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Like I've said before, I don't get much hate-mail. But I did get the following today, which is easily the worse ever for reasons that will become clear. The letter is a response to a post about teacher pensions, which was a typically sharp comment from Cynic that I elected to kick upstairs.


The following was received at 10:38 this morning:

Next time I waznt to read shit like this, I'll just go to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. How dare you! How fucking dare you! Are you telling me, presumably with a straight face, that insecurity beeds innovation? That none of us should enjoy a secure retirement? This is one of the most disgusting things I have ever read. Welcome to the ranks of the right wing. You are now in the company of those whose ancestors bought and sold your ancestors as slaves. 

Do not reply. I do not want to hear from you or read anything you write again, because you have forfeited any standing to speak with any authority whatsoever. 

Nevertheless, I sign my name with no fear whatever, just to let you know who I am. I am not a teacher and have never been one, just a public school parent who cares deeply about the future of public education.

Three minutes later, I received this:

It appears that you were reprinting a comment made by "Cynic," and that these were his words and not yours. If that is so, please accept my apology and my regret for being a sloppy reader and a hasty ranter. It would have helped to clarify, but nevertheless you should understand the depth and strength of my feelings.

Before moving forward, I want to offer a qualified apology to everyone I've ever "honored" by kicking their comment up into a post. It's not always cool to see some comment you've made in the depths of a thread pulled out, and given the full weight of this community's scrutiny. I wish I could say I'm going to stop doing this. But I can't. It makes for great conversation. Nowhere, here, is safe.

Back to the e-mail, I don't think "depth and strength" of any laudable sort drives someone to accuse a writer of  joining up with "those whose ancestors bought and sold your ancestors as slaves." Again, like with James O'Keefe, I think that's a reflection on the basic decency of the person, not their analysis of public education.

But that said, I've been spending some time thinking about those topics which, in this space, foster productive conversations, and those which do not. The comments in the Pension thread were generally good, and I didn't see anyone resorting to this kind of language. But I've seen other threads here generally disintegrate into two kids pawing at each other in the sandbox.
The following goes for this particular space, and not for the net at large: I think education is hard. I think anything dealing with food choices is hard. As a corollary, I think anything dealing with weight is hard. I think feminism--though not necessarily gender--is really effing hard. Israel is is probably the hardest--indeed, I avoid it, whenever possible. I think Sharia is really effing hard. Perhaps there's a through-line here that I'm missing. I'd love it if someone can connect that dots.

I think it's wrong to frame this as "things we can't talk about it," and better to think about "things we don't have the authority to talk about." On that note, I find that the easiest thing to handle here is that which much of society struggles with--race. One view might hold that, being liberals, race is something we all agree on, thus making it easy to discuss. I think that's partially true, but I also think that authority allows you to keep conversations on track. I'm not just a black dude--I'm a black dude whose been asking these questions for most of my capable life, and asking within the context of black communities.

In that vein, I think, a really smart medical doctor who's studied obesity might be better able to conduct a thread on weight. (I think it would help if it were a woman.) I think a really smart teacher, with years in the classroom, could make an education reform thread work. I think a conversation led by a non-Muslim about Sharia will always be hamstrung in a way that a conversation led by sharp, practicing Muslim will not be. Likewise, the most productive conversations about feminism, will probably always be led by smart feminists.

Authority, of course, springs from more then in-group membership. I think you also have to be willing to examine evidence that undermines your working theories. I think you can't dismiss discomfiting arguments out of hand. I think you have to be willing to disagree with those in your own camp, but not so much that you become the one unscrupulous partisans trot out to advance their agenda. I think it's always a bad idea to laud your own penchant for the boldly counter-intuitive. When I hear people bragging about being politically incorrect, I start yawning; the elegant argument speaks for itself. 

These tools, paired with personal experience and interest, allow people to assume a kind of sincerity that they otherwise might not. We spend so much time hoping for conversation, without realizing that a certain ground must be established to make that conversation real. You need to have credibility with your audience. The moment you have to list out your accolades, is the moment you realize, rightly or wrongly, that you have none. 

Grappling with that problem of credibility will be a significant portion of this blog's work for the foreseeable future.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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