Thursday, July 21, 2005


A blog was born

Today is the one-year birthday of this blog. I've had mixed feelings about it before and still do from time to time, but overall, it's been a great year, most of all because of the interesting and generous group of people that I've gotten to know. So I guess this might be as a good time as any to publish some paragraphs that I've had in my draft folder for a long time. It's basically nothing more than the introduction to a post that never was.

* * *

In a comment thread at Cliopatria a while back, Mark Grimsley described blogs as "experiments in civil discourse." I like that line very much.

All of us who blog have an interest in seeing these experiments succeed, especially since one of the major metanarratives about blogging in the mainstream media hypothesizes that these experiments have already failed. They tell us that blogging represents in microcosm the polarized state of the public sphere in general. Certainly we cannot deny that the fruits of social and political discord are all around us. But are blogs no more than the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored?

Again, we all have an interest in proving they are not. We could shirk the personal and collective responsibility that this experiment foists upon us. We could laugh at the very idea of blogs as experiments in "civil discourse," or protest that demonstrating the civility of discourse is someone else's job. But I submit, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, that the fate of democratic discourse rests on us.

By "us," though, I don't just mean bloggers. I mean that every time any of us exercises the right to speak in a context of discursive freedom, we also take on a weighty responsibility to interlocutors past, present, and future. In a book I've been reading off and on for the past year by Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, Stout even argues that democratic citizenship requires a certain kind of "piety" -- a profound sense of gratitude for the communities that have produced us, and a gratuitous interest in the communities that will succeed us.

As Stout argues, even so militant an atheist as Dewey could regard with a kind of awe the profundity of "democracy" as an idea. As Dewey put it, in terms redolent of religious hopes, the idea of democracy "remains barren save as it is incarnated in human relationships." For that reason, much rides on every experiment in civil discourse, no matter how small, because the collapse of these experiments would expose democracy as a futile idea. If the grapes of wrath are all that we can produce in our conversations with one another, then the idea of democracy is fruitless. That prospect should be sufficiently troubling to inspire a kind of fear and trembling. If we fail to incarnate democracy in our relationships, democracy does not exist. There is no other measure of its truth, say Dewey and Stout, than its really working right now.

Stout's book stresses the importance of democratic reason-giving; as a discursive ideal, democracy means, at the bare minimum, having enough respect for our interlocutors to listen seriously to their reasons for belief, and to honor their requests for own reasons. Giving one's reasons for believing something, even at the risk of ridicule or rejection, is what keeps democratic conversation going; when we stop exchanging reasons, there's nothing left to say. Thus, at every moment, we have to start where we are now and try to build this flying machine all over again. If it crashes to the ground occasionally, we can't waste time lamenting our failure; we have to incorporate the needed design changes and get this thing back up in the air.

Democracy and Tradition is also intended as a response to a number of Christian thinkers, like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, who contend that the kind of secular piety described by Dewey and Stout is vaguely incompatible with Christian piety. Stout's not so sure, and I'm not either. The rule of democratic conversation is basically the Golden Rule: you treat other interlocutors the way you yourself want to be treated. And if anything, Christian piety ought to buttress faith in conversation rather than undermine it, since its animating stories and beliefs invest all people with significance. Respect for your interlocutor is a form of neighborly love, and it needs to be said again and again that there is nothing impious about listening to and learning from people with whom you at first disagree.

When the apostle Paul spoke in Athens, the putative birthplace of democracy, he saw nothing wrong with abiding by broadly democratic rules: the philosophers on Mars Hill asked him to explain himself; he complied; the philosophers said they would like to hear him again sometime. The conversation continued, even though some decided to leave it. And Paul did not have such a zero-sum view of discourse that he could not search for value in the thinking of his interlocutors. He quoted what "some of your own poets have said." He respected people enough to listen to their poets, and that's the kind of piety that democracy demands.

As Dewey, one of democracy's own poets, has said, "Only when we start from a community as a fact, grasp the fact in thought so as to clarify and enhance its constituent elements, can we reach an idea of democracy which is not utopian." In the blogosphere, I believe, we have a community in fact. Only when we grasp that fact and try to enhance it do we become a community in idea as well.

* * *

Glancing back at the year that has been, I know I haven't always lived up to these high-falutin' ideals; expressing piety always risks exposing hypocrisy. There have been posts, I think, where my own voice is the main one I've been listening to, or when I've been more interested in giving a piece of my mind than receiving a piece of yours. But if there is a kind of piety involved in conversation--both a humility in the face of a conversation that is much bigger than ourselves, and a respect for the deep and irreducible worth of every interlocutor--then that piety also includes the hope that there are better things to come. I am truly grateful to you for stopping by and hope you'll come again.

Collective Improvisation:
Happy Blogiversary to you!
Happy Blogiversary to you!
Happy Blogiversary dear Caaaaleb!
Happy Blogiversary to you! 

Posted by abigail

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/21/2005 09:24:00 PM : Permalink  

Happy blog birthday!

I am somehow surprised to realize that your blog is almost exactly the same age as mine; a few days younger. Huh. 

Posted by bitchphd

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/21/2005 10:48:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks! And a belated happy blog birthday to you! Time flies when blogging, I guess: sometimes feels like a year in human years is like three or four in blogger years. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/22/2005 06:14:00 AM : Permalink  

happy (very belated) blogiversary! 

Posted by JM

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/23/2005 09:40:00 PM : Permalink  

I've been so busy I didn't have time to drop off my many happy returns to you. You've truly developed your own blogging style, as I see it, although I could never begin to explain why I think so. Something about the tone, pace and length... suffice to say "it's all good"!


"As a discursive ideal, democracy means, at the bare minimum, having enough respect for our interlocutors to listen seriously to their reasons for belief, and to honor their requests for own reasons."
- Agreed, although it's really  bloody annoying when you offer that respect to somebody who doesn't reciprocate. I guess that's where a faith of some sort kicks in -- be it ideological, religious, or whatever -- and asks us to stick with it. Either way, one of the most frustrating and difficult decisions in civil discourse (generally speaking) is when to stick with it when some Bill O'Reilly character (I make this reference as a non-American with fairly limited experience of said man, hoping it makes sense) is, literally, putting his fingers in his ears, despite expecting you to keep yours open overtime.

With which in mind, I was going to say that I think one of the successes of blog-discourse is that it's easier to make decisions like that. Nobody (bar rude admins who really aren't worth bothering with) can stop you finishing your point: even if they ignore it, you have a time and a space to "get it all out". Because, to use a gaming analogy, blogs are more turn-based boardgames than realtime computer simulations, nobody can talk over you or shut you up. You almost always get your 2 cents; whether or how anybody reads them is, naturally, still out of our hands! 

Posted by rob

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/25/2005 01:55:00 PM : Permalink  

I raised my glass in a humble toast! 

Posted by Peter

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/27/2005 09:43:00 PM : Permalink  

Many, many happy returns. I am grateful for the inspiration. 

Posted by Gardner Campbell

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/28/2005 08:29:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks Rob, Peter, and Gardner, and sorry that I've been missing in action for the last week.

Rob, I agree entirely that one of the strengths of the blog format is that, even when there is heated contention, authors and commenters alike get to "get it all out." I also agree that the discursive ideals that Stout holds up as essential to democracy are often difficult to implement in practice, especially when it feels as if our interlocutors aren't listening. Did you see Scott McLemee's recent column  on "Inner Checks"? I thought it was a superb meditation on this problem. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/28/2005 09:49:00 AM : Permalink  

A belated happy blogiversary! I'm glad you're out there.

This post resonated a lot for me. Lately I've had some frustrations with people who've made nasty comments or sent nasty emails in response to my blog, and you've done a lovely job here of articulating why it is that I don't want the tone on my blog to descend to their level. 

Posted by Rachel

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/10/2005 12:49:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the kind words, Rachel. I can't imagine why anyone would be nasty about your wonderful blog, and I also can't imagine you descending to that level yourself. I'm glad you're  out there too. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/11/2005 12:10:00 AM : Permalink  

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