An open letter to lurkers

Dear readers,

It seems clear to me that there are many more readers of this blog than commenters — both the blog stats and my experience of running into total strangers at conferences who know me from the blog speak to that reality. I would like to thank you for your readership and also encourage you to comment if you have something on-topic to say. We have a reputation for harshness, I know, and though I believe that reputation is severely exaggerated, I understand where it comes from. I also understand that some readers may find the comment policy intimidating and that the stated policy may actually have had the perverse effect of restraining valuable commenters while failing to affect the behavior of the type of people it is aimed at.

For first-time commenters, however, I would like to warn that there is a particular type of comment that is almost sure to get a negative reaction: namely, the kind of comment that aims to stand up for free speech in the face of our unjust censorship and intolerance. Often this will happen when a commenter is asked to “leave” the blog (and so far essentially all commenters asked to leave have done so voluntarily, with no need for explicit blocking, for which I sincerely thank them). Such an action will often prompt some other commenter, usually someone who has never commented before, to decry our bullying, intolerance, totalitarianism, circle-jerkery, etc.

Dear readers, I want to emphasize this: you are entitled to your opinion, and you may even be right. Perhaps we do really make bad calls in this regard, which wind up hurting our intellectual development in the long run. We are only human! And as human beings, we tend to react negatively when a total stranger comes out of nowhere and insults us out of the blue.

I understand that there is a feeling of intimacy, or at least familiarity, that arises from reading a blog regularly. But I want you to understand that the feeling is highly asymmetrical — if you are a lurker, you may feel you know all about me, but I’ve never heard of you before in my life. Therefore, your crusade against my persistent bullying is the equivalent of some random person coming up to me in the street and saying, “Fuck you, Kotsko!”

While I do try to cultivate a Zen-like calm in all things, I am still not past the point where insults from total strangers make me angry. Ideally, I would not respond at all, but I sometimes have poor judgment — which turns out to bring on its own punishment insofar as it confirms to the random stranger that I am indeed a bad person. Perhaps someday, after a rigorous program of spiritual direction, I will learn never to respond when someone provokes me. That day has not yet come. I remain, regrettably enough, a fairly typical male human being when it comes to insults and provocation.

I am sensitive to the fact that the person making the insult feels it’s accurate — after all, why say it otherwise? — but they should remain sensitive to the fact that an accurate insult is still experienced as an insult. And that’s because I, like all the front-page posters and commenters on this blog, am a human being who experiences emotions and has not yet attained sainthood.

If I do attain sainthood, you as my blog readers will be the first to know. Until then, I implore you to cut me some slack, both in crusading against my unjust actions in asking someone to leave my blog and also (dare I hope?) in stopping short of attributing the worst possible motives to me when I decide that a conversation partner is no longer likely to be helpful to me. The fact of being an actual human being, after all, cuts both ways: not only am I likely to occasionally do things that are less than totally fair, but I am also not a pure motiveless malignancy out for nothing but self-aggrandizement at the expense of others.

Sincerely yours,

Adam Kotsko

36 thoughts on “An open letter to lurkers

  1. As an absurdly faithful lurker (I’ve even gone through the wayback machine to read everything on your old websites — I guess the collected e-Kotsko is a completist project of mine), I appreciated this post. I would point out, to those foolishly offended by the comment policy, that the “censorship” on this blog has had the effect, not of squelching vigorous argument, but of making this one of the rather more interesting locations for spirited disagreement… To me the demotic tumult the follows the best posts here is the best response to accusations of totalitarianism and prickliness.

  2. I frequently think of this when reading AUFS, but this casts my idea in a different light: it would be great if there was a “like” button of some sort. Frequently there are posts with which I simply want to affirm my solidarity, and leaving a comment often feels awkward. The interesting wrinkle to this is that it could serve as a kind of gateway drug for lurkers. In addition, many fantastic posts languish without comment, when there may in fact be hundreds of people thinking “right on!” Due to the way that comment thread length serves as a metric of “quality” to some extent, I feel like some good work goes without appropriate accolades. Given that this is conceptually associated with Facebook, you may hate the idea. I also don’t know if WordPress is set up for that kind of thing.

  3. I’m a devout atheist. I’m interested in all perspectives, including theological perspectives (especially when they’re so thoughtful), but I feel like I would rarely have much to contribute to the discussions around here. I could try to contribute the atheist perspective, but those actually looking for that can find it on plenty of other blogs, so there doesn’t seem to be much need to bring it up here. So I lurk.

  4. Just wanted to say that I’m a regular reader who’s interested in the topics discussed here, but who has basically zero background in contemporary continental philosophy (I have some philosophy background, but mostly on the analytical side). So I mainly try to learn by eavesdropping on the conversations you all have here. I also take pleasure from occasionally seeing you lay some righteous smack-down on the pretensions of the theo-blogosphere.

  5. Hi Adam. First time poster, long time listener.

    I’ve been lurking for awhile, not so much because of the AUFS reputation for harshness as disciplinary differences (I work in Lit, and a lot of the philosophy of religion’s a bit beyond me). And there’s a bit of a Men Talking Important Things vibe that’s fairly common with philosophers and theologians that’s mildly offputting to commenting for a woman straying from the feminist blogosphere…

    But yes, y’all do an excellent job, so keep up the good work :)

  6. I used to really resist the claim that this environment might not feel welcoming for women, but if few women are participating, that basically speaks for itself.

    The paradox is that it seems like the only way to actually fix the problem is for women to be part of the dialogue, but who’s going to want to put herself out there as the first if it’s not a welcoming environment? Sigh.

  7. As for the “liking” feature, WordPress seems to have a “like” option in their toolbar if you’re logged in, but I’m not sure it works like Hill is describing. I’m hesitant to implement such a feature in any case, not because of the Facebook-likeness, but because it would give me yet another statistic to endlessly check.

  8. I agree with Hill, and sometimes find myself fighting back superfluous comments that just say “thanks” or “yeah!,” etc. (But that’s a good thing, because there’s no reason for those comments, and they are only appropriate in certain contexts. Otherwise, they seem to be thread-killers).

    I just “liked” this post via my wordpress toolbar, so I’m not sure if you can tell, Adam. I think it’s mainly a self-organization thing, because I can now access “posts I like.”

    There’s some kind of thing that allows “reactions,” and I think it’s on wordpress, but I’m not savvy enough to figure it out. I’ll try messing around with my blog.

  9. Yeah, basically. I mean, I don’t think this is a problem unique to this blog. There’s something about the way that men (and especially academic men) communicate in male-dominated space that tends to discourage much female participation.

    And to clarify, as with everything on the internet, I feel that plays itself out in the comments far more than the main posts here..

  10. Hill, I like that theory! So the reason my blog gets updated every month or three isn’t because I’m lazy, it’s because I don’t have enough snarky commenters to fuel it. Not my fault at all. What a relief!

  11. Hey this is your house. If you really are an asshole I suspect you will only keep those with poor self-esteem or masochistic tendencies or other assholes, the problem will be self-corrective. My blogging tends to reflect a mess of process that I hope eventually finds some semblance of integrated meaning. I have learned from the discipline practiced here.

  12. I agree with IndieFaith. This is your blog, the dynamics of which you have every right to control. I think that often commenters have entitlement issues, like somehow they have the right to policy your policies. Where such authority comes from I have no idea.

    Sometimes I initially react negatively towards how this plays out @ AUFS, forgetting what I just wrote about above. At the same time, a part of me loves how your blog functions in this area, b/c why are people (who honestly often have nothing to contribute to the actual conversations) allowed to be judge & jury to people they don’t know. To be honest, I loved the tone behind the comment policy page so much initially, it actually created a desire in me to come back a few times. Now, as a lurker i am hooked.

  13. I recognize that, Rob, but I’m an atheist in most unconventional senses too. When Nietzsche said “God is dead,” he meant a lot more than stories about a guy with a white beard floating in the sky are no longer inspirational, and I’m an atheist about everything he meant by God. I’m a believer in the anti-metaphysics of the scientific worldview, of the will to power (I think Heidegger was right to connect the two, and so to connect Carnap and Nietzsche). Perhaps Bradley was right that the one who proclaims the death of metaphysics is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory, but I’m inclined to think it’s genuinely a rival to (and so different from) almost any theism, conventional or unconventional (and to some atheist theories, like Buddhism or the theories of Heidegger in his later period).

    Then again, Nietzsche himself confessed at one point that “we” all still worship at the altar of Plato’s God, “we” all still believe that truth is divine. I don’t think it was a “we” of mere politeness, and I suppose, like Nietzsche, I do wonder if I am still committed to some such idea of truth, despite my attempts at anti-realism (though like Nietzsche I’m more inclined to worry that this means I’m still in error somewhere than to think this shows I should accept some idea of God). Hence my interest in understanding these sophisticated theological views, and so interest in things like this blog.

  14. I’ve been lurking since some of AUFS’s… discussions… with Levi Bryant. I enjoy the heck out of your blog, but I’m simply not well-read enough to contribute in anyway.

  15. I worked at a shipyard in Seattle and I got a lot of supplies from Ballard hardware. Unlike other hardware stores BH was for professional shipwrights and fitters. There was a rigid protocol for service (kinda like the soup Nazi). One just didn’t wander around or ask an employee for the hose thingy. You brought a detailed list with you and handed it to the counterperson who then filled your order. If you screwed up, or asked for galvanized when you meant stainless, or said ‘pan head’ when you needed countersunk, you got a reprimand from your order filler, glares from the other employees, and scorn from the other customers. It was a harsh policy that could bring the uninitiated layman who wandered in looking for a lawnmower sparkplug to rage or tears. But, it got orders filled quickly and correctly without chitchat, stupid questions, and second trips. And, once you were matriculated at BH you earned the privilege to impart disdain on the weekend boaters and klutzy home handy people. Now if I understand you, it seems your new policy is to change ‘An und für sich’ from Ballard hardware into Home Depot? Well, if so here is my first comment: ‘where is the hose thingy?’ obliged.

    Oh, and @ Aaron, I wouldn’t be so quick to label the ‘mystic of Meßkirch’ anti-metaphysical or atheist.

  16. Adam,

    I know that this is totally off-topic but I remember awhile ago that you mentioned you were writing a review of “Commonwealth”. Did that review get published somewhere? I’ve finished the book and read a number of reviews and I’m curious to see where you end up with it.

    Feel free to respond here or by sending me an email. Thanks.

    Dan

  17. Brad, since when was lion taming a criterion for canonisation? I’d hate to see a rush of circus tamers nominated, given the obviously pagan nature of the circus-spectacle.

  18. I’ve been lurking for 2 years. You do great work here. I read it using Google Reader, however, and therefore usually don’t comment… I’m sure something will incite me to break that silence eventually…

  19. There’s nothing “mystical” in Nietzsche.

    The “death of god” means, in the context of “mysticism”, that there’s nothing “mystical” at all – that commitment to ‘spiritual knowledge’ registers more or less confusion, more or less ineffectiveness of perspective, less or more ‘healthy’ interpretation. (Even “more or less”, here, signifies eventual confusion – as does the category-qua-category “confusion” [ha ha].)

    More useful than to Carnap would be to compare Nietzsche to Peirce. – except that the skepticism of pragmatism is (I think: often) unconscious (or stubbornly uncognizant [= Rorty]) of its ultimate (and so immanent) incoherence, where Nietzsche is not – he is, rarissima avis, a thorough skeptic.

  20. “The paradox is that it seems like the only way to actually fix the problem is for women to be part of the dialogue, but who’s going to want to put herself out there as the first if it’s not a welcoming environment?”

    For the record, I’ve never felt discouraged in the least because of my sex in this type of atmosphere (which probably speaks to the fact that my exposure to proper academia is yet very slim). The only trepidation I’ve had in commenting is that though I find myself often curious/in agreement of what’s being said, it’s so new to me I’d rather sit back in silence than be remove all doubt of being a fool :)

    That being said, cheers again.

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