Cutting Off the Ring

I think the phrase "Shook One" is greatest piece of rap slang ever invented. A "Shook One" is essentially a coward who can be caught pretending to be braver than they actually are. Like all the best rap-speak, it has a kind of surreality to it, as well as an ironic formality. The phrase sounds archaic—you could hear one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes exclaiming, "Thou art a shook one." Or some such.

At any rate, Jim Fallows brings into full view a piece of advice he offered up a couple months ago, which I mentioned here. It turns the source of the advice is none other than Ralph Nader, and while Fallows calls it "How Not To Be A Bully Coward," I prefer to think of it as "How Not to Be A Shook One."

When I was in college I worked on a project for Ralph Nader, long before his days as a presidential candidate. One evening he gave me his own graybeard lecture, from his venerable position as a man who had reached his mid-30s. (A picture from those days at left, though not by me.) He said that a really unattractive personality type was the journalistic bully-coward. That is, the person who breathes absolute fire when sitting at the keyboard, but skulks away nervously if he catches sight of someone he'd so fearlessly denounced from the writer's chair.

Yes, this kind of person existed even before the blog age! This obvious part of the message was: think about how you write. But the other part was: think about how you are. Nader very definitely did not mean that you should never criticize people harshly or in writing. He meant (to shift ethnic registers—his background is Lebanese) that you should be a mensch about it. Minimize the gap between "to your face" versus "behind your back" discourse. Be willing to encounter people you've criticized.

No one fully eliminates the gap. Not many normal people enjoy the face-to-face meetings with those they've said harsh things about—Andrew Sullivan's account of House of Commons-style verbal-combat kabuki notwithstanding. But I think both halves of that Nader recommendation are useful. Write as if you might run into the person afterwards. And when you run into people, be comfortable owning up to what you've said and where you disagree.

The point here isn't to not hold people you write about accountable, or to lapse into mealy-mouthed "on the other hand"-ism. It is as, Jim says, to minimize the gap. If you know something is right and your find yourself shrinking from saying it when in the presence of certain company, then you should speak louder—though your voice may shake. If you find yourself hurling epithets behind the keyboard, but meek in the presence of your subjects, then you should reconsider your faith in those epithets.

A while back I did a bloggingheads with John McWhorter. At the end he brought up a particularly unfair comment I'd made about him some months ago. The comment was utterly indefensible, and I really had no choice but to apologize on the spot. I wasn't afraid of repeating, so much as I was afraid that in putting up a bullshit defense (and it would have been) I'd lose some credibility with the audience. It was like the refs had flagged me for pass interference.

I'm glad that happened because it taught me a lesson about debating. Overheated invective offers your adversaries a way out. You may have the superior argument, but a string of ad hominem allows your opponent to change the subject, and reduces you in his or her eyes, and in the eyes of your unswayed audience.

To mix the metaphor, I mean to cut off the ring and then apply the sleeper. I don't want to give an adversary a single rhetorical escape. Anger, a sense of being aggrieved or insulted, offers an opt-out—a reason for people to stop listening. Of course, for that to work, it also means that if I find myself cut off and choked out, I then have to yield too.