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Does Silence Give Consent? or Why the Blogosphere Separates Natural Allies

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.

Comments (23)

It seems to me that the problem, if it is a problem, may be an intractable feature of the medium.

True, but let us accept the rose amongst the thorns. Without W4 this past year, I would have had a full meltdown at work. As it is colleagues wish I wouldn't mumble about the Council of Trent, draw attention to my hair-shirt and their need to repent. Without W4, I would have run-up an unconscionable bar-tab and a lengthy enemies list. Along with the therapeutic benefits of venting, the folks at W4 have introduced me to books and viewpoints I would have missed and allowed me to better sharpen my own thoughts on a variety of subjects.

The really painful thorn is the disincarnate nature of the web. There is something wrong, and in my case, hypocritical about interacting with unseen strangers through an abstract technology. I have little doubt I would personally enjoy the flesh and blood company of the folks here. Yet, while those close to me are spared more rants, they are also often being deprived of my full and complete attention; "hold on guys - I need to fire-off a reply to Lydia". This is not spiritually healthy.

Thanks for providing an invaluable mental health service and excellent platform for intellectual growth. I wish you, your family and the rest of the W4 cult, much health and happiness in the coming year.

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.

Wait, you have political litmus tests to decide your friends? Seriously?

No, people can become my friends by serendipity who are not my "natural friends." Sometimes one is just thrown together with people. But the friendship will then take a different shape from one that is based on "seeing the same truth" in an area of overwhelming importance. In the sentences you quote, I was referring to the earlier parts of the posts where I talk about natural allies, natural friends, people who would get along great in person (implicitly, on the basis of shared core views and interests), and so forth.


My assumption: They are friends until they prove otherwise. They are allies only if they prove it.

It is possible to be both a friend and an ally. It is possible to be one or the other. It is possible to be neither.

I agree, Lydia. I have the great privilege and honor to work with my "natural friends," which provides a strong counterweight to some of the side-effects of spending time in the blogosphere, and yet it would be wonderful to spend time "in the flesh" with my sparring partners here and elsewhere.

I think the "allies" vs. "friends" distinction is an interesting one, Michael. Usually the distinction gets made for us in real life, because we meet people under such varied circumstances and for such varied purposes. In the blogosphere, the distinction tends to collapse, because we come together for the purpose of discussing ideas, news stories, and issues.

Thanks, Lydia - this is very well said.

In the last few years, nothing has upset me more than the seeming inability of the various stripes of conservatives (neo, paleo, economic, social, etc) to learn from one another, or even, sometimes, to treat one another with minimal decency.

This is a long-standing problem.

Indeed, the "discarnate" nature of electronic communication is hard to handle.

Our species has not had this tech for long, and we're still adapting.

Solvitur ambulando!

Thanks, Steve. One thing I've found kind of surprising is the way that the phenomenon of knowing every opinion the person has on every topic separates even people from _within_ the groups you mention, particularly social conservatives. I think what Michael says about friends and allies is useful here. When we are thinking in terms of allies, we then have to decide along which axis or axes we are most urgently looking for allies and then be willing to treat differences along other axes as of relatively less importance.

You're absolutely right. I decided some time ago, for the sake of friendship, to overlook the annoying fact that you're Protestant.

Exactly, Bill. That's a good example. Seriously. :-)

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."

Isn't this a failure on Jim's part though? Where does it say that when presented with a difference of opinion with someone (someone that you agree with on quite a bit) crankiness is the necessary response? This is a lack of charity that may be prevalent in the blogosphere but imo should be guarded against.

I certainly get into disagreements with friends and allies when talking about ideas - both in persons and electronically. That's just a consequence of talking about ideas no matter what the medium. The blogopshere is all about ideas so it happens more often. At least, in my case, its not as if incarnate discussions stay within the sphere of common agreement. I don't always just change the conversation thats for sure.


I think that it is a limitation of the medium combined with abuses of public forums and I think it is just a problem with blogging that is part of the package. I tend to see the posts as seperate from the comment threads though.

You are right that body language is huge. As a salesman and now a development professional I can assure you that e-mail is the worst communication for getting people into trouble. The written correspondence is almost always taken in its most negative light and people sense sarcasm or attack where it does not exist. If there is a chance it can be taken wrong it almost always is. Comment threads are similar. With only the words, and people trying to be brief so using limited words at best, people tend to be less clear than they think and their audience sees the lack of clarity and infers arrogance or presumption.

Still, I lurk through comment threads because every once in a while people put together really good and productive discussions. Those IMO seem to be the rare exception though.


It's a good question, Mike d., whether Jim is in some sense in the wrong in my scenario. I was imagining a situation where he hasn't had an opportunity to find out all those other good things about Joe--perhaps he knows some of them (such as that Joe is pro-life)--but doesn't realize how much they would have in common, because the only place he's ever interacted with him is on a theology blog, and perhaps only in a few threads. And I realize that "that idiot" is a little strong, but if you imagine Jim as thinking "that guy" with a sort of inner mental eyeroll, it's less harsh but just about as unfortunate. It's impossible, now, for Jim _not_ to have that idea in his mind of Joe as someone who not only a) holds incorrect opinions but also b) tries to make weak arguments for them without realizing how weak they are. And a tu quoque can be one of the most irritating argument forms to encounter, especially when one thinks it's poorly done.

So I'm not sure to what extent the problem is that Jim is a cranky person and to what extent the unfortunate nature of the situation arises just from the fact that he and Joe are interacting as disembodied brains, and Jim realizes (or thinks he realizes) that Joe is confused and has chosen to argue with him nonetheless, hasn't realized the force of his arguments, has made weak arguments of his own, and so forth. Which causes a certain irreducible feeling of frustration and annoyance, I think, however charitable of a person one is. And this is pretty much the whole of their interaction.

Jay, I'm certain you're right about the limitations of the electronic medium. Being old enough to remember a world without e-mail (and even without personal computers, for that matter), I've always been fascinated by the question of how people get along electronically vs. how they get along personally. So far my anecdotal evidence supports the thesis that people get along better in person than electronically, for many of the reasons that you give. But I can imagine its working the other way around, especially for a shy person who expresses himself better, more wittily, etc., in writing than in person.

A good book from the pre-e-mail era based on this premise is _84, Charing Cross Road_. Helene Hanff doesn't go to England when she has finally saved up the money *in part* because she suddenly learns that she has to move and will want to use the money for new furniture, etc., for a new apartment. But she also doesn't go in part because she is shy and feels nervous about actually meeting all the people with whom she has enjoyed corresponding.

Exactly, Bill. That's a good example.

ON THE OTHER HAND, if I knew you were prolife, but later discovered (as I have of many Christian conservatives) that you made certain exceptions, such as that you thought the prinicple of double-effect allowed our dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities, or killing a baby to save the mother's life, we'd have a real problem. We could talk, but the conversation would be perpetually chilly. Whenever I thought of you, I'd think of this failing.

You know, the reverse situation also arises. There are people with whom I get along fabulously on the web, but who in real life I'd probably find dull company, and who in turn might not be able to stand mine for more than a few minutes at a time. Forgetting that this would probably include most of the civilized world, it's nevertheless true that those personal failings one finds necessary to endure in family, friends, and co-religionists are as readily concealed by the web as they are revealed.

In most cases, I find the inability to appreciate a good beer (or two or three) more of an obstacle to friendship than religious heresy. In your case (a very hard one) that's two exceptions I've made and I hope you appreciate the sacrifice as much as I do the beer.

Reminds me of a cartoon I saw long ago:

Two beagles are sitting in front of a computer screen. One says to the other, "You know, online they can't tell you're a dog."

Bill finds it much harder to overlook the annoying fact that I am a bad golfer.

In all seriousness, this is a good little post on the limitations of online friendships. I've been fortunate enough to have met, and spent time with in person, quite a number of online friends (though, alas, only one or two from W4). Whatever the advantages of the blogosphere, there is just no substitute for the incarnational aspects of personal friendship.

Thank you, Bill, I do deeply appreciate your forbearance.

The really painful thorn is the disincarnate nature of the web.


Bill finds it much harder to overlook the annoying fact that I am a bad golfer.

That doesn't annoy me at all. I've made a lot of money off of bad golfers. What Paul left out was that I'm one of the webpeople he's met, and that he enjoyed my company immensely. At least that's the impression I got, but it's interesting that he hasn't returned for a second visit.

The limitations of the medium may not be as great as some believe. I am not sure relationships built on the web differ that much from relationships we build through more traditional social interactions.
Many of my drinking buddies are guys I met in politics. They were either allies or co-belligerents in the battles fought against liberals and their neo-con allies. Some are catholic paleo-cons, some are libertarians, some are secular conservatives.
My on line pals are not much different. Most are guys who have joined in the battle against the circular reasoning of Dooyeweerd and Van Til. Most are either Thomists, Reidians or followers of Gordon Clark.
In both cases I know these are fellows I do not agree with on everything. They may be fellows that hold some positions that I find truely troubling. I know they have a sharp wit, and an insightful critique of some questions that interest me. The relationship is built on what we have in common.

You're probably more tolerant of differences in your on-line friends than some others are, then, Thom. I find that a lot of people just get incredibly annoyed at all the differences they discover in their on-line friends, and of course one point of the post is that we find out about so many more of these, and in so much more detail, than we probably would in person.

The other thing is just a personality issue. I know of one friend I have lost, to my sorrow (seriously), as a result of blogging. It was truly heart-breaking, but this person told me, in so many words, "I like you so much better in person than electronically." Eventually it--that is, my blogging and e-mail personality--just became intolerable to him, and we had as a result a serious rift in the friendship which will probably be permanent.

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