(Republished from that great blog you should all visit, Voices on the Square)

It appears there are two universes operating here in the blogosphere.  

One universe is the world of rational debate, in which people test each other's arguments with reasons.  This is the universe in which the phenomenon Jurgen Habermas called the "rationalization of the lifeworld" is allowed to exist, with the potential in hand for what Habermas called "communicative action."  In this universe, arguments are respectfully tested to see if their claims measure up to reality, to the moral standards of individuals and of society, and to human beings' inner longings for satisfaction.  This is a universe of human beings working with words to discern truth, through the vehicles of credibility.  We can call this universe the universe of communicative action, or the public sphere.

In the other universe, the bandwagon effect rules, and argument isn't worth anything.  This universe seems to pop up with greater ferocity in the mass panic that attends the run-up to elections — without regard to the inappropriateness of such a universe to the situation which it confronts, or for that matter to any social situation.  What matters in this other universe is cheerleading, and conformity of advocacy.  This is the universe of the sacred and the profane.  Among the sacred are those who defend what's good and true, and among the profane are those who dare to question.  Testing assertions is sacrilege in this universe.

There is a certain futility to this universe: if argument isn't worth anything, then any sort of "public sphere" or even a semi-public, semi-private sphere such as, say, DailyKos.com, becomes a mere echo chamber:

Without a doubt the two universes, the universe of communicative action and the universe of the sacred and the profane, coexist in the Internet because of the dual public/ private character of the Internet.  The Internet offers a public sphere, in which individuals of different persuasions may at times exchange opinions.  Oh, sure, there is a sort of "mailed in" character to Internet exchanges — words on the Internet are just pixels on the screen, and these pixels are already pre-selected for your consumption.  So people select the pixels with which they already agree.  This is backed up by research:

Research has confirmed that the Internet exerts a polarizing force on the electorate. In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser writes about how search engines and social networks filter out dissenting opinions and offer users only what they want to see. Google and Yahoo draw on a user’s past search preferences when responding to queries, meaning that over time a liberal and a conservative might receive ideologically opposite search results having entered identical information. (Pariser recounts how a conservative entering the letters “BP” into Google received stock tips, whereas a liberal was linked to news stories on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.)

Similar work by Cass Sunstein, the current Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, shows how the Internet creates “echo chambers” where users surround themselves only with the like-minded.

So, to be sure, there is this echo chamber thing going on with the Internet.  The Internet separates out into separate universes of sacred and profane, where the various true believers congregate in the echo chambers.  But occasionally Internet site owners will allow differences of opinion, and exchanges of these differences, to be voiced.  Usually these exchanges end badly: what you get is combative interaction, and nobody really learns anything.  Sometimes, however, you get instructive exchanges on the Internet.  These exchanges were something our society once called "genuine debate."

One thing that can promote instructive exchange on the Internet are open discussions of how to argue.  We can promote the universe of communicative action by spelling out the difference between an exchange of opinion that merely ends up in combative interaction, and one that is actually productive of some greater truth that opposing sides can accept.  Only more promotion of the universe of communicative action will, ultimately, persuade people to one's way of thinking.


Once upon a time, back in July of 2010, I wrote a diary that attempted to provide such an open discussion, and by extension the universe of communicative action.  This was a very popular diary, making the Rec List, and receiving 400 tips in the "tip jar," and a diary which explored the extent to which DailyKos.com itself was part of the universe of communicative action.  It was written in the context of the controversy surrounding Obama administration policy.  This diary was called "On the Ad Hominem Argument," and I wrote it largely in defense of critics of Barack Obama.  Its relevance continues to this day.

In this piece, I choose to focus upon ad hominem attacks.  The problem was this: instead of discussing actual arguments for and against Obama policies, participants in DailyKos.com (and other Internet sites) adopted a cheap routine of blaming the sources of these arguments.  Here's how I phrased it:

…just because Cenk Uygur or Jane Hamsher or David Sirota or Rachel Maddow or Ed Schulz (or for that matter Grover Norquist or Joe Lieberman or Rand Paul) makes a particular argument ("claim X") does not mean that "claim X" can be dismissed outright because Cenk Uygur or Jane Hamsher or David Sirota or Rachel Maddow or Ed Schulz or Grover Norquist or Joe Lieberman or Rand Paul is a "tool" or "stupid" or "self-aggrandizing" or "mendacious" or whatever insult one might apply to anyone who makes an argument.

Or, put more simply:

Arguments do not count as "true" or "untrue" merely by virtue of whomever said them.

There is, I argued, an antidote to the ad hominem argument.  Here's how I phrased it:

The way around the ad hominem argument, the ONLY way around it, is to EXAMINE THE ARGUMENT ITSELF.

"Examining the argument itself," my proposed solution to ad hominem combative interaction, is of course the heart and soul of the universe of communicative action.  It's good against all sorts of dismissals (and not just ad hominem dismissals).  This is important to remember.  The universe of communicative action is enriched when people examine arguments, rather than engaging dismissive squabbles.  This doesn't mean that you have to accept everyone's argument as valid.  It does, however, mean that if you want to promote the universe of communicative action, you should test the arguments of others with reasons, rather than dismissing them outright.  Many arguments will doubtless fail your tests.  But you will at least have granted them a hearing.

My diary, then, was an appeal to the universe of communicative action in a place which (given the reactions I got) was very much open to that universe.  Well, that was DailyKos.com, back then.

Nowadays DailyKos.com appears to have drifted into the universe of the sacred and the profane.  It provides a fertile environment for diaries such as this one:

I don't expect to see another democratic candidate like Barack Obama in my lifetime.

Here is one of my favorite passages from this diiary:

This Barack Obama is smarter than this country will let him be. Make no mistake about it, this president is a prisoner of US—our collective reluctance to catch up to him.

This writer considers herself a "democratic socialist" — which stylizes the appeal to the sacred here.  You can "disagree with" Obama's policies, all you want, over at DailyKos.com — as long as you write nice love letters to him, and preserve the division of sacred and profane that site owner Markos Moulitsas is determined to enforce upon contributors to his site.  Also, site participants are warned: don't get too deeply into those disagreements — the idea of not voting for Barack Obama next Tuesday is now something that you don't want to "go there" over at DailyKos.com

The diary I've cited is also interesting as a site of recent bannings –the site owner kicked a number of people off of DailyKos.com for having ventured into the land of the profane.  So, for instance, this commenter has been banned:

This "love letter" to a man who has done much the same evil as did George W. Bush.

The site owner's reply to this comment?

Anyone who wants to play the "no difference" card can go fuck themselves.

Now, a well-documented argumentative journey into the land of what site owner Markos Moulitsas considers the profane has in fact been made — and it was cited by this now-banned comment author:

And now Matt Stoller has made an equally devastating socioeconomic case against Obama in Salon.

Now, in my opinion Matt Stoller makes a meaningful case for not voting for Obama that 1) avoids the desultory, self-contradictory, and ultimately racist arguments against Obama made by Republicans, while 2) suggesting reasons why a vote for Obama will neither accomplish anything significant for any "progressive" cause, nor will it effectively prevent anything onerous which the Republicans might propose.  Markos Moulitsas' counter-offer: "Anyone who wants to play the 'no difference' card can go fuck themselves."  Were you persuaded by this?

Stoller won't, of course, get a hearing over at DailyKos.com .  Nor can I say for sure that Stoller is entirely correct and Moulitsas entirely wrong.  But Markos Moulitsas just isn't going to make a persuasive case for Barack Obama by shutting down the universe of communicative action, through outright dismissals of those who make a case for voting for someone else.  

How does actual persuasion work, in real life?  This topic is too broad for exposition here — but let me suggest a metaphor here that might provide some insight into the process.  One of my favorite metaphors for actual persuasion is the "Chair Theory of arguing."  This comes from Jack Rawlins, author of a writing textbook titled The Writer's Way:

The Chair Theory of arguing says imagine your reader sitting in a room full of chairs, each chair representing an argumentative position.  She is sitting in the chair that represents her opinion.  You're sitting in your own chair, some distance away.  Your goal as arguer is to convince her to get out of her chair and move to the chair next to you.  What makes a person willing to move toward someone?  Does a person come toward you if you tell her, "You're an idiot for sitting in that chair…"

Does that help any?

Meanwhile, we can count on being exposed, throughout the political Internet to another week of the Fish Good Guys/ Bad Guys Cheer.  The power!  The glory!  Feh.  Real argumentation actually persuades.  Dismissals, cheerleading, and other appeals to the sacred/ profane only appeal to already-converted true believers.



Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984