I was reading Grant McCracken’s blog yesterday – his Mr. Smarty Pants post on scorn. The noun scorn is described as the feeling or belief that someone or something is worthless or despicable; the verb, is to feel or express contempt or derision for someone or something.
McCracken’s post begins with his description of a conversation he had recently @ C3 at MIT. He was discussing "what makes websites attractive, compelling, and engaging. Inevitably we were talking about bad practice…" He goes on to say,
I was struck by what happened to my half of the conversation. I began to roll out the scorn. When talking about bad website design, I would relish how really bad it was. I would hold the brand up for "how stupid can someone be" excoriation.
Now, the linguists can tell us what is happening here. This kind of talk has a meta-pragmatic function. It builds solidarity between the speakers. (The mechanics: scorn presumes that we both understand a topic is risible. This presumption claims a commonality. This commonality builds a solidarity. Or something likes this, more or less, give or take.)
Solidarity is a good thing especially with one’s colleagues, but in this case it didn’t sit right. In fact, I found myself recoiling from scorn even as I manufactured it.
The problem is that this scorn must, I think, interfere with the dispassion with which we are, again I think, obliged to talk about contemporary commerce and culture. It really gets in the way. At the very least, we have confused the issue. More specifically, we are using our talk to build solidarity when we ought to be using it to think about the world.
McCracken’s words hit me at a couple of levels. The first was the experience of someone I value highly as a friend and thinker, Michael Spencer.
This week, the iMonk once again found himself in the cross hairs of the Truly Reformed/Hyper-Calvinist wing of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism. (You can scroll down through the BHT posts if you want details.) The scorn from particularly "righteous" members of the "we have the Total Truth" Brigade was applied thickly.
In McCracken’s words, it had a "meta-pragmatic function" allowing members of the TTB to express their solidarity with each other. Spencer was "Captain Drama," "the gusher of sniveling emotional spasms," "dishonest," "self-absorbed" – the list of scorn-filled descriptives continues ad nauseum. And this from people who consider themselves highly moral, righteous, beyond-reproof Christians. If anyone deigned to defend Spencer, they were quickly shot down with the same level of scorn. It was and is disgusting. How one gets from this to that is beyond my comprehension.
But McCracken’s words also forced me to look at my own conversations, writings and thoughts. Would that I never availed myself of the scorn applicator. But I have. Too often. As recently as this week. In fact, only a few posts ago. And I apologize for it.
I have written a fair amount on the concept of the Generous Web (including a chapter with that title in this book). My original use of the term came out of reading Kathy Sierra and Doc Searls – two writers who were willing to freely share their thoughts, concepts and ideas with the web masses. (Doc still is. Kathy’s stuff is still up and worth reading but an internet stalker has taken her out of the game.)
The generous web is a place where generative conversations take place. Yes, there can be heat and light in the generous web – but ad hominem attacks and self-righteous scorn are not part of it. In my chapter in this book, I call this the UnGenerous Web and liken it to Newton’s Third Law in operation.
I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to the sisters and brothers at Philippi,
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
I confess that I don’t expect that anytime soon from the TTB, but I do need to hold myself accountable to it. You are welcome to hold me accountable, as well.