Sunday, 19 August 2007

The folly of commenting on blogs

Once upon a time I wondered what life would be like if I didn’t follow the news. What if, as Simon and Garfunkel once suggested, I got all the news I needed on the weather report?

My guess is it would be rather like my new resolution not to read the comments sections of other people’s blogs — that is to say, a bit happier and a lot less stressed.

Speaking as a cat owner, I can say comments are the fleas of the internet blog, first, insofar as, by their very nature, blogs tend to attract them, and second in that one is inclined to pay them attention exactly in proportion to how irritating they are.

Partly this is the vanity factor. People don’t post comments on blogs in order to learn things. They post so as to show how wise they are, or how stupid someone else is. I know. I’ve done it.

But there is also the fact that although blog comments provoke many arguments, very few people know how to argue. And that not only makes them even more irritating — it makes the business of responding entirely fruitless.

In this connection, I’ve recently been directed to a superb little book which I think should be required reading for anyone who aims to be still at school after 16. It is by a chap called Anthony Weston, and the title is A Rulebook for Arguments (ISBN 0-87220-552-5, £3.95 on Amazon).

Weston writes in the Preface,

This book is a brief introduction to the art of writing and assessing arguments. It sticks to the bare esentials. I have found that students and writers often need just such alist of reminders and rules, not lengthy introductory explanations. Thus, unlike most textbooks in argumentative writing or “critical thinking,” this book is organized around specific rules, illustrated and explained soundly but above all briefly. It is not a textbook but a rulebook.

And so it is for just 87 pages, during which he covers things like Arguments by Example and Analogy, Deductive Arguments and composing an essay. It is not without faults, but compared with the careless assertions, illogicalities and fallacies that typify your average blog comment, it is a philosophical masterpiece.

Weston’s aim is that essays could be marked simply with a reference to ‘Rule 6’ or some such infringement, rather than having to put an explanation in the margin every time, and I am tempted to begin doing the same with blog comments. That way I could also avoid the problem of personal involvement — it’s not me, it’s Weston, I would be saying.

My experience, though, is that most people don’t realize there are such things as rules to arguing. Our educational system and culture encourages people to have opinions, and assures them that their opinion is something to which they are entitled. Beyond that ‘reason’ is treated with suspicion or, more often, blank incomprehension. A ‘logical’ argument is thus thought to be one that appeals to ‘logical facts’ and few people can cope with the notion that an argument may be both logical in form and wrong in its conclusions! (Surely what is ‘logical’ must be right?)

For many years I used to fence as a hobby, and one thing you learn early on in fencing is that an inexperienced fencer is more dangerous than an experienced one. An experienced fencer will respond with some predictability to your own moves. An inexperienced one will poke your eye out.

The same applies with reason. The hardest thing to argue with is not intelligence but stupidity. And in the world of blogging, Proverbs 26:4 takes precedence over 26:5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.”

Revd John P Richardson

19 August 2007

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  1. Crazy thing is the other night I, after finding I had completely failed at articulating anything but anger and confusion on a blog (TA), went to my bookshelf to find A Rulebook for Arguments. It remains unread on the floor with the pile of books by my bed. Thank you for reminding me to read it.

    Scott Henthorn
    Victoria, BC Canada

  2. Just a gem from Thinking Anglicans - to keep you in touch. xxx

    That's right, Goran,

    There are people, like Matthew Firth:

    'I would rather that sites like this be closed down altogether because they take up time and energy which could be better spent'

    and John Richardson:

    'And that is why, I suspect, blogging and commenting is such a fruitless exercise..

    who don't like points of view other than theirs to be heard.

    If you want to smile, go to Richardson's own blog (I know, it's contradictory for him to have one, but he does like his own voice to be heard, and he makes the rules for posting so tight that no one really can). The site is more or less a pulpit for him, with the odd comment allowed from his mate Peter Kirk, who only lives down the road from him and could just as easily say his piece when they meet in the baker's.

    But, it's useful to know that the Akinola wing and the Turnbull wing (both the same people) want to stifle debate. Good to hear it from their own lips.

  3. As Liddon notes, usually I don't allow anonymous commenting, but in this case I'll make an exception. It illustrates the wisdom of commenting anonymously!