Excessive Snarkiness

by Henry Farrell on December 14, 2004

A couple of days ago, I got into a bit of a “back-and-forth”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/002980.html with Stephen Bainbridge about his interpretation of a Jonathan Chait piece. While I still think that he should have been more generous in his interpretation of Chait, I was less generous still in my response, and believe on reflection that I owe Prof. Bainbridge an apology. God knows, a bit of snarkiness here and there enlivens discussion in the blogosphere, but it also tends to drive out proper argument in favour of the venting of spleen on both sides. I think we could have had a proper argument here. My bad.



Doug 12.14.04 at 9:22 pm

“Is this the right blog for an argument?”

“I’ve told you once.”


Otto 12.14.04 at 9:56 pm

Reasoned, civil arguments: good. But reasoned, heated, ungenerous arguments: fine too. Polemic has its place, and readers can tell reasoned but ungenerous arguments from ungenerous arguments (or just plain old shouting).


anonymous 12.14.04 at 11:11 pm

But are you really apologizing even now?


just poking fun – I hear people use “my bad” as a non-apology and an apology.


Henry 12.15.04 at 1:23 am

Yes, certainly polemic has its place but in this instance I’m quite sure it was inappropriate. I disagree with Stephen Bainbridge about a whole lot of things, but he seems to me to be someone who genuinely argues in good faith. By jumping in with the kind of snark that I used, I implied otherwise. Hence the need for an apology.

Hadn’t realized that ‘my bad’ can be taken as a non-apology – certainly not meant so here.


Russell L. Carter 12.15.04 at 5:01 am

And we’ll see the reciprical climb down when? Henry, buck up and straighten your back. This is unseemly.


Z.D. Burke 12.15.04 at 8:50 am

Carter is right. Your arguments were perfectly reasonable; his were fatuous. By backing down, you betray everyone who agreed with you and on top of that you betray the process of reasoned debate.

Put another way: show some fucking spine, man. You were right, not him; he should apologise to you and not the other way round.


Henry 12.15.04 at 2:55 pm

I wouldn’t describe it as a reciprocal climbdown (while we have exchanged emails since the back-and-forth, they were on the substance of our dispute; this wasn’t in any sense orchestrated), but see “here”:http://www.professorbainbridge.com/2004/12/what_he_said.html . I can’t see how in any way this is ‘betraying’ anyone. I’m certainly not backing down from disagreeing with him, nor, I would imagine, is he backing down from disagreeing with me. I’m simply saying that I should have expressed my disagreement in a less offensive fashion. If anyone feels betrayed by that, they’re being a bit silly.


bob mcmanus 12.15.04 at 3:01 pm

Ad hominem elements in an post, even when irrelevant to the thrust of the argument, can lead one to the Temptations of Useful Fallacy.
For instance, one would soon be citing Nobel Prizes in themselves as somehow conferring credence upon particular papers and authors. Is it so ridiculous that a imputation of bad faith in one response might possibly be followed by reliance on reputation in the next? One could be optimistic, but experience and our own remembered errors teach us that eternal vigilance is the cost of intellectual integrity.

An avoidance of the ad hominem might disarm the unwary opponent, tho of course if ad hominem elements were used against you, as in accusations of bias or prejudice, you would be wise to avoid mentioning them, because then you would be descending to your opponents level, and losing your advantage. But it might be dialectically unfair to attempt to buttress your arguments with unspoken appeals to your own good character.

The key insight into dialectic comes from Nietzsche’s honest appraisal of the Greek natural assessment of Socrates, who could never have Truth or Goodness because he was ugly.


Jimmy Doyle 12.15.04 at 3:02 pm

If Henry owes The Professor an apology, surely the principle of proportionality dictates that Brian “piss, vinegar…and did I mention piss?” Leiter don sackcloth and ashes immediately.


Doctor Slack 12.15.04 at 6:50 pm

Well, it’s quite big of you to apologize to him (and nice to see that he did buck expectations by climbing down a bit himself), but while I don’t think you “betrayed” anything per se, I have to say I didn’t see anything particularly wrong with your post. You caught Bainbridge in an egregiously stupid error, and it’s little wonder he was chagrined and defensive, but FWIW I don’t think you were guilty of merely “venting spleen.: You guys did have a real argument, it’s just that Bainbridge lost it (no pun intended).


Patterico 12.16.04 at 2:32 am

I never heard of Henry Farrell before I read the thread where he attacked Bainbridge. And I never came to this site. I still think Farrell was wrong about Bainbridge — Bainbridge’s interpretation of Chait was spot-on, as I tried arguing in the other thread (until it got derailed on a related topic).

But this post gives me more respect for Farrell. I still think he was wrong, but now I think he’s at least polite and wrong.


AcademicElephant 12.16.04 at 4:19 pm

I followed this exchange closely, and as an academic conservative predictably agreed with Professor Bainbridge. However, Henry Farrell’s generous and gracious response on 12/14 was precisely the move towards civil discourse that I am advocating. Everyone who cares about academia has a vested interest in making it a place where reasonable individuals of any political persuasion can engage in spirited but respectful debate–to the benefit of all. Then we truly can speak of hallowed halls!


Aaron 12.19.04 at 11:21 pm

I applaud Henry’s manners, and, while surprised at it, Bainbridge’s reciprocation.

I’m a little astonished however that there are a few (clearly smart) commentors who felt Farrell’s criticism of Bainbridge at the post linked above was not spot on.

Now, the paucity of data make it possible for people on both sides of the debate to comfortably hold on to some notions – the conservatives can believe that there is something of a left wing conspiracy to keep conservatives out of academia, the liberals can believe that there is not so much as an instance of liberals blocking conservative candidates for jobs in academia.

What should not be a matter for debate however are logic and logical fallacies. That is why, I think, Farrell’s post really shouldn’t have provoked much controversy.

This is what Farrell was correcting:

“[Chaith says] Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism.In other words, conservatives are stupid.”
– Bainbridge.

Now, that is simply a logical fallacy.

Whether or not you are conservative or liberal, and whatever you might personally think of the ‘problem’ in academia, this ought to be apparent.


Patterico 12.21.04 at 6:58 am

Yes, but as I argued in the other thread, Chait said plenty of other things to support Bainbridge’s characterization. So, while the snippet you quoted may be considered a logical fallacy, I thought his characterization of Chait’s op-ed as a whole was fair.

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