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November 9, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»gender

The fixation on Erasmus isn't doing much for me either

Two weeks away from the keyboard while I was in France, and I got itchy fingers. It's still wearing off, so in the meantime I am feeling irresponsible, as the wise Green Day noted on their first album. And then, like a dachsund in the Iditarod, I ran smack into the snowbank of Chris Crawford's website and was irretrievably mired.

Because hey--really vague design documents are funny. But what's really hilarious is the overwrought musings he's tossed out on the response to his Escapist train wreck. And you know what? I thought my letter was pretty even-handed. After this, I feel like living up to his straw man and being cruel. Will this be productive? No. But since I left my old band, I've had too few letters to mock, and I feel like my chops might be aquiring a patina of disuse. What follows is Crawford's complete text (I won't be accused of misquoting)--but with value added through careful and ill-tempered snark! These economists must really be rubbing off on me. Before I start babbling about capacity-building and public sector governance, let's take a quick whirl through his fevered imagination:

I recently published an article in The Escapist Magazine on applying evolutionary psychology to the problem of designing games that women might enjoy. The article was pretty straightforward stuff -- nothing particularly odd or inflammatory. Nevertheless, the article triggered a freshet of criticism. There were plenty of admirers, of course, but there were also lots of people who took exception to my comments. "Took exception" is a bit of an understatement: they were considerably more forceful in their evaluation of the intellectual merits of my work. One commentator, for example, suggested that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus. I infer from this that the writer did not fully agree with everything in the article. Taken together, the commentators spanned the entire vocabulary of vitriol.

Let's all give Chris a hand, because that is a really fantastic first paragraph. No, seriously, take a bow. There's a little of everything here: tactless misstatement ("The article was pretty straightforward..."), pretension and arrogance ("There were plenty of admirers, of course..."), needlessly purple prose ("...a rusty spike rammed up my anus. I infer from this..."), and a total lack of contractions. He won't use any of the latter until the third paragraph, perhaps in an attempt to sound scholarly. His actual tone is reminiscent of a Heinlein novel--and not the good early books, but more the sexual fantasies Rob scribbled later on in life to distract from his terminal illness.

Is Chris lying at points here? Through his teeth, his hat, and possibly several feet of brick wall. We could give him the benefit of a doubt and assume that he really is simply this oblivious, but there's a repeated pattern of self-deception in his writing that makes me suspicious. Take his insistence that there was nothing particularly odd or inflammatory in the article. Even if we assumed that the article's thesis (girls don't play games because we don't let them enact 1950's stereotypes) was a) based on logic and reason, or b) not unbelievably insulting to women, Crawford's continued use of words like "twit" or "idiot" seem a little inflammatory to me. But then, I'm not a woman, and so I probably just lack the genetically-honed social skills to understand his subtle point.

While I am not unaccustomed to criticism, I was taken aback by the fury of their reactions. Why would people get so angry over a purely intellectual question? I probed several of them, trying to understand what was going on inside their heads, but all I got for my trouble was even more furious abuse. I felt like an animal shelter worker trying to calm a rabid dog.

I want to single this paragraph out, even though it is puny and otherwise unconvincing as an argument, because I think it's telling in regard to Crawford himself. In a theme repeated throughout his writing here and elsewhere, Crawford doesn't regard his critics as actual human beings. He refers to them in clinical terms, saying that he "probed several of them, trying to understand." Detractors are rabid dogs, and Chris is the animal control worker calming them down. The portrayal of enemies as the Other is not only condescending, it's a little sociopathic. The idea of Chris as a superior human among philosophical zombies will recur frequently, and makes you wonder if he hasn't been spending too much time applying pop psychology to simulated people.

Of course, the most abusive writers are quite young, reacting more from youthful foolishness than mature cognition. Their reactions were determined by testosterone and adrenaline, not serotonin and acetylcholine. I suppose that it's silly to give any consideration to the untamed verbiage they like to sling around; the intensity of the expression is only a symptom of their inarticulateness. They rely on flamboyant vitriol for the same reason that poor cooks overspice their dishes. As they say, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog; it's also true that nobody knows that you're just a kid, and so these kids sling around nasty verbiage that they wouldn't dare use in the presence of adults. It must give them a real Oedipal buzz to verbally assault their seniors, and so we should not take their antics too seriously. Boys will be boys.

Chris--can I call you Chris? Chrissie? Craw-daddy? C-Dog?--I am duly impressed by your psychic powers. Through the magic of the Internet, and possibly a decoder ring that you found in the dumpster behind the 7-11, you have determined the age of anonymous writers! You might want to recalibrate your ouija board, though, because while some of us may be driven by testosterone and adrenaline many of your critics were female. Particularly the commenter at Old Grandma Hardcore who asked you to (what was it again?) "have a rusty spike rammed up [your] anus." She's not a dude, dude. And all those other commenters, with names like "Becky" and "natalie" or "nikki"--maybe they're all just the exceptions that you claim prove your rule, but it's starting to look a little shaky...

(In case you follow that link to the commenter, note Chris's utterly craven response when he learns that Tim, the site's author, is transgendered. "Anonymous, thanks for pointing out Tim's background, as it certainly explains the intense hostility." he writes. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Crawford also has some inoffensive opinions about the LGBT community--from an evolutionary standpoint, of course. Combined with a completely non-defensive article on how his hero Erasmus WASN'T TEH GAAY!, I'm starting to doubt that Chris should be making Oedipus jokes about anyone.)

Moreover, Crawford's disdain for the use of the vernacular and vitriolic--hang on, there's someone at the door. Oh, what a surprise: it's Mark Twain, Hunter Thompson, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, and the rest of the American literary tradition. They've come to take your language back, since they say you're not using the best parts of it. Come to think of it, even Shakespeare was a pretty filthy guy in his time--but then, Chris doesn't seem to understand that tricky "context" very well.

However, on the assumption that some of my assailants had to be adults, I came up with a number of hypotheses to explain how my piece infuriated them:

Don't make me wait!

1. Good, clear, non-mushmouthy writing is guaranteed to infuriate some people. The only way to please everybody is to keep your writing grey and muddy. "You can please all of the people some of the time", etc. Therefore I should accept the anger as an indication that I'm writing clearly. This seems especially justified in this case because the anger seemed evenly balanced between those who were outraged that I would make such extreme claims, and those who declared that I really didn't say anything new (But why then were they mad? Go figure).

Can't they both be true? Personally, I'm upset that he's just regurgitating the same outrageous claims about women as every other self-important amateur geneticist online.

You know, I don't think I wrote in a muddy or mushy fashion for my turn in the Escapist. I'm not thrilled with the way the article turned out, but it's not because I was too vague. In fact, I was writing about a similar hot-button issue (race), and I got only one letter in direct response--they were more upset about the fact that I even used the concept of race than anything I wrote about that concept. But perhaps that's because I, like many journalists, actually researched my topic and presented that evidence to the audience--mushiness, in other words. In the future, I'll be more clear about my views. I could just make up some evidence ("people don't like snakes, ergo racism," perhaps) and use that for support instead.

2. My writing is too subtle for some people to understand.

You have got to be kidding me.

For example, take this sentence from the article:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked by dogmatic fools who think evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism.

Some commentators claimed that I was labelling anybody who disagrees with me a dogmatic fool. They seemed to view the qualification presented in the relative clause as probabilistic rather than boolean. They infer that that the insult "dogmatic fools" applies with lesser force to people who don't quite satisfy the terms of the qualifying clause. This inference is, of course, an incorrect reading of the sentence.

Here we come up against one of the central problems of language usage: prescription versus description. Good language is whatever people take it to mean. I may be technically correct to insist that "arrogant" does not mean the same thing as "proud", but the fact is that most people consider the two words to be synonymous. So what am I to do? Write slovenly English that any Neanderthal can understand?

But the problem goes beyond style and to the very core of our thinking process. Consider the use of subjunctive mood. Some people have real problems understanding subjunctive statements, watering down the hard boolean logic into some sort of probabilistic statement. To alter the previous example, consider the statement, "If you think that evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism, then you're a dogmatic fool." Some people are insulted by this statement, even if the subjunctive clause excludes them. They don't appreciate the "what if" aspect of subjunctivity, the fact that it addresses not what is, but what could be. We cannot abandon the use of subjunctive thinking merely because some people are too stupid to appreciate it.

It just so happens that I speak Spanish tolerably well, a language that actually uses its subjunctive tense, while its usage in English has atrophied considerably. So I'm not exactly a stranger to the idea. In contrast, Chris seems to have something else completely in mind. See, when you make a statement like "If X, then Y" in English, there's not an implied "maybe" before the Y unless you put it there. And I find it very strange that someone with even a passing familiarity with programming wouldn't understand the contradictions of boolean and probability. A boolean value is one that is True or False. So when readers interpret an If-then statement as true or false instead of some goofy "what if" that he's made up on the spot, how is that "watering down the hard boolean logic?"

I can't even read that without getting a headache. There are so many misconceptions of rhetorical theory, linguistics, logic, and human nature that the words should self-immolate. The problem is not that your critics have watered down your conditional statement, Chris, it's that they take offense at the condition itself. Referring to actual practice of clear, expressive writing (i.e., noting when a word might give the wrong impression to a reader who lacks your exact experiential background) as writing "slovenly English that any Neanderthal can understand" only underscores my point. Self-respecting Neanderthals would hide their thick-browed and hairy heads in shame if they had penned this essay.

By the way, that last sentence was a real subjunctive statement, expressing a desire or mood through "would-if" instead of the more concrete "if-then." Just in case you needed an example.

3. What I consider to be elegance in writing strikes some people as pretension. The culture seems to have developed a distaste for the use of advanced language. Anybody who writes with a vocabulary of more than 10,000 words must be pretentious.

I can understand how this feeling arises. We all use language as a social sorting mechanism. The vocabulary you use allows others to categorize you into some defined social group. Youth have their special cant that they rely on heavily to differentiate themselves. Academics festoon their writing with the jargon of their field so as to gain acceptance (and expose interlopers). Thus, when somebody uses elegant or educated language, they unavoidably set themselves apart as superior to the monsyllabic morons around them. And the morons reciprocate with anger at being exposed as such. Note that there need be no pretension on the part of the elegant writer -- it is the act of writing well that sets off the morons, regardless of the intentions of the writer. The elegant writer may indeed be pretentious -- I have certainly known people to retreat into in inky cloud of polysyllabic gobbledygook when challenged. I can't even vouch that I have never done so myself. But elegant writing does not prove pretension.

Indeed, the argument can be reversed. For example, one of my critics complained that I had used the word "belabor", suggesting this as an example of pretension. I suppose the critic's reasoning was that I used this word knowing that most normal people don't use it, hence I must have used it to show normal people that I'm superior. The counterargument is that, had I toned down the writing, confining myself to single-clause sentences with a tenth-grade vocabulary, then I would surely have been talking down to my audience (something I am often accused of anyway. *sigh* ) The truth of the matter is that I use an advanced vocabulary in order to sharpen my writing. I don't use "belabor" just because it's a high-falutin' word -- I use it because it expresses an idea that no other word in the English language expresses quite as well. On the question of how I think my vocabulary will be received, I figure that most people can recognize a great many more words than they use, and that most really will be able to figure out what "belabor" means, using the context and their own recollections. And if a reader doesn't recognize the word, then this would be an excellent stimulus to look it up. Everybody wins.

There's an ex-girlfriend of mine, sharp girl but spent too much time hanging out with autodidacts. When she writes, it's with an outpouring of vocabulary that's embarrassing, and it reminds me of Crawford. In fact, this point really bugs me, because I like words. I like using them, and I like knowing them. Yet there's a limit to the erudition that you should employ in clear writing--not necessarily because you're talking down to the audience, but also because flashy vocabulary is distracting. The best writers employ it sparingly, mixing in the occassional flowery term for effect. Reading a passage filled with rare--but precise!--terms is exhausting, and it treats the audience with disrespect. It implies that the author is desparately trying to impress readers.

I'm pretty sure that the critic using "belabor" as an example of pretension was probably noting Crawford's use of the word in yet another construction that denies anyone equal status with his planet-devouring intellect. I expect to hear any day that Crawford has Sublimed into a being of pure energy, since no-one is capable of matching wits with him. Yet "belabor" is hardly a high-falutin' word, nor is it even the low-hanging apple of Crawford's purple prose. After all, is "stimulus" really the word that best expresses his point at the end of the third paragraph? Wouldn't "incentive" or even the pedestrian "reason" get the job done without the needless connotations of high-school biology classes?

And now comes the fun part:

A special irony attends this mess I've gotten myself into: it's an exact replication of the trouble that Erasmus
often got himself into with The Praise of Folly. In it, Erasmus poked fun at the follies of various groups. Of course, the groups he described were always qualified in such a way as to circumscribe their population to those were clearly were fools; that's part of what made it funny. But the precision of his rapier wit was lost on blunted minds, who reacted with a torrent of anger and abuse. Erasmus protested that he never singled out any person for criticism and always left room for any individual to exclude himself from the spotlight of Erasmus' derision, but it wasn't enough for the clods of his age. I ruefully acknowledge that I have failed to learn this important lesson from my personal hero.

Another deficiency I share with Erasmus is my thin skin. In both of us, it's really a consequence of a naive idealism that assumes that all people share a basic decency and reasonableness. I still find it difficult to dismiss these vicious ravings with the observation that the writers are beneath consideration. So when one of them observes that I should have a rusty spike rammed up my anus, my sense of fairness requires me to give the proposition due consideration -- perhaps I really am such an evil person that I deserve that punishment. I end up rejecting the proposition, but it still takes an emotional toll.

A moment of silence for the deep introspection Chris has just shared with us. Oh! The emotional toll it has taken! Why, he may never jot down another poorly-considered article again!

We have truly lost a visionary. Yes, just like his hero Erasmus (who finally gets name-checked, as if Crawford hasn't tried to label everything else within line of sight with him), Chris is too much a genius for his age. One must hope that, like Erasmus, Crawford will be obsessively seized upon by a future martyr-complexed sage for constant reflection. Only then can we realize that his attempts to dehumanize and denigrate his opponents were merely the sign of a naive idealism and not a combination of deep insecurity and rage.

So what is the conclusion of this meditation? After duly considering the outrage of this group of people, how am I to amend my ways? I have decided that I must be more careful to refrain from either unnecessary or insinuative slanders against people. For example, the example sentence that I offered earlier should have been written like so:

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked as some kind of genetic determinism.

This is a much better formulation, and had I written it as such, there would likely have been less inflammation of the blogosphere.

On the other hand, I shall not yield an inch on the matter of precise and elegant writing. I shall continue employing subjunctive mood, selecting the most precise word, and even resorting to the occasional foreign expression. To the morons who don't like that, I have a reply that even they can understand: go to hell.

You show us, Chris. Even the occasional foreign expression? Duibuqi, wo ting bu dong zhe ge waiguoren!

...why does anyone take this lunatic seriously, again?

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