Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Civility on the web

I appreciated Jonathan Freedland's op-ed piece in the Guardian today, entitled "The blogosphere risks putting off everyone but point-scoring males." It makes the (not terribly insightful) observation that the internet, which is potentially an experiment in wide-ranging democracy and exchange of ideas typically is dominated by loud mouths, cranks, and ideological hacks. Too often an exchange of ideas becomes a series of personal attacks (a logical fallacy) and conversations become ideological echo-chambers, with the result that thinking is avoided --seemingly at all costs. Although there nothing particularly new about hand-wringing over civility on the web, there really is a sense in which the potential of this experiment (viz. the internet) really raises the stakes for humanity.

I found this passage particularly interesting:
But that advantage [i.e. instant feedback on matters such as factual errors, etc.] is surely out- weighed by the risk that the blogo-sphere, which could be a new, revolutionary public space, instead becomes a stale, claustrophobic environment, appealing chiefly to a certain kind of aggressive, point-scoring male - and utterly off-putting to everyone else. This is not just bad news for media outlets like the Guardian, keen to build an audience; it means that this great democratic opportunity is lost.

Ah, but this free-for-all is democratic, say the devotees. Any change would be censorship. But imagine that public meeting. Would that constitute a democratic debate, or a shouting match in which the loudest, most intimidating voice wins? Surely the more democratic encounter is the meeting properly chaired, allowing everyone their say and ensuring no descent into bar-room brawl. That's certainly how we operate in the real world, so why should the virtual realm be any different?

Freedland puts his finger on the typical justification for libertarian attitudes towards society and politics (and, in a different way, free market economics): a semi-mythological attitude which insists that any limitation - or, better, any heteronomous limitation - is ipso facto illegitimate. But notice what Freedland notices: that when autonomy and nothing else is the only possible criterion, then the strong - the bullies - win, and life becomes not only oppressive, but also monotonous and excessively dull. The better - in Freedland's terms, the more democratic - alternative is not simply to allow whoever whatever they wish to say, with whatever force, rage and ill-will they can muster, but rather a 'proper chairing', which would allow different voices to contribute to advancing the conversation. It ends up being a collaborative, open-ended project with a measure of competition and contest, but not, I think, dominated by selfishness and abuse of power.

It might be objected that this 'proper chairing' is necessarily value-laden: fine, so is libertarianism. A value-laden ordering of space, time, relationships, and so forth cannot be gotten around. And so the question ends up being not, a specific, value-laden arrangement versus something non-value-laden and 'neutral', but rather which is the best, most just, and in Christian terms, most Godly and most oriented towards God's Kingdom. (And, yes, the criteria for for the judgements, not just the judgements themselves are value-laden.)

Anyway, it is a good essay, go and read the rest.

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Blogger PdB said...

Interesting. The author you site seems to see only two possibilities governing public discourse: autonomous libertarianism or social regulation. The bar-room brawl or the chaired meeting. Because the one happens, the other must be considered as a remedy. In his words, there seems not to be an alternative.

I don't understand this kind of mentality, except to suspect that the public is believed to be incapable of self-government. Freedom to be self-governed is not libertarianism. Self-government is the ordering of one's life according to higher principles that are rooted only in God himself, and that is the alternative that the author did not consider.

As I've pointed out before, if the law of God is written on our hearts, then it needn't be written in stone.

As it regards this application: if arenas of public discourse on the internet are distasteful, I would suggest that a person find other places to exchange ideas. If the proprietor of a web site isn't willing to set a standard for participation, then find one that is. For that, in contrast to the author's portrayal, is indeed how we operate in the real world: some places do not impose restrictions, such as Speakers Corner or that bar-room already mentioned, while other places do uphold procedural standards. But not all healthy exchanges of ideas are held to procedural standards, either. I would say most, in fact, are informal settings where participants restrain themselves according to their ability to be civil.

I would love to see more encouragement towards inward transformation than suggesting outward impositions which will alter behavior but not the heart.

Thursday, April 12, 2007 6:22:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

First, it bears mentioning that Freedland’s ultimate point is the suggestion that we ought to devise some means of showing continuity of identity over time – integrity. This is in order to secure some measure of accountability, which Freedland says is the bedrock of healthy democracy. The excerpt I cited did not establish this (nor was it my intention to summarise the essay itself in a few paragraphs, but merely to attract attention to one of his points). The upshot is that he suggests a somewhat different alternative than the two you mention, Pamela.

Second, I find your stipulation of the meaning of ‘self-government’ odd: it seems to mean not ‘self-government’ at all in the usual sense, but government by God. That's not, I think, what most would understand with that term. The suggestion runs aground – historically ran aground in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries – later in the sentence, when you suggest that ‘self-government’ is the ordering of one’s life according to higher principles rooted only in God himself. There are three elements in this that I would like to call attention to:

1) It seems to me that the concept of the self implied in the notion of ‘ordering one’s life’ is fairly historically specific. I’m not sure that it would make sense to talk about someone having a life to be ordered in this way in, say, AD 800, or 800 BC; it seems rather that it is a notion that arose within the centuries I mention above. This is not an objection per se, but it does call into question any sense of timelessness behind our concept of the self. (It further raises the question of whether this is the dominant notion of ‘self’ in Scripture.)

2) This idea of ‘ordering one’s life’ further raises the question: is this ordering a right of individuals? How do we know that it is? More to the point, if it is, what happens when someone infringes on another’s right to order their lives? At this point, we seem to need some sort of heteronomy, some sort of law outside ourselves, to restrain ourselves: a state, perhaps, to guarantee these rights and punish those who curtail others’ rights. So autonomy (self-government) ends up being guaranteed by heteronomy. Of course, maybe this ordering isn’t a right at all (I find ‘rights’ to be problematic and dubious, for the most part), but I’m not sure how else you would characterise it.

3) Finally, you mention that one orders one’s life according to ‘higher principles rooted only in God himself’. This is pretty abstract – what are these ‘higher principles’? The Law? Or are they intended to be synthesized from the Biblical story? (Does this mean the Biblical story is secondary or disposable? I don’t think you would say so – nor would I.) Is there a clear hierarchy among the principles or mechanism of judgement that, if they conflict, can be appealed to? I’m raising these questions because these are the questions that have been raised historically about your suggestion, and the answers to them have been cast either in terms of social regulation – theonomy in the State, tradition in the church – or else private judgement – private judgement (within certain parameters), ‘conscience’. But this only puts us back where we began: heteronomy or autonomy.

It is interesting that your suggestion in this case is basically libertarian: if one doesn’t like what one finds, look somewhere else.

For my part, I think that the ‘law written on our hearts’ is a sort of heteronomous autonomy (if you’ll grant me the linguistic gymanastics), but one which necessarily takes place in sociality, with accountability. It does not dispense with the ‘outward’, the ‘social’ or the ‘public’, but is realised and fulfilled there.

(I doubt that it is coincidental that I hear echoes of our brief IM exchange on American history the other day.)

I should say however, on the matter of civility on the web, that although we are fairly often in sharp disagreement Pamela, I deeply appreciate the respect and restraint – rooted in friendship – that you show in your responses (and I hope you can echo that for mine).

Thursday, April 12, 2007 9:49:00 AM  
Blogger PdB said...

I can't usually take the time to read in full the articles you cite, so I rely on your summaries of them to understand what you draw from them. I hope that doesn't frustrate you too much, but now you know that I'm responding to you and not your sources.

I used the term "self-government" in the same way Galatians uses "self-control", in a personal and foundational way, for it is the collective ability of individuals to exhibit personal self-control that enables them to support and sustain a self-governing society.

The governing code will have its foundation in a principle of some sort, and my definition of self-governance presupposed God as the head because He alone is just and merciful.

I think some confusion arises when we try to speak of government and God. There are two different, yet intertwining realities here. While one is earthly, the other is spiritual. Self-governance should be contrasted with all other forms of earthly government, not with the spiritual submission to the Lord our King.

Here's something: the more we abide on the Vine--the more we draw our life from Him, the less external, the less heteronomous, His rule in our lives will be. It will be internal. You won't need to do linguistic gymnastics; you'll just appreciate that the concept autonomy will be transformed from self-centeredness to selflessness through the process of sanctification.

Now, my suggestion was indeed libertarian, but it is born out of a sense of compassion, not defiance typical of a libertarian; I wanted the author to be spared from the discomfort those online discussions had been giving him.

Because I sensed that the proposed remedy was to involve civil government, I simply wanted to point out that, based on principle and supported by pragmatics, this would not be the wisest track in the long run.

But the big problem is that the real remedy, evangelizing others to walk in the Spirit of Christ, is as foolishness to those who don't believe. There are a lot of those folks around, and they're making a god out of government legislation.



Friday, April 13, 2007 6:36:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

It's interesting that you are concerned to police suggestions that involve civil government -- another indication of your libertarianism, I take it.

It's not at all clear to me that civil government is in all cases a negative. Nor do I think that abuses - certain people making government legislation 'a god' - determines its value. Certainly people have abused other institutions - the family, the church - without raising our suspicion about the institution itself (generally speaking, at least). The question is what is proper?

More than that, the gospel itself moves us to care about others. Of course those who know me would never accuse me of thinking this concern can only be expressed through attending to the nation-state. Nevertheless, this care for others, in our different socio-political and cultural setting, must take into account issues having to do with topics such as (at least) care for the poor, peace, and so forth. I do not think it is too far of a stretch to think it also implies caring about justice, clean government, and perhaps even conjecturing on the conditions for democracy (or at least human flourishing), which is what I was doing here.

Or to put it differently, although the nations/Gentiles do indeed belong to the 'world', in a way that the church (and Israel) do not, nevertheless this is also the world that God so loved as to send his Son for it.

Friday, April 13, 2007 7:00:00 PM  
Blogger PdB said...

Thanks for your comments on my blog; it's good to hear from you, and I appreciated your kind words.

To ease your mind: I'm not a libertarian. I understand the need for good government, but what makes it good is not found in its social programs, but in the recognition of its jurisdictional limits. Funny, I just read a quote by Thomas Jefferson on this point today.

Christ has called on us to minister to each other's needs. James tells us that this is the true religion. So on principle I understand this to be a responsibility of the Christian and not of the State. But practically: when government steps into the jurisdiction of the family and the Church to care for the poor and abused, the orphaned and widowed, then the family and the Church cease to care for them in a personal and meaningful way, whether it's because the individuals disconnect from the community or because the community gets lazy. But it happens, and the result is that those with needs become isolated in their need, separated from encouragement and useful counsel, both practical and spiritual. Do you not see that happening, and don't you think it's sad?

You can rest assured that I do not fault the institution of civil government for the abuses it suffers at the hands of some. But I do object to the form it takes when jurisdictional limits are ignored.

Well. I think that about covers it for this thread. But it is your blog, and I don't begrudge you having the last word. ;D

Saturday, April 14, 2007 2:54:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

No need to 'ease my mind', I'm simply describing the position you've adopted v-v the civil government. Your saying that its goodness lies in its limits ('that government is best which governs least'?) and mentioning Thos. Jefferson - a deist beloved by baptists - only reinforces this impression.

I'm not precisely sure where these 'jurisdictions' come from, and how it is decided whether something belongs to one or another. Are they 'self-evident'?

I do think it is sad - no, far worse than that - when the Church neglects the mission of God in the world. But your point isn't a proper objection as it blames others for Christians' slackness. As you yourself said, 'if the law of God is written on our hearts, then it needn't be written in stone'. Or in this case, it shouldn't matter if it is 'written in stone' (i.e. the nation undertakes collectively to address some social malady) because it is 'written in our hearts' (i.e. the Spirit is moving the Church to live with and love the poor, etc.).

I have a dear friend who is a deeply committed Christian and also a libertarian. I would be interested to see what he makes of this conversation if he has been following it.

Of course, the conversation never ends...

Monday, April 16, 2007 4:40:00 AM  

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