Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meditations on the Marketplace of Ideas

 The Italian Market in Philadelphia, a scant few blocks from where I used to live.

The expression, "the marketplace of ideas," has a legal connotation, as it appears in a variety of constitutional cases.  It's been attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, although (rather like Sherlock and "Elementary, my dear Watson.") Holmes never actually used those words.  Here's what he wrote:
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition...But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas...that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.
Stirring stuff, hunh?  (That was from Holmes's dissent in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919), by the way.)

As it turns out, the concept underpinning this notion of a "marketplace of ideas" goes back to John Milton, who believed, "Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."

In the very first post on this blog -- written before anyone even knew I was here -- I (rather presciently, if I say so myself) wrote about the value of the marketplace of ideas versus the value of civility.  I speculated that there's something about the Internet that permits, or even encourages, people to argue to extremes or as I also call it, to "go polar."  I gave an example of a hypothetical conversation on Twitter and the same discussion face-to-face in a coffee shop.  (Funny stuff, if I might immodestly plug as ancient a text as a blog post from *shock* over two months ago.)

But the whole subject has come back to me, and in a slightly different context.  Here's the set-up:  You are reading a blog post and it triggers an idea.  You post that idea in the comment thread.  Then the person whose post you're commenting on comes back and says, in effect, "Seriously, that's the one thing you got from my post?  Really?"  Well, no, that wasn't the only thing you "got" from the original blog post.  But the comment thread, surely, is not intended solely for people to write a "book report" style comment discussing the major and secondary themes, the imagery, etc., thus demonstrating a full grasp of everything the poster meant to say.  It's not homework.  It's a comment.

Blog posts can be a bit like the present that was selected with tremendous care but upon presentation, the recipient is most thrilled with the box it came in.  (And it's not just cats and children that do this.  I once got a plain pine box with some soap & stuff inside from Takashimaya and it was a great gift because I really needed a plain pine box for my Tarot cards.  On another occasion, I gave the judge I clerked for a silver potpourri jar for her 25th anniversary of her elevation to the bench.  My husband at the time also binds books, so he made a silk-covered presentation box.  Guess which she loved the best -- yup, the box.)  But so what?  The box was part of the gift too.  Who cares which bit of your generosity was appreciated the most?  Your offering was appreciated.

Here at Promantica, I write what I'm thinking about.  That's it, and that's pretty much all there is.  I'm not trying to convince people I'm right, even though (and I do so hope this doesn't shock anyone) I do actually think I'm right.  But people are going to get from my posts what they get from my posts.  I'm happy when someone has a thought about something (perhaps just a single tiny thing) I wrote.  They took the time to share it.  I want to respond, even if it seems the commenter picked up on a tangential point that I didn't expect anyone to think about.

This happened here yesterday -- Catherine (hi, Catherine -- hope this attention doesn't make you never come back here) asked why I thought simultaneous orgasms are a misleading trope in romances.  Her question really make me stop and think.  Why had I written that?  I believe it to be true, but why?  It's like those math tests that tell you to show all work.  My response to her comment and her response to my response -- well, it's not even remotely on the topic of the blog, but I'm so glad she brought it up.

Now, I did just tell you that I think I'm right.  I do think that about opinions I express here: at the time that I write them, I believe them to be valid conclusions.  But I know I cannot have a monopoly on "the right answer" because I cannot possibly have thought all there is to think on that topic.  No one can.  I don't think having an open mind means having no strongly held opinion.  It means that everyone else's opinion is welcome and worthwhile.  I may change my mind, I may agree to disagree.  But either way, I enjoy the discussion.  It's invigorating, even if very strident disagreements aren't always fun.

So why is it that some blogs seem like an oligarchy, meaning a small body of people who have the supreme power of a state in their hands.  Of course that's okay for the posts themselves -- even guest posts are vetted by the blogger -- but the comment threads?  Other than keeping crude or abusive language out, should bloggers really tell commenters which element of the post it's okay to comment on?  And if the blogger feels strongly that a commenter is being too argumentative or hostile, is hostility toward the commenter the best way to deal with the situation?

Here's a link to a brilliant, sparkling parody of an "incendiary blog post."  What Chris Clark has done is strip an incendiary blog post down to its bare bones.  Read the penultimate sentence:
This sentence invites readers to respond freely and without constraint as long as those responses fall within certain parameters. 
 And what I love about this parody is that it tells me this isn't just Romlandia, peeps -- this is the Internet.  Here's one of the comments in the resulting thread:
This comment misreads one of the previous commenter’s comments and wonders why on earth he has posted something so off-topic as a rant about women’s bicycle races, and wants to know about this “race card” he thinks everyone is playing - what is it? Some kind of betting pool on the Tour de France?
Brilliant stuff.  I may just have to comment.

So, who's with me?  Let us go back to the marketplace of ideas.  Let us have free and open discussion on topics.  Let us, as bloggers, "keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."  And as customers in the marketplace of ideas, let us remember that if the salespeople are rude to you, maybe another market has the same goods.


  1. Very interesting. When I blog over at AAR and see what people have to say about those pieces, I'm always struck by what stands out to others. Seeing someone put a different emphasis on various ideas in a post that may not have been my primary focus helps me frame issues and go places I may not have thought to go on my own.

  2. Hey, I live in Philadelphia!

    Not as close to the Italian Market as I used to.

  3. I refer m'learned friend to my previous comment on this issue.

  4. Oligarchy is an excellent word for a number of online phenomena :)

    I notice that over time, I tend to stick with sites that moderate their comments heavily. I do frequent sites that don't moderate at all; I appreciate that you know what you're getting into when you go there. It's just that some topics become not worth the effort of wading through it all.

    For many sites I think an inbetween approach is the easiest to carry out; it's certainly the most common approach that I see. However, it does drive me away at times; it can develop into something that seems self-righteous or unwilling to allow others to interpret or riff or shape the discussion.

  5. Exhibit A (a comment from the blog you linked to) ... I do think that exciting back and forth leads to lots of visitors ... including me, cause I like to be part of that convo :) Re: She sells screeds by the sea shore

    But in RL, a crazy stalker caused us to moderate all our comments so I get that too. I figure I get a few putdowns but I also dish it out -- and that's OK with me. I prefer moderated and active comment threads.

    Interesting blog -- sometimes I think we wish for a free for all but in reality, it can be pretty unnerving ... but my opinion might just change!

  6. Lynn -- I agree completely, and am off in a minute to continue my enjoyable discussion with Catherine about orgasms on that very basis!

    Victoria -- I'm in the Plymouth Meeting area every Thursday; if you want to do lunch, let me know! You can email me at Magdalen [at sign] MagdalenBraden [dot] com.

    Tumperkin -- And I would ask m'learned friend to which previous comment are you referring me? One on Promantica, or your post here, or Comment #40 on this Dear Author post from last March on a similar subject?

    The point is, I'm really interested in your thoughts on this subject, and understand that you feel you've already said what you think so why write it again. Thus, you can definitely refer me to where I should find those thoughts -- and it's possible that I have found your thoughts in one or all of these spots. I'm just checking to see if you had a favorite. :-)

    Read for Pleasure -- I get so few comments (but they are, of course, the very best comments!) that I've not had to worry about moderation. What I actually think is that anyone who reads a post on Promantica and comments is probably aware that I'll engage the commenter in a sensible debate on any sensible topic. Caveat commenter, if you don't mind the faux Latin.

    If the time comes, and I have to enforce an implied code of conduct (no abuse, no racial epithets, no dangling participles -- that kind of thing), I will figure out how it's done. But I'm betting it's a small list of things that would get me that annoyed. And a comment that shifts the discussion almost anywhere is not on that list.

    Janet -- I don't have the knack for seeing only one side of an argument. Believe it or not -- and I'm being regrettably serious here -- it's one of my failings as a lawyer. I believe the answer to anything is almost never going to be one extreme or the other -- but I hesitate to say that it will NEVER be an extreme!

    Bluntly, I'm always going to be a boring person to get into a convo with if the goal is to end up in flames. Boring and/or intricate analyses of obscure points of law, policy, or sexual politics? I'm in. But a screed sold by the seashore? You're going to have that to get elsewhere!

    I'm rather counting on that as a natural defense, so to speak, against the people who like to go polar.

  7. I love frank discussions but there's an attitude in RomLand (and elsewhere) to which I don't subscribe. That's the "feel free to disagree with me as long as you acknowledge I'm right" school of thought.

    It irritates me to the point that I no longer feel comfortable commenting at some blogs. It's not worth the hassle.

    When I started blogging, I got a few tips from a veteran blogger. One of them was including a question at the end of op-eds so that readers would not only feel comfortable commenting, but also know that I was not going to get pissy if they disagreed with my arguments. Obviously, I think I'm right when I write my opinion on a topic, but I don't post an op-ed with a view to everyone agreeing with me.

  8. Sarah -- I've tried the "finish with a question" thing, and (I'm sad to say) no one responded to my questions. :-(

    Which I took to mean that my questions were probably not very interesting. I actually don't know what in my blogs will interest other people, and of the things that actually interest people, I don't know what people will write about if they do decide to comment.

    I figure if I write about things that interest me, and if I alleviate the crushing tedium of my posts with some small glimpses of humor, and explain why I'm interested in the topic -- well, let's just say I hit "Publish" and hope it makes sense. (Oh, but only after I read it out loud to my husband as a final step before publishing -- a very helpful step, as it happens.)

    I know that lots of visitors and long comment threads are measures of popularity. But here's what I remind myself: I've never been popular (in the sense of "being friends with lots of people").

    If someone wants to make a point or ask a question or express an opinion, I hope I make them feel comfortable. That can be tricky online, where tone is so hard to convey. (Emoticons are stupid, but useful in this regard.) But everyone is welcome.


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