I have never liked the over self-referentiality of blogs in general, but there are times where it is right to talk about what’s at stake in this form of publication (e.g., Ivan Tribble) or about struggles about the nature and form of blogging in relation to some larger vision of the public sphere or civil society.
The messy fight between Bitch Ph.D and another academic named Paul Deignan has become one of those times. I’ve held off writing about it until now, wanting to be sure that I had some reasonably clear picture of what happened.
As in many disputes that generate vast amounts of heat in service to very low amounts of light, it is easy to second-guess each step along the way to controversy. The initial comment by Deignan on Bitch Ph.D’s site that seems to have triggered her desire to ban him seems relatively innocuous. I don’t quite get the ban; the later comments are deleted, so anyone not there at the time can’t really say what else might have been said.
At the same time, Bitch Ph.D’s comments threads have become a site for community-making, and small online communities are generally (and understandably) resentful of participants who don’t seem to want to engage the community as it stands, to add to it rather than impede it. It’s not a right-left thing. Any site that attracts a stable group of contributors in its comments threads creates a sense of stake-holding among the participants. It’s the tension in the online public sphere. On one hand, a huge agora where unlike opinions and backgrounds clash and intermingle, sometimes productively, sometimes not. On the other hand, online discourse is also a cradle that nurtures connections, a shared sense of mutual community, among small subsets of users.
This is an old tension: it predates blogs and the web. It used to crop up on Usenet all the time. Small discursive communities that formed and achieved a sense of stability felt more and more threatened as more and more users poured into Usenet. What made many newsgroups productive was not infinitely scaleable.
Reading Deignan’s site and understanding (I think) his scholarly interests, I feel that he ought to have had some sense of the sociological underpinnings that allow different online participants to maintain their preferred ratios of signal to noise, or community-forming discourse to community-disrupting discourse. That’s a high-toned way to put it. Another is that when you show up to comment at someone’s site and they ban you, deal with it. Don’t hang on trying to make some kind of point about Haloscan comment threads or what have you. It’s not that the Internet is the Wild West and anything goes, it’s that this acceptance, this shrugging off, is what a certain kind of civility and maturity entails, being able to separate trivial insults from grave threats to personal reputation.
Not to mention a rational appreciation of consequences for action. After all, another old lesson that goes way back to the very beginnings of the public sphere is that impulsive litigiousness is bad for democratic discourse in general and bad for the reputation of the impulsive litigant in specific. What would happen if every casual moment of discursive misfire in online conversation resulted in aggrieved litigant, or the threat of litigation? Everything good as well as everything bad (and the former far outweighs the latter) in online publication would grind to a halt pretty quickly. Certainly no university would allow academic authors to continue blogging under their own names with any degree of official imprimateur or invocation of their connections to the institution. Deignan doesn’t seem able to step outside himself very well at the moment: he is responding to both rational prompts and personal insults with roughly the same degree of stony determination to stay the course. He’s climbed up a very tall pole and, not surprisingly, has a hard time seeing the way down.
Which raises the question of whether it’s a good idea to call him on the carpet as stridently as many are: that’s precisely what makes it difficult for any public figure to disavow a foolish gesture. The happily rational resolution of all this would be for Bitch Ph.D to say, “Ok, all you were doing in my perception was trying to evade my ban, and I didn’t enjoy your presence in my community and booted you as is my prerogative” (which pretty much she and others have said); for Deignan to say, “Ok, I way overreacted, but you have to understand why I heard you as saying I was a hacker and why I take that seriously” and for everyone to agree that Professor Wallace Hettle did something really wrong in contacting Deignan’s advisors. I think all of us looking on recognize that none of that is likely to happen.
In that case, the real harm here is the casual litigiousness (or even just bluff of litigation) that Deignan is exhibiting. The online public sphere, any public sphere, is ultimately a pretty fragile thing in some ways, at least if we’re to maintain an ideally generative environment for sharing ideas, analysis and commentary across a broad spectrum of unlike minds and temperments. It’s the same thing with academic culture, I think. Within any given academic institution, the first time one professor escalates an academic or institutional dispute to a new level of aggression or tension, things tend to spiral out of control very quickly. The harm that results is often lasting and substantial, going far beyond the circumstances of the initial dispute, involving many innocent parties. Rebuilding a civil society is one of the hardest things to do in this world. Sometimes, once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, or nearly so. Given that this is the harm that Deignan is threatening, I can well see why people might want to try and shame him into stopping. That’s also how civil society functions, at least sometimes: its rules and inhibitions are not statutory, but customary. This is a very conservative (at least, perhaps appropriately, Burkean) observation, which I accept as such: the enforcement of custom can only be done socially, relationally, culturally, not through government. Deignan doesn’t seem to recognize either fairly careful rational arguments against his actions or invective, so at that point, maybe invective is at least the more emotionally satisfying impulse.
It might be better to ignore the whole thing if the stakes weren’t actually real, and the potential harms serious. Whenever a conflict of this kind might actually lead either to new customary standards, new common uses of social tools and mechanisms or new binding understandings of legal precedent, it’s pretty important that people pay attention to what’s going on. I was vaguely alarmed by the dispute between Elijah Anderson and Maria Kefalas for the same reason. It’s not that there isn’t a legitimate issue in there somewhere. In fact, I’d say that this kind of problem crops up a lot in academic life: people who aren’t committing plagiarism, but who don’t pay sufficient homage to the intellectual geneaology of their own work. On the other hand, a lot of academic writing has the opposite problem, both substantively and stylistically: it’s burdened heavily by excessive footnoting and name-dropping, by having to not just acknowledge intellectual debts in passing but by having to kowtow to the grand old men and women of the discipline. In any case, whatever the problem here is, it shouldn’t be casually equated to plagiarism, because we have an importantly constrained common understanding of what that entails. To accept the accusation that this is plagiarism is to fatally broaden the category; to accept a new customary burden about how academics must formally relate their work to others is to restrict the useful productivity of academic writing and research. The legitimate issue requires some more sensitive adjudication; when it goes beyond that into a public dispute, then the more immediate issue is to forestall any resolution that creates far bigger problems than the subtle and ambiguous ones we started with.