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February 18, 2005

What is Rational Discourse?

Professor Althouse, possibly the most prolific blogger ever,*is now, according to the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times, possibly one of the most widely read, as well. Whatever the truth of that, she's the subject of a story about blogging in the paper in which she reiterates an argument she's made recently on her blog:
Althouse said many of the politically left-leaning blogs are so strident they tend to be “self-marginalizing.” Conservative bloggers tend to be smoother and more reasoned, which makes for more convincing arguments, she said.
Althouse recently received an “instalanche” (an avalanche of links after being mentioned on Instapundit) for pointing out that the NY Times changed a headline several times on a story about the Iraqi elections. Althouse suggested that the Times was changing the headline from something positive to something negative, and that the text of the story itself never changed. (See also her followup.) Without getting into the merits of the ensuing controversy, what interested me most was that it sparked a dismayed post from Althouse about the differences she perceives in the tone and approach of bloggers on the left and right. She begins by claiming to be a “political moderate”:
More than any ideology, I care about rational discourse. In the year that I've been blogging I've taken a lot of different positions, some left and some right. What I've noticed, over and over, is that the bloggers on the right link to you when they agree and ignore the disagreements, and the bloggers on the left link only for the things they disagree with, to denounce you with short posts saying you're evil/stupid/crazy, and don't even seem to notice all the times you've written posts that take their side. Why is this happening? I find it terribly, terribly sad.
I disagree with some of the details of this, but I agree with the gist of it. First, I would point out that if you care about “rational discourse,” you care about an ideology—the ideology of rational discourse. It's an Enlightenment ideology that pretends that things like “objectivity” and “reasonable standards” actually exist, even as it actively attempts to deny the ways in which these concepts are continuously manipulated by competing factions in society to serve their own ends. I've seen from my own reading that Althouse does not follow a consistent “party line” in a sense that would be either Democratic or Republican, but that's the beauty of the ideology of “rational discourse” or the political middle—it enables its proponents to claim to be above the fray. This certainly has its advantages, and perhaps in some ways it's preferable to following a more consistent party line, but it's still ideological and a position that carries its own drawbacks and baggage. I'm also not sure that the characterization of bloggers on the left and right is accurate. Are those on the left really more polemic or negative? Perhaps. If so, we have plenty of reason to be. I cringe every time I hear talk of “bipartisanship” or “working together” because that's the rhetoric that has allowed the Bush administration to do so much damage in the U.S. and the world. “Work with us,” they say, “and we'll work with you.” But the truth is, every time the right has extended that olive branch in the last five years, it has quickly stomped on the good faith the left extends in return. From my perspective (and I think from the perspective of many on the left), the right has lied to and manipulated the U.S. and the world to advance a very antisocial and dangerous agenda, and it shows no sign of stopping. See, for example, the “crisis” of social security or the “crisis” in civil lawsuits that is so desperately screaming for “tort reform.” These so-called crises are certainly issues worth paying attention to; it's almost certain we could make positive changes to both social security and our civil litigation system. However, to predicate those changes on campaigns of fear (crisis! the system will be bankrupt by 2012! judicial hellholes!) is not just disingenuous, it's indefensible. Oh, and it's also extremely unreasonable and irrational. I probably don't need to add that this is exactly the strategy the right used to sell the Iraq war—it lied about a crisis so often and so menacingly that it manipulated the world into war. To ask the left to respond in measured or “reasonable” tones to this sort of irrational fear mongering is asking the left to submit passively to the dominance of the right. If one side is screaming it's head off (e.g. “we don't want the proof to come in the form of a mushroom cloud!!”), and the other side is merely making polite comments (“really, we think the inspections are working”), which side is going to prevail? Recent history answers that question pretty clearly. So perhaps the tone coming from the left has seemed more negative, more bitter, more implacably oppositional than in the past. And perhaps that's unfortunate; it would be nice if we could live in a society that could discuss important issues in civil and respectful ways. Maybe someday we can. But the left has tried “reasonable.” I'm happy to see more strident and vehement opposition for a while. Of course, what the left really needs is some serious leadership to help direct that stridency and vehemence, to get it moving in positive directions (so that instead of just being oppositional, it can lead). But that will be a post for another day... *Althouse and some of her colleagues sometimes stay up all night blogging. They blog car accidents from multiple perspectives and “simulblog” the dinners they have together. What's in that Madison water, anyway? UPDATE: See also “Further Ways to Argue Like a Conservative” by Tom Tomorrow

Posted February 18, 2005 07:57 AM | general politics

To the extent that her observation is true, about left-leaners linking to things they disagree with and right-learners linking to things they agree with, let's think about why that might be.

If I (a presumptively left-leaning, though not particularly political, blogger) link to something I disagree with, it's generally because I think an important issue has been raised but that there's something missing from the analysis. I would post about it in order to add the insight I think is missing, which I think other people should consider. If I don't then also link to "right-leaning" bloggers when I agree with them it's not that I begrudge the consensus, but simply that I don't think there's necessarily a point in doing it. There's nothing that can be added to the discourse by simply saying "Right on!" when consensus happens to occur. (For what it's worth, however, sometimes I still might be inclined to link to something with which I agree if the analysis parallels mine to the point where I would simply want to point out how someone else has grasped the issue in a way I think it important. In other words, linking to their articulation spares me the trouble of having to write mine…)

I suspect that the reason a right-leaner might see the value in linking when there's consensus is because it suits the objective of creating hegemony around the ideas they prefer. A left-leaner might have the motivation to say, look, there's something missing from the discussion that we really need to consider. A right-leaner's motivation might, on the other hand, very well be to demonstrate, "See, we all think this so it must be right," which strengthens the force of those ideas in society, and ultimately serves to further marginalize dissent.

Posted by: Cathy at February 18, 2005 08:43 AM

I also take issue with her statement that, "Conservative bloggers tend to be smoother and more reasoned, which makes for more convincing arguments, she said."

That in itself is a bit of punditry which isn't quite consistent with her claim of devotion to rational discourse.

Perhaps conservative bloggers might be more reasoned (and I'm not ready to agree with that assertion) but I would argue that conservative media pundits tend to be far more reactionary and vitriolic than their liberal counterparts.

Posted by: -Dave! at February 18, 2005 10:30 AM

Cathy: Thank you for that analysis. It suggests a fundamental difference between left and right (generally speaking) w/regard to the goals of the political process and dialogue. The politics of the left (the "far" left, esp., IMO) is one of progress -- the idea that however things might be today, they could be better tomorrow. This is a critical approach to the world, by which I mean those on the left tend to look at the world through a critical lens, always searching for places that need more attention, more work; places where positive social change might be possible. This makes us sound constantly critical of just about everything -- because we are! As you note, too much of the right (perhaps the right blogosphere esp.) seems happier playing the role of dittohead than critical thinker. I think you're absolutely right that the "see, we all think alike so we must be correct" mentality serves to marginalize dissent, even as it supports the status quo (regardless of how screwed up the status quo might be). Anyway, excellent insight, and thanks for sharing it.

Dave!: I couldn't agree more that right media pundits are by far the most shrill and vitriolic. I see this translated into shrill, smug, condescending and otherwise not at all helpful tones in the right blogosphere. I'm surprised that Althouse doesn't seem to see it that way.

Posted by: ambimb at February 19, 2005 09:15 AM

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