Sunday, January 11, 2015

A short note to readers

I have been asked buy a few people why FoL adheres to an open policy in its comment sections.  Here's the answer:

First, it is not entirely open. I have deleted some comments that were actually fake advertisements and I also deleted (at least one) comment that was maliciously aimed at someone other than me.  I can tolerate stupidity and malice and rudeness when I am the butt, but will not tolerate it when others are. As you may have gleaned already from reading FoL, I am happy with vigorous discussion, but there is a line. Who judges when it is crossed? Well me. Why me? Because I ran this blog and so the buck stops with me.

Second, I do not respond to every comment that gets made (though I do mix it up quite a bit). There are several reasons for this. The first is that it would take too much time. The second is that sometimes I have nothing to say in reply. And the third is that there are some comments that I consider not worth responding to.

Let me say a word about the third. There are some who comment extensively on this blog that I do not respond to at all as a matter of policy. CB is the most prominent among these. I decided to stop responding to CB's comments over a year ago (it may be longer, I cannot recall) for they have consistently struck me as ill informed, silly and more than occasionally bizarre. However, I have not prevented CB from posting on the blog for three reasons. First, just because I find CB's comments a waste of time does not mean that others will or should. Second, just because I don't want to respond to CB does not mean that others may not find it useful/amusing/invigorating/charitable to respond and I don't want to stop consenting adults from amusing themselves on FoL or developing their critical skills by tackling incoherence. Third, and this is the most important reason, CB's views are, sadly (very very sadly), not unique. There are many in the great wide world out there who say (and I assume believe) the stuff CB articulates so tirelessly. That I find it so deeply misinformed (which it is) and so obtuse (which it is) does not mean that CB's views are idiosyncratic to CB. Like I said, sadly (very very sadly), they are not.  So, I consider CB's participation on FoL as a kind of inoculation program for the reasonable. Exposure to these views in raw and uncensored form I hope suffices to prevent reasonable informed people from succumbing to them.  Indeed, reading CB's defense of these views generally suffices to expose how uninformed, silly and bizarre they are (ah, the wonders of self satire!!). So think of CB as FoL's vaccine program against ignorance and silliness in our little corner of intellectual life (IMPORTANT:  if you know anyone showing signs of taking these views seriously send them a selection of CB's comments and I can guarantee almost full recovery).

I have no doubt that this clarification will call forth a response. I will most likely not delete it. Some may find it amusing to read. Some may not. Some may may wish to respond. Some may not. For the former group, enjoy yourselves. For the latter, remember, you can always agree to ignore it. I do. It's easy and to date has had no deleterious effects.


  1. I am one example of your strategy being a success. As a fresh-faced graduate student, a few months ago I was dazzled and tempted by the pomp and rhetoric of CB's writing elsewhere (I think part of the allure is the false promise of revolution by the marginalised). Then I looked more deeply into the topics, as argued both by CB and other antagonists, with FoL being the most useful arena I found, and I can confirm that the inoculation worked.

  2. Norbert, I appreciate your reasoning. On the other side of the balance sheet, though, I think there are probably numerous thoughtful people who might be participating in the comments section but don't do so — either because they personally don't want to be at the receiving end of this person's tu quoque ad hominem remarks, or more generally because they know how difficult it is to keep any discussion productive once the screen starts filling up with irrelevant vitriol. A more constructive comments section might in the end be a greater benefit to the field, simply because it may attract a more diverse group of contributors, than the current innoculation clinic, no matter how important it is to deal with the malady you're innoculating against.

    At the same time, whatever your future policy and whatever your thoughts about this comment of mine, thank you for this blog and the great service that it provides for all of us. I'll keep reading, for one, no matter what.

    1. Depending on how much comments policing Norbert would want to commit to, other academic blogs I've seen have maintained good comments sections with a maximum comment length and/or a maximum number of comments per person per thread. Perhaps continuing to allow open discussion but limiting its extent in some manner would keep the vaccine regime running while also reducing the amount to which others are put off from joining in?

    2. Policying the comments would only lead to accussations that Norbert censors non-Chomskyan views out of existence. And I never understood this sentiment that comments can create a "toxic" environment. It's the internet, not a real world discussion --- if you think somebody's trolling or being obnoxiously idiotic, don't read their comments.

      Also, it's not like this is the linguistics version of /pol/, things are very tame around here. Even heavily moderated forums like reddit or the escapist get much nastier.

    3. It's not that this person's comments create a "toxic" environment. No one that I know of is breaking out in hives, or tears for that matter. But people are choosing not to participate (I know a few), because life is just too short to spend time on a comment that's just going to get derailed by irrelevant nonsense about Chomsky's Science of Language and tu quoque taunts. I think that's a shame. But, Norbert's blog, Norbert's decision, of course.

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  4. I have to say that CB's harping on Chomsky in 'The Science of Language' with James McGilvray did draw my attention to this book, which I have found quite enjoyable and informative. Someone who's obsessed with bringing down Chomsky at least brings to light all of his work to those who might appreciate it.

    I do think the obsessive comments can be distracting and a lot of wasted time to the reader who wants to stay on the main topic of discussion. But perhaps it's important to maintain the principle of leaving the commentary open unless it's a strong impediment to discussion.

  5. A [potentially final*] note to Norbert:

    First: thank you very much for creating this blog and for not caving in to pressure to implement censorship. As Chomsky says: "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." And [as Thomas G. says], people emotionally as fragile as Professor Pesetsky can simply ignore posts of those they find intolerable. No need to return to 'Pravda' tactics...

    Second, let me remind you why I joined this blog: to hold up a mirror, so you can see what it is like to be at the receiving end of the kind of comments you make routinely about the work of those you disagree with. Based on your reaction I conclude that I succeeded: you dislike it so much that you 'never want to talk to me again' no matter what I may say. So, possibly, you can imagine that people you denigrate feel similarly [maybe even worse since I have not attacked any of your professional work but merely comments you make on blogs etc.].

    Third, from reading the many posts about recent work by yourself and your colleagues [very informative part of your blog btw, kudos for that!], I gather that, at this moment, you [pl] are not the leading linguistic force in many of the areas Chomsky used to be [I read what others do as well]. So maybe it's a good idea to talk to people who have made much progress using different frameworks once in a while and exchange ideas [not just ridicule them or complain at keynote addresses about the space their work is given in leading journals]. On this blog Alex C. has offered an excellent model for how one can interact with people who are committed to different frameworks. Just try to be a bit more like him - who knows, you may actually enjoy the result :)

    Which brings me to the*: I promise to refrain from any future comments on this blog as long as THE TONE OF your [pl] criticism of the work of others passes my smell test; as long as you apply the golden rule, you'll never hear from me again.

    [Oh one last thing: Given how many women work in/on GG it seems a tad odd that their voices are virtually absent from this blog. You may want to think about whether it would be desirable to add a bit of a 'female touch'...]

  6. On the principle that consistency is the hobgoblin etc etc etc I will break my pledge never to engage with CB this once (but recall the consistency caveat above). Three points:
    1. The issue of allowing CB to post has nothing to do with censorship or freedom of expression. There is no principle which requires that you allow anyone and everyone to set up a soapbox in your living room or office. That I would defend CB's right to start a website and post as she pleased on it does NOT imply that I believe that CB has a RIGHT to publish on anyone else's site. This is not, then an issue of censorship as CB claims. Even were CB prevented from posting on FoL this would not be an issue of censorship. This is simply a category mistake.
    2. The problem with CB's posts is precisely the fact that the mirror CB likes to hold up is distorted. Sadly, CB really knows next to nothing about linguistics, especially of the Chomsky variety. Nor is CB a trustworthy reporter. Those that need convincing of this (yet again) please read the interchange CB had with David Adger here:
    The interchange, though likely taxing for David is unbelievably funny for anyone else. Like Evans, CB seems to be incapable of fair or reasonable quotation. So, not only does CB know nothing about linguistics, it appears that accurate quotation is also a challenge. Thus, the problem is not that CB's remarks hold up an embarrassing mirror to GB's tawdry practices. It's that CB's observations are entirely unrelated to these, and as such I understand why many (indeed very many) see CB's interventions as problematic and distracting. That said, I still feel that overall it's useful to have CB's comments on the blog because the ignorant positions that CB expresses are, sadly, all too common and it's worth knowing about them. Again, think flu shot.

    Third: like monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare sonnets, CB has hit on an important point, the dearth of women taking part. There is, of course, one notable exception: Lila. She has participated effectively and hope this will continue. But CB does have a point: it appears that FoL has failed to attract the participation of women. Any suggestions for how to remedy this are welcome. I would like to think that the issues discussed are of interest to linguists regardless of gender. It may be that my style of (ahem) vigorous discussion is not to the liking of some. If that is the issue, I can think of ways of remedying this. So let me know.

    Very last point: I love polemics Always have. And I also believe that there has been a tendency for linguists to ignore rather than respond to junk that is out there that touches on our areas of professional competence. We have ignored this junk to our disadvantage. I have no intention of refraining from doing this into the foreseeable future. That's what got me to start FoL (see the very first post). I intend to continue. As for different views that are not junk (and here I have cast a wide net and will continue to do so), I intend to be the soul of propriety.

    1. I admit, I did not expect you'd miss me THAT quickly, Norbert. But of course, you are right: I had forgotten one important point. Thanks for reminding me with this reference to David A. and correct referencing. Just when can your readers expect, that you provide the references I had asked for last year [24/12]? To refresh your memory: you claimed: "It's not kosher to put words into other's mouths. The words used to hang someone must be their own. Chomsky is especially careful to quote his sources when he goes after them. He footnotes heavily and quotes extensively. It would be nice if his opponents were as gracious."

      I asked if you could you be so kind and provide such quotes from Chomsky's recent book "The Science of Language" where he quotes extensively - so his critics can learn how it is done properly? Especially appreciated are quotes regarding the allegedly common theory of language evolution [p. 15], the distortion of Elman's work [p. 226], the crazy theory of Dummett [p. 57], the allegedly irrational scientists referred to on p. 123.

      I also suggested that if you are unable to find quotes, maybe you could ask Chomsky to "immediately retract these claims publicly or show how what he says comports with ... the actual content of [these and countless other authors'] claims. It is the honorable thing to do". Since we have not seen any quotes yet [and of course anyone owning SoL knows why that is], have you asked Chomsky by now to do what you call 'the honourable thing'?

      BTW, I am glad that you noticed that the mirror I held up to you was at least partly a distorting mirror - of course not nearly as distorting as the one you use when you talk about Vyv's work or the 3 psychologists in a bar or Dan Everett or... - but then I never claimed to be in the same distortionist-league as you are :)

    2. I'd like to reiterate the point about freedom of speech that Norbert has made. While I appreciate that CB has quoted (and therefore, I believe, endorsed) Chomsky's powerful point about freedom of speech, the decision of whether or not to delete CB's comments and/or prevent her from commenting has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Nobody has a right to post on somebody else's blog. To me, this would be analogous to an author demanding the "right" to publish an article in a journal and not have their manuscript rejected.

      It would be perfectly legitimate for Norbert to do so, and as others have discussed, it would certainly make reading the blog much less distracting, but I think it's important to leave open the commentary unless the situation seriously worsens.

  7. CB's reply has reminded me once again why I took an earlier vow of silence. I will try to never stray off the path of wisdom again. And i did this after watching David Adger's struggles. Silly me. Silly, silly Norbert!