With the campaign underway for the 21 August Federal Election, the blogosphere is erupting with comments, arguments and counter-arguments, swamping the browser with opinions from a jungle of sources. New online discussion spaces have been opened and the mainstream press is flooded with commentary.
In the comments section of one blog, a person had left the warning, 'be careful, blogs can be dangerous'. This comment provoked the response: 'Dangerous? The blogosphere expands public discussion, how can that be dangerous? Isn't that democratic?'
The truth is that much blog commentary does not fit the definition of discussion — in my dictionary, 'critical examination by argument'. It is instead often mere assertion and/or animadversion.
Nevertheless, democracy as discussion is an interesting idea. Walter Bagehot, one of the early editors of The Economist, famously coined the phrase 'government by discussion' to describe democratic government. Point taken: obviously democracy does involve a lot of discussion at many different levels.
But the idea has limitations: for example, perhaps the inconclusiveness of discussion gave rise to the notion of parliament as a talk-shop where nothing is ever resolved and talk is itself the purpose. Moreover, the fact that in a democracy we are free to 'discuss' is not an unqualified benefit. Simone Weil (pictured) wrote that the notion of a 'right' is far removed from the 'pure good'. Why? Because 'the possession of a right implies the possibility of making a good or bad use of it'. Some discussions can be bad discussions and not necessarily good for democracy.
We need to find a stronger idea than the idea of 'government by discussion' to describe what we should hope of democracy, including in its blogosphere expression. As the blogosphere reminds us, discussion can be driven by manifold motivations: particular interests, prejudices, leisure choices, friendships and so on. People engage in discussion for the sake of it, as a way of communicating, of expressing opinions and sharing information.
But 'discussion' does not necessarily imply a process driven by the desire to reach common goals. On the other hand 'discussion' and its associate 'argument' can imply the impossibility of commonality. Indeed, 'discussion' is not a process that necessarily implies the achievement of anything beyond the airing of points of view.
Another way of thinking about democracy is through the idea of 'democracy as public reasoning', an idea which has been floated by various philosophers including Weil, John Rawls and Amartya Sen.
Unlike 'discussion', 'reasoning' implies a strong purpose — you don't reason without a hoped for conclusion based on reaching shared commitment. The notion of 'public reasoning' implies a collective effort to solve problems based on mutual respect. As Adam Lister puts it, 'the distinctive contribution of public reason is to constitute a relationship of civic friendship in a diverse society'.
Anyone who has wanted to contribute to a media forum but who, after reading the comments stream, has reflected on the pointlessness of the exercise, will understand the value of the two things that a culture of 'public reasoning' would provide: purpose and respect.
The fact that we are 'discussing' (making assertions and arguing) more than ever before due to the internet and the blogosphere, does not prove that our democracy is in better shape. In the deluge of commentary which floods across online media forums, many voices are drowned out.
Originally published at Eurekastreet, click the link to read more or for more information