Election year blogs stifle democracy


Simone WeilWith 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?

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: julia gillard, tony abbott, blogs, blogosphere, discussion, democracy, simone weil, john rawls, amartya sen



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Existing comments

Thanks Ben for trying to put some context onto the blogoshere. You make a good point regarding reasoning. Perhaps among the comments leaders may find some trends of candidate thinking to balance with the contextual information that they alone can access and so hopefully make enlightened decisions .
Michelle | 19 July 2010

Ben, another interesting article. Democracy as public reasoning is also called 'deliberative democracy' - Dr John Dryzek at ANU is an academic in this field http://deliberativedemocracy.anu.edu.au/

Dr Lyn Carson is another academic who has done great work in citizen participation in deliberation http://www.activedemocracy.net/
Anne O'Brien | 19 July 2010

Having read a lot of the blogs now pervading the web, I have come to the conclusion that my discussions over a couple of beers at the local pub are far superior!

Present are usually a philoshper, a clinical psychologist, a mathematician, an historian, an expert in literature, a keen bird watcher and of course all the other mob; Australians who read not listen.

Of Course we are spoiled!

But then, to borrow and twist a phrase from Oscar Wilde, most commentry sent to blogs is an example of" the half-educated writing for the uneducated"

Regards, the mathematician.
John McQualter | 19 July 2010

Thanks Ben.I hope many of our politicians read this article, especially those who lead the major parties.
Margaret McDoald | 19 July 2010

Ah, the reasons for a point of view are often well known. So I wonder what the reason is for having only male writers writing the articles contained in today's Eureka Street? And what would the cause be?
Joyce Parkes | 23 July 2010

If you care about Democracy in America, and your own survival in America, then is vital to firstly make your own copy of this article, and then to send a copy of this article to as many people as possible, because other countries already have their own copy.

Working closely within the Military, he was able to hear the Conspiracies the Dictators of America are scheming, and he put himself in harms way to protect, not just a few Americans, but all Americans.

It is a known and proven fact that the American Army will have to come home one day, and if the Dictators of America who are cloaked as Public Servants can deceive the American people to become disarmed, and to give up their liberties, then it will make the eventual Dictatorship much easier to Establish.

For those American Citizens who do not wish to be dull thinkers, they should watch the video titled “Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura The Gulf Oil Spill Season 2 - FULL LENGTH”, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSMUhVcjJ94, unless of course the CIA changes the video and the internet location in a pathetic attempt to discredit this article.

Another video worth watching is titled: “Rally for Bradley Manning- Blowing the Whistle on War Crimes is Not a Crime!” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuhP_N0ZldA.

We all know that the American Corporations control and fund the Dictators of America to create a Fascist State, and proof of this Fascist State is that America does not have 100% Public Funding for Elections.

It would not surprise any of us if most of the Male Puppet and Blackmailed American Politicians have to be videoed ejaculating semen on young Children’s genitals before they receive Corporate Funding for their Election Campaigns.

I am sure that Corporations have found ways for the females who want funding to become the Puppets of the American Fascist Corporations.

If this is what is happening, then the purpose is that the Corporations know that they can blackmail any American Politician to do their bidding, even Resident of the Whites’ House, Barack Obama.

President Bill Clinton approved of giving wealthy Americans even more money to fuse the Corporations with the Government, which is Fascism.

If small businesses can function, and if their can be a Middle Class in America, then the Wealthy will become poorer, and they think that they will die because of having less money.

It is their survival instincts that are at play here, and that is what Wikileaks has been able to show the Entire World.

There are many people who want 100% public Funding for Elections, and free and fair Media time during Elections, because they too, have a survival instinct.

I believe that the American Politicians should pass a law to make themselves immune against all blackmail techniques of the Corporations.

It is better to have this situation where the American Politicians will not go to jail for ejecting semen on young sleeping Children just because they wanted fame and fortune from the Corporations.

We, the people of Democracyland whose national borders are defined by the United Nations Charter and International Law are committed to the highest form of Democracy known to Mankind.

Democracyland will be a true Democracy, have no military alliances, be 100% against racism, have no genetically modified crops, plant many trees, and have 100% recycling.

THE | 19 December 2010


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