Is Thoughtful Blog Conversation Possible?

Reasonable Minds might want to ponder the question posed by Alan Jacobs in an article posted on Christianity, here: are blogs the friend of information but the enemy of thought? Here is how Jacobs describes the problems afflicting “the intellectual and moral environments of the blogs. There is no privacy: all conversations are utterly public. The arrogant, the ignorant, and the bullheaded constantly threaten to drown out the saintly, and for that matter the merely knowledgeable, or at least overwhelm them with sheer numbers. And the architecture of the blog … with its constant emphasis on novelty, militates against leisurely conversations. It is no insult to the recent, but already cherished institution of the blogosphere to say that blogs cannot do everything well. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.”

I have to confess I think Jacobs is on to something important. There are a number of blogs I look at regularly precisely to get information related to my teaching and scholarship: e.g., scotusblog, religion clause, how appealing. I think real conversation via the blog format, is difficult. It can, for example, be very hard to convey important nuance and distinctions, or to engage in sustainable exchange that moves toward some sort of shared understanding. In practice, provocative and confrontational posts often pass one another in cyberspace like ships in the night. Jacobs’ article poses a useful challenge to a blog like Reasonable Minds, which hopes to do something different.

(Thanks to Rick Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor, for posting Jacobs’ article on Mirror of Justice, where some interesting, sustained, and thoughtful conversations have actually taken place.)


6 Responses to “Is Thoughtful Blog Conversation Possible?”

  1. Mark Grannis Says:

    A very thoughtful reflection by Jacobs; thanks for posting it. Brian Freeman, Carlos Genie, and my brothers have also expressed some skepticism about whether the format is likely to produce the intellectual feast I’m hoping for. I find it encouraging, though, that they have agreed to write and that you and Rod Apfelbeck and Charles Riggs are already doing so.

    I wonder if the blog format might be comparatively more discouraging to academics, who are probably accustomed to more sustained attention and who have more opportunity to engage in it in the real world. But of course, dinner parties never approach that level of discourse either, and that doesn’t prevent them from producing excellent conversations that may stay with the participants for many years.

    Is it possible that the secret of success lies in keeping the conversation relatively small? Maybe the “intellectual dinner party” analogy is more instructive than I originally realized. A dinner party can only be so large before it becomes something else that is very different, no matter what the host or anyone else would prefer.

    Or could it be that the breadth of the discussion will help prevent intellectual ossification even if the blog gets relatively large? Most blogs have a fairly narrow sliver of intellectual life on which they concentrate, and perhaps that promotes more vehemence and less reflection than a blog in which the participants are more likely to encounter something that makes them say, “Huh! I never thought of that.” I remember when web portals like Yahoo first began to offer personalized home pages, my friend Jim Walsh was quick to realize the problem created by this affront to serendipity. Each page thus created became, in his phrase, a “digital me,” insulating the reader from many things that might otherwise involuntarily stimulate a fresh re-evalution of some aspect of his life. If we’ve got some posts on Catholic legal theory and others on new collections of limericks, maybe we’ve got a fighting chance.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. Greg Kalscheur, S.J. Says:

    I suspect that academics may be among the worst offenders in the blog world. We can become habituated to the need to promote our scholarship that can lead to a self-promotion that says, “Hey, look at my idea!” and that can make us very reluctant to say, “Oh, what you have to say requires me to re-think my idea.” It’s that humble openness to re-thinking that lies at the heart of real conversation and that I think is most often lost in the sort of confrontational shouting that can take place in the blogosphere. In each of my course syllabi, I include the following quote from theologian David Tracy, that I hope can guide our conversations in class:

    “Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it. These are merely some generic rules for questioning. As good rules, they are worth keeping in mind in case the questioning begins to break down.” (from Plurality and Ambiguity)

    I supplement those rules with the following epistemological imperatives that come from the work of Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and if necessary change.”

    Those are not always rules that are easily followed in a Civil Procedure or Con Law class of 80+ students, but they do at least establish some sort of aspirational ideal. I’ve tried to flesh out that idea in a cumbersomely titled article: Law School as a Culture of Conversation: Re-Imagining Legal Education as a Process of Conversion to the Demands of Authentic Conversation,” 28 Loyola U. Chicago L.J. 333 (1996-1997) (with apologies for the shameless academic self-promotion).

    Maybe real conversation is difficult on a blog because the anonymity of the cyber format makes it harder to love and respect one’s conversation partners. The flesh and blood friend across the dinner table calls forth something from us that needs to be more consciously cultivated in cyber-conversation. My collegue here at BC, David Hollenbach, S.J., talks about the need for us to develop a virtue he calls “intellectual solidarity,” a consciousness that we are actually engaged in a shared, dialogic, human search for truth. Maybe that needs to be seen as a crucial virtue for bloggers.

  3. Brian Freeman Says:

    Mark mentioned my feedback to him – here ’tis. Essentially it’s a much less refined variation on the themes expressed by Mark and Greg.
    — What do you hope to grow this blog into? if the intent is to have an audience wider than a relatively small group of friends and friends-of-friends, would seem appropriate to refine the scope beyond politics and culture generally, to give the discussion some focus, particularly among those who don’t know each other well. If this is not the intent, this could still be possible, and fun – an intellectual equivalent of a long-running amicable poker game in the college dorm.

    – Goal also seems to be productive non-partisan discussion and/or consensus on political issues generally – most likely fruitful area here might be the process-oriented discussions already posted there: anti-gerrymandering, etc., issues without partisan, result-oriented approaches.

    – More volatile issues would be tricky – they would go on and on, with the risk that little new is actually said. Part of this is that just about everyone, if not everyone, would presumably have no first-hand or previously-unknown information, and with discussion participants not knowing each other and what level of knowledge people are bringing to the discussion, a blog could be pretty time-intensive format to initiate a discussion on these terms.

    But nonetheless — or actually aiming to encompass a little less — it’d be fun to give this a try.

  4. Mark Ouweleen Says:

    There have recently been some snide but insightful articles in the New Republic questioning the intellectual value of the blog format. Once I know how to hyperlink them in a response to Greg’s comments, I will try to do so.

    I think the issues Greg raises are deeper than questions about the blog format. They are issues about the nature, potential and ends of discourse. Is it possible through conversation to change minds and work toward the truth?

    I attended a seminar hosted by the Liberty Fund a few years ago on Plutarch’s Lives, and have ever since wanted to put together a weekend seminar called “Persuasion,” examining whether it is possible to persuade another person to change his mind on an important question. Or whether it is possible for people through dialogue to attain clarity and understanding. The current political climate would suggest not — popular fora consist of either a shouting match between increasingly polarized sides, or lovefests among people who assume the agreed truths. The prevailing view is that it’s us vs. them, and anyone who is ever persuaded that “them” may be right is branded by us as a traitor and by them as a flip-flopper. People I respect believe that after a certain point no one really changes, each person just becomes more the way he is. I do not want to believe this, but I do not see a lot of evidence of people really trying to figure out what is right, rather than defend what their camp has always asserted is right.

  5. Rob Gittings Says:

    Well, it’s nice to join a blog conversation where the first topic one encounters is whether there should even be a blog conversation. My vote is yes. Two reasons.

    First, it doesn’t appear to be the goal of this discussion to reach a grand revelation at the end of each thread (but I must say I haven’t read the small print yet). I agree with the post above about how many blogs – even “civilized” ones – turn quicly into old fashioned “shouting matches” using big words. But that ‘s a symptom of the larger issues raised above that I’m sure will be the subject of future discussions. (We’d better move fast, though, because for better or worse – ok, worse – one look at the Mexican electoral results seems to indicate that we are exporting our polariazation. Second, and closer to my heart, for those of us in the less-than-academic professions, this is a nice way to read about what a group of smart people is thinking about important issues. Even without the promise of a grand revelation, the trail of posts is enlightening. Plus, we don’t get to go to too many dinner parties.

  6. The Thinking Blogger Award « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] undisturbed. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post. Greg Kalscheur has also invited discussion on this blog about whether blogs are the enemy of thought. (I had to close comments on that post because of […]

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