Saturday 7 August 2010

Saturday SoapBlog: Ben Coleridge - Election year blogs stifle democracy

Ben Coleridge completed year 12 in 2006, then worked as a language assistant at a university in Novgorod, just south of St Petersburg. Ben is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.

With the campaign underway for the 21 August Federal Election, the blogosphere is erupting with comments, arguments and counter-arguments, swamping the browser with opinions from a jungle of sources.

New online discussion spaces have been opened and the mainstream press is flooded with commentary. In the comments section of one blog, a person had left the warning, 'be careful, blogs can be dangerous'. This comment provoked the response: 'Dangerous? The blogosphere expands public discussion, how can that be dangerous? Isn't that democratic?'

The truth is that much blog commentary does not fit the definition of discussion — in my dictionary, 'critical examination by argument'. It is instead often mere assertion and/or animadversion.

Nevertheless, democracy as discussion is an interesting idea. Walter Bagehot, one of the early editors of The Economist, famously coined the phrase 'government by discussion' to describe democratic government. Point taken: obviously democracy does involve a lot of discussion at many different levels.

But the idea has limitations: for example, perhaps the inconclusiveness of discussion gave rise to the notion of parliament as a talk-shop where nothing is ever resolved and talk is itself the purpose. Moreover, the fact that in a democracy we are free to 'discuss' is not an unqualified benefit.

Simone Weil [pictured] wrote that the notion of a 'right' is far removed from the 'pure good'. Why? Because 'the possession of a right implies the possibility of making a good or bad use of it'. Some discussions can be bad discussions and not necessarily good for democracy.

We need to find a stronger idea than the idea of 'government by discussion' to describe what we should hope of democracy, including in its blogosphere expression. As the blogosphere reminds us, discussion can be driven by manifold motivations: particular interests, prejudices, leisure choices, friendships and so on. People engage in discussion for the sake of it, as a way of communicating, of expressing opinions and sharing information.

But 'discussion' does not necessarily imply a process driven by the desire to reach common goals. On the other hand 'discussion' and its associate 'argument' can imply the impossibility of commonality. Indeed, 'discussion' is not a process that necessarily implies the achievement of anything beyond the airing of points of view.

Another way of thinking about democracy is through the idea of 'democracy as public reasoning', an idea which has been floated by various philosophers including Weil, John Rawls and Amartya Sen.

Unlike 'discussion', 'reasoning' implies a strong purpose — you don't reason without a hoped for conclusion based on reaching shared commitment. The notion of 'public reasoning' implies a collective effort to solve problems based on mutual respect. As Adam Lister puts it, 'the distinctive contribution of public reason is to constitute a relationship of civic friendship in a diverse society'.

Anyone who has wanted to contribute to a media forum but who, after reading the comments stream, has reflected on the pointlessness of the exercise, will understand the value of the two things that a culture of 'public reasoning' would provide: purpose and respect.

The fact that we are 'discussing' (making assertions and arguing) more than ever before due to the internet and the blogosphere, does not prove that our democracy is in better shape. In the deluge of commentary which floods across online media forums, many voices are drowned out.

For example, on certain online forums (including mainstream media outlets) it is impossible to refer to religious faith without being smothered in vitriol. This environment precludes reasoning because reasoning, unlike argument, requires a willingness to listen to the other and to approach questions through mutual respect. It even requires us to step outside our own positional view of the world and into someone else's.

Reasoning also takes time, since it involves, according to the dictionary, the need 'to think out a problem logically' in a process of 'drawing inferences from facts or premises'. It is demanding of time in a way that does not particularly suit our contemporary habits of instant response via blog comment, 'tweeting' or poll responses.

Of course the idea of 'public reasoning' does have limitations: we cannot always overcome differences or find common ground. But inherent in it is that enabling objective, how to find a way forward with reference to each other.

Which brings me back to my initial remark about the onslaught of commentary across the blogosphere.

The question is, do the hundreds of blogs, online media outlets and sources of on-the-go information help us to reason with each other? Or do they inhibit public reasoning and replace it with mere 'discussion'? If they inhibit our reasoning together, then how do they really deepen democracy?
  • This first appeared on Eureka Street and is reproduced with permission.


Spiritus said...

Rare thoughtful reasoning Ben, most of us are "unaware that we are unaware", we merely "parrot" our peers , who "parrot" the media , who "parrot" the hidden "puppeteers".

Yes, mention GOD and the crap comes thick and fast from mindless puppets-zombies.

The "puppeteers" don't want us to maintain our direct connection to the "Divine" as it interferes with us puppet zombies, immortal "Souls" carrying a mind controlled corpse ... try the
Movies "Matrix 1" -"Trumans World"
and UTube re

:John: Babet

Alison Alloway said...

Well said Ben. Frankly, I think the overall quality of political debate has degenerated since the internet. An explosion of information has resulted in people cherrypicking what they WANT to believe, not what they should believe. A classic example of that was Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction" where lie after outrageous lie raced around the world about his so called arsenal.
(Most people didn't bother reading the reports of the various weapons inspectors in Iraq, who stated again and again that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

It's now easier to attack a person online, often through anonymity, than debate them using logic and facts to substantiate your case.

Adding fuel to all of this is the gradual erosion of values, ie respect, tolerance, altruism and ethics.
Cyber bullying is prevalent, including increasing attacks on public figures, thus increasing the real future risk of a breakdown in authority.
Has the internet benefitted our democracy? In my opinion, no.
In fact, it is already presenting with some frightening challenges to democracy.

Syd Walker said...

Alison, I find your posts increasingly bizarre.

You can't reasonably blame the internet for the "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" lie.

It's thanks to the internet that so many people around the world had good reason to doubt the lie at the time - and exposed it so quickly. It took DECADES to expose the Gulf of Tonkin lie that triggered US (and Australian) war escalation in Vietnam.

To examine why the Iraqi WMD lie had such potency in Australia, better to inquire why every Murdoch newspaper in the land repeated it and advocated for war.

Similarly, given that the same Zionist war fetishists are now slavering at the bit to attack Iran, ask when 'your ABC' last interviewed a repesentative of Iran's governmernt - and how many times 'your ABC' lets us hear directly from Iran as opposed to the war-crazy Israeli regime?

Don't blame the internet for lies and disinformation. Blame the liars and disinformationalists.

Incidentally, Warren Entsch appears to still think the invasion of Iraq was (on balance) worth doing, despite milions of displaed people, hundreds of thousands of casualties and a country in ruins. Warren doesn't mind that the WMDs weren't found. By denying that even a figleaf of respectability was needed to attack Iraq, Warren seems to hold the view that might is right, there's no such thing as international law (except for defeated nations) and countries on 'our side' are entitled to attack anyone anytime they feel like it.

Jim Turnour - well who knows what he thinks about Iraq? Maybe ALP HQ haven't told him what to think about Iraq yet?

Vote Green if you want this to change. Whatever else their faults, the Greens are unlikely to take the nation to war just to give our ever-expanding military happy, please the Pentagon or appease Australia's billionaire-funded Israel Lobby.

Bob Beamon said...

An interesting post Ben. "Anyone who has wanted to contribute to a media forum but who, after reading the comments stream, has reflected on the pointlessness of the exercise, will understand the value of the two things that a culture of 'public reasoning' would provide: purpose and respect."

This is why I initially came to this blog in the belief that it might present different views in a reasoned and courteous manner. However, recently the standard has been appalling and Mike Moore ought to be ashamed of himself for allowing so many vile posts to pass through especially the disgusting post attacking someone as a paedophile who masturbated over bank notes followed by a person with the pseudonym 'curious' launching expletive laden (but mostly justified it has to be said) demands for the post to be withdrawn.

This blog could perform a useful role in Far North Queensland discourse but instead it increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator of ugly Pavlovian human response, all under the guise of pseudonymous anonymity.

KitchenSlut said...

While I don't agree with the extent of Alison's concerns they are not bizarre and reflect the principal flaw of the internet as an information tool.

The principal flaw is what psychologists call 'confirmation bias' which is the tendency of all of us to accept information that confirms our held beliefs above that which conflicts. Behavioural finance is a discipline where this is keenly studied.

The internet is a fantastic resource but it can also become a source to amplify confirmation bias. You believe something just google it and guess what you can find information which confirms your belief no matter how obtuse?

Around the blogospher there is a lot of tribalism with groups chanting and supporting their held beliefs within themselves. I would have to say Cairnsblog is not one of those and has maintained a diversity which is perhaps only posible with minimal censorship standards many may find objectionable.

Which brings me back to Ben's post and it occurs to me that there is something of a contradiction between his 'public reasoning' appearing on a discussion blog?

Yes, Blog comments are usually discussions. This is no different from the bar at the Red Beret or the Cairns RSL and, Ben, I can tell you that you that any half intelligent humman will learn more relevant information and links on Cairnsblog than in an afternoon at the Red Beret! Maybe we should consider the democratic conmsequences of pub discussions?

Ben's "public reasoning" is ultimately absolutist in an obscenely undemocratic sense?

Alison Alloway said...

Syd, I used that "weapons of mass destruction" lie to demonstrate that a hell of a lot of people DID NOT use the internet to research the truth. They were not curious enough. I was in touch with Iraqis living inside Iraq, every night for several years.

Alison Alloway said...

"The internet is a fantastic resource but it can also become a source to amplify confirmation bias. You believe something just google it and guess what you can find information which confirms your belief no matter how obtuse?"

Well said KitchenSlut. That is what I meant. When the Iraq war was raging, I recall vividly many arguments online about Saddam's so called "weapons of mass destruction". People arguing for war were going into American sites and quoting people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to back their claims. They didn't know WHERE to look for independent comment.
In my case I went inside Iraq and was able to make contact with several Iraqis living in different cities. Not many people did that.

Alison Alloway said...

I just re-read my comment about "weapons of mass destruction". I explained clearly that those people who believed the lie did not bother to read the reports of the weapons inspectors.
Syd didn't bother to read through what I said.
The internet does provide lots of information, however you have to know WHERE and WHO to go for that information.
"There are two kinds of information...that which you have...the other the ABILITY to find out that which you do not have."

Syd Walker said...

Alison - I did read your comment carefully. I apologize if describing it as bizarre was rude. I could perhaps have merely said "I don't agree".

I still don't agree. What on earth did the internet have to do with reading the weapons inspector's reports?

John Howard - one presumes - read them. In this excellent recent article by John Pilger, he mentions that "John Howard... holds something of a record for having claimed 30 times in one speech that he knew Saddam Hussein had a 'massive programme' of weapons of mass destruction."

Howard has never been held to account for such feckless inaccurate war hype. Was he lying deliberately at that time? Were his advisers idiots? Or did he allow the Israel Lobby-dominated Pentagon run Australian foreign policy on such a crucial matter as invading another nation?

In Britian, at least there's a public inquiry into the circumstances of the Iraq invasion, although its membership lacks credibility. In Australia's Murdochracy, we don't even bother to do that.

If Labor supporters think the internet is the problem here they really haven't got it.

See Howard lying in action here. Why didn't the Rudd Government flay him over this once Labor took office? Presumably because Rudd and co are up to their necks in the same lies and beholden to the same influences.

The same reason an innocent man festers in jail - because the Australian political and media elite are so utterly corrupt they'd rather kill and incarcerate that face the truth about their ugly past.

KitchenSlut said...

I think both of you have misunderstood and are displaying confirmation bias?

The idea that you managed to identify global certainties via the internet is in fact statistically remote?

It's unlikely to be more than a 50/50 fluke where you happened to be on the right side? Confirmation bias will tell your brain that you are a genius!

Again, behavioural finance research tells much on this. The problem is you now allocate unjustified credence for your views based on past luck?

Alison Alloway said... are right. As a follower of Middle East politics for many years, I used my own knowledge and commonsense to determine the real reasons why the US embarked on war and control of Iraq. Sheer logic would have told anyone that had Saddam his arsenal of "weapons of mass destruction", the US would not have launched a LAND invasion on it. You are correct...I used logic.
Syd, I am as disappointed as you that only Bob Brown stood up and took "Dubya" to task for the illegal and brutal invasion. The lack of action by the ALP on that issue has diminished them in my eyes.

KS is Queen! said...

So true, K Slut. You have nailed it! You're welcome in my kitchen anytime.

Marry me in California , please!!