Wednesday 05 June 2002

Radical undogmatism

In a post titled R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Burningbird asked:

Am I coming across as this whiney thing that starts a fight, and then tells those who show up to stop picking on me? I would be appalled if this is true, because that’s not how I am. That’s not how I want to portray myself.

Dorothea Salo’s insightful response concluded:

I guess I’m encouraging Burningbird to examine her own writing. It’s not a bad way to learn about yourself. (Neither is RPGing, for that matter. Some of my characters have taught me quite a bit.) I suspect, however, that she’ll find that the worst of the abuse she’s getting is an artifact of the medium, and not her message.

Along the way to that conclusion, Dorothea offered some reasons for the negative (and occasionally personal) comments that troubled Burningbird:

  • one’s weblog posts can be misread (sometimes willfully);
  • people’s natural tendencies are amplified (“nice people tend to get nicer, mean people tend to get meaner”);
  • remarks on the Web are decontextualized (misinterpretation arises from a lack of shared background).

To which I’d add that certain topics—the Middle East conflict currently tops the list—act as a lightning rod for misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation. These topics (abortion is another) are high in the “emotional charge” that sends some people “into a fetal position in a corner” while energizing others to the point where they feel that they’ve finally discovered the meaning of life.

Such emotionally charged issues make it easy to forget or ignore the Happy Tutor’s First and Second Rules of Disagreeing Agreeably (or at least Effectively):

Attack the sin, not the sinner.

Attack the position, not the person holding the position.

Additionly, certain personality types seem more prone to overly aggressive behavior. Some people can’t form boundaries between their self and their strongly-held beliefs and, as a result, frequently (mis)interpret an attack on their position as an attack on their personal worth. Others are dogmatic in the sense Joseph Deumer describes, people who insist that they have a mortgage on the truth by shouting down any alternative or nuanced opinion. It’s the dogmatists who casually throw around epithets like “racist,” “sexist,” and “anti-Semite” as a substitute for reasoned, coherent argument.

These factors—emotional charge, poor internal boundary formation, dogmatic temperament—combined with Dorothea Salo’s “artifacts of the medium” (misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation) yield much of the unpleasantness that contaminates Web discourse.

By way of contrast, my recent post on blogging and journalism provoked a robust and productive dialogue (helped no doubt by the fact that the topic lacks emotional charge).

My post argument be summarized thus:

Given that mainstream journalism is so hopelessly compromised and that blogging appears to offer so many more exciting and creative possibilities, why are so many bloggers willing to settle for the tenth-rate ambition of acting as unpaid researchers and fact checkers for print journalists?

Along the way I took a couple of potshots at John Hiler’s article Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem (although, with hindsight, I would have done well to have mentioned Dave Winer’s Long Bet with the New York Times). John Hiler’s response showed a sure grasp of the Happy Tutor’s Third Rule:

Adopt a good-humored bantering tone.

After quoting some of my less complimentary remarks, he wrote: “Hmm Jonathan, I’m kind of getting a negative vibe here.” He then quoted at length from some other critical remarks I’d made about his Tipping Blog article, before concluding:

That’s a lot of failing, ignoring, and falling apart! But actually I dug that post because despite the brutality, there were some great points in there. I’d dig this more recent post more if I felt it was responding to points I made in my article…

On reflection, I can see the validity in John’s observation. Kuro5hin, which he treats in depth, is a perfect example of the collaborative authoring that I believe has so much potential. I did briefly consider commenting on the San Francisco State University fracas, which John describes in glowing terms as bloggers acting like real journalists (whereas I thought their reliance on partisan witnesses resulted in a lack of “journalistic balance” that was almost farcical). And I wish now that, instead of framing my argument in terms of journalists living off the backs of bloggers, I’d placed more emphasis on the mutually exploitative relationship between journalists and bloggers that John describes.

What’s most interesting though is that John Hiler’s deft response to my remarks sent me back to read his article once more and to reconsider the criticisms I’d made. Ironically, it’s this call and response mechanism that forms the core of Hiler’s Blogosphere.

Something similar happened in the comments on my post where, amongst the mostly favorable responses, John Morrish wrote:

Blogging is not journalism. You’d have to be deluded to think it was.

John, a British writer who also trains reporters, editors, and feature writers, runs a Web resource called The Journolist. Uh-oh, I thought to myself, he thinks I’m deluded. (Hint: misinterpretation!) John Morrish didn’t think I was deluded at all and even replied politely to my unfavorable view of mainstream journalism:

We’ll probably have to differ about whether journalism is worn out and corrupt. Plenty of journalists are, that’s for sure, but I still think the basic idea — finding something out, finding evidence to support your belief that it happened, publishing in a way that’s lawyer-proof — is worthwhile. When we have one of our perennial rail crashes, I don’t expect to discover the cause in a blog.

Another valid argument. It’s unlikely to change my view that you’ll learn more about what’s truly worth knowing by reading War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Tale of Genji than from The New York Times or The Sydney Morning Herald. It did, however, force me to reconsider and acknowledge the worth of factual reporting (I try to avoid sitting in the front carriage of a train).

A useful exchange of views depends not just on the participants’ having strong internal boundaries as well as an awareness of the pitfalls of misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation. It also requires a readiness to consider changing one’s mind, to be open to new experience (as Gadamer described it, to be “radically undogmatic”). Or as Joseph Deumer wrote:

Is it any wonder then that I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, or that I have adopted, partly intuitively & partly through study what amounts to a philosophy of radical pluralism: essentially, that no single point of view is an adequate description of reality, including moral reality. The only descriptions that approach adequacy are plural, multiple.

Weblogging provides that multiplicity of viewpoints. The real challenge is to develop ways of conducting a reasoned discourse about emotionally-charged topics. Particularly topics that attract those who already know everything and who know it better than anyone else. At that point there may be some respect.

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The Happy Tutor is full of crap and I don't care who knows it. Now, everyone is on my case just because I am honest enough to say what I really think. You have started a Blog War, Jonathan, and don't expect any help from me.

Posted by Dick Minim on 6 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour