Peter Beal: Climbing’s Gadfly

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.

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

11 thoughts on “Peter Beal: Climbing’s Gadfly”

  1. It’s good to see gadfly used in a positive sense. All too often the community focuses on small details (e.g. act of chopping) and completely misses the larger context (e.g. impact of presence in fragile ecosystem).

    1. i think it’s easy to get stuck on the same old topics: bolting, grade inflation or sandbagging, the deleterious effects of gyms, and all manner of pseudo “ethical” concerns. not that those things aren’t fun to discuss and even, in certain contexts, important (access, for example). but simply to take a moment and assess the basic assumptions and received wisdom of our community and society, well, that’s never a waste of time. And to be clear, I disagree with Beal on most topics. I think his heart isn’t quite in the right place with a lot of the mud he slings. Still, I feel there’s ample room for dissenting “outside” opinions. I welcome them. I hope no one is afraid to consider alternative viewpoints and question their own beliefs and motivations. Let’s upset the status quo when it makes sense. Let’s think a little more like artists and a little less like bureaucrats. If more people were willing to question themselves, I believe the world would be a much better, more peaceful, and all-around radder place.

      1. What exactly do you mean when you say: “I think his heart isn’t quite in the right place with a lot of the mud he slings”? I’m just curious because without any explanation that claim amounts to nothing more than a personal attack lacking any substance required for either agreement or disagreement. What is the “right place” for one’s heart? And, according you you, where is Beal’s…?

        1. My statement about the location of Beal’s heart is not an ad hominem attack, as I am not using that opinion as a means to disprove Beal’s arguments. In fact, I chose not to address Beal’s statements directly in my post, mainly because I felt it was more interesting to discuss the value of his role as an agitator and a “gadfly” than to get in some sort of shouting match over his personal frustrations with the state of climbing.

          Still, since it’s true that I did not explain what I meant at the time, I’ll give one example of what I mean when I say, “I think his heart isn’t quite in the right place”:

          Beal writes “Everyone seems to want to become or represent a brand, as though this, not mastery of the sport or real personal growth, was the goal of climbing.” In the context of the post from whence it came, this quote feels very much like an example of projection. Beal publicly complained on Mountains and Water when Moon Climbing was no longer able to sponsor him as an athlete. Now he sees in “everyone” a deplorable desire to gain validation through becoming or representing a brand. Something feels off. One gets the sense that Beal holds misgivings about his own frustrated desire to be a sponsored climber, and that he is projecting that desire as a fault onto others.

          Of course, no one can really know what another’s motivations are (hell, most of us don’t truly understand our own), but it does seem that there is more than just a desire to help climbing along the virtuous path at work here.

          Still, I stand by the core of my original post: I don’t particularly like, care about, or agree with the things Beal says on Mountains and Water, but I do think he does a great job spurring debate, and that’s (almost) never a bad thing.

  2. Hi Justin,
    Thanks for writing about your concerns with my blog. At least you were more civil than the poster (whom I think we both know) calling himself “nobody” at the climbing narc. If I may revisit your analogy, Socrates was not known so much for “carefully concocted” arguments (hence the tone of the Apologia) but instead for improvised questions that were intended to allow experts to explain themselves and hopefully to prove that they actually knew something. Unfortunately aporia and frustration was often the result. But Socrates believed that the ultimate aim of his questions was virtue, an absolute value as he saw it.

    You may believe that my “heart isn’t quite in the right place” though I am really not clear what that means. Fair enough. My viewpoint isn’t coming from the right place either according to responses I have seen from some representative figures in climbing. While you may disagree with my views, consider that their aim is a clearer and more honest discussion of the values that hopefully still undergird the sport of climbing. Looking over my comments, I am surprised that so many people seem to understand and support this mission.

  3. I can’t believe people are so upset by Peter’s comments about the selling out or empty feeling the climbing media and world have created around the pasttime. I was having the same discussion with a friend last week, and he couldn’t understand what was so bad about increased commercialization, marketing, and big name companies coming into the scene. It’s as if the life lessons climbing can and does teach have been forgotten for big numbers, sexy bodies and base pumping music in the background. Unfortunately the ‘new generation’ apparently doesn’t have the ability to see this, and I’m afraid that means what we’re scared of losing has already been lost. I would like to thank Peter for putting it out there and creating discussion, the reaction to his post is very telling in itself.

  4. First, Beal’s aim was not, it seems, “intellectual monkey-wrenching” but rather “ethical monkey-wrenching” if you want to see it as monkey-wrenching at all. His initial post never set out to present an ‘argument’ – rather, he was trying to get a sense of what others in the climbing community (and I hope that there is such a thing) thought/think about these issues. The follow up post THEN dealt with those responses.

    Socrates was not actually keen on formulating “carefully concocted arguments”. Oh, and I teach philosophy, so perhaps I qualify as a “progenitor of Western philosophy” – but maybe not. Socrates actually asked questions and examined the answers through probing question – not argument. (The dialogues where “Socrates” present arguments are considered “Platonic” NOT “Socratic”.)

    Most of the criticisms I’ve read of both posts amount to no more than ad hominem attacks (name calling) without actually addressing the issues. Claiming that someone sanctimonious does not say anything about the substance of the dispute.

    Clearly some in the climbing community feel the sting of his Beal’s examination – and as far as we know all those who dared to have a ‘dialogue’ with Socrates left angry and frustrated. of course they blamed it on Socrates, but they knew in their hearts that it was because they could not justify themselves. They could not defend their beliefs and their actions.

    1. I certainly don’t wish to debate philosophy with a real live philosophy teacher (yikes!) — I’m sure I’ve gotten all sorts of things wrong, and for that I apologize. But do you disagree with the comparison of Beal to the figure of the gadfly?

  5. Hi Justin,
    It’s neither here nor there but my sponsorship was dropped because Moon cancelled its entire North American program. I am not against sponsorship per se; I am against a certain vision of it that clashes with what I see as fundamental values in the sport. If you think this is about my personal frustration you are deeply mistaken.

    Speaking of sponsorship, it seems to me that you ought to mention upfront to your readers that you are communications manager at Petzl America. It seems to me there are bound to be some questions about your objectivity regarding the kinds of issues I am raising in my blog.

    To quote a genuine muckraker “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”

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