelevant, or patently false accusations by sticking resolutely to actual points made in the words and context in which the author you want to criticize has actually made them! If you can’t quote the author (without distorting the context) and address your criticisms directly to the quoted words, then simply don’t comment!
2) Refuse straw man arguments.
Challenge the actual meaning of the words you quote by either accepting the definitions used by the author you want to criticize, or by making it clear why you think the author’s definitions are so inadequate as to require different definitions. If you can’t find any place where an author actually has said something you want to criticize, don’t argue that she or he has said it, or would agree with it, or secretly believes it. If one person makes a particular statement, this does not mean that all people you may want to group with that person agree with that statement. If you want to draw some logical conclusions from the author’s statements in order to criticize them (or to show that the statements lead to absurd conclusions), then first run your alleged logical conclusions by several people to make sure that your conclusions are more solid than idiosyncratic, and then be sure to acknowledge that it is your conclusions that are absurd, and not the author’s.
Above all, read any texts you want to criticize with extreme care. Avoid superficial readings and always make a conscientiousness effort to understand what is at stake. If there is something you don’t understand, then simply ask about it before you criticize it.