Charity Begins at the Home Page

I know, I know--after this post, I will swear off the Henry Farrell blogging.  But this is really too extraordinary to pass up.  This is Henry Farrell on why he ought to read me more:


(I don't think she cares whether she is right on the facts or not, because she deeply and truly believes that she is correct in some Platonic sense). This results in some genuinely pernicious writing, that is nonetheless quite influential - and while I'm not especially influential myself, I think that I have to do my bit, and probably should be doing it more than I do do it.

This in the comments to a post in which Henry Farrell accused me of rank hypocrisy by juxtaposing something I wrote yesterday with something that I wrote close on eight years ago.  Mr. Farrell was unaware that I had publicly retracted these remarks, and apologized for them, two years ago.  


Did he "care whether he was right on the facts or not"?  It seems to me that if he had, he might have taken the elementary step of asking me, before he wrote the post, whether I still supported what I wrote all those years ago.  At the very least, he might have thought, "well, eight years is a long time and there's always a small chance that she's changed her mind", and hedged a little, rather than launching the all-out frontal sarcasm assault.

When his error was pointed out, rather than simply graciously admit that he had misjudged me in this instance, he resorted to talmudic readings of what I said in the comments thread to that long-ago post, rather than tender an apology.  Yet no matter how you read those comments--and I think Henry is reading them extremely selectively--that doesn't really change the fact that I already said years ago that I oughtn't to have written it.  Is this the shining example of "caring whether one is right on the facts" that I am supposed to emulate? 

You'd think he'd have at least interspersed a few posts between mote and beam . . . 

But of course, we all do this.  It's so easy to see the faults in people we dislike, even as we ignore them in ourselves.  I'm reminded of something I blogged a while back, writing about Obama's controversial speech on race.  It's a passage from C.S. Lewis on what it means to "love thy neighbor", and I wish that commentators--including me--would take it to heart more often.

. . . we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself? 
Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently "Love your neighbour" does not mean "feel fond of him" or "find him attractive". I ought to have seen that before, because, of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty ones. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. 
 For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all of my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.
I really do think that we would go farther if we were more charitable to our opponents.  There are very few people in the world who are simply mean and deliberately ignorant, and telling ourselves otherwise is simply flattering our own vanity: our opponents must be awful people, because otherwise they couldn't possibly oppose our wise and wonderful plans.  

I'm not speaking specifically about Henry here--I don't think it much matters whether he likes me, or I him.  But this is really what I was trying to get at the other day, when I blogged about all the anger on the web.  Maybe it's not very novel, but for whatever reason, it bothers me more right now.  And what bothers me more is that people seem to spend so much time looking to get angry--or so I judge by what blogs, and blog posts, succeed.  

It seems to me that I see less in the way of novel argumentation on many blogs, and more in the way of tu quoques, exhortations against "the stupidest/most evil person alive", and lengthy back-patting exchanges in which bloggers and commenters reassure themselves that they really kicked some ass in that last argument.  The ass-kicking--the argumentation--is pretty secondary, and indeed, the amount of high-fiving doesn't actually seem to be related to the quality of the argument that preceded it.  Hell, the other side is usually busy congratulating each other because they totally eviscerated 'em.  

If the other side is unaware that you've won, your victory can't be too compelling.  And so I rather feel that the winning isn't even the point; the real point is simply to be able to tell your fellow travellers that we beat them.  And moreover, that this victory was a small step in a crucial cosmic battle, because they are really dreadful slime, full of stupidity and malice.

Hence, as Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson have been noting, the prevalence of arguments that don't really make any constructive point at all; they seem mostly designed to decrease the relative status of the other group.  It's like eighth grade, with white papers.  

How many of us liked eighth grade the first time around?  Not many, I'd wager, so I'm not sure why we're so eager to repeat the tiresome status games.

I'm certainly imperfect in this regard, but I'm trying to do better.  It don't think it should be impossible to have a blog world with a little more charity, and a little less bile.

Update:  Henry makes fun of my last name, then moves onto a lengthier post in which he details my many sins, which appear to include having been wrong, and not thinking that I was wrong.  Also, I occasionally make poor word choices, and then correct them, which I shouldn't do, and which proves that I cannot be trusted; I believe the implication is that I should not attempt to wriggle out of what I said by (charitably) clarifying or (uncharitably) changing my mind, since it would be much better if I just stuck to the awful thing that Henry thinks I said--but I am quite possibly being unkind.  Also, when I wrote my apology two years ago, for a piece that I wrote eight years ago, I could not find the original piece that the older post had linked, and worked off of my memory of it, and Henry who has been clever enough to find it, does not think that this hazy memory is an accurate description.  Somehow this entirely invalidates my statement that I shouldn't have written the damn post in the first place.

I think that is an accurate summary, but I am probably leaving something out, so go read the whole thing yourself; I haven't the strength to do it again. 
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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