“Civil and Courteous” or Simply Listening?

At the Les Blogs conference, an altercation occurred between Mena Trott and Ben Metcalfe. (Video of the encounter can be found here.) Ms. Trott had urged bloggers to be civil and courteous during her speech. And Mr. Metcalfe, feeling that Trott’s statements didn’t hold water, typed “this is bullshit” into an IRC backchannel that was being simultaneously broadcast. Metcalfe was then called an asshole and singled out publicly by Trott as the panel was happening. But Metcalfe, unfazed, still challenged Trott on her points, noting that in the real world, people often aren’t always nice and that bloggers, as a whole, needed to develop thicker skins if they expected their discourse to hold water.

Trott has reproduced her speech here. And it seems curiously similar in tone and phrasing to a certain essay that was debated in the literary world a few years ago.

Given that Trott is on record as letting loose all manner of profanity on Metcalfe, I find her meet-cute “Can’t we all just get along?” nonsense incongruous with her message, particularly when she specifically singled out Metcalfe and urged him to stand up, a clear attempt to humiliate him that, in this case, failed completely. (Fortunately, it appears that the two had a conversation sometime after the panel to clear the waters. Likely most reports chronicling this scrape will omit this fact.)

It should be noted that, outside the interconnected world, audiences are likely to exchange similar thoughts about a speaker on a piece of paper or through a whisper uttered to an adjacent audience member in the heat of the moment. I don’t believe that any of this is intended to malign or slander the speaker, but to frame the speaker’s words into some kind of immediate context with which to take in the information and understand the speaker better.

The only difference here between a note or a whisper and Metcalfe’s offhand comment is that the latter was publicly broadcast and, despite all claims to the contrary about “thick skin” and the like by Trott, taken personally.

What this incident (and the respective reactions) proves is that blogging has a long way to go before it is even remotely similar to real-world conversations. (Why was the IRC backchannel publicly projected, for example? Are we so enamored with technology that we have lost the ability to preserve basic levels of human communication?) And until it makes some substantial developments along these lines, there is no reason to expect the non-blogging audience, which, lest we all forget, remains a substantial bloc of the human population, to jump on the bandwagon. While it is true that the comments allow for an almost immediate feedback (a distinct advantage to print journalism), perhaps there truly is an incompatibility between blogging and real-world conversation, given that the desire to break into the top ranks of Technorati often outweighs the thoughts and feelings of the blog entries posted. Oscar Wilde was more prescient than he realized when he said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

The chief problem with this medium is that even smart people like Trott seem incapable of adjusting their mind set to determine what a dissenter’s “This is bullshit” might be all about and not take it personally. I don’t believe setting tonal limits is the answer. But I don’t believe that trying to lambaste your opponents in public over some picayune point of exploration is really the answer either.[1]

The answer involves bloggers being more skillful “listeners” rather than “talkers,” shifting the emphasis to one that permits the participants to maintain a malleable mind set for multiple perspectives and an outsider to see very clearly how all of these perspectives match up. And if the medium hopes to evolve, then it needs to stop being concerned with hits and statistics and become more concerned with bringing people together in a way that doesn’t demand some ridiculous level of commitment from the participants (one of the reasons why most social network sites have proven a bust, in my view). For the litblog scene, I think Bud Parr’s MetaxuCafe may be more of a revolutionary stroke along these lines than even Parr suspects.

One thing that’s clear to me: It’s decidedly unhealthy to let a point of contention get in the way of maintaining a civil discussion, particularly when it concerns issues that challenge the status quo, or to mistake the caustic quality of a message with the temperament of the messenger.

[1] Full confession: This blogger is sometimes guilty of this.

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  1. …I followed your links and I’ve gotta say that I think both parties in question have made good points. I also think that sometimes all “sides” are equally correct/incorrect overall–this is one of those times.

    The way I often see life is: there doesn’t always have to be winner, nor does there always have to be a contest even. Sometimes things just, well, happen, and their having happened is (or at least probably should be) the extent of those situations.

  2. Who is Jimmy Beck? He’s been an asshole over the past two days! You, sir, stand up and defend yourself, you coward! I mean, what the fuck?

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