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.

  • Greenflag

    Polly Toynbee’s lecture certainly provides food for thought .

    She underestimates the intelligence of serious bloggers even those of us who could be accused of having a skeptical view of politicians generally. I would never assume that all bloggers assume that ALL politicians are knaves out to feather their own nests. Some are no doubt and some manage to combine combine excellent public service /ministerial performance with what might be termed personal ‘knavery ‘ . The late CJH being a case in point .

    Methinks that Polly does not enjoy the irreverent and anonymous instant talking back to the ‘established order’ Government /Media /Business etc etc that the blogosphere brings .

    Her ‘anonymity ‘ argument makes sense on the surface . Would I make some of the comments I make without ‘anonymity’ The answer is probably not . Would I write to the newspapers – probably not . Would I comment at all at all ? probably not . I suspect millions of bloggers are the same .

    I suspect that ‘bloggers ‘ just like newspaper readers or magazine subscribers eventually gravitate to those ‘blogs’ which suits their individual ‘personality’ or worldview and as has been said it’s still an emerging phenomenon. The impact on the political world has yet to be assessed . However I for one would praise Slugger’s approach even if personally It can be a bit ‘stuffy’ at times 🙂 There are other boards which are totally ‘uncensored’ and although they can be fun initially there does come a point when digging at the other side loses it’s appeal 🙂

    When heavyweight champion Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in Germany in the 1930’s the German ‘established’ propaganda media hailed it as a victory of German ‘manhood’ over the ‘inferior’ negro . Goebbel’s propaganda machinery had a field day. Max Schmelling
    however did what most boxers of that time would have done -he immediately rushed to help Joe Louis up off the canvas.

    Many political bloggers are a bit like Max . Your opponent is your opponent in the ring but thats where it begins and ends . Next round coming up.

  • Hmm…

    While anonymity certainly gives scoundrels free reign (a virtual Gyges’ ring for Plato fans out there) there is also a downside to being able to hold individuals responsible for what they say, namely that they may simply choose to keep schtum rather than stick their heads above the parapet. One of the downsides of the current relationship between politics and the media is that the glare of publicity (necessary though it may be) has largely squeezed deliberation out of official political discourse. While deliberation only really works when people are prepared to think out loud and revise their views when presented with good counterarguments, any politician found engaging in this sort of thing will rapidly find themselves accused of being off-message, doing a u-turn etc. (again, this is the media’s job, at least in part – it just has some unfortunate consequences). I recall hearing Estelle Morris saying something about this at one stage, i.e. that she could have better quality discussions with constituents when the media weren’t around to try and catch her out. Where the dynamics of traditional media coverage of politics have helped to impoverish public deliberation, a good blog can be a breath of fresh air (keep up the good work Mick!), uncomfortable as it may be for some to find the audience talking back.

  • Mick,

    I mentioned this article to a friend and he mentioned a half-remembered story about the way Republicans handled debate while in prison – where individuals didn’t disclose their identities (so that ad hominem arguments – particlarly damanging in the context of an org that bumps off it’s own members at times) they DID stick to a single pseudonym to avoid sockpuppetry.

    Any pointers to reading on how this worked would be gratefully received?

  • susan

    Excellent essay, Mick. The cynicism about politicians Toynbee objects to has been around for generations, the blogosphere just makes it harder for politicians to ignore. Given its (comparitive) independence from advertisers, the (comparatively) low cost of getting messages across to a diverse, self-selected readership, and it’s (comparative) immunity from all sorts of sources of intimidation, the blogosphere is still much more a safeguard to true democracy than a threat to it.

    And I swear to God this weekend I’ll remember to hit the tip jar for Slugger. This very weekend, on my honour.

    Paulie, I can’t answer your question, but I do remember hearing a great story of how Danny Morrison and a debating partner were once assigned to argue the unionist viewpoint while in prison. They not only won, they found themselves in a swarm of congratulations from their republican comrades afterwards.

  • Greenflag

    ‘In a poor democratic space like Northern Ireland, the consequences of long running, low-grade politics can and has cost lives in Northern Ireland.’

    Precisely Mick-where politics are seen to fail and where debate is stifled or ignored then you end up with significant ‘alienation’ particularly in a situation like NI . There is a thin line between the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and the descent to mob rule and/or the tyranny of the majority .

    When politicians fail to hold that thin line either by deliberate intent or ignorance /indifference , abstention or unwillingness to compromise, then the ‘mobs’ take over and refashion the political playing field to their taste. In the context of NI most people in their daily lives do not ‘talk’ politics to the other side . There is an implicit understanding that there is no point and the aggravation incurred or personal /business relations destroyed as a result do no one any good. Deja vu is already deja vu for 80 years plus ?Thus matters are left to the ‘elected representatives’ which in the NI context meant and still means some would say effectively relegating ‘debate’ to limbo or to a brief interlude of ‘slagging’ come election time .But the continued ‘failure’ of NI politicians over the past 40 years to breakthrough to a stable political agreement has effectively meant what people refer to as a ‘no real politics’ society !

    The blogosphere partly through it’s anonymity allows views to be expressed , ideas to be tested and party policies held up to public view for praise or ridicule. It also offers hope that some new perspectives may be encountered . The staid media is restricted either by it’s owner’s editorial line or by it’s ‘marketing’ dept .Political party websites can be expected to promote only the party line- but sites like Sluggers and others help to broaden such debate as there is .

    Slugger IMO is a positive influence -I don’t think at this stage that we can predict what the ultimate political fall out from the blogosphere will be on democratic and not so democratic societies around the world . But there will be some no doubt and I tend to believe that on balance it will be positive despite P.Toynbee’s valid concerns.

  • lapsedmethodist

    It’s a pity that Elias Cannetti died before the internet and blogging. I’m sure he’d have had a chapter on blogging in ” Crowds and Power “. The blogger as “crowd crystal ” ?