Trolling and Transubstantiation

Irksome, Science

To:

President Robert H. Bruininks
202 Morrill Hall
100 Church Street S.E.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Re: Professor P.Z. Myers

Dear President Bruininks,

I write to encourage you to refrain from firing or disciplining Professor P.Z. Meyers, even if he is being a whiny trolling douchebag.

I like Prof. Myers, you see. I enjoy his blog Pharyngula, because Prof. Myers has a knack for explaining scientific concepts in a manner that is clear to the laity without being condescending. I share some of his concerns about the encroachment of evangelical and fanatical religiosity onto civic life, and in many instances agree with his views on the proper separation of church and state. His ferocity is charming. I lack the heart to take offense that he views me and any other person of faith as a deluded, society-destroying sheep worthy of contempt. He's just so precious about it, I can't get upset. It's like the five-year-old nephew who is always trying to pick fights and flirt with your wife. Scorning me and what I believe in gives him so much evident pleasure, and who am I to begrudge someone a little simple happiness when it doesn't hurt me?

Now recently, Prof. Myers has gotten himself into something of a kerfuffle. It seems that he got very agitated when he read about the travails of a guy named Webster Cook, who got death threats after he smuggled a Eucharist wafer out of a Catholic church, allegedly to show it to a friend. I don't know if you're a Catholic, President Bruininks, but I'm sure that you know that Catholics believe that the Eucharist wafer (or host), through transubstantiation, becomes the substance of the body of Jesus Christ, the Holy Redeemer. (A discussion of what exactly this means is beyond the scope of this humble letter, and besides I'd get it wrong and my co-blogger David would mock me mercilessly.) Anyway, many people — some of them even Catholics — got very angry at Mr. Cook and sent unpleasant communications to him, apparently including death threats.

Prof. Myers, I need not tell you, is known far and wide for moderation and gentility. On this particular occasion the rage in his soul overcame the better angels of his nature and he posted a somewhat intemperate post entitled IT'S A FRACKIN' CRACKER!, including an exhortation to his readers:

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

This went over rather poorly in some quarters. In fact, the Myers-referenced Bill Donahue, President of the Catholic League, lost his composure in a manner that diverted from a reputation for level-headedness and polite discourse that at least equals Prof. Myers. Now, some would say that Donahue is a perpetually red-faced shrieking bigot, a 19th-century low-rent Torquemada-wanna-be for whom no dispute touching on religion is too small or silly to deter him from a wallow. But that need not detain us. Suffice it to say that Donahue called for Myers to be disciplined by your University, and also sought tightened security for Catholics at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, apparently out of a concern that roving bands of Myers-addled evolutionists might assault Catholic convention delegates and strip search them to take their Eucharists to bring them back to their (the evolutionists) fell lord Myers. Of course the Catholics wouldn't be carrying Eucharists anyway, because they consume them in church, and removing them would be sacrilege. So that part doesn't really make sense to me, President Bruininks, but it's been a long day, and I hope that you will bear with me.

Anyway, I'm writing — as any number of blogs have urged that I do — to ask you not to take disciplinary action against Prof. Myers, or even initiate any sort of investigation or proceeding. Do not join the regrettable trend of university administrators who chill speech — even obnoxious speech — through disciplinary proceedings or sanctions. No rational person could conclude that Myers' speech reflects the views of your University. His blog is not hosted on a University computer; I must respectfully dissent from Mr. Donahue's view that the link from his profile on the University site somehow brings his blog under your concern or jurisdiction. I fear that Mr. Donahue is laboring under a seriously limited understanding of the tubes. It's essential that you not only refrain from punishment, but refrain from a critic-soothing "investigation" or "inquiry" when faced with such an obvious instance of free speech; such actions chill as surely as punishment does. Myers' behavior, whatever you think of it, is protected by the First Amendment.

And let me make it clear that this request has nothing to do with whether or not Prof. Myers' speech is childish, petty, fatuous, and obnoxious. That matters not! Even such adolescent, livejournalish, my-parents-make-me-go-to-church-religion-sucks-I want-to-cut-myself wankery is within the scope of freedom of expression. It's practically a requirement of blogging!

Nor is the fact that Myers is being a trolling little pissant a reason to initiate an investigation or disciplinary proceedings. President Bruininks, I don't know if you have used the internet, which Mr. Donahue calls the World Wide Web of EEEEVIL. If you have, you've probably learned that "trolling" is posting inflammatory things to get a rise out of people, then enjoying the reactions. It's popular with little people of all sizes. Now, Prof. Myers is being what I would call a mutli-stage troll, which is a troll with an unusually long attention span. Multi-stage trolls are often bloggers or journalists. They like to post something inflammatory, then write multiple follow-up pieces in which they clutch their pearls and wail about how horribly their critics are acting in reaction and what a sad day it is for free speech when you can't act like a prick without multiple people writing you to inform you that you are, in fact, a prick. Essential to this scheme is cherry-picking a few of the most extreme, abusive, profane, threatening, or otherwise offensive responses you receive and emphasizing them, subtly or unsubtly using them to color the entire universe of responses and employing them to whip up your fanbase. Sort of like what Prof. Myers is doing now. You see, President Bruininks, it's a game that's sure to work if you've got a big soapbox: the anonymity of the internet makes assholes of us all, and extreme responses to well-publicized inflammatory posts are guaranteed. Hence it's a cherished tool for narcissists and people whose perpetual cri du coeur is "Oh, God . . ." . . . sorry, strike that . . . "oh, Reason . . ." sorry, strike that . . . "Oh Reason Magazine, with your twenty thousand unique hits a day, won't anyone pay attention to me and see how special I am?"

My point, President Bruininks, is that by refusing to discipline or even investigate Myers, you would not be taking sides. No rational person would interpret your action as rewarding or condemning the auto-da-fe crowd led by the shouty Mr. Donahue. Nor could it reasonably be seen as endorsing Myers' rather transparently desperate antics. No one will think you are in favor of Myers' upjumped shock-jock behavior, nor will they think that you condone Myers' evident pattern of trolling, reaping the reactions he knowingly sowed, then retreating behind the comforting motherly skirts of his fawning fanbase.

But if you like, you could say something to that effect. And President Bruininks, may I invite you to indulge yourself? Statements of "we don't agree with it but we cannot punish it" are always so staid. Just once I'd like to see someone with the nuts to say something like this:

Look, everyone involved in this stupid, stupid debate is acting like an ass. The people emailing me threats? Your IP was reported to the FBI, fuckstains. Mr. Donahue? Look, you theocratic sack of asscandle-tallow, we're all stocked up on totalitarian here, go peddle it somewhere else. And PZ Myers, I promise you what generations of gothy ninth graders have already learned in walking your path before you — you don't have to try so hard to be outrageous and edgy all the time, because you won't actually cease to exist if people stop noticing you. Go read the First Amendment again, all of you. Donahue, it means that Myers gets to be an asshole. Myers, it means that if you're an asshole, and people tell you you're an asshole, and you whine about it, then everybody's going to think you're a loser, because you are. BRUININKS OUT!"

But those are just guidelines. Feel free to give it your own special feel.

Sincerely yours,

Ken
Blogger, www.popehat.com

Last 5 posts by Ken White

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Max Verret  •  Jul 12, 2008 @10:50 am

    Unfortunately a university cannot operate the way you suggest. As part of their employment agreement, faculty accept that their behavior, university-related or not, will not reflect negatively on the reputation of the university. The University of Minnesota is a public institution and is reposnsive to the people of Minnesota, many of whom are Catholic. A substantial portion of the student body at the University is Catholic. You simply cannot have a faculty member going around trashing their deeply held religious beliefs. That has nothing to do with the First Admendment. When you accept a job in the public sector, you accept certain limitations on your First Amendment rights. I don't think the university administration has any choice but to sanction Dr. Myers.

  2. dbt1949  •  Jul 12, 2008 @5:35 pm

    I shall sacrifice a goat in his honor.

  3. Dave B  •  Jul 13, 2008 @3:23 am

    Personally I think most people want to get medieval on the professor just because hes a raving loony and a twit, rather than any religious agenda.

  4. PLW  •  Jul 13, 2008 @5:18 am

    "raving loony and a twit,"

    I don't know. 5-10% of the tenured faculty probably fit that description. I think there's a reason this guy's been singled out.

  5. gbasden  •  Jul 13, 2008 @1:21 pm

    Even public sector employees do not give up their freedom of speech. Isn't that the whole reason we give a Professor tenure?

  6. Max Verret  •  Jul 13, 2008 @10:19 pm

    Re: Gbasden #5

    No, we do not give them tenure to protect their freedom of speech but to protect them from undue political influence and/or arbitrary and/or capricious actions against them. In the public sector there are many limitations on your right to free speech, for example, you are not allowed to put the sign of a political candidate on your front lawn or put his sticker on your car bumper. That would violate the federal Hatch Act. You cannot campaign for or make speeches or endorsements for particular candidates.

  7. Patrick  •  Jul 14, 2008 @4:31 am

    For the sake of accuracy Max, while your point is generally correct, all of the activities you mention, save endorsement for fundraising purposes, are allowed to federal employees under the Hatch Act.

  8. angryboy  •  Jul 14, 2008 @9:54 pm

    That was a beautiful post.

  9. Max Verret  •  Jul 14, 2008 @11:04 pm

    Patrick:

    Employees of educational and/or research institutions which are funded in whole or in part by State or Local funcing are generally exempt from the provisions of the FEDERAL Hatch Act. The point being that in public employment there are limitations on free speech. It is not an absolute right. In PZ's case his limitations would be governed by the Rules of Minnesota and by the guidelines of his employment agreement and/or provisions of the Faculty Handbook which governs the conduct of faculty members.