Pundits, bloggers, sharks, and feeding frenzi
I've referred to the swirl of criticism around the Miers nomination as a "feeding frenzy" a number of times (for example, here). Like many other metaphors, it's become less colorful through overuse: "feeding frenzy" has come to be a sort of cliche meaning "intense attack by a group."
But, in an attempt to give the phrase back some of its original force, I offer you the following, from Melville's Moby Dick, the best description I've ever read of how a feeding frenzy actually works in nature among its prime practitioners, sharks:
...when, accordingly Queequeg and a forecastle seaman came on deck, no small excitement was created among the sharks; for immediately suspending the cutting stages over the side, and lowering three lanterns, so that they cast long gleams of light over the turbid sea, these two mariners, darting their long whaling-spades, kept up an incessant murdering of the sharks, by striking the keen steel deep into their skulls, seemingly their only vital part. But in the foamy confusion of their mixed and struggling hosts, the marksmen could not always hit their mark; and this brought about new revelations of the incredible ferocity of the foe. They viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound.
So, that's a feeding frenzy, folks: sharks, excited beyond measure by the smell of blood, bite and bite and bite until they rip each other--and even themselves--to shreds.
A cautionary tale, no? Pundits and bloggers, known for the sharpness of their opinions--and, as with sharks' teeth, such sharpness is often a necessary part of the arsenal of such creatures--need to be careful that, in the group excitement of the fray, they don't end up destroying more than they intended.
First, a caveat (always have to try my best to head the critics off at the pass): when I say the Miers nomination response has resembled a feeding frenzy, I'm not for a moment saying people have no right to criticize her, or that there weren't some very excellent grounds for criticism. They do, and there were. No, I'm talking about the nature of the criticism, which was in many cases more degrading and personal than necessary, amounted virtually to mockery of the intelligence of a woman who had done nothing to deserve it, and had a sort of synergistic quality.
One of the commenters here, John Moulder, wrote the following about blogs:
For every 2 Memogates & Condi Rice photo corrections there will be 1 Miers assassination. Nope, the blogs ain't no panacea, that's for sure,'cause their medicine sometimes causes nausea. And doc, these 2-edged swords are killing my neck.
So, what's going on with bloggers and pundits? To simplify, I'd say the whole thing comes down to ego.
By "ego" I do not mean something mostly bad. Notice that there are multiple definitions of the word: (1) self-importance (an inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others); (2) your consciousness of your own identity; and (3) a technical Freudian term meaning the part of the personality responsible for reality-testing, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.
So yes, bloggers and pundits tend to have ego in all senses of the word--lots of it, plenty to spare. In order to put one's opinions out there as though they matter, a person must have the courage of his/her convictions. But that can sometimes spin out of control due to a number of factors, including but not limited to definition #1.
For example, there's the actual activity of blogging or writing a column. Doing this day after day and week after week tends to sharpen and hone the ability to define and have strong opinions, to express them, and to feel they have value. It's almost like developing a muscle through exercise, and it usually happens whether or not the pundit/blogger/columnist realizes it or not or wants it to happen or not.
Personally, I think that realizing it is half the battle. I'm not saying that pundits or bloggers should be shy and retiring, with an attitude of "well, I don't really know, but maybe perhaps it might possibly be the case that..." But I think they (we) do need to be careful not to get carried away with the sheer brilliance of their (our) rapier wit and trenchant opinions.
Alone in front of the computer (or, increasingly less often, a pad of paper), the pundit/blogger sits. Inspiration strikes, and the need to be wittier, sharper (there's that word again!), more opinionated--to be noticed--rises up in folks who tend to be pretty witty and sharp to begin with. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is a cliche because it has some truth to it--and the sharper the words the mightier they sometimes sound, especially in the solitude of the act of composition. And once put down and published, they can't be recalled.
Then there's the group aspect. Bloggers and pundits write in isolation, but they're not really in isolation at all, except physically. Mentally and emotionally they are part of one huge mass shouting out at each other and at everybody else, the sounds of the exchange echoing and ricocheting and reverberating all over the country--and in some cases the world. As such, we influence each other greatly. It's not even a case of following the herd, it's more a case of being influenced by the opinions of others, a process we are all susceptible to no matter how independent we may think we are. We influence each other directly by our words, and also indirectly by the sense of competition that's inherent in this pundit/blogger game--the need, for some at least, to try to outdo each other.
So what's the result? Sometimes it's wonderful--in fact, since I'm a fan of blogs, I'd say it's often wonderful--a liveliness of writing and thinking and interacting that you just can't get in the staid old MSM. There's an energy here, and part of it is the energy that comes with a bunch of sharp (in several senses of the word) and verbal people mixing it up and trying to say intelligent things in a way that's interesting to read. Sometimes it segues into a group of people trying to say outrageous things, either to amuse or to stir up or out of anger or the desire to call attention to themselves, or some of the above or all of the above.
When is the line crossed and it becomes a feeding frenzy? I don't have the answer; each person has to decide that for him/herself. But when there's a lot of blood in the water and people find that their own entrails, and those of their allies, are hanging out--that could be a sign.
[ADDENDUM: To those of you who may have thought I misspelled the word "frenzy" in the title of this post ("frenzi") in order to show solidarity with Ms. Miers--oh, would that you were right! Actually, my solidarity with her seems to be deeper than just a show; it was a bona fide typo, and one that spellcheck didn't catch because apparently spellcheck doesn't do titles.
That said, I'm leaving it in to demonstrate solidarity with Ms. Miers (actually, in truth, I'm leaving it in because I fear that, were I to change it now, the link wouldn't work). Anyway, the perfect is the enemy of the good, right?]