Reading Peter Beal’s blog, Mountains and Water, can be a frustrating experience. He assumes a dour air and seems to relish poking the climbing establishment (if there be such a thing) in the eye. He can, at times, make it sound as if the world of climbing has been corrupted, hollowed out, sold up the river, and that we climbers are all somehow complicit. Though I rarely agree with the viewpoints Beal expresses on Mountains and Water, I have, of late, come to see him in a new light.
In a recent post entitled “Sell, Sell, Sell: Is There An Alternative?” Beal employs the following language to describe the current state of affairs in climbing media: “mundane,” “monotonous,” “sponsor-friendly platitudes,” “endlessly repetitive,” “feel-good bromides,” “sentiments lifted from self-help pop psychology and faux humility,” “trivial thoughts,” and “Ever crisper, more highly defined, and artfully manipulated images of nothing.” In the same post, he suggests that “the climbing environment is reaching a tipping point in terms of how much more commodification it can stand before a total vitiation of the core of the sport is achieved.”
In all honesty, I have yet to figure out exactly what Beal was getting at with his hyperbole, though he did do a nice job laying out some more valid and specific points in a follow-up post, published a week later. Regardless, for those who give a shit about climbing and climbing media, these knocks can feel very personal. Since “Sell, sell, sell,” Beal has been described publicly on the Internet as “sanctimonious” and even as a “pretentious douche.” Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to deny that he is an effective rabble-rouser. He seems to revel in attention, even the negative sort.
Whenever I disagree strongly with an argument, I take it as a sign. It means that argument has hit a sore spot. And any sore spot we have within us is worthy of further examination. Beal’s critiques, and the less-than-tactful means he chose to express them, certainly made an impression on me. One minute I was making my coffee, and the next I was locked in a mental spasm, trying to formulate exactly how and why I disagreed with him. I was drawn back repeatedly to the act of poking holes in his arguments. Then, all at once, I saw that I was on the wrong path. The issue isn’t so much whether Beal’s specific points are valid, but whether his intellectual monkey-wrenching is valuable. I have since come to think of Beal’s blog as a service to the climbing community. He is our gadfly.
The calssical Greek philosopher Socrates was famous for his use of carefully concocted arguments to stimulate thought in his fellow citizens. He saw debate as critical for the health of a society. Unfortunately, Socrates’ views so irritated the Greek state that he was sentenced to death by the ingestion of a hemlock-based poison. But before this, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia (which translates to “defense” or “explanation”), Socrates made the following statement during his trial:
“…if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well-bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging… .”
In his metaphor, Socrates is a biting gadfly on the flank of the state, a horse that is grand, beautiful, worthy of devotion and respect, but also prone to sleeping. A sleeping state, as Socrates sees it, is one that does not think deeply or consider important questions. It is the gadfly’s job to ensure the horse remains awake, that the state remains vibrant and alive.
If Beal is a gadfly and climbing is the state, then his pointed questions and critical language are intentional — it is a method to rouse us from our complacency. His acts have drawn the ire of many in the climbing community, but that is to be expected. “You, perhaps, might be angry,” says Socrates, “like people awakened from a nap.” Indeed, it is natural to take up arms when confronted by a disruptive voice. Our first response is to strike out and defend our cherished viewpoints and, ultimately, convince or compel the disruptor to be silent. But this is the wrong response — there is more good than harm in Beal’s writing, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” we might deem him to be. Already, his posts have had an effect. Editors from Alpinist and Rock & Ice have responded to his discontents, and quite a few commenters have weighed in on his posts. Discussion and reflection have been stimulated.
Socrates suggests that, without him, the people of the state “would pass the rest of [their] lives in slumber…” Perhaps he was right; it is all too natural for humans to settle into a comfortable existence, where one is to be had. Although I do not compare Beal to Socrates on other fronts — Beal is not the progenitor of Western philosophy, for example — I do see the value in his incendiary tactics. With a few sharp strokes of his keyboard, he has stung the flank of climbing. It is no mortal wound — only a small drop of crimson has sprung up — but the gadfly has served its purpose. The state is awake, at least for a little while.