This is not the first time I’ve gone quiet on this blog simply because I was busy. Fall 2017 was in many ways the busiest semester I’ve ever had at Swarthmore: I taught two courses, I chaired my department, I became the co-director of the Aydelotte Foundation, and I sold my house and moved.
But I have gone quiet for other reasons as well. I am struggling to understand what the good of writing in public is at a time when I’m prepared to encourage others to do so.
When I began blogging in a pre-WordPress era, I was already a long-time participant in online conversation, all the way back to pre-Usenet BBSs, including the pay service GEnie. So I think I held no illusions about what were already problems of long-standing in online culture: trolling, harassment, mobbing, deception, anonymity, and so on.
Nevertheless, I started a blog for two major reasons. First, to have an outlet for my own thinking, as a kind of public diary that would let me express my thinking about professional life, politics, popular culture and other issues as I saw fit, and perhaps in so doing keep myself from talking too much among friends and colleagues. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in that, because I still overwhelm conversations around me if I’m not thoughtful about restraining myself.
The second was to see if I could participate usefully in what I hoped would grow into a new and more democratic public sphere, one that escaped the exclusivity of postwar American public discussion. I think I did a good job at evolving an ethic for myself and then inhabiting it consistently. That had a cost to the quality of my prose, because being more respectful, cautious and responsible in my blogging usually meant being duller and longer in the style of my writing.
In the end, I feel as if both goals have ended up being somewhat pointless. It’s not clear to me any longer what good I can contribute as a public diarist. Much of what I think gets thought and expressed by someone else at a quicker pace, in a faster social media platform. More importantly, the value of my observations, whatever that might be, was secured through combining frankness and introspection, through raising rather than brutally disposing of open questions. This more than anything now seems quaintly out of place in social media. I feel as if it takes extreme curation to find pockets of social media commentary given over to skepticism and exploration, through collectively playful or passionate engagement with uncertainty and ambiguity.
More complicatedly, the more I am tied to my institutional histories and imagined as being a “responsible agent” within them, the harder it gets to talk frankly about what I see. It was comforting to think that almost no one read my blog and almost no one cared about it, in some sense. Now I’m only too aware that if I speak, even if I’m careful to abstract and synthesize what I’m observing, I can’t help but seem as if I am testifying about the much larger archive of real experiences and painful confidences I have been entrusted with. If I abstract too much, I find that friends and colleagues politely gaslight me: I can’t have seen what I think I’ve seen. But I can’t be more direct, and I don’t want to be. Trying to observe real stories and real problems with some degree of honesty can curdle into the settling of scores, and can tempt people–older white men especially–into a narrative of institutional life in which they are always the heroes of the story. Some stories and experiences explored honestly end up with everyone muddling through with good intent; others end up implicating everyone in certain kinds of bad faith or short-sightedness, including the people doing the exploring.
This brings me to the second goal: to be part of a new and more democratic public sphere. I have been for thirty years a person enthusiastic about the possibilities and often the realities of online culture. I am losing that enthusiasm rapidly. It’s not just that all the old problems are now vastly greater in scope and more ominous by far in the threat they can pose to participants in digital culture, but that there are new problems too. The threat to women, to people of color, to GLBQT people, is bigger by far, but even as someone who has all sorts of protections, I find myself unnerved by online discussion, by its volatility and speed, by the ways that groups settle on intense and combative interpretations and then amplify both. I remember only dimly that for a long time I saw myself as trying to create bridges in conversations to online conservatives. With a blessed few exceptions, those conversations mostly felt like agreeing to trust Lucy to hold the football steady one more time, like being the mark in a long confidence game whose goal was to move the Overton window. What did I think I was doing talking to David Horowitz, for example? Or writing critiques of ACTA reports as if anyone writing them cared remotely about evidence or accuracy? And yet I’m not feeling that much more comfortable about online conversation with people with whom I ostensibly agree or among whom I have allegedly built up long reservoirs of trust. That sense of trust and social groundedness felt very real as recently as five years ago, but now it feels as if the infrastructures of online life could pull any foundation into wreckage in an instant without any individual human beings meaning or wanting to have that happen.
I almost thought to critically engage a recent wave of online attacks on a course being taught by my colleague here at Swarthmore. I even tried one engagement with a real person on Twitter and for a brief moment, I thought at least the points I was making were being read and understood. But the iron curtain of a new kind of cultural formation snapped down hard within three tweets, and it was difficult for me to even grasp who I had been talking to: a provocateur? an eccentric? a true believer? The rest of the social media traffic about the issue was rank with the stink of bots and 8chan-style troublemaking. Even when it was real people talking, even if I might be able to have a meaningful conversation with them in person if I happened to be in their physical presence, nothing good could come of online engagement, and many bad things could instead happen.
So I need to think anew: what is this space for? What’s left to say? Public debate, per se, is dead. Being a diarist might not be, but I will need to find ways to undam the river of my own voice.