Mr. Smarty Pants goes all Martian (aka the problem with scorn)

Siamese_kitten_by_barb_henry_from_f I had a long conversation with Sam Ford, a friend and colleague at C3 at MIT yesterday.  We were talking about what makes websites attractive, compelling, and engaging. 

Inevitably we were talking about bad practice, companies that treat their websites as afterthoughts or, as Sam put it, as mere "guided tours for the brand."

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, I believe, 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.   

But set the solidarity issue aside.  If we go into the mechanics of the meta-pragmatics of scorn, we see a deeper problem.  Scorn depends upon a presupposition, and this presupposition has the effect of making us assume the very things we are supposed to be surfacing for study.  More exactly, when we are congratulating one another for "getting" why a website is risible, we are assuming, not demonstrating, why it’s risible.  Worse, we have submerged the very problem solving that is supposed to happen not sub rosa but "under glass."

Much of this discourse of the postmodernist camp is presuppositional in just this way.  In moving from the Harvard Business School to McGill, differences in discourse became extra clear.  At HBS it had been considered perfectly ok to ask for clarification.  Routinely, faculty meetings would stop while the speaker repeated himself.  And sometimes the listener would actually vocalize his or her understanding of the point at issue, to show/see if they had got it right.  There was no shame in these requests. Very smart people were expected  to interrupt other very smart people, when they did not understand.

But in the cultural studies world at McGill, questions of this kind seemed to happen.  No one ever asked for terms to be defined or arguments to be clarified.  There was a prevailing feeling that "we all get this" and that a request for clarification was therefore unnecessary, even gauche, perhaps even a declaration of intellectual deficiency. 

What made this difference odd is the fact that at HBS, people speak in a plain style (a remainder of the Protestant roots of the institution, perhaps).  In fact, several meetings would go by before I heard anyone use a metaphor!  That’s how plain speech was.  (This is an interesting conundrum for Deidre McCloskey who insists that economics is rhetoric before its economics.)  At McGill people spoke in the abstract language of a high altitude postmodernism, complete with rhetorical stunt flying that never seemed to inscribe anything legible in the heavens above.  Even if McGill students wanted to, it’s hard to know how they would ask for clarification.  I mean, where would you start?  (This reminds me of a wonderful moment in which Ernest Becker having listened to a long, convoluted comment, paused for a Vaudevillian beat, and said, "Huh?") 

But there I go getting all scornful again.  And that’s wrong.  I think it’s fair to say I am not harboring a 19th century scientist’s regard for objectivity.  On the qualitative side of things, we want to be subjective, we want to use every bit of our "selfhood" to solve problems.  And I believe I am not attacking scorn as a rhetoric device.  Christopher Hitchins’ new book, God is Not Great shows us what it can accomplish in the right hands.

It’s this presuppositional thing that gets me.  Scorn submerges what we are supposed to expose to view.  But this is the very moment in which many intellectual bets are off.  Capitalism is changing at light speed. Commerce is changing, it seems, every quarter.   And of course our culture is now something like a blur.  This is not the moment to be congratulating ourselves on the things we "get," the things we "share," the things that are "obvious" and "ludicrous."  This is perhaps a time we want to be a little less Mr. Smarty pants, and a little more Martian.


Thanks to Barb Henry on Flickr for the image of the Siamese kitten.  Why did I use it?  No idea. 

9 thoughts on “Mr. Smarty Pants goes all Martian (aka the problem with scorn)

  1. Sam Ford

    Grant, you make some good pionts here. Wonder why it is that we have an easier time defining “worst practice” than we do best practice? It seems that human nature seems to be to define a good idea by picking its opposites, and that these oppositional pieces help us piece together what we actually think is a good idea, which we are much more reticent to point out. Perhaps it’s easier to say what doesn’t work than it is to understand why…

    I have had this “scorn” discomfort as I try and perform in the blogosphere. I find myself having a tough time taking on the type of rhetoric often deemed necessary to be writing what is perceived as a true critical piece, since we often seem to equate insight with skepticism, and often even cynicism. But what you find is that such rhetoric often puts a division between some of the most interested people “outside” the industry and the industry itself, when there should be a healthy dialogue happening. For instance, a lot of really astute observations made on the Internet, either in discussion groups or on the blogosphere, never makes it back to the industry because of the scornful language these points are written in.

    But you are absolutely right that we need to put more time into thinking not just about what doesn’t work, but why it doesn’t work, what industrial or cultural forces have caused marketers or content providers to THINK that they will work, and why what often seems intuitive doesn’t work in business practice becuase of a variety of regulatory and infrastructural issues.

    Sometimes, the most informational instances worth looking at really are the “bad practice,” but not just to excoriate and define yourself against but also to try and analyze and understand so as to figure out both why they are bad and why we have to move past them, as you indicate…

    Great piece, though, Grant.

  2. german dziebel

    Every post of yours, Grant, makes me want to respond because it is very good. Let me send along one reflection. I remember taking a class on metapragmatics and evidentiality with Michael Silverstein and John Lucy at the University of Chicago in 1998-1999. The only substantial thing I got out of it was witnessing how a self-fulfulling prophecy works in practice. One just has to invent a word and then build a discourse around it. This discourse should satisfy one condition, namely it should be parasitic on something earlier, in this case “pragmatics.” (Itself, the result of Morris’s misreading of Peirce.) Into this discourse more and more people get coopted. Then the circle closes up, guards with automatic guns are put on each and every corner, and the new theory, approach or paradigm starts functioning as an attention-getting, scorn-provoking and low-delivery machine. If you don’t belong, the faults of this machine are made your faults. The same can be said of postmodernism that exploits modernism without overcoming it. Just get meta- and post- about something, hold your ground for a while, get support, establish solidarity, and you are good to go. It is ironic that Grant uses metapragmatics to elucidate the faults of postmodernism, but like any other irony it works.

  3. srp

    Defining things by failure and indulging in scorn are separate matters. Analytically, it often is easier to pin things down by what’s wrong–Christopher Alexander once wrote that good design could only be defined as the “disjunction of all possible misfits.” But scorn rarely leads to enlightenment, although sometimes it feels good and sometimes it is warranted.

  4. Grant

    Sam, good question, I think bad practice, really bad practice, is easy to spot as clueless, and this give the opportunity to practice an ingroup/outgroup distinction, the clueless website maker “just doesn’t get it.” We clearly do. They are out, we are in. More metapragmatics. More generally, it’s like that joke about families. All terrible websites are terrible in the same way. All merely bad websites are bad in their own way. Or something. Thanks, Grant

    German, how very reductive of you, sir. I don’t doubt that some academic camps and careers are manufactured this way, but for crying out loud Silverman is just about the smartest man in the universe, full professor at 26 or something, his ideas really do make the world make sense. I think. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, what you said (because I couldn’t say it better). Thanks, Grant

  5. german dziebel

    Grant, I came across as scornful in a discussion that was supposed to go beyond that. My apologies. Probably theories sit well with some people, but not with others. All theories tend to sacrifice reality for the sake of a model. Talk to one person, and his reality was not sacrificed; talk to a different person, and he thinks his reality was violated. Defining pragmatics seems more worthwhile to me than creating metapragmatics. In Peirce’s original formulation, pragmatics is the quality of acting as a sign to a fellow person. This is solidarity at its core, protopragmatics, an unconditional belief in human solidarity before word, utterance or action. Maybe it is Heideggerian, phenomenological, hermeneutical, primitivist instead of structuralist, constructivist and progressive. Maybe we could invoke Durkheim to differentiate between two kinds of solidarity, however, idealistically. But again this line of thinking may not resonate with you. Like Silverstein just didn’t resonate with me. Thanks for your post, and thanks for being the catalyst of a Martian mentality. I am still lacking one. German

  6. Mary W

    Gosh, I loved this post. You’re exactly right. Sometimes conversations that start out as discussions of a topic, seem to follow the emotional arc of: critical thinking => critical => condescending => scorn/contempt. There’s something about analysis that tends to slip into criticism, judgment into judgmentalism.

    By the very fact of labeling something as “worthy of scorn” — you’ve removed any obligation to understand it. Just say it sucks; then not only are you dismissing it, you’re also put social pressure on others in the conversation to diss it as well.

    It reminds me of John Gottman’s research on married couples, where he found that the emotion that was most predictive of divorce was contempt (more predictive than anger, arguing, etc.) There’s something about contempt/scorn that cuts deeply into our ability to relate effectively to other people; it kills all feeling of empathy.

    Oh, and the kitten is cute. 🙂 *snuggles the kitteh*

  7. Tom Asacker

    “several meetings would go by before I heard anyone use a metaphor”

    Impossible! And I say this with not even a hint of scorn. 🙂 Great post Grant.

  8. Carol Gee

    Grant, great post. It seems to me that scorn is easy, and all too often, automatic. At its simplest it seems to be lazy thinking, particularly when it is exhibited by very bright people.

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