Blogging: towards a deliberative democracy…

There is much to be said for some of Polly Toynbee’s argument in her Bagehot Lecture, organised by Queen Mary College in London recently, particularly when she argued:

“If you start out assuming that all politicians are ill-intentioned knaves and bounders who are all out to feather their own nests, you will illuminate nothing for your readers and discover very little of interest. You will be adding to the dangerous anti-democratic mood that is creeping up on us at the moment where every lazy comedian or chat show host regurgitates the current knee-jerk view that Westminster is a palace of rogues who should all be sent packing.

This cynical attitude was famously expressed by Jeremy Paxman’s , “why is this lying bastard lying to me”, and critically dissected by John Lloyd in his long essay “What the media are doing to our politics”. Lloyd identified a dangerous elision between ‘comment’ and ‘hard news’ and the institutionalising of public contempt for the political classes, within the mainstream media.

It’s what blogger Paul Evans calls negativism, and it is rife in British and Irish journalism. Even if it is a cardinal sin of the mainstream, it can and does afflict large parts of the ‘visible’ blogosphere. Indeed media analyst Geert Lovink believes that blogging itself is merely a form of banal nihilism:

Blogging is a bleed-to-death strategy. Implosion is not the right word. Implosion implies a tragedy and spectacle that is not present here. Blogging is the opposite of the spectacle. It is flat (and yet meaningful). Blogging is not a digital clone of the “letter to the editor”. Instead of complaining and arguing, the blogger puts him or herself in the perversely pleasurable position of media observer.

Yet, blogging is as blogging does. In a poor democratic space like Northern Ireland, the consequences of long running, low-grade politics can and has cost lives in Northern Ireland. In such a hotly contested and sometimes unpredictable space, Slugger has tried to adapt a sober, serious and (largely) sensible approach to its blogging: even whilst politicians have indulged in ad hominem attacks on each other and the media. As a result, it has drawn plaudits from across political (and national) divides – even a name check in the House of Lords.

Slugger is not unique. Some of the opprobrium poured upon Polly’s subsequent attack on blogs comes precisely because she has privileged her own (arguably traumatic) experience over a wider reading of the blogosphere. No one would dispute that it is certainly wild. And there are also large barren tracts between oases of reason and thoughtfulness. It is surely impossible to argue against her most serious point, ie, that widespread use of anonymity has generally had a deleterious effect on the quality of online discourse. She notes:

“Letters used to be quite polite, emails were a bit ruder, but this is of another dimension because you can’t answer back unless in public because they’re anonymous. I think that’s wrong — they should have to put their own names up there. It would make them stop and think twice if they thought their colleagues and families would see what they wrote. Anonymity brings out real mischief in us. It is a debased discourse.”

But this is also to miss a significant dynamic within the blog ecosystem. Unlike a court-room, where expert witnesses have to establish their credibility first, bloggers prosper or decline each day on the quality of their output, and in their capacity to instigate and pursue good, open ended and challenging conversations. According to the philosopher Paul Grice’s conversational maxims, that requires on to be truthful, informative; relevant; and clear. Bloggers and columnists eschew this sage advice at their own peril.

The blogosphere is an emergent phenomenon. Too many bloggers make it a matter of principle to have a dig at something the don’t like without saying what they are in favour of. Accordingly it is often consumed in tearing (nihilisticly) whatever fabric pre-exists than offering fresh insight. As one blogger put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to complain about it.” (satirically in his case).

Toynbee believes that the blogosphere is a mere ‘cacophony’, a narcissistic sounding board not worth taking seriously. But it also offers something that remains undesirable at least to some columnists: a close proximity to a complex and often highly intelligent audience that answers back. Like an actor trained for the proscenium arch, Toynbee is clearly uncomfortable with this rougher in-the-round format.

Yet the wisdom of crowds is not simply another transient buzz word. It was first cited by Plato as the reason why democratic systems are more stable than any other. Indeed, the blogosphere offers an embryonic ‘deliberative democracy’; one in which politicians can tune in to a much higher-quality dialogue. It may also help facilitate that form of ‘civic journalism’ that Lloyd and others have argued must be imagined into existence.

If the blogosphere can find an effective way to deal with the trolls and invest in building intelligent communities, it may be possible.