Breaking the conversation….

Here’s an interesting conversation between Bob Wright and Glenn Reynolds on how serial gross incivility between rival bloggers has corroded the potential of the blogosphere to stand above the polarising effects of US politics. Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s something we’ve seen a lot of in the comments section of Slugger.The precedents for sustaining civilised online discussion are not good. That Slugger has (albeit) fitfully managed to sustain it for nearly four years is a testimony to those of our readers and commenters who regularly commit themselves to relatively high standards of agonistic engagement. They inevitably carry a great deal of respect even amongst those who profoundly disagree with them. I won’t repeat individual names, but I guess most regulars will have their own ideas of whom I speak.

I can think of at least three Republican bulletin boards and at least one Loyalist one that have been closed because a quorum of individuals have contrived to engage cynically, rather than honestly, with what could have been powerful dialogue space. That opportunity seems to bring out the worst in some, who prefer to assume the role of the ‘anonymous’ cat playing with the mouse, than to creatively engage with opponents or critics.

There has long been the suspicion, voiced periodically by several commenters here on Slugger, that a (very) small group of (very) junior party apparatchiks have been targeting ad homenim attacks on individual public figures on Slugger. It is noticeable, for instance, that the most recent story from Suzanne Breen is unusually free of the intense ad hominem rabbit punching that often accompanies her work when it features here.

Personally, it looks more like a weak defensive action when a given political (and often professional) interest comes under unaccustomedly high levels of public scrutiny. It is a level of scrutiny that will only increase as the blogosphere deepens and begins to populate the long tail with more and more specialist (and local) voices. My advice: “don’t fight it, just get used to it”. If you don’t look for a way to work with the grain, you risk your own fury being the main thing readers (who are mostly silent partners in this ‘online community’) connote from the ‘engagement’.

This may sound to some like the appeal of a ‘gentle soul’ to the better nature of some rather uncouth strangers. But there is a substantial element of ‘enlightened self interest’ at stake here too. Online, for now at least, grasp of critical detail is what wins argument. It allows you to dismiss misplaced criticism, and develop powerful and measured counter attacks. The rest of us benefit from getting a line that is not otherwise available in the mainstream media. And the effects carry on beyond Slugger’s original, highly transparent, space.

If you insist on dragging debate to the lowest common denominator it will be obvious to the rest of us which front row collapsed the scrum. Any decent referee will let you off a few times to allow for over exuberance or nervousness. But at some point the appropriate penalty must ensue if the game is to resume its competitive flow.