There’s an old Yiddish expression that translates roughly:
“Never argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference.”
That’s good advice, and the fact that I ignore it too often is, I confess, an error and a fault.
But there’s also an old English expression of equal authority:
“In for a penny, in for a pound.”
So having foolishly engaged via Twitter with Prof. Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and having attracted counter-fire not only from the good Professor herself but from her even less adept colleague Prof. Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School, it seems wise, just this once, to respond at some length. Don’t read on unless you have a prurient interest in folly, or in trolling, the bastard child of folly born of its occasional dalliance with intellectual dishonesty.
Still with me? Well, if you really don’t have anything better to do with your time …
Prof. Althouse put up a typically trollish post making sport of the fact that liberals (1) are concerned about CTE, the brain damage that results from the persistent head-pounding incident to football and boxing (and, less frequently and drastically, but still to a worrisome extent, from other sports including soccer) and (2) defend Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players from Donald Trump’s demand that they be fired for their failure to perform a patriotic ritual as President Bone Spurs thinks it ought to be performed.
Prof. Althouse’s point, insofar as she can be said to have one, seems to be that liberals’ hatred of Trump (a real enough phenomenon, to be sure) has led them to betray their principles and to support, rather than opposing, football. That of course is not the case. It’s possible to disapprove of football and yet support Kaepernick’s right to “take a knee.” That is in fact the position of every liberal I know. But that’s not Prof. Althouse’s reading. In her view, any criticism of Trump in this context supports support for football, and therefore for brain injury. “Let the brain damage continue. We’ve got a culture war to fight.”
It’s impossible to tell from her post whether Prof. Althouse believes either in the desirability of preventing CTE or the undesirability of suppressing free expression through government-organized economic pressure. I get the vague sense that she prefers football fans, who, as she accurately says, are mostly Trump voters, to liberals, but for that matter she prefers flesh-eating bacteria to liberals. The only point she makes absolutely clear in her rather long post is that she despises liberals, which of course we knew already.
That led me – foolishly, I admit again – to twit Prof. Althouse in a Tweet:
1. CTE: bad. 2. Threat to free expression: also bad. Althouse doesn't care about brains or freedom; anything that annoys liberals: good.
Prof. Althouse was offended by this: appropriately, because I was criticizing not merely her conclusion but her mode of argumentation. That is, I was accusing her of trolling, which I take to be her characteristic technique and vice. Instead, however, of defending herself against the (in my view well-supported) criticism, Prof. Althouse chose to play the “sexism” card in a reply Tweet:
This is how men discipline and repress women. It often works, unfortunately.
That was linked to a similarly whiny post, which has to be read to be believed. Here’s what I take to be the key paragraph:
Professor Mark Kleiman has no reason whatsoever to think that I don't care that young men are suffering brain damage playing football. Yet he throws out that charge about me to push me back and to warn other people (women, especially, I suspect) that we should be afraid that if we don't merge our identity with whatever the liberal line happens to be, we will be regarded as lacking in empathy and deserving of social shunning.
It’s worth pausing a moment (now that you’ve wasted all this time already) to admire the sheer effrontery and dishonesty of the technique here, operating on multiple levels at once.
- Assume that liberals, and especially liberal men, are concerned about appearing to disrespect women. So if you’re a woman, and a liberal man attacks your ideas, don’t bother to defend them: just call him a sexist, and watch him crawl back into his hole.
- Count on the fact that any conservative clever enough to notice your dishonesty will either interpret it as satire or approve of it as payback: turning on liberals the dirty trick conservatives believe liberals play on them by making false accusations of sexism/racism/whateverism to repress honest discourse.
- Assert that the accusation of not caring about CTE is baseless, even though it is based on the fact that you wrote a long essay about CTE, Trump, and football where you never actually take a position about whether concern over CTE ought to motivate disapproval of football, but where the analysis seems to side with the Trump-loving football fans against the liberal killjoys who want to ruin their sport. Here’s the key quotation:
He [Trump] showed them how to save football, and they wouldn't do it, because they don't respect their own fans. They listened to the elite media that has no respect for the people who really watch football (and who vote for Trump).
Fool that I am, I responded by pointing out that Althouse’s concern about sexism appears to be at least somewhat limited in its scope, if not (as I think) merely opportunistic and hypocritical:
When Trump was actually "disciplining and repressing" HRC in gendered ways (stalking her, "What a nasty woman!") Althouse was silent.
At which point Prof. Althouse, neglecting the First Rule of Holes, turned the accusation of stalking back on me:
How can you know I've never said one thing about a particular topic unless you yourself have been stalking me?
To which I made the obvious answer: “using a search engine.” Of course search engines aren’t infallible, but equally of course if I’d been wrong Prof. Althouse could simply have cited a counter-example.
In any case, she’s managed to change the topic from her intellectual dishonesty to my conduct toward women. And by using “stalking” – which, as a law professor, she knows to be the name of a potentially violent crime – she raises the rhetorical stakes. Even if it were true, as it is not, that I read all or even a significant fraction of Prof. Althouse’s posts, that behavior would represent a huge waste of my time but wouldn’t constitute even the Internet version of “stalking,” let alone the truly creepy (and criminal) physical version.
But of course, as a smart troll does, she makes that false and disgusting accusation behind a shield of deniability: if someone asked her whether falsely accusing someone of a crime against the person was consistent with her responsibilities as a member of the bar and an officer of the court, Prof. Althouse could just laugh and accuse her reader of not knowing the difference between accusation and metaphor. Still, people will vaguely remember that Kleiman was accused of being stalker; why court controversy by inviting someone accused of a violent crime against women – which is what stalking is – to give a talk?
And just in case anyone’s forgotten her earlier false accusation, she labels me a sexist again:
@MarkARKleiman assumes a woman must attend to women's issues to maintain her own right to defend herself when attacked. That's sexist!
Of course that’s the opposite of the truth. My point was precisely that Prof. Althouse had refused to “defend herself when attacked” by justifying the behavior she was criticized for, and instead simply accused her attacker of being a sexist.
And then, moving on from trolling to pure gaslighting, the good Professor accuses me of making up quotations:
By the way, what's with the quotes on "disciplining and repressing"? That seems original to Kleiman, so I guess it's air quotes, mocking me for saying that he is using a technique that manipulates women (and other people) by scaring us into worrying that we lack empathy.
Has Prof. Althouse actually forgotten that her first Tweet had the phrase “how men discipline and repress women,” and that my response simply picked that up, with a change of grammatical form dictated by context? Seems unlikely. But pretending to think that I was using “air quotes” rather than simply quoting gives Prof. Althouse another chance to repeat her original false charge that my original Tweet had something to do with accusing her of an lack of empathy. This, she says, is wicked of me. By accusing her of lacking a characteristic conventionally attributed to women, I am supposed to be calling her unfeminine, which – she says – is a typical sexist trick by which men discipline and repress women. Note that if I had accused her instead of having a characteristic conventionally attributed to women, that would be sex stereotyping, another typical sexist trick by which …
And of course she can now pretend that by unmasking her pretense of offended feminism, I have denied the existence of actual sexism, proving that liberals are the real sexists, just as they’re the real racists. And the fact that I have had to respond at length to prove her dishonesty is actually evidence that I’m obsessed with her; isn’t “obsession” the accusation that naturally follows “stalking”?
That’s the whole point of trolling: You can’t come out ahead. The troll is the Internet version of the Tar Baby.
Presumably Prof. Althouse would prefer that her readers not notice the original accusation I actually made: that in her frenzy of liberal-bashing she had neglected the only two issues of actual public concern involved with Trump’s rant, namely brain injury and freedom of expression.
As far as I’m concerned, Prof. Althouse is perfectly free to be “empathetic” and “caring” or not, just as she chooses, and no more or less than her male colleagues. Neither her empathy nor her conformity to gender norms is any of my business. All I care about is Prof. Althouse’s persistent intellectual dishonesty and bad-faith argumentation in the service of a thoroughly bad political cause: in short, her trolling. And, as Prof. Reynolds has been demonstrating for almost two decades now, trolling knows no distinction of sex.
There! That’s my ration of folly for the day. No more ’til bedtime.