The other day I read on of the lowest quality things I’ve seen online in quite some time, which is saying a great deal for several reasons. I spend a lot of time online; I have a smartphone, I work in an office at a job which often necessitates a lot of downtime, and I like to read as much as I can about my interests, something which is often best served with online content. The democratic nature of the internet necessarily brings about bad content, often due to haste and/or attempts to generate traffic/money. Neither of those things are what bothered me about the post/essay/article/thing I’ll discuss below. Rather, my objections are along the lines of my (enduring) dislike for GearJunkie.com; I do not approve on when someone who obviously knows better does something cheap because it is easy and profitable.
The following guidelines (not rules) naturally apply to “real” life face to face with real people, but most of us were socialized well enough that only the distance of screen and keyboards can tempt us into regularly and flagrently breaking them.
No ad hominem attacks.
The internet makes it very tempting to tell someone they are wrong because they are stupid. It is certainly true that the net breeds armchair experts who not infrequently dispense dangerous advice, but it is always essential to say why someone is wrong, in as specific a manner as you can manage. Doing so elevates the content of the discussion and is the most useful form of response, and admits the possibility that someone without extensive personal experience may by coincidence or good study arrive at an effective conclusion. I struggle with this one quite a bit, because as a nerd who was and is bad at team sports intellectual one-upmanship was the first and easiest way I found to participate in culturally approved male aggression. It’s not a flattering admission or behavior, and I try to hold on to a few instances of when I was on the receiving end as reminders to behave charitably. For instance, earlier this year I called out Six Moon Designs for the marketing copy they attached to their new Fusion series of packs, which said (I summarize and extrapolate) that the packs had been designed for the rigors of thruhiking in the US idiom and were thus tough enough for just about anything. It seemed to me that in doing so SMD were relying more on cliches and jingoism than fact, it being rather obvious that the PCT and CDT are tough on gear due to the number of days only, and said so. Ron Moak, SMDs head honcho, responded by calling me unprofessional and asking how many capitol L long trails I had completed. It still seem sad that the one person in the discussion best informed to quantify how and why packs break declined to say anything specific.
Make all arguments serious.
Its tempting to jump on weak arguments, for the reasons discussed above and many more. Don’t. While you may get personal satisfaction out of excoriating an easy target, any gain will be transitory and modest. It is far better to restate a stronger case of what the original interlocuter should or would have said. For example, in the post which bent my mind to this subject Wes Siler makes shorter toothbrushes the first thing he mentions in a critique of the extent to which gear and goal obsession may make ultralight backpacking a more frequent violator of what he sees as the soul of backpacking; contemplating the natural world and our place in it. I doubt very much that any backpacker with a consequent body of experience has ever seen cutting the handle of a toothbrush as a serious means of saving weight. It is nothing other than a decades-lived cliche, designed to invoke absurd behavior in the mind of the casual observer. There is no content behind it. More appriopriate examples, like using grosgrain for hipbelts, would have had less mass-market appeal, but if Mr. Siler is prepared to sacrifice accuracy and felicity for curb appeal than he deserves all the shit he gets, and more. He commits similar sins at the end of the same paragraph, making hyperbolic statements about the privations of backpacking with a focus on a light load and the speed it allows. The article as a whole makes it fairly plain that he knows enough to know how inaccurate his characatures are. If he is not willing to take his subject seriously its hard to think why anyone would want to do the same with his post.
Don’t be cooler than your subject.
Otherwise known as avoiding Rolling Stone writing. Siler mentions, out of nowhere, that rather than hike the JMT in 10 days including travel from the east coast, he’s visiting a friend in India because he owes said friend after having sold the gents car to a drug dealer. No further explanation is given, and the reader is left to assume that because Mr. Siler has an apparently more exciting and dangerous (“cooler”) life his arguments should be given more weight. Modesty is always the purview of a gentlewoman or man, and discretion is always the better part of valor. If you feel the need to enhance your writing with excessive or semi-relevant anecdotes said writing is either weak or you have issues with life satisfaction which should be addressed in the private sphere.
Selective quotations (quote is still a verb only) are effective only insofar as weak arguments can be buttressed by appeal to authority, and that is possible only insofar as the reader can be assumed to not be familiar with the source material. Both are uncharitable assumptions. Quotations should be used sparingly and faithful to the source, which usually means long, lacking in ellipses, and put in context. Siler quotes Thoreau as promoting the “tonic of wilderness” and by way of citation links to an incomplete quotation at goodreads.com. The implication is that the valuable things to be found in wilderness cannot be had when the trip into said wilderness is excessively planned and the route too physically ambitious. The whole paragraph in Walden ends with the sentence “We need to witness our own limits transgressed and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” It’s not a far stretch, especially knowing Thoreau’s penchant for marathon walks, to think that a significant component of transgressing spiritual limits has to do with both physical stress and volume of country covered. In a similar vein, people also find it easy to forget about John Muir’s eccentric minimalism, big miles, bivy in a steam vent on Shasta, and riding out thunderstorms high in the branches of pine trees. I’ve said it many times: were they alive today, Thoreau and Muir would be drawn to things like the Wilderness Classic, because both knew that wilderness (or Wildness, as Thoreau better stated in Walking) is a mental construct before it is a thing-in-itself. Siler’s cheap characterization of wilderness suggests that, at best, he is trying to carve out a distinction where one does not exist.
The point of all this is to behave well and generously when interacting with fellow humans, especially when they’re ones you’ll likely never meet. It is good practice, and good insurance for those occasions when you actually do meet e-friends unexpectedly. Siler closes his essay with the largely unarguable point that gear innovations have not only made lighter, but gear simpler and in many cases cheaper, and that when these things happen together obstacles to wilderness tend to fall away. Unfortunately, he was so at pains to make this point that the post mostly serves to discredit himself. I wish him better in the future.