I’m consistently in favor of academics adapting their conversation and rhetoric to the discourse of a wider public, of rejoining many general conversations.

On the other hand, if we don’t know more than everyone else about certain kinds of issues, problems, and claims, then we’re not doing our jobs. I’m going to say more on this theme in a longer upcoming post, but it’s hard to figure out how to avoid being a know-it-all nitpicker while also being an invaluable corrective to misstatements or exaggerations of truth by pundits, public speakers, politicians and the like.

A simple illustration: Caitlin Flanagan’s newest provocation in The Atlantic Monthly, on MySpace and sexual predators.

She starts the article with a personal anecdote about how a young man tricked personal details out of her when she was 19 and heading off for a trip on her own. Good beginning. Reminds me of one or two episodes from when I was a kid where I didn’t realize until much later just how creepy the undertones were.

But then there’s the next part, which is a kind of potted gemeinschaft-geschelleschaft thing. In ye olden days (17th Century) you didn’t have to worry about strangers. Though in ye olden days there were even then people out to prey on children: just think of the pedophiles and stalkers who went after the Children’s Crusade in the 13th Century. I exaggerate a bit, but that’s basically what the next paragraph is all about.

Pedantic sense tingling! The objections come so fast, I can barely contain myself. 17th Century European peasants did in fact fear strangers, there were a whole bunch of folkloric discourses about stranger-danger. And, oh, the Children’s Crusade? It probably didn’t happen in the first place, or at least the people on it weren’t probably little children. Plus, whether it’s the 17th Century or now, if we’re talking about sexual or violent menaces to children, aren’t kin more dangerous than strangers?

But isn’t that a serious over-reaction on my part? The paragraph is arguably a throw-away. Calling down a scholarly airstrike on it feels like petty know-it-allism. Or maybe not. Flanagan’s embedded argument, in this article and many others, is declensionist. Once we did not have these problems, now we do. In ye olden days, we lived happily in our flaxen underwear, eating our gruel. We were simple folk, we did not have yon MySpace nor did the fruit of thy loins givest many teenage blowjobs nor did we havest these “feminist” creatures.

On the other other hand, a lot of that is not only a sideshow to a lot of the other things she has to say, but it’s actively and deliberately contradicted by nuance in other parts of her writing. She starts by seeming to endorse the fear-mongering of a program like To Catch a Predator but then debunks the show in various ways. She talks pretty sensibly about the ubiquity of sexual talk in online spaces, and I can hardly disagree with her either in a pedantic or ordinary-guy way. I was playing online poker last night (play money, not real) and a female-signified player had three out of the eight players at the table hitting on her pretty much continuously, with varying degrees of crudeness. I’m feeling a bit bummed about the fact that very soon I won’t be able to let my six-year old just pilot her superhero around in City of Heroes (she mostly just likes to walk around and occasionally stop a mugging) because she’s getting better at reading. I suppose I could just shut off all the chat channels, but how long is it before she turns them back on again herself?

But then you get into the heart of Flanagan’s address to MySpace itself, and my scholarly ire rises again. Flanagan’s riffing off of a single book on MySpace that buttresses Flanagan’s own prejudices and preconceptions. I think to myself, come on, there’s so much more to it than that, and there’s a scholarly literature that would help complicate all this. She gets worried about Club Penguin because the players can chat with each other, and I think, so try Toontown, where talk is restricted to pull-down menus. Then there’s all the typically Flanaganesque ex cathedra statements: the girls by their unchanging nature all want to be social online, the boys just want to play video games. The boys are safe and belong in these spaces, the girls need a hovering mommy who can clap her hands over their eyes and a chastity belt on them at a moment’s notice. And again a reversal, a more interesting, complex, ambiguous story of how Flanagan basically stalked a high school girl. Though it’s also a typically narcissistic Flanagan story: everything always is ultimately about her, and she seems fairly unable to imagine that there is anyone but her in the universe who might read things differently.

I pick on Flanagan because I think she illustrates the dilemma of academics in the public sphere really well. Should I just object to some of her generalizations on the grounds of common sense? Or as someone who is just another guy who uses the Internet and has some stories of his own to tell? Or are my more pedantic objections the better, more useful interventions? Or maybe I shouldn’t really be a critic at all. Maybe I should ignore what annoys me in favor of what is interesting, even if what is annoying in Flanagan vastly outweighs what’s interesting, concede that the purpose of provocative public writing is to provoke, and that no one provokes by over-qualifying, over-parsing and over-footnoting every claim they make.

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6 Responses to Pedant

  1. JasonII says:

    i struggle with this myself. my field is english, so i cringe at a lot of arguments made about texts that involve misreadings (or even an investment company’s misreading of a robert frost poem). my wife usually rolls her eyes. however, sometimes i think its important to say when something isn’t correct. i tend to do that as a person, as well. i would also want to question the value of provocative public writing, since in many cases it doesn’t go beyond fear mongering, and we get enough of that.

    as a side note, one often hears sniggering about the english grammar nazi making snide comments about the unwashed masses’ poor skills, but i wonder if the same people doing the sniggering would correct someone for saying 2+2=5?

  2. I think the last thing we learn, as critical thinkers, is how to critically read our own ideas and writing. Flanagan’s errors are very ordinary ones — simplistic narrativity, undersourced, assuming oneself as the norm — but are very hard to correct once they start to get embedded in writing.

    As an aside: the Children’s Crusade wasn’t?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The current scholarly consensus as I understand it is that, first, it wasn’t a single event, and was conflated into one thing by later commenters. Second, later understandings of the event as involving boys are based on a misreading of colloquial Latin reports of the event–that they were in fact young men.

  4. Doug says:

    Maybe this is assuming myself as the norm, since I’m an editor when I’m not commenting on blogs, but I read Tim’s analysis to say that Flanagan needed better editing on this piece. I can think of half a dozen reasons off the top of my head why she didn’t get it (unless she did get some and the original piece was much worse), but most of the things Tim’s talking about are questions an editor should have posed: The tone here doesn’t match the tone there, which one do you want to use? This argument points up, this one points down, which direction do you mean to go? Why does this whole section rely on a single source – is it the only one that exists?

    I doubt that would change Flanagan’s basic schtick, which is after all what the magazine wants when it commissions (or buys) a piece from her. But better editing would improve the schtick.

    As for how you object, I’d say that depends on what you want to achieve. Do you want the Atlantic to publish someone other than Flanagan? Do you want to say in a different forum, “interesting argument, but wrong on the details”? Or do you want to say “dangerous and pernicious bollocks”?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think I’d go so far as to say that the Atlantic should publish someone else. She’s nowhere near as bad as someone like Mark Steyn, but I see her as an artifact of the moment where the Atlantic was misrecognizing across the whole of the magazine what was an attractively provocative or original voice. They’ve pulled back from that some lately.

    But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s dangerous and pernicious. More like aggravating, but potentially salvageable if she’d rein in some of the worst parts of her typical formula. 50% less narcissism alone might make her worth reading. I thought Sandra Tsing Loh was a more interesting “post” (or “anti”) feminist voice when they published her, and I take it that this is what the Atlantic is looking for in Flanagan.

  6. V Ricks says:

    I think that Doug is right about one’s response being shaped by one’s audience and by one’s aims.

    The dilemma arises for me in the classroom — and, for that matter, at faculty meetings — no less than in the public square (or in gatherings with the non-academic parts of my family)!

    Actually, as your final paragraph hints, there’s more than one dilemma. The first is about whether to say anything and appear pedantic or to say nothing and betray one’s own values and hard-won professional expertise. The second is whether to say something in a way that’s going to sound impossibly arrogant and nitpicking or to say something in a way that’s condescendingly simplistic. (I’m exaggerating the range of opinions, but I’m trying to capture the way that I experience them from the inside).

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