How to close down a discussion (before it starts)

I must say, I had been looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. Not so much because I expect to agree with that much of it – if she hasn’t changed her mind about anything since her article in The Nation a while back, then I know that I disagree with much of what she has to say on the topic of climate change. But I’ve been mentally pencilling into my schedule time to read it, and then write something in response to it.

The reason I find it worthwhile to engage with Klein’s work is that the views she articulates are often widely shared on the left, but are usually the sort of thing that you hear people say – like things I hear from my students – but that you don’t often find written down anywhere. So whenever she puts these ideas down on paper, it offers a good opportunity for discussion and debate (and for me, an opportunity to point out what I think is wrong with a lot of conventional wisdom of the left).

So I was a bit dismayed by this recent line, in an interview that Macleans published with her today:

Q: Do you ever get tired of the criticism you face whenever a new book comes out?

A: One of the things that does frustrate me is when I do find myself being attacked it’s almost always by guys.

Now I must admit that I have, in the past, spent some time and energy criticizing Klein’s views – on the power of advertising in driving consumerism (in The Rebel Sell), and on the potential of cooperatives to transform market economies (in Filthy Lucre and elsewhere). She has never responded to those criticisms, even when directly asked about them. I always assumed that it was because she was a busy person, and didn’t have time to read the scribblings of obscure academics. But no, it turns out that the real problem was nothing specific to what I wrote, it’s just that I’m a guy, and apparently I’ve been picking on her because she’s a girl.

That’s such a weird accusation to spread across the world, I don’t even know how to approach it. I’d love to hear that there was more to it, but that Maclean’s edited her answer for length or something. Is that really the sum total of her response?

If it was, then I feel obliged to point out, first off, that in terms of straightforward meanness and condescension, it would be difficult to top Megan McArdle, who penned the oft-cited lines:

But what’s the point of disagreeing with Naomi Klein? It’s like having an argument about economic policy with an eight year old. To have an interesting discussion, you would have to explain too many facts to the eight year old – facts that the child doesn’t have any interest in learning. And the eight-year-old lacks a coherent intellectual framework into which to fit those facts; his reactions are pure instinctive emotion.

In defence of my own work, I’d like to point out that while I haven’t exactly been nice to Klein, I have offered somewhat more in the way of engagement with her ideas. Why? Because unlike McArdle, I feel that I understand why she believes what she believes – because I used to believe many of the same things. Part of the critical impulse arises from my own desire to share what I myself have learned, coming from a similar background, having at one point shared similar views. (So when I read her work, I invariably find myself saying “yeah, I used to think that too, until I read [whomever] and realized that [whatever].”)

But more seriously, what I find weird about Klein’s reponse is that, whenever someone takes the time and effort to criticize my own work, my irritation at the fact that someone is disagreeing with me is typically leavened by some recognition of the fact that someone considered my work to be interesting or noteworthy enough to merit a response. In other words, I see criticism as an encouraging sign that what I write is being taken seriously by someone, somewhere.

But then again, I suppose I’m not a rock star, so being paid attention to, or being taken seriously, is not something that I take for granted.

Or perhaps I’m misunderstanding. Maybe it’s not that Klein wants us guys to stop ganging up on her, maybe it that she wants more women to get into the game. More Megan McArdles, calling her a mental midget… I don’t know. All I can say is, my enthusiasm for this book, along with the discussion that it might have provoked, has just suffered a significant decline. If Klein’s goal was to poison the well, I have difficulty imagining a more effective way of doing it.


How to close down a discussion (before it starts) — 1 Comment