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Blogs as Conversations(?)

Posted September 23rd, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

Blog comments — and by “blog” here, I really mean blogs with commenters plus the (probably more numerous) mainstream press articles online, with commenters — can be a curious manifestation of free speech at best, a depressing spectacle of barely legible misanthropy at worst.

In the middle of a major election, it’s tempting to be lulled into the assumption that we’re in the midst of a conversation — at times heated — among (or between) opposing world views.

But as I’ll explain, that’s a really optimistic way of looking at it (and in calling it “optimistic,” I’m speaking from the standpoint of someone who would favor the idea of “conversations” between people with differing but coherent ways of looking at the world… or indeed the idea of “conversations” as some of us might refer to them at all).

In the field of economics, or better yet, political economy (harkening back to those brave days when some universities actually put the two fields together, perhaps based on the understanding that they fit together in the real world) — it’s possible to identify (for example) two different kinds of assumptions, and therefore explain why people are arguing.

(When you read blog anger, scorn, flames, etc., it might be nice to think that was where people were coming from. Because it would mean, at least they were coming from *somewhere*.)

Position 1 might be characterized as classical economics. You might see terms crop up like “rent-seeking behavior,” “rational maximizers,” etc. — all of them point to the assumption that all else being equal, individuals will try to maximize their pecuniary returns. C.B. Macpherson called this possessive individualism. Economists of this ilk would say it’s neither good or bad, it just is. Adam Smith, a pioneer in political economy, actually thought it was bad (along with writing The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of the Moral Sentiments) — but it still “is”… and explains most of everything (at least it did at the time).

Position 2 might be seen as the communitarian position (yikes to how vague that term can be, but hey, it’s hard to get by on a single word). Tendencies towards compassion, empathy, and altruism are (empirically speaking) long-term survival strategies and many times are the “best policy”. Long-term benefit often comes from cooperation or even what appears to be selflessness. (See Robert H. Frank, Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Value of Emotions).

Now can two seemingly opposed world views like this get along? Or even have a coherent conversation? Only, it seems, under pretty strict conditions. Most of the time, as “discovered” by Jürgen Habermas, interlocutors are speaking strategically — trying to bargain or win. They rarely if ever bring a “mutual orientation to understanding” to the table. The hypothetical table Habermas speaks of is laid out painstakingly towards what Habermas called an “ideal speech situation.” He called his approach or system an attempt to construct a “universal pragmatics,” and opposed it to most worldviews which devolve into various forms of self-contained “hermeneutics.” As such, observers have called Habermas an “optimist.”

So back to Positions 1 and 2 above. When you read the never-ending attacks on an author’s motives, beliefs in a company’s self-interested moves “by definition,” etc., it’s tempting to believe that the authors are simply Machiavellian cynics or advocates of a strict form of classical economics. Everyone is always self-interested, so that explains everything.

When you read more closely, though, it turns out that’s not the case. Blog commenters (at least the worst ones, who attack everyone and everything) do not posit any type of specific assumptions about humanity or how systems or society work, other than simply wildly assuming most everyone else is morally and intellectually bankrupt, except for themselves. They alone would do the right thing, in the right circumstances — and if they didn’t, it would be because they had somehow earned or deserved it.

(And oh yes, by the way, there will be no speech today — or ever. Forget having a conversation. There are no world views. Why bother even looking them up?)

Indeed, it is possible that a certain class of blog commenters have elevated their own personal status as random haters to that of a deity, albeit a deity that could only exist in a world willing to worship the Tasmanian Devil.

To sum up the position that covers most of it: “corporations, the author of the article, Billy Joe Armstrong, anyone who tweeted something they liked or ever got Pinterested in anything, identifiable social groups, politicians, (continue very long list…)” are stupid, corrupt, evil, and…well, just generally yucky.

It would be comforting to conclude that this stance is so typical because blog, article, and YouTube commenters are all 14 years old behaving like 8, and are by definition immature & just don’t know anything yet. Again though, as you read on, it turns out not to be the case. Every age group is well represented.

Maybe a shorter way of saying this is that the majority of people (at least if you believe what you read even from gainfully employed commenters on user experience blogs, to say nothing of the more random stuff on Yahoo, etc.) are cynics. Cynics don’t believe in actual conversation. It’s tough to come to that realization… tough to hear Jürgen Habermas referred to by intelligent intellectuals (even if maybe in a positive light) as the ‘theologian of talk‘. Speech needs to be evangelized! Conversations aren’t just a goal to work towards… Habermas himself would have to gain a cult-like following if we want people to start working towards having actual conversations! :( Pretty sure that ain’t happening.

It’s probably better to put one’s head in the sand and ignore that (rampantly cynical yet bizarrely narcissistic) segment of humanity — even if it appears to be most people. I’m pretty sure that’s roughly why Seth Godin studiously ignores cynical reactions, and eliminated the comments section on his blog.

I’d like to think that’s also a fair way to apologize for Mitt Romney’s unfortunate private comment dismissing Obama voters; his apparent decision not to listen to 47% of (voting) Americans. Unfortunately, he called the people parasites, not cynics. Not nice, and not accurate (where I come from). But he’s out there trying to convince people of a world view, and he is not a cynic but rather an optimist. We’ll give him that.

And I leave you with the following. We can always call the cynics on their unstructured bullshit commentary, as some old dog did on this entertainment blog :)

Casey Kasem12 hours ago -28 Green Day is nothing but a bunch of poseurs. Oooh, little “punk” troll is screaming f words at a teleprompter. He’s so rebellious and punk rawk!!!!!! loser.
Bri H 12 hours ago +53 Wait a second, Green Day is “poseurs” now?! Hold up, a punk rock band that’s been around since 1988 is now “poseurs” seriously, I fail to see how in the **** you came to that conclusion. Honey, let me tell you something. Green Day will always have fans, and will always gain more fans, because they give good quality music that’s worth listening to. Justin Beiber, Usher, etc….they’ll wash out in a couple years. I give Justin another..2 or 3 years before he’s nothing but a memory. A bad memory. Green Day has fans that have been by their side for 20+ years, they are always gaining fans. But keep on with the “poser” ***** Cause guess what? Someone losing their temper over something they weren’t forewarned about because someone thought they had the right to go over their time limit, someone that has more *dedicated and devoted* fans than said person than went over, is not something to judge their character over. Billie Joe Armstrong is, in reality, and typically, a sweet, funny guy. Who has always been, and always will be awesome, and will always have fans. I mean come on, they’ve made music for over 20 years now, and still keep getting more fans. Yet, he’s a “poser”. But go ahead, keep speaking out of your anus. It’s amusing. Or better yet sweetheart why don’t you try going to this place called “YouTube” and listening to some Green Day songs, educate yourself on this band you called posers. Bet you you’ll be a fan in oh…30 minutes or less?


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