Policy on Disparagement

Whenever my fellow bloggers talk about how their weblogging activities have placed great stresses on their “regular” lives — ruining friendships, causing family breakdown, creating difficulties at work — I’ve always looked on in silent wonder that something as ultimately frivolous as a blog could wreck wreak such havoc.

I mean, here’s me, ruminating on movie trailer music and television shows; who could take offense at that?

And so, short of a passing reference from my father to the effect that “there are no secrets in our family anymore” when I mentioned some family event from the past in this space, and that whole Sandy Peardon thing (oh, and this whole thing), I’ve remained a carefree happy-go-lucky blogger, unravaged by critics, with all relationships intact.

Until this post.

In A Mediated Approach to Disintermediation, I wrote about a new university course by Rob, something he’d written about on his own weblog.

I called into question the approach and setting for the new course. And, it could be argued that (without intending to), with the rhetorical question “Why do we need Rob?,” I called into question Rob.

When I wrote what I wrote, I truly was doing so in the same carefree ponderous spirit that you will find in evidence elsewhere here. I was being rhetorical. I was trying to stimulate conversation. I was taking a internal musing and working it out by writing about it in public. If I were to adapt a screenplay from the post, and set it in a bar with Rob and I present, I would be looking all sarcastic, and would look over at Rob, wink, and say the line. Rob would laugh knowingly.

And when I wrote a follow-up post, it was in the same spirit. I read what others, including Rob, had to say, and wrote back. My follow-up wasn’t a “retraction” of my original thoughts, simply an evolution in my thinking.

That’s the spirit what I do here.

Now I’ve known Rob for, what, 7 or 8 years. I like Rob. He’s invited me to his house. I’ve met his family. We’ve worked on some good and interesting projects together. And in a way that few others have managed, he’s groked the way I work and, what’s more, he has had the patience to deal with me petulantly saying “well, why are we doing this at all anyway?” right in the middle of a project, often at the most inconvenient moments.

Rob and I don’t always agree, but I think our disagreements, when they’ve surfaced and been hashed out have allowed us both to mature our own positions and open our minds to the others.

Rob is a rare bird on Prince Edward Island: a consultant who came, and stayed. Anyone who spends any time here on PEI quickly comes to learn about those “high priced consultants from Upper Canada” who come down to the Island with lots of big ideas, lots of intellectual piss and vinegar, ready to remake the province in their neatly ordered image. They generally last one winter, and then move back to Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal when they realize there’s no opera here.

Rob (and me, before him) certainly got tarred with that brush: the assumption when you move here as “an idea person” is that you’ll fall into that group that leave soon after arriving.

But Rob didn’t. He lived out in the hinterlands of Montague. In the winter. He survived changes in government. He saw good ideas, ideas that would really change things for the better, die for personal or political or “just because” reasons. He moved his extended family here. He bought a house and improved it. He’s laid down deep roots. He has a lawn tractor. And he’s now been here for so long that most if not all (you’ll never get everyone) accept that he’s here for good. And maybe someone to listen to.

The Island is a better place for Rob. And I’m a better person for knowing him.

Now I say all this because some — including perhaps Rob — took my post as some sort of coded way of working out a grievance with him. As a personal attack. As a public ridicule of Rob, himself.

It wasn’t. At all.

And so, without retracting the substance of my original musing, and the follow-up post that came later, I wanted to take a moment and apologize to Rob for what appeared to him and others to be harsh words, and to try and explain how they weren’t intended as such.

My general approach is if you’re living your life as a “public figure” — whether as an artist, a filmmaker, a business person, a restauranteur, an organizer of public events, a politician, a newspaper columnist, a weblogger — then I consider your output, your words, your work, your ideas, your personal zeitgeist to be worthy of comment, and of open and public debate and discussion.

That said, I never intend criticism of output, words, work, ideas, or personal zeitgeist to be taken as an ad hominem argument against a specific person.

For example, I write a lot about The Capital Commission here in Charlottetown. Like this. Or this. I figure if a public body is going to spend my tax dollars doing things in my city, it’s fair game — even necessary — for there to be critical examination of their activities. Sometimes I do this seriously, sometimes mockingly. But never in a way that is meant to say “this specific person is evil.”

The same goes when I review a movie. Or a restaurant. Or talk about the phone company. Or point to a magazine article.

I think criticism — in the spirit of “the art of judging with knowledge and propriety of the beauties and faults of a literary performance, or of a production in the fine arts” — is important to the conduct of a fruitful life.

And I think it’s even more important in a small, isolated, insular community like ours, where close quarters and social interconnectedness mean that many are loathe to do anything but offer empty praise.

The problem with this ideal, of course, is that most people — myself included — take their output very personally. It’s hard to read “your play was boring” and not hear “you are boring.” It’s hard to hear “that idea you have sucks” and not understand it to mean “you suck.”

And so I imagine that Rob read my original post and didn’t take it as a lighthearted discussion opener (as it was intended) but rather more as “That Rob’s an idiot, eh, doing stupid things with his elite buddies — ha ha!”

I’m not sure what to do about this.

Words assembled are interesting because they have power. How do I keep doing this without causing personal harm and hurt to others? Is that an impossible goal? An inevitable result?

I could stop writing about other people entirely. Or I could only comment about “good news.” Or I could stop writing about friends, family and neighbours. That would probably avoid a lot of hassle in future. But I’m not sure that wouldn’t cause more problems, and leave me unable to write anything at all. I don’t want to be the “Body Break” of the blogosphere.

I could attempt to exercise more propriety. But impropriety is sort of central to my world view. And I think trying to write with a propriety gremlin looking over my shoulder would render my writing contrived (or more contrived) and lifeless. It’s hard enough writing for an audience that includes my mother, my mother in law, my clients and my son.

Although I sent a note of apology to Rob earlier in the week, I thought that, because the “scene of the crime” was out here in public, it would be equally important to try to offer additional explanation out here in public too.

Rob: I think you’re a good guy. Really. Readership: give me your thoughts.

Comments

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on March 8, 2005 - 23:34

I was surprised by the harshness of the question “Why do we need Rob?” (a different Rob than me). When I read it, I had to actively pursue the rhetorical nature that you say you implied, but I remember wondering “what a mean thing to say”. You say “it could be argued” that you called “Rob” into question. I don’t think there’s any “could be” to it.
There is a world of difference between “Why do we need Rob?” and “Why do we need this project that Rob is working on”.
You say, and I agree, that when one says “your idea sucks” the recipient often hears “you suck”. But when one says “you suck” it’s pretty hard for the recipient not to hear “you suck”.
You make claims about being forthright in your criticisms of public bodies and institutions like The Capital Commission, the phone company, restaurants, etc. And while Rob may be somewhat of a public figure, it didn’t seem like you were criticizing only the public aspects of Rob: his words, his work, his ideas, his personal zeitgeist. You were seemingly criticizing his personal relevance.
As I said earlier, I couldn’t imagine that you were dismissing Rob in such a glib manner, and I had to actively pursue what I assumed to be your actual point. As others seemed to miss your stated point as well, I guess it’d be accurate to say that you missed the target on the rhetorical implications of your question.
I’m not sure what you’re looking for in terms of feedback. Your apology was a nice read, and I assume, heartfelt and sincere.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 8, 2005 - 23:41

Rob [MacD], thanks for comments, and for shedding light on something I’d not thought of before: when I said “Why do we need Rob?” I meant “if the web means we can all interconnect and learn from each other without intermediaries, then why do we need people playing the intermediate role that Rob proposes to play?” rather then “what the hell do we need Rob for [as a person in this world]?” I was too subtle, or left out too many words.

oliver's picture
oliver on March 8, 2005 - 23:45

Tough one. I think you’re right to talk about third-parties perceiving you as trashing your subject, because I think a subject’s attention quickly passes over the realization of the fact that you aren’t trashing them and onto the sense that you, a supposed ally, don’t mind being construed to be trashing them and so to be publicly declaring yourself a foe. The Ayatollah may be a cherished friend and may rightly tell you its only politics when he has his followers burn you in effigy, but still you’ve got some grounds for grievance. Maybe if you strew the critical post with disclaimers? “Now, I burn my friend in effigy here but that’s just to say I regard his recent colonial stance as deleterious to our interests and indeed one of the nuttier postures I’ve seen this otherwise kindly and sensible person take.” It’s a silly example, but I’m serious about the disclaimers. A little sugar to help the medicine go down. That’s one of those valuable political skills that equip a person to lead reforms. I’ve gotten myself into trouble at times by failing to appreciate when I’m in a position of power, whether I want to be or not. I think holding forth on a popular blog, alas, is a powerful act and not the same as speaking to the person next to you in a cafe. I think there’s little that people care more about than their reputations and that’s precisely what you have your fingers in when you broadcast or publish in any form.

oliver's picture
oliver on March 8, 2005 - 23:53

Why do we need Rob?” I read as Peter using dry irony to acknowledge that he’s criticising while signaling that he isn’t attacking Rob personally while simultaneously keeping the post “light” and amusing. This is what emoticons were invented for and what with an old e-mail hand like Peter having failed to see their necessity in this instance I think we have a good case for criminal negligence.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 8, 2005 - 23:55

;-)

Nils's picture
Nils on March 9, 2005 - 00:20

I like the point from Rob (MacD), when he says “… I had to actively pursue what I assumed to be your actual point.” I think most people who know you — and know that you and Rob (P) have a long relationship — would give you the benefit of the doubt and do the extra work to get to the real point. Kinda “Peter wouldn’t say THAT … there’s gotta be something I’m missing.”

As we who have spent years and years online have learned (time and time again), this is sometimes the worst possible medium to convey such nuances as sardonic wit and sarcasm. It’s pixels on a screen … and while we may wink as we type, sometimes it just doesn’t make it onto the screen. Compound that with the unavoidable fact that we read everything with our baggage du jour (good mood, bad mood, feeling vulnerable, feeling strong, feeling paranoid, feeling bulletproof) and it’s possible to see how things can get balled up and confused.

A lot of us know you both, and know you both to be men of good character, good humour, and good intentions.

(Incidently … under the heading of “coincidences that make you chuckle”: the captcha word for this comment was “nasty”.)

Alan's picture
Alan on March 9, 2005 - 00:22

Upon such an abject apology not involving me I should not say anything but as I was openly shocked at what you wrote I will say this. You should be careful saying you were too subtle or used too few words or think it dry. You failed to read what you wrote objectively. I — and apparently plenty others — read that the business proposition of another was a joke and, indeed, the person was, too. It was that blunt.

That being said, while I have been as far off the mark, looked the fool or worse and certainly have insulted in my writing, I have never been so openly, publicly and fulsomely sorry. As a result, I think less nasty things in my head about all of this.

Dave's picture
Dave on March 9, 2005 - 00:37

It is entirely expected that when you speak what you percieve to be the truth, you will ruffle the occasional feather. Perhaps even a close friend. In fact, usually a good friend.

Someone who is able to openly and sicerely aplogize in the way you did, Peter, shouldn’t be hesitant the next time he chooses to write. Personal pride aside, there is no harm in having to re-clarify and perhaps apologize for the tone of your response. We’re all human and err occasionally and to expect a weblog without contention is to expect a boring weblog.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on March 9, 2005 - 01:44

Since you asked specifically called for my opinion…Nice post…lots of humanity here…something we all can use more of, and we are all, from time to time, guilty of lacking. Both parties are good people. Mistakes are made by us all, many times unintentionally. I am a big fan of learn, forgive and forget. I thank golf for teaching me that!

Wayne's picture
Wayne on March 9, 2005 - 01:55

and I wanted to add that sometimes mistakes are made by readers, which are bound to happen in this medium because of its nature. Nuff said by me.

Arthur's picture
Arthur on March 9, 2005 - 03:24

When I went online the first time in 1994, the first thing I was directed to was the Netiquette, particularly for public places like UseNet.

oliver's picture
oliver on March 9, 2005 - 03:34

I wonder if there’s something similar between blogging and having drunk one too many beers? We could be having almost the identical conversation if Peter had ruffled feathers at a party the night before. Since Peter is not much of a drinker, maybe we should just grant him blogging as his one vice.

Daniel's picture
Daniel on March 9, 2005 - 04:46

Peter, maybe I know you well enough (though several of the other posters on this thread know you just as well) but I caught your sarcasm or rhetorical theme on the first go around. This seems to be combination of a little too much subtlety and a lot too much sensitivity. It reminds me of your thread about corny “About Us” pages of local web development companies where a few people got incensed that you’d be so critical. It’s still surprising that people (especially when they know you) aren’t more willing to initially allow more benefit of the doubt with weblog posts.

Nils's picture
Nils on March 9, 2005 - 04:46

So he shouldn’t be allowed to blog and drive …?

alexander o'neill's picture
alexander o'neill on March 9, 2005 - 06:45

One of the things about keeping a site like this is that it’s often our instinct to take our thoughts to there first, even as we’re still in the process of working them out. I know there are times when a simple email to the person I’m thinking about would have given me a straight and informative answer to my conundrum, instead of airing a half-finished idea more-or-less publicly without first asking for their input.

i hate metablogging and hate hate hate the blogging as journalism nonsense, but one of the cornerstones of journalistic ethics is to try and get in contact with the subject of a piece you’re writing to get their comment on it before you publish it. Maybe that’s a bit of a common courtesy that we might adopt if we find ourselves the subject of too many raised eyebrows.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on March 9, 2005 - 11:40

Dear Peter
Thank you for this
Rob

Ken's picture
Ken on March 9, 2005 - 12:48

Maybe you need a mediator? Or moderator?
I didn’t read it as a personal attack on Rob the first time around, I took it as why do we need Rob to mediate.

Rob, Peter, everybody — I love your conversations here, you can take that personally because I mean it.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 9, 2005 - 21:03

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Rob and I had a chance meeting this morning at the Formosa Tea House. Much to the delight of my officemates, we had a hug and a “hey, we don’t hate each other!” common moment. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We now return to your regularly scheduled full-of-irony blog.

steve's picture
steve on March 9, 2005 - 22:00

I remmeber reading your original post and I understood the general point you were trying to make, but I was a bit taken aback because it seemed a little mean-spirited to me. I don’t know Rob at all and I don’t know the nature of your relationship. I know that you’re not a mean-spirited person. Still it seems like I wasn’t the only one who missed some of the irony or sarcasm you were employing, and I’m your flesh and blood.

I find this whole post interesting because it illustrates what is at once the great strength and weakness of the blog — the spontaneous rush of free writing. I’m scared to have a blog, because I have a tendency to write things without thinking, that I later regret. I need an editor. I’m glad to have one available to me in my professional life as a journalist. If you had an editor in this case, he or she might have sent you back to drawing board and told you to try and make your irony more explicit, and you probably would have ended up with a clearer and less ambiguous composition.

At the same time, part of what makes your blog popular is your free-spirited, uncontained irreverence, and an editor might ruin alot of that by quashing your natural inclinations, which 90 per cent of the time are right on target (as they were in your “policy on disparagement”, which I thought was tremendously well-written).

Personally this is part of the reason why blogs are slightly discomforting to me — I come from a profession and a place where words are (usually) carefully considered and vetted before they are made public. For the most part, I think this makes the writing better, not worse. But I imagine that this sort of vetting and officializing of expression and langauge is the very thing that you were saying was unnecessary in your original post about Rob’s course. The fact that your post has generated this much discussion and thoughtful consideration about how we communicate using blogs perhaps illustrates that Rob’s course may have an important role to play after all, alongside that of the bloggers. If institutions are good for anything, they are pretty good at “sober second thought”, which isn’t always a bad thing.

Alan's picture
Alan on March 9, 2005 - 22:17

How was any of this “irony”? It might have been just an ill-advised dig not put very well — the joke gone wrong — but that does not make irony. Reminds me of the “its not a bug, it is a feature” for code or for homebrew “its not off, its Belgian.”

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 10, 2005 - 02:09

Irony: “The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.”

Me: “Why do we need Rob?”

Literal meaning: “The world doesn’t need Rob Paterson.”

Used to express: “Isn’t it interesting that Rob realizes that intermediation isn’t needed any longer, but yet is intermediating this very fact in a course.”

Expressed meaning != literal meaning. Almost opposite.

Hence: irony.

Let’s not let humourlessness get the better of us.

Alan's picture
Alan on March 10, 2005 - 04:13

Please — you cannot be your own source of the irony. Irony requires an unanticipated intervention not just contrariness or opposition. The only one who could not have seen this coming was you. Please just leave it as it was and drop the moonwalk.

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on March 10, 2005 - 05:33

Will this be the 10 minute argument, or a full half-hour?

Alan's picture
Alan on March 10, 2005 - 12:56

I am sorry. Another time.

oliver's picture
oliver on March 10, 2005 - 14:13

Somebody send Alan a copy of the rulebook for humor. Oh, right, there isn’t one. Well, I’d like Alan to note that in principle a comment can be predictably hurtful and still be ironic, can still have been meant as irony and can still not contain an iota of ill well toward the person to whom it is seemingly directed. After all, the literal truth predictably is hurtful a lot of the time. I think we should all be able to agree that Peter’s question was not meant to be taken literally, and so might reasonably called “arch.” Also unless Peter is a liar and Rob is a sucker for an apology, we should be able to agree now after the fact that the reaction Peter caused is not the one Peter had in mind. It is true that Peter was literally and earnestly attacking Rob’s ideas. But that’s not so different from literally and earnestly attacking Rob’s haircut. Anybody older than about five ought to know that he or she is in potentially hurtful territory when he or she goes there, but those even older know this to be an area where, in principle, telling the truth can be a favor. Did Peter utterly ignore or fail to see that he was in a hot zone where diplomacy was called for? I see Peter as generally altruistic and astute and think that would be uncharacteristic of him. Instead I see Peter as having done exactly what I have done in live conversation in similar contexts. I believe Peter’s arch question is itself a diplomatic gesture, but one that failed. Peter was trying to show, through absurdist humor, that his inquiry into Rob’s ideas was intellectual and light in spirit with respect to Rob the person, and not emotional and intense toward Rob the person. Nice try in the abstract, reckless in a blog. But also typical of blogging, being famous for self-focus and ranting.

Alan's picture
Alan on March 10, 2005 - 14:54

Just to repeat. I am sorry.

Will Pate's picture
Will Pate on March 10, 2005 - 19:58

I think this is the second time that you’ve unfortunately been subject to the fact that the subtleties of humor and can be very hard to convey on the internet. I’ve seen the same thing happen on MetaFilter a thousand times: someone makes a lighthearted statement, a bunch of people misread and dole out some mob “justice”.

I think it boils down to a matter of language. As you’ve shown, the more explicit “Isn’t it interesting that Rob realizes that intermediation isn’t needed any longer, but yet is intermediating this very fact in a course.” would have, purely though differnet language, conveyed exactly what you meant.

I’m glad you and Rob met and made sure there were no hard feelings. Rifts = Bad.

Also, if I ever seem harsh I am sorry. Sometimes I can sound that way without feeling any ill will toward someone — I’m a poor judge of that. If you ever think I’m mad at you, just let me know and we can hug to make up. :-)

al o'neill's picture
al o'neill on March 10, 2005 - 20:26

Good old metafilter, my textual punching bag, where I can get out my snarkiness in a controlled environment and make myself more bearable in real life.

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