Uncivil blogging

Max Borders announced today that he’s signing off early from the blogging world. I don’t know if that’s a direct result of Matthew Barganier’s post on anti-war.com encouraging people to write to his employer, the Institute for Humane Studies, in response to Max’s posts. I haven’t talked to Max or anyone else at IHS about it (and I certainly hope that an organization so committed to the free exchange of ideas would not have put pressure on him). Whatever the reason, I think it’s a damn shame that he’s quit.

Full disclosure: Max and I are friends, we used to be coworkers, and I occassionally write for the IHS websites he maintains.

Barganier’s original post is here. He links to Max’s post and quotes him as saying, “If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.” Then, a few paragraphs later, Barganier says, “Feel free to express your disgust to Max Borders’ employers.” The sentence is linked to the IHS contact page.

There are a number of things wrong with this. First among them is that Max’s quote was taken quite out of context. Here’s the full paragraph:

If boiling people alive best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral. It would just be grotesque, or indecent, or harsh. But since it doesn’t have any strategic value, we don’t boil people or nuke them. A “sentimental should” means that most of us find such behavior unsavory, even barbaric–but it doesn’t match up against any grand moral standard etched into a Libertarian Rosetta Stone. To momentarily digress into pop-philosophical obscurantism, it’s intersubjectively “wrong,” not objectively wrong (i.e. politically circumscribed).

Max is making an abstract point about how morals are defined. He’s not saying, “You know, I think we really ought to consider boiling people alive.” In fact, he says that would be grotesque and pointless. His argument is that it’s an issue that isn’t defined by his contractarian moral framework. That’s a philosophical stance with which one can agree or disagree, but no one reading the quote on Barganier’s weblog would have any idea it’s what Max was talking about.

A second problem with Barganier’s post is the argument he makes before directing people to IHS:

Some issues are beyond debate for libertarians, and even if you don’t count preemptive war among those issues, you damn well better include the impermissibility of boiling people alive. Vegans don’t debate skinning baby seals. Libertarians don’t debate boiling people alive. Period.

I dissent! Libertarians, and anyone else for that matter, can debate whatever the hell they want. Should torture be permitted in exceptional circumstances, perhaps as a necessary means of getting information about an imminent terrorist attack that would take thousands of lives? That’s a question libertarians could reasonably disagree about. Similarly, I’d expect vegans to debate whether they could kill a seal if they were shipwrecked in Alaska with no other source of food. Both are examples of unlikely scenarios, but people should not fear posing them at the risk of being drummed out of their jobs or ideological communities. Forbidding edgy questions is a terribly illiberal way to support inquiry.

Which brings me to my last point. Barganier’s suggestion that his readers complain to IHS crosses a line that bloggers should be very wary of crossing. Barganier is in the fairly unique position of getting paid to blog. The rest of us have regular jobs and do our blogging on the side. We do our best to clarify that our views are our own and do not represent those of our employers. We enjoy having a public space where we don’t have to be as concerned with decorum as we are while working at the office or writing for the think tank. Most of all, we enjoy being a part of a community of bloggers engaged in the free exchange of ideas. Friendly disagreement and unfriendly flame wars are risks we gladly accept. Having a fellow blogger try to get us fired or reprimanded is a whole different story. That kind of behavior bodes poorly for all of us and could have a chillling effect on our lively discourse if practiced too often.

Barganier responds to this kind of criticism with this challenge:

If I were still a teacher, would it be unethical for people to contact my employers about opinions I expressed on the World Wide Web? What if I wrote the following?

“If molesting children best served the interests of the American people, then it would neither be moral or immoral.”

Think that would be fair game?

That depends, Matthew. If you were using hyperbole to make an abstract point in a philosophical debate, then no. I certainly wouldn’t quote you out of context and send a letter to the PTA. On the other hand, if you were actually advocating or seriously proposing that children should be molested, then that would be fair game. Your directing of readers to IHS lands on the wrong side of the analogy.

None of this is to say that I believe employers should take a completely hands off approach to their blogging employees. Delta Airlines recently fired a flight attendant for posting suggestive photos of herself in uniform and I think they were completely justified in doing so. Similarly, I have no objection to think tanks telling their blogging analysts to be somewhat mindful of the institution’s image. Those are pragmatic decisions that employers can handle on their own. Fortunately, most weblogs have a relatively small readership and most employers pretty much let them be. Barganier skewed that perspective when he suggested that his readers “express their disgust” to Max’s employers, creating the appearance of a PR problem where none previously existed. That’s a low tactic for one blogger to use against another.

Libertarians disagree on a lot of things, but we in the libertarian intellectual/blogging community should at least agree that open argument and inquiry is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the free-wheeling world of bloggers will become more staid as it grows and matures, but we should treasure it while it lasts and do our best to preserve it. Matthew Barganier has done the complete opposite. On Friday, he directed his readers to complain to the employer of a blogger with whom he took issue. On Tuesday, that blogger abandoned his site. Well, congratulations to Matthew. The blogosphere is a tiny bit less libertarian for his efforts.

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]


15 thoughts on “Uncivil blogging”

  1. Excellent post, Jacob, that captures my view of things. It was wrong for Barganier to bring IHS into the whole matter. That’s clear.

    Hope you’re well.


  2. We should run a book on how long it is before Barganier is ranting about ‘card-carrying members of the Communist party’.

  3. So did he quit his blog because IHS threatened to dissassociate themselves with him? Or are they paying for the blog? Why would he be forced to stop blogging?

  4. Joel – No, Max blogged on his own dime and the IHS had nothing to do with it. I’ve spoken to Max via e-mail and the impression I get is that after getting a flood of nasty e-mail and some voicemail, someone pulled him aside and basically told him it would be better if he quit the blog, at least for a while. I could tell he didn’t really want to go into the details so I didn’t push it, but that’s the impression I got.

  5. Here’s a statement (in comments) from Jason Turner, Max’s former co-blogger:

    “We would like to be clear. Max was NOT fired, nor was his position ever explicitly threatened. Without going into the details, it is enough to say that Bargainer made good on his threats and Max acted to protect the interests of an organization that he loves dearly. It was a difficult choice – forced by Bargainer – but was not made under any ultimatum. Max is continuing in his position at a very noble and decent institution where his work will continue to be appreciated.”

  6. I seem to remember a Torch article called “Gone With the Wind” that was spiked by the editor because he didnt want himself or the paper associated with those points of view. This situation has some eerie similarities.

  7. Joel, the statement just says that his position was not “explicity threatened” and that there was not an “ultimatum.” That still leaves room for a lot of possibilities.

    Articles in an opinion magazine explicitly meet the magazine’s editorial standards. The blog was in no way associated with or approved by IHS and no problem existed until Bargainer created one — not to mention the fact that he did so by taking a quote out of the relevant context.

  8. Vague echoes of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in Max’s blog entry. Funny how people love to take quotes out of context and use them to support their own agendas. Right-wing religious wackos love to do it with the Bible. As for forbidding edgy questions, isn’t that what has made American politics the wondrous institution it is today?

    BTW, do you have a web link to the suggestive photos of that flight attendant? 0-:-P

  9. Not to say that Barganier’s tactics are justified, but they strike me as very similar to political races. Imagine if Max tried to run for political office. You can be sure someone (perhaps with Barganier’s help) would dredge up the quote out of context. And Max would be dead in the water politically, no matter how much he explained it. (To tell you the truth, the line between “immoral” and “grotesque and indecent” is lost on me, too. But I grant he was trying to make a point.)

    That doesn’t justify anything. It just makes me sad to realize that politics have sunk to the level of Matthew Barganier.

    (Personally, I wouldn’t be above using someone’s past statements against them if it was an HONEST use of those past statements. Say….hypothetically….a certain writer advocates leaving homeless people on the street to starve and condemns giving them aid. I would feel justified in letting the public know his views if he ever tried to run for office. But I would NOT feel justified in taking things out of context and twisting those views.)

    Damn, those are some friendly skies!

  10. Dear Mike M., with all due respect, and in all blogger civility, but you are the straw–certainly not the haystack :), but just the straw, so here’s to you, “In defense of the Right Wing Relgious Wackos.”–www.teamredblog.com–(though I typically lean left)

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