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3.5.03

Kevin Drum points to a Jeff Cooper post in which he laments the state of political discourse these days. If Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds, two of the most prominent pro-war bloggers, get chewed out by readers for being insifficiently adoring of Bush's every word (though to be honest, Reynolds doesn't sound like it was the tone of the response that was a problem, just the one-sidedness of it), what hope is there for reasonable political debate?

I'll admit that things don't look nearly so partisan and degenerate from my perspective, but that may be because my political blog reading sticks to folks like tacitus and Matthew Yglesias who have reputations for reasonableness. But if Jeff is correct about the tone of discourse in blogtopia, there seem to be at least three hypotheses that could explain that based on structural features of the blog medium, rather than chalking it up to a change in the overall political climate that's simply reflected in blogs:

1) The echo chamber effect. The internet makes it really easy to find anything you want. That means it's also easy to avoid reading anything you don't want. When your sources of information are limited, it's likely that you'll run into a lot of stuff you disagree with. This can have a moderating effect. On the other hand, being able to seek out only information that confirms your views allows you to avoid the dissonance of falsifying data, while allowing you to be and feel much more informed -- you have a larger quantity of information, but it's more skewed as a sample of the whole universe of information. The effect is to entrench your own beliefs while making it easy for people with differing views to seem ignorant. This I think is the weakest hypothesis, because I'm not entirely convinced by its simplistic analysis of the media access system of the pre-internet era. It also ignores the way the offenders often seek out adversaries to lambast. In fact, the problem may be that the Internet allows us to come into contact with more different viewpoints. People seem less partisan when we agree with them. So a local culture can sit around happily reinforcing its own beliefs and never realizing that they are anything less than common sense. On the Internet, by contrast, these groups are thrown together. Shrill partisanship may be a defensive maneuver, attempting to cope with the shattering of your worldview -- the existence of people who deny common sense -- by browbeating them into conformity. The browbeating tactic is taken because there seem to be no shared social norms, no basis on which you can work out the disagreement (in the way that, say, two Catholic theologians could resolve a disagreement about the nature of God because they share the idea that everything in the Bible is true). All that's left then is pure power.

2) The ease of communication. The Internet makes it ludicrously easy to make a statement. If Sullivan or Reynolds made their comments in a newspaper or on TV, most people who disagreed would quietly fume. It takes a lot of effort to write an old-fasioned dead trees letter to the editor. But to shoot off an email is convenient and free. It's even easier for readers of those blogs with comment functions. The barriers to expressing your shrill partisanship are lowered. And there's the additional screen of quasi-anonymity that the Internet can give you, which means many social pressures that keep discourse in line -- like fear of embarassment or reputation damage -- are diluted, and can be deliberately diluted even more (e.g., by posting a comment anonymously).

3) The lack of gatekeepers. This applies more to public shrillness -- such as posts on blogs and comment threads -- than to private correspondence. Most offline public discourse has certain content-specific barriers to speaking out. The newspaper editor is the archetypal example. He or she has the role of filtering content, removing that which runs against community norms (recall the point about how partisans sound more partisan when their viewpoint is farther from yours). The whole point of blogs, on the other hand, is that anyone can say anything. The guys from Google aren't checking to make sure we play nice. Much has been made of the way bloggers fact-check each other, but nobody has the power to enforce their assessment of another's rhetoric the way an editor can refuse to publish something that's beyond the pale. So it's easy for this pluralism to degenerate into adversarial tactics.

Hmm. After all that, I don't think hypotheses 1a, 2, or 3 are all that original. Anyway, I wonder what the level of discourse in blogtopia says about the idea of civil discourse as the basis for society. Philosophers (most notably in my mind John Stuart Mill and Jürgen Habermas -- note that I'm talking about a wide and loose body of thought) have proposed different forms of open communicative democracy as a way of organizing civil society that would be fair and progressive, leading toward truth and away from repressive uses of power. Their followers in the social sciences tend to look to modern leftist movements, like the loose network of anti-globalization collectives, as potential models. But these groups' use of democratic discourse is facilitated by members' shared purpose and the existence of the kinds of social non-coercive disciplining described under hypothesis 3 due to members' greater investment in being a part of the group. Blogtopia (a term, by the way, coined by skippy), on the other hand, seems like a good test case for how a democratically communicative society might work. If Jeff's assessment of the tone of discourse is correct (and without a more rigorous investigation I won't say it is or isn't -- speaking of which, that sounds like an interesting research project. "Communicative Democracy and Strife in the Weblog Community: Implications for Habermas"), we may need some new theorizing.

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