Sometime in my first year of blogging, I read on the Internets that President Mugabe’s troops had burned a six-year-old alive in front of
his parents. I was horrified, it was late, I was tired and already pissed off at something completely unrelated, and I foolishly fired off a blog post provocatively entitled “Why Not Assassinate Mugabe?”
The point of the post, actually, was that there are a whole bunch of really good reasons why the anti-assassination norm exists and holds in such cases. But naturally no one paid any attention to that, and by the time I woke up I had been called out for inciting violence against a head of state. After watching the comments and blog responses pour in the next morning I checked with my co-bloggers about what to do. Should I remove the post? Edit the post? Reply to the comments? Ignore them and move on? Resign?
It was a learning moment for me as a blogger, but it was also a small constitutive moment in the (at that time) gradually expanding Duck community’s process of figuring out our collective rules of thumb for dealing with mistakes, hot-button moments, or outright gaffes. We rely on those rules of thumb precisely because like most group blogs, the Duck is not a magazine with an editor making decisions about content and style. We are a collection of academic writers who drink together at conferences and write what we like for free under a general set of pretty free-wheeling informal understandings about what the Duck is about. Despite what readers seem to think when they harangue Dan Nexon with hate mail or call for us be “fired” when we write something controversial, at the Duck no one has control over the content or fate of a blog post besides the individual blogger.
This is also true of this post by the way: while I am speaking here about my Duck colleagues I do not claim to speak for them. That said, I can confidently say that members do share feedback on what we find appropriate or less so (and we don’t always agree). We also share experiential knowledge about how to handle gaffes, errors, omissions or controversial topics. And then members let the author make their own choice, and respect it whether or not we agree with it (as I personally respect though do not agree with Brian’s decision to resign). Sometimes, when we systematically disagree, we have group discussions about what the shared norms ought to be going forward. Some of these were eventually codified these into a written policy. Others are informal guidelines we do our best to follow and sometimes screw up. From time to time things happen that give us a chance to discuss whether we need to change or update our formal or informal guiding principles. (For example the recent discussion over Brian’s now-removed post led to an interesting question about whether offending posts should be removed or left up. We decided that our policy going forward is to leave posts online once the first comment hits and try to deal with them as learning experiences.) Above all, as a community of writers, we try our best to handle disagreements, even severe ones, with respect. And we expect the same of commenters. We also rely on commenters to respectfully communicate when we’ve gone too far.
The discipline as a whole is experimenting with blending serious academic writing with satire. It’s not always pretty. I am personally among those (including Brian) who agree this particular post crossed a line. I also empathize with how easy it is to make mistakes when blogging. The Mugabe post wasn’t the last time I wrote something as a blogger that I later wished I hadn’t. There were times when I put both my feet in my fat, wide-open mouth, usually when I was trying to be funny… like when I jokingly referred to the elite team of Foreign Policy bloggers as a “albino sausage-fest” in a passage that was meant to imitate the mocking expressionism of Courtney Messerschmidt while calling attention to race and gender representation in the elite blogosphere. Instead, I simply came off as disrespectful because unlike Messerschmidt – or Brian Rathbun* – funny is not my comparative advantage.
Then there were times when I just got things plain wrong and felt silly afterward. Remember the Fukushima explosion? That blogger urging the far left not to jump to scare-mongering without sufficient facts from nuclear engineers – that was me, during my blogging stint at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Turns out this was a case where
a little scare-mongering was well in order worry was certainly justifiable. Even if there was a germ of sense to my argument about critical thinking at the time, my post failed because I didn’t know enough about what I was writing on to weigh in constructively, plus I knew full well I couldn’t competently check my sources since I was blogging on the fly in between conference panels, and so my call for critical thinking itself was a failure in critical thinking.
There are also times when I wrote or said exactly what I meant but communicated poorly. I once penned a rant about the pronunciation of the word “nuclear” which Duck commenters were the first to claim was “bullshit.” It took a careful, nuanced follow-up post with evidence (instead of a rant) to make my point. Similarly at LGM, my casual and un-elaborated-on refusal to choose a “race” on a census form led to accusations that I was a racist and a faux liberal, prompting me to write a follow-up critical of these reactions. But as a commenter pointed out in the follow-up thread, it makes a big difference whether you make an argument like that flippantly or with care and nuance – and s/he was right.
These are moments I wish I had handled differently, and the moral of the story (for all you graduate students and junior scholars who have asked me about the risks of academic blogging) is that almost anyone who blogs long enough commits these and other kinds of errors sometimes either due to sleep deprivation, carelessness, pressure from readers to have an opinion on something fast, or the sheer odds and that fact that we are all flawed human beings with biases, tunnel vision, and moments of immaturity and poor judgment who attempt to write sensibly usually while multi-tasking on our day jobs. Sometimes we fail.
That said, a certain amount of vitriol on comments threads of academic blogs has less to do with what or how an author writes than with the fact that they are writing something that challenges a particular viewpoint in ways that make people uncomfortable. In that situation, commenters can choose to have a reasonable debate or a debate filled with ad hominem attacks. I have been and always shall be an advocate of the former. Young scholars considering blogging, especially female scholars, should be prepared for the latter.
You want to talk about sexualized name-calling, dismissiveness, and gendered disrespect in our discipline? I have been treated with far more sexism, derision and open disparagement in the academic blogosphere for holding a dissident opinion on this subject or making a mistake on that than I have ever been at an academic conference. In the space of a few weeks, for example, I was labeled an “anti-American radical feminist” (and not in a nice way) on a right-wing academic blog for questioning the behavior of US troops as evidenced by Wikileaks’ revelations. I was simultaneously called a “cunt” on a progressive left-wing academic blog comment thread for questioning leftist dogma on the political impact of Wikileaks’ methods. My discussion of international legal terminology in media coverage of the Afghan War Diaries was referred to as “horseshit.” There are far worse examples but I refuse to link to them.
So when I watched commenters on this blog use and justify the use of terms like “ass” to disparage those they disagreed with last week – however legitimately – in the context of a discussion that is supposed to be about respect, it made me worry. My co-blogger and colleague Brian Rathbun made a mistake out of carelessness/cluelessness in a post written late at night, aimed at no specific person, a post actually intended to shift power dynamics in the field in favor of junior scholars, but which also did unquestioningly make light of a sexualized power dynamic harmful to many scholars. He then retracted it and apologized. That well-intentioned atonement is more that I have ever gotten or will ever get from readers, bloggers and commenters across the political spectrum who have deployed a very similar power dynamic to engage in actual, deliberate, blatant, sexist, sexualized, public disparagement of me and other female scholars and public intellectuals over the years as a way of dismissing our ideas when we dare to make a mistake or are simply politically unpopular. In fact if there’s one thing I predict as a result of this post, it is that some people won’t like what I have to say very much and that some will be mean and disrespectful as they communicate those feelings.
Blogging is a risky business. I am glad we are now having a productive open discussion about what that all means and how to change it. I am often asked by junior scholars, especially women, about whether they should blog, whether the benefits outweigh the risks, whether blogging can damage a career. Male or female, one thing to recognize is that if you blog, you’ll probably screw up sometimes just like me, Brian and countless others. If you group blog, people will sometimes try to hold you accountable for the mistakes of your co-bloggers. And even when neither you nor your co-bloggers truly screw up, people will sometimes hate what you write and communicate disrespectfully anyway. So for blogging, you need to be able to think very critically about which is going on in a certain case in order to respond appropriately. You need a group of colleagues who will support you in figuring out how to fix your mistakes and make fewer going forward, just as we’ve tried to create at the Duck. You need a thick skin. You need to be willing to stand up for what you believe, engage with those who argue constructively and ignore vitriol, accept corrections when they’re valid, apologize quickly when necessary and know when to just start ignoring the comment thread and go back to work.
I managed to continue blogging this long despite this sometimes toxic environment partly because I tend to ignore or laugh off most of this stuff (though the comment threads of this week got me thinking about whether by doing so I’m contributing to the problem, which is partly why I’ve written this post and taken some stands against incivility). But I have also kept blogging because I believe that over time respectful engagement (and respectful non-engagement) does work. It is part of what distinguishes the academic blogosphere from the partisan punditry of so much media – the ability to take and defend a position of your own. It is also part of what makes the blogosphere, potentially, a place where we get to practice real deliberative democracy: the act of taking positions from a place of reason, expecting push-back, listening openly to others’ views, changing our minds if the evidence merits, agreeing to disagree when it doesn’t, doing our best to find common ground and avoid offense, and apologizing when we mess up accidentally or through thoughtlessness. And finally, the willingness to accept apologies when offered and move on.
I sure hope the next time I write something sloppy or offensive or plain wrong that I will be big enough to apologize as Brian was, and that my audience will be big enough to forgive me. But it is the moving on that is crucial. For if there is one key risk of academic blogging for young scholars, it is not the risk that you will be tarred for life by one gaffe or another, but it is the possibility of your work-days being filled up by the effort it takes to recover, retract, engage, defend, or worry about what the rest of the world thinks about every post. If you blog, you will offend someone eventually. If you blog, you will probably offend a lot of people occasionally. You’ll learn from it. You’ll make amends as well as you can. You’ll move on.
*Make no mistake. Despite the claims of various critics, Brian Rathbun‘s sometimes risque satire of our profession – on conference attendance, fieldwork, primary data, large-N data, rational choice theory, postmodernisms, pedigree – has been perceived as not only funny, despite the claims of various critics, but also as “brilliant,” “tremendous” and “too good a writer to be a political scientist” (read the comment threads on any of these links for more accolades by readers). Even IR feminists have liked his stuff: for example Laura Shepherd heralded him as “awesome and hilarious” in her comments on this post. Brian’s fan following by the Duck commentariat was a big reason he was invited to join as a permanent contributor in the first place. Though I respect his decision I’m very sad that the result of these events is that he feels he must step back. I have hope that he will consider submitting (and has an open invitation to contribute) guest posts to continue his series “Stuff Political Scientists Like.” He will be deeply missed as a permanent contributor here at the Duck.