Graeber and the niceness police

[Note: I have come to regard this post as misguided. I applied my long-standing “niceness police” theme to a situation where it didn’t fit very neatly and which was none of my business in any case. As such, I retract it and have closed comments.]

I have long been a critic of the “niceness police” who regularly patrol online forums. Such figures are often hung up on “tone” to a pathological degree, dismissing arguments based on an overly harsh tone while completely ignoring objectively “mean” statements that are stated in a superficially more even-handed style — and of course, they always feel empowered to cast personal aspersions on the person supposedly guilty of “meanness.” In the case of Graeber’s Crooked Timber tirade, there seems to be a general consensus that Graeber was “over the top” — yet I think that Farrell’s flippant dismissiveness is a much more serious problem, i.e., a much bigger obstacle to actual debate.

In the end, that’s what I dislike about the “niceness police” — it effectively prohibits debate. One thing about erring on the side of harshness is that it clarifies what’s actually at stake, whereas an overtly “nice” debate often proceeds by suggestion and innuendo. Critiques are enveloped in a haze of plausible deniability, such that every response to those critiques can be met with a “but that’s not what I’m saying at all, you’re missing the nuance,” and then the debate inevitably shifts onto the terrain of tone. Of course, the highlight is the omnipresent concern-trolling, the patronizing recommendations that “you’ll attract more flies with honey,” etc. The entire strategy of the niceness police is a strategy of delegitimation, a performance that places the niceness police on the side of reason and moderation while the violator is an irrational, easily irritated crank.

Now of course I don’t think we should be mean to each other, but what’s so pathological is that our social standards read disagreement as such, clearly stated opinions as such as somehow mean or inappropriate. That’s what I think that the (admittedly annoying) grad school posturing diagnosed by Tim Burke is reacting against — it’s an overreaction, and probably an immature one, but when the entire culture is mandating a “go along to get along, we all agree in the end” mindset, it might be valuable in its own way.

So in this particular case, Graeber went “over the top.” Fine, fair enough — yet I don’t think that a superficially nice response would’ve made the important point that Crooked Timber basically defines itself as the outer limit of acceptable “left” opinion and regularly attempts to delegitimate anyone further to the left as irrational extremists. It was mathematically impossible that a Crooked Timber book event wouldn’t have included the kind of dismissive, patronizing bullshit in Farrell’s post.

The only problem I see with the harshness of the response is a strategic one, because on some level Farrell had to know that Graeber would be pissed off, and expressing it in such an extreme way plays directly into the niceness police strategy: “See, I told you that he’s irrational and paranoid!” Yet a “nice” response (“well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about!”) would also play into the niceness police strategy, insofar as it would obscure the terms of debate and implicitly enshrine the “nice” asshole as a paragon of rationality and moderation. Once you’re in the frame, there’s no winning — and in that kind of lose-lose situation, it’s hard not to sympathize with the decision to indulge in a hearty “fuck you.”

40 thoughts on “Graeber and the niceness police

  1. Yeah strategically it was dumb – but I didn’t want to write a reply at all. When I first read Farrell’s post I concluded it was perhaps the nastiest attack I’d read – since it was so carefully couched as superficially polite but dripping with contempt and an obvious provocation (putting in obvious misstatements…), and if I replied as it deserved, I’d get slammed – and told the person from CT who’d contacted me that no, I wasn’t going to write a reply at all. He urged me to reconsider, as did others, and finally I felt given all the trouble they’d gone to be I’d be mean not to. Now of course I wish more than anything I’d kept with my initial instinct.

  2. Amen.

    Though I am not familiar with the exchange discussed, I would also say that the “niceness police” dominate academia too much. What it leads to is not polite discourse, but often the poison of cloaked words, innuendo, and all the other evil vapors of faux kindness. Policing polite exchange rarely brings it.

  3. Crooked Timber basically defines itself as the outer limit of acceptable “left” opinion and regularly attempts to delegitimate anyone further to the left as irrational extremists

    Oh, come off it. As Dan Davies remarks somewhere, sure, CT spans the full range of leftist thought all the way from Democratic Socialists to Social Democrats—and maybe you think that range is pretty weak. But its members spend next to no time trying to define or police any ideological boundary to their left, let alone put effort into actively delegitimating “anyone further to the left as irrational extremists”.

    The more specific charge of delegitimization with respect to the book doesn’t make any sense either. Hosting an event about the book and rounding up a raft of basically sympathetic readers and all the rest of it is a pretty useless way to delegitimize someone. As for Graeber himself, I’m not sure what to say at this point. I think there was plenty of room for a direct, sharp, cutting response in between the cloying “niceness” you despise (and who could disagree?) and the embarrassing rant he dished up. Farrell’s style isn’t as you present it—his M.O. isn’t the rhetoric of niceness and seeking middle ground and handwringing over a lost age of internet politeness. He’s often snarky and all the rest of it, and takes his wallops back as a consequence. But the Graeber response was just embarrassing—GRE scores? Really?—saturated with amour propre, seemingly fueled by some self-image as perennially excluded hero intellectual. (I’m sorry you got denied at Yale, man. It happens to a lot of people, often for shitty reasons. Too bad. I hear Goldsmiths is nice, though.) He didn’t even say “Fuck you” or “I’m not playing this stupid game” in any straightforward way. Instead, it read more like Farrell had inadvertently pushed through the skin of the balloon and all this shit came spewing out under its own power. No one involved had any desire, let alone any plan, to have the author of a book we all liked—and were more or less all on the record as thinking was really good—make an ass of himself like that.

  4. Um, for us clueless regular readers, can someone who is not involved swiftly explain what’s going on? Following two levels of hyperlinks in is not very revealing, and I am curious what is drawing ire. Otherwise, I’ve got a bomb shelter to crawl into….

  5. Adam – this would have worked better as a critique if it had actually, you know, had any relationship to what I wrote. The “outer limit of acceptable “left” opinion and regularly attempts to delegitimate anyone further to the left as irrational extremists” claim is complete bullshit. On the specifics, if you’d bothered to read the post, you would have seen deliberately avoided talking about Graeber’s response in the body of the reply, instead focusing on the substance, such as it was. If you are looking for someone who treated “disagreement as such, clearly stated opinions as such as somehow mean or inappropriate” in this unfortunate debate, you’ll find him – but he won’t be me. And as for Graeber’s “why do people keep on baiting me into behaving like an angry, irrational arsehole” shtick – it’s about as believable as the Onion headline that it so closely resembles. Over and out.

  6. Kieran,

    Umm… is this a joke or did you just auto-troll yourself? “As Dan Davies remarks somewhere, sure, CT spans the full range of leftist thought all the way from Democratic Socialists to Social Democrats”.

    This is what I parsed together: Turns out that in academia some of the men are dicks. Some of these dicks have a blog and post dickish things on it. But here is the twist, even though it’s all dicks spurting at one another, none of them know that they are dicks! So now instead of spurting off about whether or not one dick had a book that was good, they’re spurting off about how their ejaculate isn’t really ejaculate and it’s quite polite to have it in your eye. That’s what I think happened anyway.

  7. Umm… is this a joke or did you just auto-troll yourself? “As Dan Davies remarks somewhere, sure, CT spans the full range of leftist thought all the way from Democratic Socialists to Social Democrats”.

    “Umm…”, yourself. (Seriously—when is prefacing comments with that sort of thing going to get old? If I were David Graeber I’d say you were trying to delegitimate me by trying to make me out to be stupid.) I’m perfectly aware of what I’m saying—viz, that CT is not in fact representative of anything remotely like the full range of “leftist thought”, but I thought, hey—sorry, I mean I thought, ummm…—we’re all intelligent readers here, why not make a little joke about it? CT doesn’t claim to be any sort of repository of Leftism in all its Many Forms, nor does it attempt to lay down any sort of party line, or set itself up as some kind of ideological police officer for “respectable leftists”.

    And for the record, here I am on Twitter subtly delegitimating Graeber back in early October of last year, before it was cool.

  8. Well I wasn’t going to comment here, but since Kieran has.

    The “outer limits” stuff is just BS. I’ve posted plenty of stuff on CT praising the eco-anarcho-whatever left and, for that matter, saying more positive stuff that US Dems think acceptable about the old socialist and communist traditions. And I’ve been pilloried to it too on “left” neoliberal blogs. We’re a pretty broach church.

    I was the one who suggested a Graeber event. I did so because I was interested in his work. I then made the effort to try to get a bunch of people to write about it. Most did so sympathetically, some were more critical. That’s the way it goes. Graeber didn’t have to reply, but the seminar would have been incomplete if he hadn’t. The way he chose to do so was a pretty spectacular case of self-immolation if you ask me (rather than robust discourse). I invited DG to a party because I thought he’d be interesting to talk to and we’d learn something, not because I had a cunning plan of delegitimization. As it is, he punched the other guests and shat in the corner of the room. Having spent hours making canapés I wasn’t best pleased.

    Adam is quite right about one side of the niceness police: we shouldn’t sugar coat things so we all end up being moderate and vanilla. That’s because it is important that people get to say what they think and hear what others think. But Graeber didn’t improve the quality of communication by eschewing self-censorship, he made it all about him and his anger. The effect of that was to drown out all argument with the other contributors, to alienate a bunch of people and to titillate the popcorn munchers.

  9. Yeah, I don’t think I have to try to make you look stupid. Or at least I don’t have to try very hard to make you look like a spurting dick. Maybe, you know, calm the fuck down?

    I guess calm engagement was the reason your opening gambit was “Ummmm…?”, in response to a pretty straightforward, direct and insult-free effort to rebut Adam’s post, and also the reason you immediately reached for your “spurting dick” as soon as you got any pushback for adolescent eyerolling. Perhaps you should sign up for the niceness police. I hear they’re hiring.

  10. Lest we forget, Graeber didn’t just generally accuse Henry Farrell of being a snooty elitist or whatever; he explained exactly how and where Farrell’s post delegitimated him (“Note here the slick rhetorical move.”). I went back over it here. (Shorter: naah.)

  11. I know you feel like you’re lecturing me, but, you’re not. I said umm, because it was a genuine question. The folks at CT always struck me as people who take themselves very seriously and so I wasn’t sure if you were doing that or not. Now I can see that you kind of were, but not quite in the way I thought. Which is fine. I really could care less about your existence. I mean, seriously, if you died tomorrow I wouldn’t care. And I really hope the same is true in the opposite direction. So, yeah, thanks for clearing up for me if you were kidding or not and please go away.

  12. I mean, seriously, if you died tomorrow I wouldn’t care.

    LOL. OK, Anthony. I’ll take you at your word that it was a genuine question. I assumed otherwise because tediously long experience on the internet has taught me that whereas questions just end in question marks, comments opening with “Ummm …” carry a rather different implication. I apologize for subsuming you under that rule of thumb.

    I also acknowledge your clearly stated views on whether I live or die—no hard feelings! Though I have to say I secretly believe that if I really were to die tomorrow, you and Adam and David Graeber and Peter Wilson from second grade and that girl from freshman year what was her name again and everyone else who was ever mean to me would have to come to my funeral, and you’d all feel terrible and shuffle about and not make eye contact and cry and it would be really awkward for you all.

  13. Kieran,

    My point about you living or dying is just that we don’t matter to each other. I don’t think that is a bad thing or means anything about either of our respective worthiness. I just don’t get the way this suddenly always becomes so highly charged and then moves to a discussion of who the real dicks are. We’re all dicks. And that said, I won’t be attending your funeral.

  14. It’s come to my attention that my comment can be easily misread. I sort of don’t care, but I apparently care enough to explain the joke. Which sort of ruins it. But fine.

    My saying I don’t care if you live or die wasn’t me saying I hope you die. Just, that I don’t get where the intense vitriol suddenly comes from with a person whose existence, I assume, if you’re honest with yourself, you also have very little investment in. Was an attempt to put some perspective on a tiny “umm”. That is all. May you have a long life and many people who are invested in your existence at your funeral saying nice things and making direct eye contact with one another.

  15. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I never should have posted this fucking thing in the first place. Naturally, though, this pointless shit is putting us on pace for a record traffic day. Ah, the internet!

  16. Adam, don’t pretend that wasn’t at least part of your motivation. :P

    Or should I be a jerk and presume not to give you that much credit? Want some popcorn, by the way?

  17. Hey, I said I thought Graeber’s reply was over-the-top on the last Graeber-related post here! I wondered as I did so if it would trigger some kind of “niceness police” response (though since I’m far from the only one to have said something of that kind it would doubtless be flattery to think I had much to do with this post), and was somewhat concerned about that, because, hey, I think that’s pretty much bullshit too.

    But the response Farrell-related content in the response Graeber wrote comes across as simply paranoid and petulant, and the high-minded stuff about how he’ll just do a rhetorical analysis without responding to Henry point-by-point actually works, I think, extremely poorly, because however not-nice or even sinister you think Henry’s initial post was, it did raise questions worth being answered.

  18. Dear Lovely People,

    It has come to the attention of our Lord Big Brother that there is plenty of frothing going on without much santorum. Please be more civil in your spurting so that we all get along despite any personal reservations. After all, that is the goal of etiquette: to smile nicely and speak only in strange innuendos which are open to a wide range of interpretations, many of them completely unrelated to the point one would prefer to make. The more obfuscation, the better, is what my father always said before I stabbed him in the eye.


    Nicencess Police

  19. At least they (Farrell?) were polite when comparing Graeber to Jonah Goldberg (and politely citing John Holbo! Noone cites Holbo, not even ironically! Layers and layers of politeness! It isn’t turtles, but politeness, all the way down!) deep in comments on the first post.

  20. So, ummm, some background for Anthony, since the meta-debate digression on “Ummm” is actually the most interesting part of the thread so far (sort of, anyway, in that it indicates how a minor and slightly oddball “niceness policing” meme can metastasize into a truly bizarre debating gambit):

    Someone on a very, very old Making Light thread once contended that starting a post with “Ummmm” or “Ummm” or “Umm” or perhaps even “Um” should always be read as super-hostile and condescending, and that essentially it should be read as a fightin’ word. (The UN Security Council is still debating how many h’s are permissible on the end of an “uh” before it achieves comparably weaponized status.) Occasionally one runs across people who actually take this half-baked bit of textual folk wisdom deadly seriously and treat it as some kind of commandment. Not that there aren’t times when it fits to varying degrees, but it’s genuinely amusing to see the outsized emphasis some people’s minds now place on the word: “I guess calm engagement was the reason your opening gambit was ‘Ummmm…?'” actually made me laugh out loud (surely the “Ummmm” was the least insulting part of that sentence, why be so fixated on it?), and in general this sort of “Did you cite your ‘Ummm’ at me, sir*” business makes for increasing amounts of unintentional comedy.

    On the Graeber front there isn’t really much more to be said: the “Ummm” business aside, Kieran is plainly right to say: “I think there was plenty of room for a direct, sharp, cutting response in between the cloying “niceness” you despise (and who could disagree?) and the embarrassing rant he dished up.” Although one should make allowances for the amount of annoying bullshit an anarchist scholar is guaranteed to encounter in contemporary society, and that the perception of passive-aggressiveness on Farrell’s part isn’t strictly limited to Graeber, that still doesn’t ameliorate the unfortunate nature of what happened.

    [* Cheesy, I know, but I figure it was either the R&J reference or Macbeth: “By the pricking of my Ummms, something incivil this way comes.” Harder to work in. The basic point is that certain people are just going to have to get used to the idea that the common expression “ummm” is not going anywhere. After all, if you prick us, do we not ummm? Have we not heard the ummms at midnight? Cry havoc, and let slip the ummms of war… okay, stopping now.]

  21. I’m getting to like David Graeber. The book’s fantastic, for one thing. And I like that he’s scrappy. Lots of good people are scrappy on the internet. I have fond memories of good internet scraps with good internet people. They may possibly have sour memories of pointless feuding with an asshole, but I like my perspective on it better.

  22. I see my old friend Craig “li’l c” McFarlane has summoned – cited, rather – me up from the foul pit of politeness. Gift baskets all around! (Except for you, Anthony. Not until you clean some of that up.)

    I was a bit loath to weigh in, as mine is not a daemonic presence that brings irenic calm to these realms, although I emailed Adam to express my opinion that this particular post was ill-advised. Maybe Adam now just wants to retract the whole thing, as he says. But on the off-chance that he actually wants to say that the idea behind the post was sound, although the execution was lacking, I would like to ask a question.

    Adam says that he thinks the problem is that the niceness police read fundamental disagreement as ‘meanness’ and then they get all aflutter about it. But he also says that the problem was fundamentally with Henry’s initial post. But the initial post didn’t accuse Graeber of being ‘mean’. Rather, it expressed a fundamental disagreement, and then Graeber thought Henry was being ‘mean’ for disagreeing with him fundamentally. So Graeber, if anyone, is playing nice cop. But Adam is blaming Henry. So what gives?

    I think what Adam actually wants to say is that, since we disagree fundamentally, we actually ought to be a lot more mean to each other. And we should not sugar-coat it with niceness. Is that right? (This doesn’t mean encouraging more meanness to each other, merely acknowledging such of it as is already there.)

    If this is not what he was getting at, I confess I’m just not seeing at all what point Adam was making

    If my proposed gloss is basically right, the reconstructed complaint against niceness runs like so, in Henry’s case. It was passive-aggressive (flippant?) of Henry initially to write a ‘nice’ post in which he said that, although Graeber’s book seemed interesting in a lot of ways, Graeber was fundamentally wrong about some things. If you think that someone is fundamentally wrong about something important you should not be all here-are-my-ducks-in-a-row academic-y about it. This is crypto-rudeness. More honest for Henry simply to have said words to the effect: ‘Fuck you! You are an idiot!’ Because, inevitably, the effect of people hearing that there was something fundamentally wrong with Chapter 12 will be that this plants a seed of doubt about Graeber’s work generally. So even though Henry doesn’t actually want to ‘delegitimize’ anything (except in the sense that he wanted to say certain main claims of Chapter 12 were, indeed illegitimate), the fate of Chapter 12 will inevitably be received by readers as a kind of allegory for Graeber’s work generally. That being the case – i.e. the post will be received as a broad fuck you, even though it didn’t say that, wasn’t meant to say that, and Henry went to some lengths to keep it from saying that – Henry should have tried harder to win the race to the bottom, as it were. He should have gotten out in front of what he didn’t mean to say and said it: fuck you. But this seems pointless.

    So presumably this was not the point. But then: what was the point even supposed to be?

  23. What happened was that I attached my standard “niceness police” critique to a situation (a) where it doesn’t fit very neatly and (b) which was none of my business in any case. Hence renouncing, rejecting, reviling.

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