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Gresham's Law and the Blogosphere

2005-05-20
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I write this critique of personal blogging as dean of a school where academic freedom and freedom of speech are constitutive of what we are and what we do. And I do so at the express encouragement of a number of local colleagues who have been dismayed by the manifest intolerance of sections of the blogosphere when confronted with views antipathetic to their own.

For more than a decade, SLIS has regularly offered the Seminar on Intellectual Freedom as part of its curriculum. Students in this and other courses are expected to grasp the importance of pluralism and tolerance in the public sphere; they are encouraged to debate and deconstruct complex issues relating to the First Amendment and to do so in robust but civil fashion. This, of course, is nothing less than one would expect of a program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), a body committed to the ideals of openness, intellectual tolerance and diversity. But judging by the language used in the blogosphere, including, sadly, by some library science students and professionals, these ideals, as we shall see, are honored as much in the breach as in their observance.

Some time in 1997, when the idea of blogging was in its very infancy, I wrote a pert if slightly pretentious op ed for Indiana University's Home Pages. Pretentious or not, it was on the mark. Here is an excerpt: The genie is out of the bottle. And logorrhea rules. Millions of words a minute flood across the Net: scholarly and serious; demotic and daft. Never have so many tongues wagged so waspishly and wittily in warp timeOld rules and constraints have fallen awayOn the Net, every voice is equal.'

Waspishness and wit I can take in my stride, but the kind of language favored by many personal bloggers takes incivility and uncouthness to new heights. As either Stewart Brand or John Perry Barlow once so aptly put it: the odious now have their podium.' And, by Jove, they have no qualms about using their digital bully pulpits to vent their spleen.

Following the recent publication of a short editorial on the subject of blogging— BLOG: see also Bathetically Ludicrous Online Gibberish —in which I lamented the sententious drivel' pumped out by personal bloggers, I became, predictably, the target for a fusillade of indignant, illogical and often downright vituperative blogs, posted comments and emails. Dialogic democracy at work, I hear you say. Well, I am not so sure. It is one thing to take exception to my language—most personal bloggers probably do not see themselves as hapless souls'—and perhaps not everyone liked my de haut en bas tone, but that is hardly grounds for a demolition job on one's professional credibility, physical appearance and personality (verbatim evidence follows).

I welcome robust, even agonistic, debate, and, rest assured, I can cope with ad hominem abuse, but if the present spat is typical of the blogging phenomenon—and I suspect that Michael Gorman, president-elect of the ALA, might think that it is—then we have to ask ourselves whether loutish speech threatens to displace civil discourse in the blogosphere, just as, per Gresham's Law, bad money drives good out of circulation. But before returning to the larger issue, I need to give you an unexpurgated sense of the response my humble op ed provoked, and I do so with some reluctance, asking that each time you see the words Blaise Cronin' you replace them with John Doe.' What follows is a necessarily small but representative sample of bloggers' barbs, which, when I showed it to some SLIS faculty, staff and students—and, remember this in a school where research into blogs has been underway for several years—caused eyebrows to arch in unison.

I shan't of course name names. I am not the issue here, nor are the individual bloggers who manned the Gatling guns. Nor, indeed, is the technology of blogging. Blaming the technology for the dubious and deviant is, of course, infantile: information and communication technologies (ICTs) routinely produce unintended, second order effects. In that regard, blogging is no different from previous generations of ICTs. The pivotal issue is the mauling of civility and the emergence of a crass egocentricity that acknowledges no conventional codes of conduct and accepts no form of cognitive authority. At times as I roamed the blogosphere the words of Alexis de Tocqueville came to mind: One encounters in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which drives the weak to wish to pull the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in liberty.' Don't take my word for it; drop into the blogosphere and see just how tawdry and rebarbative the exchanges can be.

For my sins, I was variously labeled a jerk,' asshat,' (new to me), bastard,' fool,' flamer,' arrogant, aging academic,' snob blocking blogger' (sic), Chock-full Reservoir Of Narcissistically Inflated Nonsense' (witty, I suppose), closed-minded demagogue,' pretentious, precious twit,' (Wodehousian), strutting snark,' Gorman Wannabe,' (now, that is getting close to the bone). I was compared with arch-conservative commentator Anne Coulter (Cronin is Coulter's more lady-like twin') and a well-known Soviet despot (Dean Cronin is like Stalin') while being bracketed with Indiana's most famous son (Michael Jackson is a paedophile and Dean Cronin is an asshole'). Apparently, too, I am the Jeremy Irons of the Library World,' which is presumably one up on Jacko, though the significance of the comparison eludes me. I was equally puzzled by the observation that Blaise Cronin has never struck me as Indiana's answer to Ranganathan,' if only because I have never aspired to be Indiana's answer to India's Ranganathan, or anyone else.

It does seem odd that utterly irrelevant, personal factors should count for so much. Yet, in this quarter of the blogosphere irrational likes and dislikes routinely trump logic and suasion: This guy is another guy whom I've never taken a liking to, although unlike Gorman, I know next to nothing about him other than that he tends to be controversial.' Elsewhere: My only comment is that I hate Cronin with the force of a thousand firey suns.' Go figure, as they say. More specifically, I suffer from self-indulgence and insecurity,' academic arrogance,' self importance and superiority,' and I am overflowing with egotistical mush.' Clearly, I need to lighten up,' get off my high horse,' and escape my calcified little fear culture.'

And, then, there is the matter of my physical appearance: Yeah, love the hair dude. You do understand, it's not 1979,' and I am, it would seem, too conscious of my appearance: I get the feeling that this man likes to look at himself in the mirror as much as possible.' And from another corner of the blogosphere: I think the first time I saw his byline in Library Journal or some such publication, I thought he was a she based on name alone. Then I saw the picture and was still unsure.' From this inauspicious beginning, the thread moved on to discussion of my daily life in Bloomington: He's the kind of guy that you expect to wear a cape.' Actually, I once saw him jogging,' piped up another. And so it went on: trite, trivial and tasteless.

All this might seem like the apogee of silliness, but no: there is, additionally, my presumptive misogyny.' It seems that in mocking the sententious drivel' of so many personal blogs I was, unwittingly, attacking domestic' or everyday' writing and thus exhibiting gender bias: I can't find it in my heart to think it a coincidence that much of the slagged writing is coded as women's writing, even when men do it What are the Gormans and Cronins afraid of? That somebody might actually listen to a GIRL, instead of Their High Mightinesses?' No, this is not parody; it is par-for-the-course blogging by educated individuals.

Judging by the evidence—and, remember, this is just a small sampling of what I have read over the past couple of weeks—the odious do, indeed, have their podium, leading one to believe that the tyranny of the majority,' in Tocqueville's ringing phrase, is perhaps closer than any of us may care to imagine.

My plaint is simple: civility and decorum have been compromised. The kinds of invective and inanities I have highlighted here demonstrate vividly the correctness of my core contention, as, to his credit, this thoughtful blogger noted: Cronin's point about bad blogs is made relevant by his critics who, while using ad hominem, seem to have nothing to say about the value of the blog to the increase (sic) of society's knowledge.' If my ludic use of hapless souls' can incite such a barrage of locker room language and scurrility, one has to ask why: What collective nerve has been hit? What insecurities are being exposed? Why has debate been dumbed down and discourse degraded to such a degree? Do the norms and niceties of the physical world really disappear once we enter the blogosphere?

In the long run, the net effect of such mean-spiritedness will be to chill public debate, deter people from blogging and depress free trade in ideas. Personally, I would much rather face another, even angrier fusillade of blogs than be cowed into silence. And I would expect no less of graduates, past and future, of this school. For now, though, I leave you with the cautionary words of Samuel Johnson: When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.'

Posted May 20, 2005