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The Temptations and Ethics of Blogging

Ben has recently done us all a service in his superb work on the nature of blogging as theological discourse. Without a doubt blogging is changing the nature of theological writing, both for good and for ill in many respects. In thinking on this for the last week or so, I’ve come to see that one of the key temptations that blogging offers is its lack of accountability. If you publish a book you have to live with it for at least a good little while. On the other hand, blog authors retain a very high level of control over the material they publish and its availability. If you write something foolish, rude, or stupid you can easily delete the material, and, unless some dutiful reader is saving your material themselves, there’s a good chance you won’t ever have to really be accountable for such writing. It vanishes into the void of the interwebs, to never trouble you again.

This is one of the temptations blogging poses. It offers a golden opportunity to speak far too quickly, and after tempers have cooled to simply make a poorly-placed rant go away. As such blogging presents a temptation to opportunism and cowardice in writing. Without patience in writing (which blogging doesn’t itself instill or foster) we’re likely to end up posting quite a few rants that later on we kind of wish we really hadn’t written. I know I have. And then that delete key starts to look pretty nice indeed. We are able to edit our blogs constantly, shaping them into the perfect picture we want to portray of ourselves, our writing skills, and our opinions.

I came across a rather bizarre and extreme example of this recently. A blogger had posted a massive rant inspired by a news story he had read which alleged that the British government was planning to install thousands of closed circuit cameras in the homes of families who were big social problems (history of crime, drugs, etc.). This led to some quite delusional railings about totalitarianism, in which the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls was likened to Hitler and Stalin in some pretty explicit terms:

Alexander Solzhensitsyn[sic] spend years in the Gulag because as a young army officer he wrote as letter criticizing Stalin, which was opened and read by army censors. That was pretty efficient totalitarianism, wasn’t it? No, it was inefficient and mickey mouse. Stalin eat your heart out! You never had electronic survellience[sic] methods like this. You were small time as dictators go. Let Ed Balls teach you a thing or two.

I’ve commented a time or two on the lunacy, mendacity, fatuity and immorality of this government on this blog. They hand out condoms to 12 year olds. They publish pamphlets telling parents not to tell their children to abstain from sex outside of marriage. They are trying to get abortion commercials on TV in prime time. But this one reveals just how totalitarian they are.

The Nazis might just as well have conquored[sic] Britain in 1941. All those brave men who gave their lives in the Battle of Britain died – for what? So a supposedly democratic government could spy on citizens in their own homes? So the government could undermine parental rights, adopt policies designed to destroy families and then swoop in to take over child-rearing? They died for this type of behaviour? They died to make Orwell’s prophecies come true?

There was no need. All they had to do was invite Hitler in. Wait – maybe that is just what they did when they elected the Labour Party.

Now, I’m certainly a fan of rhetorical flourish. Far be it from me to deny this. But I do think that when we make explicit comparisons between contemporary events and figures and the greatest mass murders in modern history, we had better be careful and correct. However, as it turns out the story behind this whole rant was a complete fabrication (which the right wing newspaper it appeared in has yet to retract or acknowledge). I pointed this out to the author at which point he followed up the post with another that simply continued to press his case without acknowledging, say that maybe all the Stalin and Hitler comparisons were a little out of line:

Given the prevelance[sic] of CCTV cameras all over Britain and the impossibility of having staff literally “supervising” every family 24 hours per day it appears that someone jumped to the conclusion that the CCTV cameras would be installed. This does not appear to be the case, although it is interesting that so many are ready to believe the government capable of such a thing.

If the government continues to pursue policies that divide and degrade families (such as facilitating teenaged[sic] girls having abortions without parental notification and promotiong[sic] contraception to children as young as 12), there can be little doubt that massive and intrusive behaviour-control methods of intervention will be required to maintain social order. The family historically has been the means by which children are socialized and taught self-discipline. Things were almost this bad in 18th century Britain and the whole society was changed by the Methodist revival. Unfortunately, the Methodists have morphed into the Labour Party and no one is looking to the church for help now. Without this bulwark against original sin, social chaos is inevitable. If it isn’t done by CCTV cameras, such intervention will likely be done in some manner.

Here is another temptation the blogosphere can present us with: the temptation to simply dig our heals in and bury our head in the sand when caught in a, shall we say, factually-deficient rant. It is all to easy to simply get hard-nosed and leave any semblance of humility behind. When I pressed the author on exactly this point, at first he accused me of being a totalitarian stooge for the Labour Party and then a few minutes later the posts both mysteriously vanished, never to be heard from again. I happened to have saved them and that is the only reason you’re hearing anything about them.

Now, of course this is an absurdly comical example of what I’m talking about in regards to blogging as theological discourse. Clearly the sort of rampant pugnacity and careless reactionism displayed here is quite inflated and most of us can pat ourselves on the back and assure ourselves that we are nothing like that. However, to do so would be a mistake. This cautionary tale serves as a helpful example of the temptations to opportunism, cowardice, and blind stubbornness that we all face in blogging. It testifies to the ongoing need for theology bloggers to resist the sort of haste that blogging so easily engenders. This medium is a great one in many different ways, but it must be disciplined by humility and patience if it is to bear the fruit of which it is capable.

Addendum:

I should say at this point that I am in no sense immune to these temptations. In fact, there was one occasion where I myself deleted a post I had written. The post was a poll that I put together as a joke for people to vote on the “ugliest living theologian.” Most thought the poll was a hilarious idea. Some felt it was in poor taste. After a year or so I came around to the second point of view myself and quietly deleted he post. Did I fail my own test here? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is a time to delete old blog posts that do more harm than good. My one defense, if I were to make one would be that I left the post up for quite a long time. Regardless, however the point remains the same. Blogging must be disciplined by patience.

24 Comments

  1. Ryan wrote:

    Would you please allow an exception to posts related to Mark Driscoll. Please?!?!? =)

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  2. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    I have doubts about blogging’s effect on theological writing.

    Also, I have doubts that deletion is a widespread practice. The norms of blogging are pretty strongly against it, and anyone who was caught doing it would be called out quickly. I know I’ve never deleted a post or comment.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Oh, some rants are fine. As long as they’re not factually deficient.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  4. chris wrote:

    I’m grateful for your points here. I brought up some others about your blog yesterday.
    http://justthischris.wordpress.com/2009/08/17/humanizing-pacifists/

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  5. Jon wrote:

    As an aside, Ed Balls is technically the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families… not that it matters… it just makes the British gov’t sound like fools… no wait…

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Was Milbank offended?

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    It was the Pope who won.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Right. Did the Rat threaten to unleash the CDF on your ass.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    He only has it in his power to drown me or burn me at the stake.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I assure you the proceedings to carry this out are well underway.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  11. S.A.Laffin wrote:

    While I don’t think that blogging is going to rapidly change theology in print form, it has definitely changed theology on a practical level. Many people now turn to blogs which may have been written by credible theologians or by people like, well me, to learn more about “their beliefs.” Whether or not this is a good thing we will have to discover over the next decade or so.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  12. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Just wait until the twitter generation starts running for public office. It is going to be golden!

    As for blogging, I try to let a polemical post cool off for at least a few hours before revision and publishing. I’ve also found that deleting posts is a good way to debase my pride.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I shall not recant! Bring on your inquisitors!

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  14. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Good points, Halden!

    Blogs to me are like a vapor . . . they are certainly helpful as far as exposure (sometimes not helpful); but I don’t see them representing substantial pieces of research, usually. I think blogging is good for “suggestions;” and for that I appreciate it!

    Keep up the good suggestions!

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  15. Andrew wrote:

    From birth control to Hitler . . . seems like a logical jump. No wait, was that the right word. I’ll be back to edit this once I cool down from this rant.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  16. Derek wrote:

    Good thoughts Halden. I could see this being a problem for some, but for me the opposite happens. Knowing how many smart people are out there, i sometimes find myself paralyzed to be “adventurous” theologically, fearful of people showing me how stupid i am. The fact that i don’t know these people (apart from virtually knowing them) makes me worried that i will be misunderstood, and i have to try to not overqualify myself at times. In these ways i think blogging often hinders my growth as a theologian.

    Better to not remove all doubt, that is my blogging motto. It is probably also why my traffic is pretty low.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  17. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    I have to revise my previous comment — I have deleted a couple AUFS posts out of a sense that no one actually cared about the topic.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  18. Ben Myers wrote:

    “he accused me of being a totalitarian stooge for the Labour Party”. You’re so lucky. I’ve never been accused of anything as cool as that.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden, Good post. I like idea of deleting old posts too (for all sorts of reasons). Though they betray something of the biographical journey, most blogs are other than (different to) personal journals made public.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  20. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    This is not just a problem with blogs but the internet itself. We used to have guest essays at Jesus Radicals. Years later I would get emails from some folks asking me to take them down because they were no longer conducive to the person’s career goals (that was the wording I got one time). Another person wanted me to take down an essay about a flag in the sanctuary being idolatrous because his fellow band members threatened to kick him out if he didn’t (I took them down, but I thought the persons lacked courage).

    The thing is, even well thought out pieces disappear for reasons of purging the record, not just spur of the moment comments, which are arguably better off being deleted. The internet in my experience encourages depersonalization of interaction and stating things that one would never say to a person’s face. Like that guy Smith in the other blog being rude and resorting to name calling. He would not likely do that in person, and if he did, the conversation would be over very quickly. The rules of engagement become lax on the internet and depersonalized. I think there is room to delete that sort of nonsense for the benefit of everyone’s sanity.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  21. chris wrote:

    “The internet in my experience encourages depersonalization of interaction and stating things that one would never say to a person’s face. Like that guy Smith in the other blog being rude and resorting to name calling. He would not likely do that in person, and if he did, the conversation would be over very quickly.”
    Agreed. But I’m sure we all want to see Halden, Mark Driscoll, and Michael Novak in a cage match.

    Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  22. Jo wrote:

    As someone new to blogging I must admit to be thinking along the same lines. To rant or not to rant – that IS the question. Avoiding ranting is the plan but it is sooooo easy to get carried away. Good theology needs passion without the ranting. I guess we all need God’s help for that!

    Friday, August 21, 2009 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  23. Hey Halden, thanks for this and for all your work. Graham Ford has a post that mentions this one at Faith & Leadership: http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/10-13-2009/graham-ford-tweet-ological-discourse. Blessings, Jason

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the note, Jason. Hope all’s well.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

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