Friday, April 03, 2009

On Controversial Blogging and Temperament

We do not live in an ideal world. There are quite a few things, though, that I think in an ideal world would always be done only by people of a certain temperament, for moral reasons. Driving, for instance, which is pretty clearly the sort of thing that is in its own small way morally bad for a great many people, leading them to do all sorts of morally dubious things out of irritation, impatience, and anger.

Apologetics, religious or otherwise, is another of these things. I think it's clear enough that only a very small handful of people are cut out to do apologetics, or, indeed, any sort of intense debate, without coming out of it morally worse than they were when they went into it. And unfortunately it doesn't take much experience with it to see that this is, in fact, its effect: I've seen quite decent people deteriorate in their attitudes toward others through it, and it's not hard to find apologists for all sorts of positions who have clearly begun to confuse truth with their own personal victory. If you want to be an apologist of any sort, the only way you are really cut out for it is if you are in final analysis willing to lose every debate if that's what the truth requires. You have to be the sort of person, or at least be willing to become the sort of person (and have the temperament for becoming the sort of person) who will never argue merely to win an argument, and will be satisfied, where persuasion is not possible, if people merely come away with a slightly better appreciation of the subject. That's one reason why I stay away from it as much as I can; academics are not, I think, well suited for it in general. Our truth-oriented habits tend to be of a somewhat different sort, the range of temperaments capable of living an academic life is much larger, and the sort of generally useful contribution of which we are usually capable is somewhat different.

Certain kinds of blogging, especially but not exclusively political blogging, are another. I am always mystified by bloggers who can rant, day in and day out, about exactly the same things -- the same groups of people, the same problems, the same human failings. I would be thoroughly bored with the topic after a day or two. But more importantly, I always wonder how they could possibly think that this is healthy. Surely it must have occurred to them occasionally that their actions are likely to induce habits and attitudes, and that the habit of ranting at a particular group of people is probably not a morally good one? Or that they are spending an awful lot of time ranting that could be spent doing something more constructive? The truth is, you really need the right sort of temperament for blogging about controversial subjects in a controversial way, and most people who are tempted to do it clearly do not have it. I'm sure I'm not the only person who began following a particular blog with interest and watched in dismay as it became more and more the stage for uncritical ranting. And, if you're not the right sort of person, that's the way you may well be heading.

Of course, in this case, as with the others, some people do in fact have the temperament for it -- probably a sizable group, in absolute terms, even if they make up only a very small proportion of the whole. And it's a different matter if it's something one does only on a rare occasion, and likewise if one touches on the same subjects but in a very different way. But regardless of what we are doing, we should always at least ask ourselves the question whether our practices are really the kinds of practices that are likely to train us to be better people, and we should be careful not to deceive ourselves about it.