People Behaving Badly

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.

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25 Responses to People Behaving Badly

  1. I haven’t followed this particular debate, but I think everyone should read this before commenting on any blog or online forum.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Tim. This was wonderfully level-headed, as your posts usually are. I hope that this goes away soon, and with as little additional fuss as possible.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a very nice resource, Kerim! I hadn’t seen that before.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    My first thought when all this emerged was that Bitch PhD and Deignan deserve each other: they’re both in-your-face-and-proud-of-it types, the kind of people who seem to think that aggression equals honesty, and who respond to disagreement with some version of the “You can’t handle the truth” line. I avoid such folks both online and offline, so hey, let them go at each other.

    But other issues have now emerged. First, by trying to damage or destroy Deignan’s career on the basis of blogosphere disagreements, the perfidious Hettle has brought back to our attention a range of questions about online privacy — the pseudonymous Bitch is a lot safer than Deignan, though if Deignan has his way not for long — and about the relations between one’s professional life and one’s blog.

    And second, Tim, you have shrewdly raised concerns about what this kind of debate does to damage the blogosphere as a public sphere, as an environment where genuine communities (however temporary and limited) can be formed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and haven’t come to any firm conclusions, but I would like to suggest this: that one lesson to be taken from this fiasco is that people who want to find community online should probably think twice before claiming it on a site whose owner makes a virtue of aggression in the way that Bitch PhD does. When she assumes that rhetorical stance, she makes the eventual appearance of a Deignan probably inevitable. People who like her site (and similar sites) should probably be aware of that and, as Bitch PhD herself likes to say, “deal.”

  5. ADM says:

    Nice, TIm!

    But for Mr. Jacobs, I think that it comes back to the idea of community and choosing communities. Yes, BPhD is ‘in your face.’ She certainly doesn’t make a virtue of aggression, though. I can think of any number of very heated exchanges at her site that were still courteous, and where people who disagreed were still welcomed. Moreover, she’s been instrumental in spearheading drives to help other bloggers (most notably Badger, a grad student whose husband recently died of cancer) when they are having personal crises. I would characterise her more as someone whose passion for justice makes her a bit contentious — pretty understandable.

    The immediate community of people who visit her blog know that, if fact, it’s her blog. Her rules. I think of a blog as a house in a larger Blogtown. All the blogs have big windows, so that their neighbors and any passing person can see what’s going on inside. Everyone is implicitly invited to the party but, depending on the particular house rules, some people may be asked to leave. Those rules may be arbitrary, which can be infuriating and seem unfair. But more often, as Tim says, they are community rules, and the person holding the lease on the Bloghouse is the resident enforcer.

    In Blogtown, not everybody is interested in the same things, but as in any big city, you get neighborhoods. We can tell the other people in our neighborhoods by looking at each other’s blogrolls. And the standards of neighborhoods are often an amalgamation of the standards of the individual residents. OK — I just thought of a refinement I’d make if I had time — maybe blogworld with sites like blogger and lj as major urban centers — because those types of blogs tend towards certain community norms as well. But I’m riffing a bit.

    The thing is, if you don’t like the neighborhood or the people in it? Just go away. There are lots of nice neighborhoods with communities of people like you. But none of those neighborhoods, left, right, any-other-agenda-driven — wants people to come in, drive over the flowerbeds, and strew litter around. Essentially, that’s what PD did.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually, Alan, I think behavior like Deignan’s is reasonably independent of the posture that a particular online author takes. There are other kinds of retaliation that highly polemical sites have to deal with as a consequence of their political posture: comment swarms produced by their ideological opposite numbers, DOS attacks, over-the-top villification, that kind of thing. I think in the end strongly polemical blogs cause problems in terms of maintaining a useful online public sphere, I agree.

    But someone who is trivially litigious or obsessively trollish in the public sphere can fixate on almost anything or anyone. That’s not actually unique to online publication: it’s an old problem in the literate public sphere. I certainly don’t assume that my obsession with a certain kind of judiciousness provides me any protection; The Weblog and The Valve have had to deal with a very persistent troll, for example, whose presence there seems almost randomly malicious.

    In this particular case, arguing that Bitch Ph.D’s polemical posture is a cause of the problem is far too much like saying she was asking for it. This is not to say that I think Bitch couldn’t have handled management of Deignan’s comments on her site a bit better, but that kind of thing is easy to say in hindsight. These blogs are not the central preoccupations of our working day: if I had the kind of comment volume and highly energized community that Bitch has, and I got annoyed by someone, I might hastily make a similar mistake.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    ADM, I don’t think we disagree very much. I didn’t mean to suggest that BPHD is an evil person, or that she and her blog haven’t accomplished some good things. But I do think that her in-your-face blog persona does sometimes cross the line into unnecessary aggressiveness. (One of the problems with people “whose passion for justice makes [them] a bit contentious” is that they tend to think that if they’re feeling contentious it must be because they have a passion for justice, when in fact sometimes they’re just being cranky and need to tone it down a bit.) But that’s neither here nor there. It is indeed her blog, she can indeed establish her own rules, and Deignan has been — at least since his first not-especially-offensive comments — something of a vandal. (Tim gives him some great advice over on Erin O’Connor’s site.) All I meant to say was that the in-your-face persona, even when it doesn’t actually become aggressive, tends to attract aggressive responses, and that can be a problem for the online community around it.

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    Our messages crossed in the ether, Tim. I don’t know whether my clarification helps or not. I don’t know what “asking for it” means in this context, but )I think obviously) I didn’t say that.

    I certainly don’t hold any brief for Deignan, but from what I can see he bears little resemblance to the troll that has afflicted The Valve. That guy responded to any and every post with the same weird amalgam of anti-Semitism and faux-positivist vitriol, regardless of the context; whereas Deignan gives the impression of being a person who simply can’t let go of a perceived insult or act of unfairness. That’s deeply immature, but the Valve Troll is psychotic.

  9. One of the interesting slippages/interesections in this discussion is that between the blogospheric community as a whole and the academic discourse. Tim’s right about the importance of “discursive communities” in blogging/USENET, etc., but there’s an assumption in academia that anyone can contribute substantively to a discourse. We have an ideal (ideology?) of ideas and information given priority over personalities which invites non-members to contribute to discussions.

    At the same time, there’s another interesting intersection between professional knowledge and professional standing: disputes over knowledge (and action, in the case of Deignan) threaten our professional standing; we “stake our reputations” on our statements of fact and interpretation in a way that makes our arguments not just about politics and ideas but about ourselves. That tends to raise the stakes….

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I see Deignan’s obsession and the Valve troll as being kissing cousins, if not identical: there is in some way a sense of randomness in the place that they land and stake out (labor-expensive) terrain.

  11. akotsko says:

    Is it weird that I feel possessive of the Troll of Sorrow? (“Damn it, he’s not the Valve troll! He infected us first!”)

    I agree with Tim’s assessment here, after a much longer acquaintance with the Troll of Sorrow. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits have been involved with him as well, although it never became public in the same way because he doesn’t have a blog (that he’ll admit to).

  12. bitchphd says:

    Absolutely the best analysis, imho, of the entire fracas. Bravo.

  13. kieran says:

    Good job, Tim: well explained, and you opened a door there for them both in a very nice way. I see DrB has stepped through it. I hope Deignan will, too.

  14. Is it weird that I feel possessive of the Troll of Sorrow? (”Damn it, he’s not the Valve troll! He infected us first!”)

    He’s all mine now, Adam. And I do thank you and the people at Long Sunday for passing him along.

    An admirably judicious refereeing job, Tim — as usual. Just one p.s.: if I were Deignan’s advisor, and I got an email out of nowhere from Hettle about my student’s behavior, I would think of Hettle as a grade-A crank, and file his email accordingly. I’m hoping that despite Deignan’s overreaction, his advisors will regard Hettle the way I do — and that Hettle’s email to them will damage no one other than the sender.

  15. Tim, this post and the one above it are two of the most lucid, instructive articles–I don’t want to call them “posts”–I’ve read in ages. You do the world a disservice when you post infrequently. That said, I hope what we hear from Deignan now is nothing more than the unfortunate affair’s diminuendo.

    Michael, sorry about that infection. Immediate deletion is the only viable option. He’s prolific, but tires (or passes-out) eventually.

    Adam, if you read the following (from a certain Kern Country-oriented blog) carefully, I think you’ll see that some of his pet peeves have started leaking from one personality to another:

    I think many current PC leftists (including those who haunt various UC campuses) generally fall in the ‘Toid category, more often than not as do the great majority of Cali suburbanites: the Net and blogopolis itself becoming some sort of gloomy Orwellian zone where simple jokes or insults cause some so-called liberals to start calling the FBI.

  16. akotsko says:

    I don’t know. This post is certainly a marvel of even-handedness, but somewhere along there I almost started to lose sight of the fact that someone is threatening to sue based on a minor misunderstanding in a blog comment spat. In a consensual community such as the blogosphere, the full resources of invective, mockery, and shaming must be deployed against such people.

  17. kieran says:

    Dropping by Deignan’s site I see the whole thing has exploded again, in another (but related) direction. Sad.

  18. “Just one p.s.: if I were Deignan’s advisor, and I got an email out of nowhere from Hettle about my student’s behavior, I would think of Hettle as a grade-A crank, and file his email accordingly. I’m hoping that despite Deignan’s overreaction, his advisors will regard Hettle the way I do — and that Hettle’s email to them will damage no one other than the sender.”

    Right. That was Ivan Tribbilism if I’ve ever seen it…

  19. KenC says:

    While I agree that Dr. Bitch has every right to ban anyone she wants, for any reason, I thought Deignan’s remarks were actually pretty mild, and I wish she hadn’t banned him.

    I understand the importance of blogs in building community. (If not for blogs, how would we know that anyone in the U.S. was to the left of Joe Lieberman?) However, I find long comment threads consisting of people in violent agreement to be boring and often pointless. It’s more interesting to talk to people with whom you disagree, unless they’re intellectually lazy or dishonest, and make coherent discussion impossible. The latter happens painfully often, but it didn’t seem to be happening in Dr. B’s comment thread.

    While I understand Wallace Hettle’s distaste for Deignan, I agree that going to his advisor was out of line. Of course, since Deignan is posting openly, his advisor can examine his online life at any time, so Deignan shouldn’t care about this.

    Of course, I agree with most everyone that Deignan’s legal threats and assaults on Dr B’s anonymity are bizarre, way excessive, and a threat to open discussion. If I were his advisor, this would worry me more than anything else.

  20. jim says:

    Rebecca: “I hope that this goes away soon, and with as little additional fuss as possible.”

    I don’t. I rather hope that this _will_ result in a libel suit. At some point, and this is as good a point as any, we need to decide if online activists, if I can call us that, are public figures within the meaning of _Sullivan_. Deignan makes a good test case. Google him. There are other Paul Deignans (one’s a lawyer in charge of a settlement). But the bulk of what Google turns up are not merely about, but by our Paul Deignan, mostly commenting on other blogs: the Schiavo case and recent Supreme Court nominations for the most part. Does that public activity, plus perhaps his advertising campaign against Ms. Miers, make him a public figure?

    He clearly thinks of himself as a private citizen, cruelly put upon by those with powerful voices. As do we all. Hence the desire to sue. If it became clear that we are, in fact, public figures with voices of our own, then there would, I think, be less threats of litigation. Which is the state we need to get to.

  21. Rebecca says:

    Huh (insert thoughtful head-scratching here). I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    Like Tim, I do worry about the functioning of the blogosphere as a public sphere, and I think instances like this not only justify the Tribbles of the world but also damage the blogosphere as a whole. I would like to see that damage avoided and this whole thing fading away would be a good start.

    And, while Deignan might make a good test case, it seems unlikely that Bitch PhD or even the hapless Hettle want to be involved in it.

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, I kind of agree, Adam–that’s why pointed out that the only way sometimes to enforce standards in civil society is through shaming and invective, through defending customary boundaries with any social sanction available.

  23. flawedplan says:

    This is one of the best threads I’ve ever read.
    And I get around. I’m not a blogger, I come from the message board milieu, but have been following the BPHD controversy as it applies to online community building in general. I just stumbled on this site for the first time and am full of wisdom and ideas. I know I’ll be sending other message board owners over to see it should the need arise, this discussion applies to a range of audiences, just wanted to toss that out, and say I’m glad to have found it.

  24. Peter M. says:

    A great threat – about standards in civil society. I hope that something is changeing in the blogosphere. Thanks for this great post. Peter.

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