Ed Whelan has issued an apology to Publius (here and here) for which I think he deserves some credit. Obviously he can’t undo whatever harm was or was not already done, but his apologies are I think worth reading, as is Publius’ acceptance thereof.
One long note about the response to the apology – that a number of people question the sincerity thereof to me shows one of the greatest weaknesses of the blogging medium. It is so easy to assume to know a blogger personally just based on what they write and how they write it, even though there is never any personal interaction with that blogger. When that blogger does something that we may find out of the ordinary (for better, as in this case, or for worse, as in the case of Andrew Sullivan’s pursuit of the Trig Palin story) it’s easy to question the motives (or make excuses, as the case may be) for that behavior.
This is because the written word is just that – written. It can convey emotion to an extent, to be sure, but it is extraordinarily difficult to convey sincerity or insincerity. We don’t get to see whether a statement is being read from a script or ad libbed from the heart; we don’t get to see whether it is being delivered robotically or passionately. In some respects, this can be a good thing – it allows us to evaluate arguments more on the merits, at least if we assume the arguments are made in good faith. But more often, it allows us to simply overlay our preexisting prejudices and ideological predispositions onto those on the nominal “other side.”
For whatever reason, there seems to be a tendency to assume bad faith in the blogosphere amongst those on the “other side” that we likely would not assume were we speaking to that person directly and thus able to evaluate their sincerity. Conversely, there is a tendency, albeit less frequent and less dangerous, to assume good faith amongst those on “our side” when we’d probably call bullshit on them were we speaking to them in person.
There is often an assumption that the causticity of the blogosphere is in part a result of the anonymity it offers, and thus anonymous and pseudonymous blogging are a major problem. Yet many of the nastiest exchanges between bloggers involve people who are quite open about their identity, and pseudonymous bloggers have almost-equally strong incentives to avoid nastiness since they still have to cultivate a reputation under that pseudonym to develop a readership.*
Instead, I think it’s more a result of the fact that without any face-to-face or even voice-to-voice interaction, it’s exceedingly easy to forget that there is a human being behind the words (or, as Whelan say in his apology, “behind the pseudonym”) that one is attacking. Even where you should know the person with whom you are arguing is using their real name, all you are arguing against is a name, and in some rare cases a photograph – not a person with a family, a job, and a history.
I don’t know how to eliminate this great flaw, and in fact I don’t think it’s desirable. But I do think that this flaw could be turned into a strength, or at least more a strength than a weakness, if more in the blogosphere would make it a policy to simply assume good faith in their opponents. It would also help if we made more of an effort to recognize that we don’t remotely know the people we are criticizing in most cases, and thus it makes little sense to argue as if we were addressing the person directly.
The other day, Will asked for suggestions on the 10 Commandments of Blogging Ethics. I don’t know that I can come up with 10, but at the very least, I think these should be the first two:
1. Assume your opponent(s) are acting in good faith
2. Recognize that you don’t know the person you are arguing against, and thus stick to addressing their arguments on that issue.
Finally, I’ve long been torn on the issue of anonymity for myself. For the most part, I had to overcome the same considerations detailed by Ken at Popehat before ending my anonymity. I still wonder whether it wouldn’t be wise for me to revert to at least a little greater anonymity than I currently enjoy if not the level at which I began writing. For a variety of reasons presumably not pertinent to Ken, I found that I was able to drop that anonymity, though – one of which is that I was inadvertently outed when RealClearPolitics briefly cross-posted some of my work.
*Rick Moran makes a strong case that this is not true with respect to commenters. I’m not convinced, though – I think comments sections (though thanks to our high-quality readers, not ours in the least) tend to be particularly caustic regardless of whether real names are used, partly because as Moran points out there is little risk with respect to commenting under one’s real name, but also partly because commenters don’t have to be concerned with cultivating a reputation to develop a readership.