I initially posted the following as a comment to my recent post on global warming. But I think it’s worth creating a separate discussion thread:
I think blogs offer a potentially very useful way to explore and understand complex issues, at least for the minority of amateur readers who are interested enough to bother.
As you’ll have worked out by now, however, the number of readers who aren’t strongly adversarial on a blog like this one seems to be disappointingly small (despite your flicker of optimism in response to my earlier comment). I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I suspect it’s at least partly an aspect of male psychology.
Even when I set out with an open mind to learn about an issue (as I did here), I often find myself automatically digging into aggressively defending a proposition I’ve initially advanced tentatively or as devil’s advocate trying to provoke a response from which I can learn. I often have to figuratively beat myself around the head and remind myself that I’m here to learn rather than to compete, and that I don’t have any emotional or intellectual capital invested in the proposition. It seems that us blokes (and maybe many female readers as well) are innately competitive creatures, and that questions of ego, status and self-esteem too easily get inextricably enmeshed in debates where one would rather have hoped people would exhibit more open minds.
I sometimes muse about how one might go about promoting more open-minded discussion on contentious issues, but I haven’t come up with any magic answers (or in fact any answers at all). Your earlier comment that “1aybe they are more like sparring/practice than actual fighting??” might provide the germ of an idea. My partner Jen sees blogs rather similarly, as a “brain gym” where people can test out ideas and expand their understanding and general mental flexibility by debating seriously but in a playful spirit with other fairly intelligent educated people. I’d like it to be that way too, and very occasionally it is, but more often than not discussion just consists of people digging into familiar ideological foxholes and lobbing verbal hand grenades over the top at each other. I get depressed and frustrated when debates get bogged down in predictable rigid left-right ritual stand-offs (which seems to happen more often than not). Jen just gets puzzled and amused, and then bored. I’m sure her reaction is healthier.
I’ve previously tended to see the answer in terms of encouraging civility in debate, but maybe I’ve been on the wrong track. Maybe what we really need to promote is “serious playfulness”. But how?