Rabid Readers

November 6th, 2005

I recently published an article in The Escapist Magazine on applying evolutionary psychology to the problem of designing games that women might enjoy. The article was pretty straightforward stuff -- nothing particularly odd or inflammatory. Nevertheless, the article triggered a freshet of criticism. There were plenty of admirers, of course, but there were also lots of people who took exception to my comments. "Took exception" is a bit of an understatement: they were considerably more forceful in their evaluation of the intellectual merits of my work. One commentator, for example, suggested that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus. I infer from this that the writer did not fully agree with everything in the article. Taken together, the commentators spanned the entire vocabulary of vitriol.

While I am not unaccustomed to criticism, I was taken aback by the fury of their reactions. Why would people get so angry over a purely intellectual question? I probed several of them, trying to understand what was going on inside their heads, but all I got for my trouble was even more furious abuse. I felt like an animal shelter worker trying to calm a rabid dog.

Of course, the most abusive writers are quite young, reacting more from youthful foolishness than mature cognition. Their reactions were determined by testosterone and adrenaline, not serotonin and acetylcholine. I suppose that it’s silly to give any consideration to the untamed verbiage they like to sling around; the intensity of the expression is only a symptom of their inarticulateness. They rely on flamboyant vitriol for the same reason that poor cooks overspice their dishes. As they say, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog; it’s also true that nobody knows that you’re just a kid, and so these kids sling around nasty verbiage that they wouldn’t dare use in the presence of adults. It must give them a real Oedipal buzz to verbally assault their seniors, and so we should not take their antics too seriously. Boys will be boys.

However, on the assumption that
some of my assailants had to be adults, I came up with a number of hypotheses to explain how my piece infuriated them:

1. Good, clear, non-mushmouthy writing is guaranteed to infuriate some people. The only way to please everybody is to keep your writing grey and muddy. "You can please all of the people some of the time", etc. Therefore I should accept the anger as an indication that I’m writing clearly. This seems especially justified in this case because the anger seemed evenly balanced between those who were outraged that I would make such extreme claims, and those who declared that I really didn’t say anything new (But why then were they mad? Go figure).

2. My writing is too subtle for some people to understand. For example, take this sentence from the article:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked by dogmatic fools who think evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism.

Some commentators claimed that I was labeling anybody who disagrees with me a dogmatic fool. They seemed to view the qualification presented in the relative clause as probabilistic rather than boolean. They infer that that the insult "dogmatic fools" applies with lesser force to people who don’t quite satisfy the terms of the qualifying clause. This inference is, of course, an incorrect reading of the sentence.

Here we come up against one of the central problems of language usage: prescription versus description. Good language is whatever people take it to mean. I may be technically correct to insist that "arrogant" does not mean the same thing as "proud", but the fact is that most people consider the two words to be synonymous. So what am I to do? Write slovenly English that any Neanderthal can understand?

But the problem goes beyond style and to the very core of our thinking process. Consider the use of subjunctive mood. Some people have real problems understanding subjunctive statements, watering down the hard boolean logic into some sort of probabilistic statement. To alter the previous example, consider the statement, "If you think that evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism, then you’re a dogmatic fool." Some people are insulted by this statement, even if the subjunctive clause excludes them. They don’t appreciate the "what if" aspect of subjunctivity, the fact that it addresses not what is, but what could be. We cannot abandon the use of subjunctive thinking merely because some people are too stupid to appreciate it.

3. What I consider to be elegance in writing strikes some people as pretension. The culture seems to have developed a distaste for the use of advanced language. Anybody who writes with a vocabulary of more than 10,000 words must be pretentious.

I can understand how this feeling arises. We all use language as a social sorting mechanism. The vocabulary you use allows others to categorize you into some defined social group. Youth have their special cant that they rely on heavily to differentiate themselves. Academics festoon their writing with the jargon of their field so as to gain acceptance (and expose interlopers). Thus, when somebody uses elegant or educated language, they unavoidably set themselves apart as superior to the monsyllabic morons around them. And the morons reciprocate with anger at being exposed as such. Note that there need be no pretension on the part of the elegant writer -- it is the act of writing well that sets off the morons, regardless of the intentions of the writer. The elegant writer may indeed be pretentious -- I have certainly known people to retreat into in inky cloud of polysyllabic gobbledygook when challenged. I can’t even vouch that I have never done so myself. But elegant writing does not prove pretension.

Indeed, the argument can be reversed. For example, one of my critics complained that I had used the word "belabor", suggesting this as an example of pretension. I suppose the critic’s reasoning was that I used this word knowing that most normal people don’t use it, hence I must have used it to show normal people that I’m superior. The counterargument is that, had I toned down the writing, confining myself to single-clause sentences with a tenth-grade vocabulary, then I would surely have been talking down to my audience (something I am often accused of anyway. *sigh* ) The truth of the matter is that I use an advanced vocabulary in order to sharpen my writing. I don’t use "belabor" just because it’s a high-falutin’ word -- I use it because it expresses an idea that no other word in the English language expresses quite as well. On the question of how I think my vocabulary will be received, I figure that most people can recognize a great many more words than they use, and that most really will be able to figure out what "belabor" means, using the context and their own recollections. And if a reader doesn’t recognize the word, then this would be an excellent stimulus to look it up. Everybody wins.

A special irony attends this mess I’ve gotten myself into: it’s an exact replication of the trouble that Erasmus often got himself into with
The Praise of Folly. In it, Erasmus poked fun at the follies of various groups. Of course, the groups he described were always qualified in such a way as to circumscribe their population to those were clearly were fools; that’s part of what made it funny. But the precision of his rapier wit was lost on blunted minds, who reacted with a torrent of anger and abuse. Erasmus protested that he never singled out any person for criticism and always left room for any individual to exclude himself from the spotlight of Erasmus’ derision, but it wasn’t enough for the clods of his age. I ruefully acknowledge that I have failed to learn this important lesson from my personal hero.

Another deficiency I share with Erasmus is my thin skin. In both of us, it’s really a consequence of a naive idealism that assumes that all people share a basic decency and reasonableness. I still find it difficult to dismiss these vicious ravings with the observation that the writers are beneath consideration. So when one of them observes that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus, my sense of fairness requires me to give the proposition due consideration -- perhaps I really am such an evil person that I deserve that punishment. I end up rejecting the proposition, but it still takes an emotional toll.

So what is the conclusion of this meditation? After duly considering the outrage of this group of people, how am I to amend my ways? I have decided that I must be more careful to refrain from either unnecessary or insinuative slanders against people. For example, the example sentence that I offered earlier should have been written like so:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked as some kind of genetic determinism.

This is a much better formulation, and had I written it as such, there would likely have been less inflammation of the blogosphere.

On the other hand, I shall not yield an inch on the matter of precise and elegant writing. I shall continue employing subjunctive mood, selecting the most precise word, and even resorting to the occasional foreign expression. To the morons who don’t like that, I have a reply that even they can understand: go to hell.