Friday, February 10, 2006

Blogging, debate, and mean things people do

Why don't I like Rush Limbaugh? I know you've been silently hoping to learn the answer to this mystery.

I don't mind that Limbaugh is wrong. I respect people who can thoughtfully defend positions I don't agree with. That's fun, and I seek it out. I don't like Rush Limbaugh because he is smart enough to know he's wrong, but cuts off any opportunity for debate, and for people to correct his errors before his listeners are misinformed. His loyal "dittoheads" are known for their unquestioning acceptance of whatever horsecrap he's shoveling during the particularly large chunk of the day people have granted him. Dave Neiwert wrote a wonderful series of essays about the role Rush plays in moving fringe, extremist legends into the conservative mainstream. Read that and you'll get a sense of why I might not like Rush, and why I do like Neiwert.

Cass Sunstein describes a fascinating result from an experiment he and some colleagues tried. They took a bunch of people from Colorado City (conservative, think Dodge City, KS) and from Boulder (liberal, think Lawrence, with more hippies), and surveyed the two groups for their views on controversial issues. After deliberating in small groups of like-minded individuals, they were sampled again. Conservatives got more conservative after being given empirical data and hearing the other views, liberals got more liberal.

A 15 minute deliberation, an exchange of facts and opinion, made both groups more extreme than they started, both in aggregate and individually. In addition, the overlap between the two groups diminished. While the median view started out pretty close together, a short deliberation eliminated the middle ground!

That's what Rush does. He eliminates the middle ground. And I think that hurts America.

I read j.d. at evolution because I disagree with him, but I he makes me think and I think I make him think. It's fun. That's why I blog. That's the only reason I can imagine to blog about politics, to discuss and debate the issues of the day with people who see things through different lenses, and to try to develop views that are consistent with your philosophy, but that aren't merely doctrinaire.

There are other blogs I read because I want to know what Rush's dittoheads think. I occasionally hope I might change a mind, but mostly I read and comment to point out errors and to warn people about the arguments we'll be seeing mindlessly paraded through media in short order.

Speaking of which, Revka is peeved. Some liberal bloggers have been:
Stealing a fellow bloggers [sic] words [hers -TfK], posting them on their blog and twisting the meaning to prove a point they are trying to make. Also called libel, slander etc...
Why would some "fierce, hateful" liberal jerk "use a blogger as the joke of the day on your blog"?

Could it be that this fiend might think it's as important to correct errors as to highlight wisdom?

And errors abound at Revka's blog. To begin, libel refers to a written communication which meets three distinct tests:

  • The statement has been made to a third party.
  • The statement refers to the plaintiff.
  • The statement is defamatory, it must be a false statement which does the plaintiff some discredit.
The first two are fairly generic, but the third, that's what makes talking trash about someone into libel. Lying about someone to make others think less of that person.

Truth is an absolute defense (so quoting someone accurately cannot, on its own, be libel), and "fair comment" is a defense and occurs when fair (non-malicious) comments are made about truly stated facts. For instance, making fair comments about the actual text of another person's words is not libel.

Slander refers to the spoken word, so it isn't even relevant.

Thus, these last paragraphs, even though they indicate that Revka is talking without a clear understanding of the topic at hand, are not libel, and certainly aren't slander.

So, by examining one person's words (without her permission), we've learned something of value about the law.

Now, let's learn more about blogging.

Revka says:
I have not set my blog up as a debate forum anyway, but you may respectfully disagree
And I do.

When you post your opinions on the Intarwebs, you accept that other people might just disagree with you, and use your dumber comments as evidence not only of your argument's flaws, but of your personal flaws, your philosophy's flaws, the flaws of other people who might have espoused some similar view in some other era, etc. Your control ends when you hit the publish button. If that doesn't sound like fun, don't blog. Seriously.

I'm sure every blogger has some great post that they wrote, read over, pondered, and realized that, while well-reasoned, insightful and sound, there was no way to prevent the misuse of some text or some key argument, and no way to rewrite it to keep it from being twisted in a way you wouldn't appreciate or agree with. These posts sit in the ecto queue, unpublished until you forget you ever wrote them.

There are other times when you know a lot of people, even your allies, will piss all over a post, but you think it's important and you're ready for the fight. You publish and respond to comments and reactions on other blogs. You make your case and hope you change some minds. What you don't do is toss some idiot comment out and get hacked off when other people disagree.

Blogging is a discussion. Any interesting discussion has the potential to get heated, and it takes maturity and grace to turn that around. No law will mandate such grace or maturity, nor should it. Laws aren't there to enforce manners.

What I love about blogs is that, while it's possible for people to build an isolated community of like-minded yokels, it's just as possible to increase the diversity of views weighing in on any issue, improving the quality of the debate and perhaps even improving the result. When people like Revka or the hacks at Uncommon Descent or Rush Limbaugh think they or their readers/listeners should be protected from disagreement and debate, that just makes me think that they are more interested in propanganda than in making things better.

Let the lawsuits commence.