I have, for the better part of the last year at least, tried to stay out of arguments on the internet generally. When I did join in on something, it was usually movie-related and honestly pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of world ideas. Or even the middling scheme of local ideas. Poof, bang, flash, it’s over and done with. There were three tightly-connected reasons for this.
First: my mantra was “don’t feed the trolls,” which I still hold to be true. I think it’s really an update on the old exhortation from Proverbs to refrain from answering fools according to their folly, and remembering what James said about the power of the tongue. The best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging. You don’t put out flame wars by throwing gasoline.
It was also, if I’m honest, the result of adherence to the belief that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I am not wise. I know this. I would much rather that other people didn’t have voluminous confirmation of my folly as well. Here is a scene I have participated in many times, and one I try to avoid: knowledgeable people are talking; I assent to something one of them says, and elaborate; my “elaboration” elicits quizzical eyebrows, gentle sympathetic nods, and the subject is quietly turned in another direction. Basically, I would rather be quiet than publicly wrong.
The third reason, the one I think is probably the most noble (and thus the one I put last), is that I didn’t really know how to say what I wanted to communicate. Alan Jacobs, bless him, described exactly this phenomenon in his recent blog post.
If you follow my advice [“get out of your comfort zone, your echo chamber”] in the short run you’ll find it harder to express your ideas because you’ll be less sure what they are. It’ll be tempting to fall back on prefabricated assumptions, intellectual clichés that do the same work as linguistic clichés.
I still don’t trust myself to say well what needs saying, but I also think I should probably start trying to say it anyway. The short run is over, and it’s time to start at least drafting formulations.
Please bear with me