Regarding the Great Greenwald vs. Kerr vs. Ferrell Crooked Timber dustup of April 1st, ok, I’ll bite. Rich Pulchalsky snarks at me enough in the comments, after all. Besides, what the hell, Unfogged is down anyway, so I might as well.
I also don’t know which post of mine Rich is remembering, but I have to say he’s got a point about some lessons I’ve learned in seven years of blogging and other online writing before that. There’s really very little to be said for trying to carry on a conversation (online or otherwise) with people who have nothing but an instrumental view of conversation as a means to their own anti-pluralistic or illiberal ends, who concern-troll every debate in the hopes of getting someone to take the bait. There are a set of writers who work hard every day trying to create a framework where the only right answers can be some kind of dogma, who will never for one passing second acknowledge the legitimacy of evidence which contradicts their own pet doctrines, who are never even momentarily in any danger of being persuaded by any countervailing viewpoint. For these writers, all online discussion is a colossally elaborate manipulation. I spent too much time in developing this blog arguing for an indiscriminate openness to conversation. Pursuing conversation with the comprehensively dishonest is a fool’s errand, and I’ve sometimes been just such a fool.
That said, I still believe the following:
1) That I’m unconvinced that alternative approaches to those same actors are any more effective at checking or limiting their influence. Mockery feels good, and maybe strengthens group affiliation among like-minded readers, but the main game for the worst participants in the public sphere is attention, it’s to grab the eyeballs. If they’re invulnerable to persuasion, they also tend to be invulnerable to satire, or feed off and benefit from either of those responses in different ways. Someone giving them enough respect to try and persuade them is legitimating; someone satirizing them is evidence of the inauthenticity and snobbery of the satirist. Cf. Sarah Palin. Uncompromising, brutal invective also doesn’t seem to me to do much besides arguably nurturing group loyalty among those who agree with the invective. There’s some point at which if you’re looking to effectively fight back against destructive or malicious actors, anything in the blogosphere is beside the point, and everyone who is talking or commenting thereof is wasting their time, no matter what they’re doing. I haven’t lost any of my irritation with people who anoint themselves with an activist halo simply because they write lots of invective in comments threads.
On the other other hand, invective and satire are much more interesting and entertaining to read than benumbed consensus-seeking. In that sense alone, they’re often worth the price of admission.
2) It’s possible, indeed likely, that someone who approaches most or all online conversation as combat will misperceive many possible conversations that could develop into something else, and misperceive many people who could be productive, generative participants in a conversation that contains healthy differences within it. Again, deep in that Crooked Timber thread, Rich Puchalsky makes the legitimate point that liberals (including me) have had a bad tendency to triangulate against the left and imply thus that only liberals are interested in pluralism. This isn’t the case, but I do think it’s the case that the more we perceive online discourse as battle (whatever the perspective from which we do so), the more likely that we become kids with hammers who see everything as nails. At some point, if some kind of pluralism is what we ultimately aim for, we have to try and practice it when we can. I think this takes being really sure that the person you’re talking to (or at) is purely malicious or worthless in their aims before you label them as such. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with strong disagreements, strongly worded, about matters of principle even with people that you think are potentially reasonable or persuadable. I don’t think anyone should hesitate to strongly criticize Orin Kerr, for example, but I think Kerr isn’t a bad discursive actor with whom no productive conversation can be had.
3) The question of how to live with people who recognize no commonalities or shared obligations with you, who deliberately construct for themselves a world of practice and belief which is impermeable to any contradiction or challenge, who see everything that their social enemies say as permanently and perpetually inauthentic, isn’t resolved at all by any decision about how to approach online conversations. There are numerous bloggers and pundits who support Tea Party rhetoric in a way that strikes me as wholly instrumental, who use Tea Party adherents as social tools and their package of tropes and beliefs as blunt objects designed to hammer the frame of public debate into a congenial shape, to make some ideas unthinkable and some initiatives infeasible. That said, there’s a still a real sociality out there beyond those pundits and think-tank scribes and hacks. You can treat Michelle Malkin or Eric Erickson as village idiots without a twinge of conscience but sizeable social groups, whatever their beliefs or actions, however wrong they seem, are a different kettle of fish in a great many respects: in their causality, in their habitus, in their consequences. And a different kind of problem in the question of how to live with the existence of a social group who isn’t interested in living with your own existence, of what to do about that.
4) Intellectuals often seek out difficult social, political, cultural or aesthetic problems that have no easy or right answer, and relish conversations which stay in that zone. Yes, that’s partly about treating discourse as a game, partly an approach that intellectuals prefer because it pleases them and suits their cast of mind. Difficult problems discussed in complex terms: fun! Again, maybe frequently to the point of misperceiving existing conversations when there’s only one participant playing by those rules.
But this is also an empirical assertion, that the class of problems in the human world which fit this description vastly outnumber the class of problems to which there are ready, simple, no-fail answers. This is about desiring as a sign of human progress that contemporary societies get to the tough problems and acknowledge them as such, which in an ideal world ought to involve vastly higher distributions of humility and openness. But again, if the players on the other side are acting in completely bad faith, this is a kind of unilateral disarmament. Messiness and ambiguity lose to crudity and manichean simplifications every time.