I was reflecting the other day on the fact that the blogosphere tends to draw attention to every difference of opinion among people--I was thinking of conservatives, specifically--who are naturally close allies and who in person would either not know about these differences or brush them off. And I was wondering why this happens.
The obvious answer, and probably the true one, is just simply that the blogosphere is all about opinions; one of the main things bloggers do is to write opinion pieces, and the main thing commentators do is to comment on them, so naturally we find out everybody's opinions on every topic under the sun, including those that sub-divide the world of political and even theological conservatives.
But at the risk of sounding like a softie, I sometimes think this is a bit of a shame.
Here is Joe: Joe is strongly pro-life. He's interested in theology and knows a lot about it. He's Presbyterian (say). He loves old books and Tolkien. He thinks American culture is going to hell in a handbasket (like all good conservatives). He staunchly opposes the homosexual agenda. He has three adorable kids, one of them handicapped, and one of his hobbies (besides reading old books) is bookbinding.
And Jim, who "met" Joe on a blog and shares all these things with him (except he has two kids and has never tried bookbinding), thinks of him not as "that really interesting guy I talked to at the pro-life banquet last week" but as "that idiot who tried to tu quoque me in a discussion of Arminianism."
I mean, it's a shame. These guys would be good friends if they lived in the same town and had met there first. Their families would get together, and they would probably drink beer together, or whatever it is they both like to drink. But now they are at a minimum annoyed with each other and have being annoyed with each other as their chief thought upon considering each other.
It occurs to me that one source of this phenomenon is the fact that in the blogosphere we assume that silence gives consent, while we do not assume this in the same way when we are talking face to face. A month ago or so, we were out having dinner with a good friend and his family. He began talking about President Bush's legacy and began advocating the idea that we have been "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." I mean, he believed in it pretty much literally. I grumbled later in private, "You'd think there were only two hundred terrorists in the whole world, and we're keeping them all busy in Mosul." But in person, I only said something about the importance of preventing terrorist attacks on American soil by way of intelligence work. I also mentioned the unfortunate fact that the Bush administration has cracked down on domestic attempts by people in the intelligence agencies to speak the truth about jihad. (Commentators with strong opinions on the Iraq war and Islam, please note: This is an example. Any attempt to make the thread a discussion of the Iraq war will be mercilessly quelled. By me.) The interesting thing is that I'm quite sure he could tell that I didn't agree with what he was saying. I'm told that I am no poker player, and my change of subject and failure actively to agree with what he was saying made it evident that I wasn't on board with his statement that we were being "kept safe" by "fighting them over there." Body language and change of subject did the whole job. Silence did not give consent.
But there's no body language in the blogosphere. And we're not getting together just to talk about anything. If one comments in a thread, one is (rightly) expected not to change the subject. So there is a much more understandable idea that silence gives consent and that if you comment in a thread but do not disagree with what the main post says, you probably agree with the main post. There are many fewer ways of indicating polite disagreement while maintaining a positive social atmosphere among friends.
I have no real moral to draw from this. It seems to me that the problem, if it is a problem, may be an intractable feature of the medium. And I'm not saying we should all ditch the blogosphere. I've been immeasurably enriched by knowing many people in the blogosphere, including those with whom I have disagreements.
Nor do I have any strict formula by which to decide which people are really, at heart, my "natural friends" regardless of our other disagreements, though I tend to think that the whole range of pro-life issues makes a pretty good start.
But I would just remind my quarrelsome self: If you met Joe in person, you might very well like him very much. Even if he is a darned Calvinist and did try that stupid tu quoque.