Philosophers in particular have long been happily secluded in the obscurity of their journals, books, and philosophy departments. Rarely have they had to engage with the popular culture and defend their ideas in public, and rarely do they even bother to do so. Even when philosophers publish books and papers, they are mostly just putting their views out there without being pressed into a dialog with their readers to respond to criticisms.
However, with the revolution that blogging is today, practically any person or opinion can be the target of intense scrutiny, analysis, and investigation, and on a medium that is open to a large number of people. Intellectuals, therefore, now have to be more careful of what they say and how they say it because not only can they suddenly be picked up by some obscure blogger out there, but their views can be traced, archived, summoned repeatedly, linked, and distributed.
With the ability to search for keywords and activate keyword alerts, practically every area of knowledge and content on the internet is at the disposal of anyone interested. So, for example, if you’re a philosopher like Colin McGinn, you have much to worry about what you publish on your blog and how/who you engage in a dialog with.
Recently, Colin McGinn presided over what may be the lengthiest comment thread on his blog, on a post about ethical egoism. He began the discussion by claiming to have swiftly ”dispatched” with the egoistic moral theory; when several of his commentors highlighted the logical flaws of his arguments, he proceed to label them with ad hominem smears, insult their intelligence, dismiss their criticisms as irrelevant, delete their comments, and even send private e-mails to at least one commentor with immature insults.
Flibbert was that particular target of McGinn’s private cheapshots. In several and persistant e-mails to Flibbert, McGinn comes off looking like a teenage bully in a schoolyard. Now, remember that Colin McGinn is apparently a well-known philosopher in his academic circles. But on the blogosphere, the man is a cheap weasel. Here is a sample of the e-mail exchanges Flibbert had with Professor Colin McGinn, which Flibbert posted on his blog:
McGinn: “What a pompous fool you are.”
Flibbert: “More name-calling? Really? Seriously, professor, I’m not sure which is in worse shape: your manners, your logic, or your integrity.”
McGinn: “There are a lot of fools in the world. The internet has given them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. You are a particularly egregious example of the type. I am simply stating the facts.”
Flibbert: “The same could be said of intellectual cowards and their university posts particularly in the case of philosophy departments.
Has it occurred to you that you’re engaging a complete stranger — one you’ve deemed to be obnoxious junk and a pompous fool — with petty insults? You seem to do so without any sense of irony about it. Compounding the irony is the fact that you are again hiding your shameful behavior from others. If your conclusion is so factual, why didn’t you just post an additional comment to your blog calling me a pompous fool?
I’ve told you why I think you’re a shameful and dishonest, not to mention condescending and rude, but as usual you haven’t provided any citations or examples to support your conclusions. No, you’ve simply ejaculated your opinion into this medium and expected others to slaver over it. To use another’s phrase, it’s a bukkake of stupid with you.
You disgust me.”
Professor McGinn continued to delete comments and insult Flibbert in private e-mails. Flibbert, on his part, decided that McGinn’s behavior did not warrant any decent and restrained responses from him any longer (with which I agree); Flibbert responded to him likewise.
After more than 100 comments were written by various commentors, McGinn finally chooses to reveal that he had never even read anything about the kind of ethical egoism Ayn Rand had formulated and which his detractors were pointing out to him. He said that he had never intended to address the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand but was attacking the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.
This admission gives a clear indication of McGinn’s intellectual dishonesty because any honest interlocutor would have explicitly defined the target of his criticism by stating early on who’s theories were under scrutiny. Notably, in contrast, he did indeed define his exact usage of “altruism”–which he was defending–very early on in the comments.
Early commentors politely suggested that he tackle the Objectivist theory of ethical egoism because it was the strongest case ever devised–because it was also true. Instead of coming in right at that moment and admitting that Objectivist egoism was not his proper target because he was not yet properly familiar with it, McGinn chose to insult his commentors as “cultists”, and presided over a comment thread that introduced a whole host of wildly bizarre hypotheticals and contorted theories to distort ethical egoism and paint Objectivists as intellectually inept cultists.
I think McGinn has learned a very stinging lesson from the blogosphere: if you choose to put your intellectual opinions on the internet–even on a blog, you better consider what you say and how you conduct yourself–intellectual dishonesty will particularly be called out and receive scathing attacks. There are potentially a large number of eyes reading every word on the blogs. This cautionary principle applies particularly to professional intellectuals and philosophers because they bear the greater responsibility of being careful with what they say: indeed, they are in the profession of shaping minds!
And with the Internet the way it is today, they can no more hide behind the dusty covers of philosophical tomes, closed academic circles of acolytes, and misty deparmental offices. On the blogosphere, professional authority has little traction.