He said, She said…

Again, the discussion moved off the substansive points, and onto the nature of the debate itself.

Periodically, a print journalist will write an article decrying blogging and bloggers. They will have probably had an unpleasant experience on Comment is Free and formed the conclusion that the online world is full of vindictive old men. Most of the time, we bloggers put this down to the journalist misunderstanding the medium, or simply having wafer thin skin.

What irks and surprises these writers is, I think, the tenacity of bloggers. Like an old dog, they simply will not let go of that bone. In print, we might see a couple of rounds of testy letter-writing, spread out over a week, or maybe even months in the case of periodicals. Online all this happens immediately, and because of the near-infinite amount of space available to publish comments, the volume of argument rises exponentially. Not only do we have several replies, and several more replies-to-a-replies, but we have replies-to-replies-to-replies as well. “And another thing…”

One of the most frustrating experiences in the world is when someone says to me “let it go.” Admittedly, this usually happens in a pub after a few pints, and I cannot remember what the original point of contention was. Sometimes, however, I am fully aware of what the debate is about. I’m not actually drunk, but my passion for the point at hand might give a different impression. My refusal to let the point lie is because my interlocutor simply has not understood the nature of the debate, or what’s at stake. “Let’s all agree to disagree” says someone. “No,” I reply, “this isn’t a matter of opinion.” When the debate becomes about how important the dabate is, then to abandon the discussion is to admit defeat.

I see this happening online a lot. Recently, Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads has been trying to rebutt allegations and smears that have come his way. The only problem is, his argument lies within some relatvely obscure timestamps and IP logs, which can never have the rhetorical force of an intellectual argument about civil liberties. His posts are therefore thousands of words long, and it is easy to label him obsessive and belligerent.

In Tim’s case, he has the stamina to keep on rebutting-the-rebuttals-of-the-rebuttals. The problem arises when the smears and falsehoods cannot be challenged effectively. This might occur for financial reasons, such as when Craig Murray’s website was taken offline (his hosting company did not have the resources to repel a legal challenge from Alisher Usmanov). It might occur due to the sheer volume of smears, as is the current situation with Presidential Candidate Ron Paul.

Or it might occur due to ennui – the slander slips by because the slanderee is to busy or tired to respond. This happened to me recently, when a friend of mine declared that I was arguing “for the sake of it,” when in fact I was sure there was something more tangible at stake. Again, the discussion moved off the substansive points, and onto the nature of the debate itself. Eventually, we had to just “let it go”. Although it was an argument about graphic design, rather than politics, I think the pattern of the exchange, and the unsatisfactory resolution, still fit the unhealthy template of many blog debates.

Justin makes the case for why the arguments should continue, and bloggers should never let go of the bone:

I have a feeling that a lot of bloggers trying to stick it to a future Tory government and their online cheerleaders in a few years time are going to wish they’d paid more attention to what’s going on right now. Sooner or later they’re going to target someone you care about. Real world reputations are at stake and are being damaged. It’s time to get in the ring and go toe to toe.

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