what blogs can and can't do

I’ve had a few things to say over the years on the topic of what blogs don’t do well. Let me return once more to that delightful theme.

In our recent debates about religion — prompted by Jerry Coyne’s review-essay in The New Republic on science and faith — an interesting issue has come up. On one thread, Johnny Sagan protests “the Tendentiousness and Obstreperousness of conservative cultural critics trying to eviscerate an article like Coyne’s on these kinds of academic-philosophical lines. Better to stand up for the details of what YOU believe in about the matters in question.” And on the other, Chet the Impaler, in an uncharacteristic flash of insightfulness, says to me, “you’ve been pretty careful not to take a religious position, here.”

Chet is right; and I’m not going to do what Johnny suggests. A blog-with-comments is a piss-poor place to debate matters like the existence of God. It’s not even a good place to debate whether Obama’s stimulus bill is likely to be successful. Blogs just don't do complexity and nuance — which, I think, is why they’re so popular. As everyone knows, the less complex and nuanced the positions on a blog are, the more comments it gets. This is an Iron-Clad Law of the Internet. Blog posts are just too short to deal with the Big Issues, and too likely to be fired off in short order, with minimal reflection and no pre-post feedback from wiser and cooler heads. Andrew Sullivan may think this is a good thing, but I’m not inclined to agree. And of course comments are usually even worse than posts in these respects. Some wonderful conversations happen in blog comment threads, but they happen in spite of the architecture, not because of it. The architecture is fighting thoughtfulness with all its might.

So when the Big Issues come up here on the Scene, when I pitch in what I try to do (inconsistently, I know) is to clarify terms, to achieve a better sense of what issues are actually at stake. Back in the fall this meant not defending or attacking Sarah Palin, but trying to explain why even people who didn't agree with her policies might feel sympathy for her. Now, in response to Jerry Coyne — whose TNR piece, by the way, was not a blog post but a several-thousand-word essay — the last thing in the world I would try to do is defend Christianity or theism, even though most of the people reading these words know that I’m a Christian. (I've published seven books and a couple of hundred articles, so my thoughts on way too many topics are out there for public scrutiny.) As the E-Trade baby says in a recent ad, this is not the venue. What I think I might be able to do, though, is show where I think Coyne has created some straw men and false dichotomies — not in order to defend theism, but in order to clarify what I think the real arguments are. I do this because I often think that people are at each other’s throats unnecessarily, and that the differences that separate, say, theists from atheists — while real and substantive and incapable of being erased — are not quite as great as often assumed, and do not require the vitriol that we commonly see from both sides.

The hope is to improve the discourse, not to settle age-old arguments in five hundred words or less. Before you plow and sow you have to clear the ground. Of course, I may do this very badly. But clearing the ground is what I’m after. I think that’s often the best the highly flawed technology of blogging can do.