Looking for an audience and finding interlocutors
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Looking for an audience and finding interlocutors

Former New York Times executive editor (and current columnist) criticized a straw man version of cancer patient Lisa Adams, arguing that she is:

… the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures.

He then added:

Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, said he cringes at the combat metaphor, because it suggests that those who choose not to spend their final days in battle, using every weapon in the high-tech medical arsenal, lack character or willpower.

As it turns out, it’s not Lisa Adams who introduced the combat metaphor, but rather Keller himself. Here’s what Adams said about combat metaphors on her blog in 2012:

When I die don’t say I ‘fought a battle.’ Or ‘lost a battle.’ Or ‘succumbed.’ Don’t make it sound like I didn’t try hard enough, or have the right attitude, or that I simply gave up.

Straw man.

After people started calling Keller on it, he responded to a question from the paper’s public editor thusly:

I think some readers have misread my point, and some – the most vociferous – seem to believe that anything short of an unqualified “right on, Lisa!” is inhumane or sacrilegious.

I have no doubt that he did get some responses like that, but choosing to dismiss those responses rather than engaging with more substantive critiques was lazy and evasive.

Plenty of people have written excellent pieces explaining why Keller is simply wrong on the facts and in his conclusions. For example, you should definitely read Zeynep Tufekci’s post Social Media Is a Conversation, Not a Press Release. What I want to write about is Keller’s lack of preparedness to opine in the age of social media.

One thing we do on the Internet is argue. A lot. Some of us have been arguing with people on the Internet for decades, and many of us have internalized the big list of fallacies and are just waiting for an opportunity to recognize their use and shove your argument back in your face. It doesn’t matter whether you’re arguing about text editors, the baseball Hall of Fame, or how cancer patients ought to use social media, the Internet knows more than you do about it. In the open source world, they say that given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow. It’s also true that given enough participants in an argument, all errors of fact and fallacious arguments are exposed.

It’s times like these when the old media really shows its age. In the good old days, you could pronounce and pontificate with relative impunity. The worst thing they faced were letters to the editor. These days, by publishing, you are making an argument, and you can expect for people online to argue back. The second a column goes up, people start dissecting it on Twitter. Then come the blog posts. And finally, other publications, or even your own, start running think pieces about the online reaction to your crappy column. If you’re David Brooks, the Internet will probably skewer you with top notch satire as well. The old guard is going to have to harden up.

Update: Really nice post by Linda Holmes for NPR about how Bill Keller uses language to diminish Lisa Adams and her readers.

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