Skip to comments.Paul Zahl on the Ethics of Blogging [& The Barbarian Bloggers]
Posted on 06/08/2006 5:47:36 PM PDT by sionnsar
The ethics of blogging need to be addressed.
A couple of serious, bad things are happening:
First, character assassination has become routine on blog sites, both liberal and conservative. People are saying and implying things, without substantiation or information, about personalities, and this comes under an old category: libel. The English newspapers were the 90s equivalent of todays blog threads, and a number of successful prosecutions for libel made them more hesitant to make personal attacks on the front page. Those papers are still up to it, but they check their stories now.
A lot of what we are reading on the blog threads comes under the heading of libel. This needs to change. I believe we all know that.
Second, anonymous posts put authorities in various fields at the mercy of people who do not know what they are talking about. We say this is good a democratizing tendency; that cyberspace knows no hierarchies or professional closed-shops. But it is not all good, at all. People who have no experience and no background in church life are able to attack people who have served for decades and who do know something about what they are saying. For myself, I am often labeled as non-Anglican, because I stress the Protestant dimension of the old Church, by people who seem to have fled into episcopalianism just a few years ago and simply do not like the actual history of the denomination into which they have fled. It is not right to be labeled as non-Anglican when you have grown up in that church forever and simply were fed by a different stream within it. I get the idea that some of the people who go on the attack here have just not read very much, or even experienced very much. The point is, anonymous bloggers get by with outrageous statements without having to give account for them.
Third, blog-threads have the potential to unleash deeply inbuilt aggression within all of us. Because we do not have to deal with the writer face-to-face, there is too little discretion and not enough thoughtfulness. When I dissent with someone whom I know, then I have to couch what I say in a way that can be heard, at least in principle. But when I dont know the person dont even know if he or she is using his or her real name I can say anything I wish, and just tear off in the opposite direction, without fear of having to look into his/her eyes. The potential for Original-Sin aggression to get in the mix on the internet is high. I know it in myself, and it is not good.
I would suggest and several seem to be saying this now that internet postings, and especially on those lethal blog threads, be limited to people who are willing to use their real names and list their actual e-mail addresses. Anonymous or coded names should be dropped. That would help. Also, something like libel legislation needs to be thought through in terms of the web. Innuendo and at times vicious personal attack really needs to stop. How many people who are reading this find that they are losing sleep after checking the threads on various sites? And I mean conservative as well as liberal, reasserter as well as reappraiser. How many people are going to bed mad? Ich frage nur.
The Very Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl is Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry
Over at TitusOneNine, Dr. Paul Zahl complains about the "libelous" nature of Anglican blogs, on both the right and the left, as the debate heats up heading into next week's General Convention.
Dr. Zahl is of course correct that both sides in this debate could do with a little tempering of their rhetoric, but it's important to think of this debate as an extremely slow-motion version of a spat between two people who were once very close: We are only now making the transition from the initial bursts of anger, to that period of "yes you did, no I didn't" that characterizes many arguments. It's likely we'll emerge from this phase into one where the rhetoric is indeed toned down, and uncivil discussions are conspicuous aberrations. The difference between what happens between two people and what's happening among Episcopalians, is that in the former, these phases are measures in minutes, perhaps hours. In the case of the latter, these phases are measure in months, and sometimes years.
Another thing to remember is that until the blogosphere reached its current state of ubiquity and ease of use, discussion was so limited as to seem now as though it wasn't happening at all. Add to that the persistent efforts of the powers that be to prevent open dialogue, and you have the frustration that is now being unleashed across the blogosphere. Like all releases of pressure that's built up over a long time, this too shall pass.
Dr. Zahl's proposal that blog posters be required to identify themselves, though, is pie-in-the-sky. Yes, this discussion has been going on at some length in the blogosphere - especially behind the scenes among those of us who run the most highly-trafficked sites - but the fact is that the same technology that makes the Internet such an open and immediate communications medium also prevents any practical implementation of identity authentication. Short of site administrators limiting comments to those people whose identities and email addresses they know personally, it is simply not possible to prevent those who want to be anonymous from remaining so. The choices are to leave your comment sections wide-open and hope for the best; require registration and make it inconvenient for people to set up bogus accounts; or to stop accepting comments altogether, in which case we may as well go back to getting all our information from ENS.
I am sometimes one of the offenders to whom Dr. Zahl refers, and I'm certainly not going to suggest a laissez-faire approach to uncivil conduct; but I believe that when you look at the nature of the crisis, the amount of discussion that happens on line, and the number of truly inappropriate posts, you find a raucous place where a lot of elbows are thrown, but you hardly find the hotbed of libel Dr. Zahl describes.
The best thing for all of us - myself included at the top of the list - to do is remember these little guidelines:
1. If you think your post sounds hostile, it does. Save it to a file in your word processor and come back to it later.
2. Don't post anything you wouldn't want your mother reading.
3. Remember that the Internet never forgets. Once you click that "Submit" button, your post may as well be carved into a mountainside, for all the world to see from now 'til doomsday.
4. Above all, ask yourself what Jesus would say if he read your post. As Kendall has to counsel me from time to time, when my mouse is hovering over that "Submit" button: Take it to the foot of the cross.
It seems to me particularly interesting that Dr. Zahl's answer to his concerns is clamping down, removal of anonymity, and REGULATION (libel laws). One question for him: "Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?"
Isn't that sort of control by a very few, answerable to no authority but themselves, what got the Episcopal Church USA into this mess in the first place?
Precisely. Rather than allow self regulation through societal consensus (the way the markets and polite company both work), the author envisions some elite authority who will be responsible for coersive enforcement of correct behavior.
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