Saturday, June 20, 2009

The trouble with blogs

Or at least with political blogs is the presumption of bad faith with which we so often interact with each other. I was reminded of this over the past two weekends by the reaction - here and elsewhere - to three posts. The first two were about what I believe to be a fundamentally unfair effort to equate mainstream conservatives with a few violent acts of true extremists or disturbed individuals who worked out their rages in ways that might (or in one prominent case might not) be described as "right wing." While some comments in opposition were worthwhile, others seem focused on seizing upon - or creating - a gotcha point and doing so in a manner unlikely to lead to further discourse. Principal among them were claims about my supposed defense of Glen Beck who I said had made ill advised remarks about an internet rumor that he later decided to debunk. My point was that picking and choosing this comment and that and then extrapolating, not to Glen Beck, but to mainstream conservatives is intellectually lazy.

Now, of course, you can say that I should have described Beck in harsher terms or made it clearer that I wasn't offering a defense of Beck. In the confines of the blog (and, for that matter, op-ed media), there is always something more to be said and always nuances that go unexpressed. Real discourse tries to understand comments in context, seeks clarification or offers it in a way that doesn't declare verbal war.

I noticed the same thing in response to a joke I made about the overtop aadmiration for President Obama among some members of the Washington press corps. I must have, according to some, been denigrating them as "gay" and because I think that their adulation is silly, I must be denigrating gay people generally.

I was truly shocked. That was not on my mind at all. Should I have stopped and said that, for the overly literal among you, I am saying that Matthews, et al., are infatuated with Obama with an intensity like that which may accompany a romantic relationship but I'm not saying they actually have sexual desire for another man (which I would then, of course, would have to have followed with the Seinfeldian - "not that there would be anything wrong with that.")

The point isn't really me and I am not going to respond to any further remarks on those subjects. The point here is to wonder what this means about political blogs.

I suppose that we can think of blogs filling two fundamental purposes. One would be to offer entertainment to our side. Let's all get together and laugh about how better we are than the wing nuts and netroots. This is, it seems to me, behind some of the creepy schadenfreude over the McBride/Flynn affair which, I suppose, does complete some people.

The other is to actually explore issues.

Of course, engagement doesn't preclude a little good natured smack and even gentle mockery. I don't think that a bit of sharp language is abuse and what the world be without a bit of sarcasm now and then. And, of course, there are some things said for which nothing other than condemnation will suffice.

If all you are trying to do is score points, then there is no reason to be overly worried if what you say is unlikely to lead to civil discourse. That's not what you want.

But, if we really want a response, it seems to me that we ought to at least try to understand the point that is being made and respond to it fairly rather than distort it or to jump on something that we may consider unclear (and there will always be something in the short posts that blogging consists of) or susceptible - sometimes reasonably and sometimes not - in an unflattering way and construe it in the worst possible manner.

I can imagine two possible responses to this. One would be to say that I have done something like this myself and, while I try hard not to, I am sure - in four years of public commentary - that I have. Nevertheless, I think my body of work speaks for itself.

The second is to make some point about the heat and the kitchen. Go ahead. I have been doing this stuff for four years now and my capacity for abuse is higher than I thought it would be, although I do pause over happy little messages written with words and letters that are cut out from somewhere else and pasted on a postcard.

I am not going to respond to that stuff either, so don't bother.

The blogosphere is a free world. I guess that everyone who chooses to participate needs to think about what they want.


Billiam said...

I think, mr. Rick, that the relative anonymity of the web is the main contributor to the rancor we see in comment sections, as well as posts, all across the board. I've fallen into this myself. I think a better approach is to respond as if you're face to face with the writer of the post. If you were, would you truly respond in the same way? This is what I struggle to do. Of course, there are those writings so over the top that they really set your anger to boiling. In that case, the best response is no response, at least, not immediately.

Anonymous said...

AMEN Mr. Billiam

jp said...

Oops. Anon 8:32 is I.

dc said...

I must have, according to some, been denigrating them as "gay" and because I think that their adulation is silly, I must be denigrating gay people generally.

I saw the initial comment to the post before you deleted it, and I agree it was off-base.

At the same time, you responded to that person four times in that comment threat. Meanwhile, on this post, there were attempts to engage you in a substantive debate, including by the same person who left the comment above, and, yet, only one comment from you in response.

So, not to say you're at fault for comments like the one described above -- you're certainly not (though, based on your previous writings about Obama, I think you were doing far more than just making a joke with that post) -- but it may help to show more engagement with the serious and less with the silly.

Anonymous said...

For what its worth, I never thought for a moment that you were insinuating anyone was gay or otherwise referencing sexual identity in any way.

I thought you were slopping together a ridiculous pitch for mitigation on McBride's part, suggesting that a reporter with expressed admiration for a news subject is akin to a reporter secretly romancing and ultimately having a sexual relationship with a news subject that was intended to remain undisclosed.

So, didn't hear any gay-bashing. Just formulaic right-wing wagon-circling -- albeit of the highest order, as always.

Aaron Rodriguez said...

Good post, Rick.