Monday, January 26, 2009

Dan Gardner's fears

Dan Gardner, an intelligent columnist who writes for the Ottawa Citizen, took a poke at me yesterday for my article about police and Tasers--and then had a go at the blogosphere as a whole.

Dan is all about hard science and statistics, and his recent book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, is a refreshing antidote to what might accurately
be called a popular culture of fear (addressed in a more post-modern fashion by Brian Fawcett in his Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World [1990]). It seems that my comment "The cops have citizens literally running scared, from coast to coast" caught his attention.

All this from a mere two incidents, he scoffs. Well, no: as any regular reader of my blog knows, I have dealt with numerous such cases, and have linked to sources covering many more. Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Digby--and points in between--all have had their policing problems in recent memory.

Does that mean (as Gardner suggests) that I am saying that cops are essentially rotten people? Of course not. The common thread in all of these incidents, and in many more that can be found in various media archives, is the lack of mechanisms of accountability, coupled with a culture of impunity that rarely sees these serious incidents properly addressed. Even when cops are found guilty of something, their punishments tend to be a joke.

It's not that cops are bad. It's that bad cops are rarely held accountable to the communities they serve. There are simply too many examples to count, or recount.

But then Dan turns around and commits the same sin of which he accuses me. Here he is on the blogosphere:

What bothers me -- what worries me about the Internet -- is that this sort of tendentious and extreme reasoning is utterly routine in both hemispheres of the blogosphere. It is seldom criticized because partisans and ideologues have segregated themselves into camps in which confirmation and group polarization (key concepts from psychology) fester and make discussion steadily more extreme and unreasonable -- to the point that otherwise intelligent people who would laugh at such silly reasoning come to accept and even expect it.

To the extent that there is criticism, it comes from the occasional raiding party despatched by the opposing camp -- and given the source, the criticism only generates derision in return. The resulting clash strongly resembles the hooting and chest-puffing of agitated bands of chimpanzees.

There are exceptions, thankfully. But to the extent that shared media space is giving way to a Balkanized Internet, I worry.

Now, this is nonsense from top to bottom. Of course there is political polarization in the blogosphere, as there is in the meatworld. There are echo-chambers everywhere--take, for example, the editorial boardroom of the Ottawa Sun, the lock-step screaming meemies at CFRA, or, for that matter, Police Services Boards across the country. Like attracts like--nothing new there.

But the blogosphere is also a place where civil discussions can be had among people of widely varying politics. My blog is one of those places; David Thompson in the UK runs one of the most literate and elegant blogs I've ever seen, and, despite the considerable daylight between his views and my own, I have been made welcome there.

I know--only two examples. But that's two more than Dan Gardner offered, despite his little hedge about "exceptions."

On to "Balkanization." I've been puzzling over that one. He seems to mean that bloggers talk past each other, secure in their bunkers, dens and basements--those mini-republics with virtual citizens, enclaves in a permanent state of warfare. We are immune to the normal processes of criticism, he suggests, and so we run wild, losing our own critical abilities in the process.

But if there was ever a place where criticism--from reasoned rebuttal to gutter-insult--abounds, it's the blogosphere. The newspaper for which Dan writes, on the other hand, suppresses letters to the editor that criticize its editorial stances. Some bloggers play that game, too, but many more have lively comboxes where the issues of the day are hashed out to a fare-thee-well.

We talk about the port and starboard sides of the blogosphere, but we're more co-dependent than Dan recognizes. And I mean that in a good way. Taken overall, the blogosphere is more like one crowded room than a collection of foxholes. We engage. The cramped confines of the traditional media simply don't, or won't, permit the energetic multivocality that is the defining characteristic of the blogosphere.

Fear not, Dan. Cyberspace is liberty, not merely licence. The best and the worst can be found in it, as in the real world, but it all happens faster. A critique based upon one cherry-picked statement from a "popular left-wing blog," for example, can be rebutted in a matter of hours. Others can weigh in, restricted only, at least here, by my general insistence upon civility.

Is the blogosphere "Balkanized," readers? Over to you.

UPDATE: Is the Internet making us stupid? [H/t Dan Gardner in the comments]

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