to what end

The Angry Asian Buddhist is Angry. Again. This week, the target of his ire is an article by David Nichtern on the Huffington Post, an article that wasn’t all that interesting (to me anyway) and raised the same issues and questions that Arun has raised time and again for years now. A lively discussion, with accusations of racism flying this way and that, has flared up on the Angry Asian Buddhist blog (and also on a not-exactly-related post on Dharma Folk). I was going to make a comment over there, but after I filled in the little comment field, I selected the wrong account, the comment vanished, I got distracted, and stopped caring about whatever it was that I was going to say. But let me tell you this: whatever I was going to say was going to be brilliant!

Anyway. Whatever I was going to say is not what I’m about to say. I’ve been feeling frustrated lately with the whole project of blogging, truth be told. And, as my long-time readers will attest, ordinarily I’d jump on the Angry Asian bandwagon, champion diversity, rail against systems of oppression, act like the Feminist Hulk (or his [her?] Buddhist counterpart), and SMASH. But I just can’t seem to get riled up about this stuff. I can’t help thinking to myself, to what end? What is the point of all of this?

I was thinking yesterday about old and new media. I was thinking about how “new” media has, in large part, displaced “old” media. In a vague and general sense, I’m bothered by that. I’m bothered by that because I worry that we’re giving “new” media too much credit. For example, people are worried about Julian Assange leaking everything all over the Internet via WikiLeaks, that he has no journalistic morals. No journalistic decorum. Which, if you think about it, is preposterous. Of course he has no journalistic morals. He’s not a journalist. And he’s said as much himself. WikiLeaks is not meant to be reportage; it’s meant to be a resource. Being angry at WikiLeaks for providing you with information you find distasteful or dangerous is a little like being pissed off at your local public library for having a copy of Mein Kampf on the shelf. They’re just providing the information; it’s up to you to decide what to do with it, and by all accounts “good journalists,” members of “old media” establishments, aren’t doing squat with the information they’re being provided by WikiLeaks.

At any rate, I provide this example because I worry. I worry that as old media journalists consistently fail at doing what they’re supposed to be good at, they are being displaced by new media apologists, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and zealots. Note how in that list I didn’t include new media journalists. Oh, how I’d love to come across a new media journalist. Instead, all I seem to find are bad reporters and bloggers.

Here’s the problem with blogs. Blog are not newspapers. Blogs are not journalism. Blogs can be. Blogs can be used by journalists and I’ve read blogs that have blown my socks off, that are better written and researched than anything you’d find at the New York Times. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. According to a random sampling of websites I just looked at, there’s probably at least 100 million blogs spread out across the Internet (and, by extension, the world). It would be naive to suspect that even a small minority of all of those blogs were written by genius writers who took the time to research their stories, conduct interviews, and have an editor do some fact checking before a copy editor looked for spelling mistakes. C’mon now. You’ve been out there. You’re reading a lot of the same blogs I am. And a lot of them are crap.

Now before you scroll down to the bottom of this page and fire off an angry comment about how I’m some luddite who hates you and your whole blogging project, before you point out the obvious irony of me writing about how blogs are stupid in a blog, let me say this: blogs aren’t stupid. I believe in the Internet. I believe in the platform of blogging. I believe that blogs can be an incredibly powerful, inspirational, transformational medium. Blogs are an important, valuable and at times necessary way of sharing information and resources. But blogs (and most “new” media) are not necessarily the same thing as “old” media journalism.

Where blogs excel is in creating conversation. This is one of their strengths, one of the things I encourage, one of the ways that they remain a powerful medium. I can make some statement, begin some conversation about some topic here, and people half a world away can pick up on it, respond to it here or, often more likely, write a post on their own blog, starting a whole new conversation. I have had conversations with folks via blogs that were amazing. That blew me away. I’ve had people contact me through my blog that I never would have met in the real world, and I value that, deeply.

But I am aware — at times painfully aware — of the fact that blogs are, more often than not, merely a conversation. I say “merely” because conversations have limits. They’re important and necessary, but let’s be honest. They have limits. A conversation generally lacks the ability to develop a sustained, well supported thesis. Conversations generally lack critical analysis. Conversations all too easily digress. Conversations are prone to being taken over by the loudest person in the room, the person who doesn’t necessarily have the best ideas or the wittiest anecdotes or the most insightful insights; he’s taking over the conversation by brute force, because he can talk louder than you can. And at the end of a conversation, maybe you’ve made your point, maybe everyone in the room has heard what you’ve had to say, but there’s no guarantee that anyone’s changed their opinions. There’s no promise that the conversation will lead, directly, to anything changing anywhere. And next week, you’ll find yourself back with the same people, only at a different dinner party, and you’ll be having the exact same conversation all over again.

Which brings me back to the Angry Asian Buddhist. Haven’t we been here before? Haven’t we argued all of these same points already? Some of the faces have changed, but many of them haven’t, and those that haven’t are still arguing the same things. Last time we were all pissed off about some other article in some other magazine; this time it’s the good ol’ HufPo. But it’s the same conversation and nothing’s changed.

I often have the feeling that blogs have made critics of us all. (And lord knows that I’m as guilty of this as anyone.) It’s easy to scour the Internet and find some random article or, more frequently, another blog, and point to it and say, “There! That’s what I’m on about! This is an example of what’s wrong with the world! Now let me deconstruct this one article thereby inciting some argument amongst all my blogging comrades…” And so it goes.

But to what end? And, more importantly, what about the big picture?

In conversations (arguments, really) I’ve had with folks about racism in the United States, people always get hung up on the idea that racism is a personal problem. That racism is the result of individuals acting like assholes. And, yes, that’s true, in part. There are individual racists to be sure. And I could scour the Internet, both new and old media, and find plenty of examples of specific, individual people who have said and done specific things that betray their personal biases, prejudices, bigotry, and racism. But so what? To what end? How does that change anything? Once I’ve made my list of individuals who are acting like assholes, then what? Do I contact each and every single one of them and say, “Please, Mr. Racist, stop behaving like that!” Will that make a difference? Will racial profiling suddenly come to an end? Will economic inequality vanish?

No. It won’t.

The problem isn’t the individual instances of people behaving badly — people are always going to behave badly — the problem is the big picture. The problem is systemic. The problem is the sum total of all of the individual instances. It’s only after we have collected enough data, it’s only after we have analyzed that data and proposed a hypothesis, it’s only after we have tested said hypothesis and come up with some theory, it’s only then that we can really talk about what the underlying problem of people’s bad behavior is. And once we’ve done that we can work on fixing the problem. It’s only then that we can work on undoing this mass of suffering.

Finding an example of people behaving badly is as easy as falling off a horse. It’s easy to be a critic. It’s easy to criticize someone else’s work and then start a conversation about it on your blog or at a dinner party. Once you do, huzzah!, someone else can come along and criticize your work, lob accusations of prejudice or bias against you, and before you know it, you’re stuck in a round of suffering. To what end?

We need to have these conversations. But we also need to be honest about their limitations. We need to work equally hard at producing more critical analysis of the big picture. And, most fundamentally, we need to work even harder at creating new systems to undo the systems that are broken, the systems that motivate all of those idiots behaving badly. Old media is failing at this, and failing pretty bad. And as long as blogs remain nothing more than circular, insular, arguments about individual’s bad behavior, they won’t really be a replacement of old media. They’ll just be something different. And we will have completely lost all critical analysis. We will have completely lost the ability to make change, giving it up for the ability to be the loudest person in the room, the person most attached to their opinion and willing to defend it at any cost, just for the sake of winning an argument or being the driver of a conversation we’ve had a million times before.

We can do better.

3 thoughts on “to what end

  1. Consider this 21st Century enlightenment. The situation is a lot bigger than blogs.

    One of many good points is the distinguishing between healthy public disagreement from public disparagement. As well the points about critical analysis vs. complaining are often lost in many of these conversations. And the tendency to label as “good” that which is familiar and “bad” that which is unfamiliar.

    I’ve run into this wall on my blog more and more frequently lately. Am seriously questioning the value of it and of many interactions both on-line and off. Because these problems transcend the medium.

    In many cases they indicate a lack of direction. And a lack of leadership where leadership is respected as authority, and authority is to be obeyed even if it is wrong.

    The loud voice becomes the leader and the “truth” teller by virtue of aggression rather than by virtue of wisdom.

    For a moment consider what happened yesterday. The American combat troops are out of Iraq. That is momentous, historical, what people have wanted all along. But because Obama didn’t make it all about him, didn’t turn it into a big spectacle, people from all over the political spectrum are not only complaining but disparaging him. He brought the fucking troops home! But people want the flash. Substance means little without some show of fireworks.

    So it doesn’t matter what actual gains are made. Perception becomes everything. And perception is shallow.

    I am thinking about this in terms of writing, activism, sociologically, cross-culturally, politically and in Buddhist terms.

    So I appreciate your well articulated post. And your lack of “loudness” in saying so much that’s actually relevant to the discourse.

  2. Nella Lou – people are too busy debating whether or not Obama is a Muslim to pay attention to what’s actually happening. The political scene in the U.S. is degrading quickly in my opinion.

    Scott, I totally agree with you that there are serious road blocks coming up in the blogosphere that aren’t being looked at, and thought about deeply. I was recently part of some ugly discussions on the blog Feministe – terribly circular arguments around race, gender, class, and dis-ability, amongst other things. There’s a majority of folks on that particular blog looking out for anyone who makes any comment that contains any word that might possibly be offensive, oppressive, etc. And when those words appears, regardless of the intent of the poster, there’s a dog pile of guilt, shame, and blame that arrives. Several women of color were tossed under the bus for comments about how important the process of raising children was to them. Men were tossed under the bus for comments wondering where they might fit into the narratives being written in certain blog posts. And others were completely ramrodded for using the word “crazy.” It was kind of sad how quickly conversations could be derailed, and how quickly people turned potential allies into arch enemies.

    And although this happens online, I see it in “real life” as well, and it is one of the reasons why people “on the left” (I really dislike that term, but can’t think of something more useful right now) have no answer to right wing movements right now. I’d argue President Obama’s administration is, on many issues, more to the right than Clinton or Carter were in the recent past, and yet that really isn’t going to change unless people can work together more, and be more comfortable with some differences of opinion more.

    Arun’s post was repetitive in my view. I responded mostly because I felt I’m tired of seeing the same defensive “We’re not bad Buddhists, why are you upset” kind of rhetoric being tossed back. However, the snark in Arun’s posts seems designed to provoke, and the points made are the same as last year’s rounds against the Big Three magazines.

    I, personally, still think blogs have a lot to offer. However, it’s very true that we’re seeing the limitations, as well as the limitations of vision as to what people think blogs are for and can provide. Do you get what I mean? I think people just don’t see the possibilities, and are stuck in the smack-down mentality where you criticize the shit out of everything you disagree with, and offer thoughtless thumbs up to whatever sounds like your own thoughts.

  3. First, NellaLou, thank you for that video. Thought provoking. And thank you for your thoughts and feedback as always.

    Second, Nathan, yes, I think that’s a huge part of the problem, a blind, uncritical acceptance of things that we agree and harsh take-downs of anything that seems counter to our pre-conceived ideas. Or, to paraphrase that video, an acceptance of things which are merely familiar as “right” or “good” and things that are unfamiliar as “wrong” or “bad.”

    Next, I’d like to say, for the record, that I don’t have anything against Arun’s post per se. I used it as a foil, I suppose, which is ironic because one of the points I was making here is that all too often these discussions on blogs take the form of endless critiques of single blog posts (and personal attacks against their authors) and neglect the larger systemic issues that, in my view, we should be discussing. Moreover, as I said in the post, I think these discussions are important, relevant, that we should be having them and that I’m glad Arun raises them. More than anything else, this post was self-critical, like most things on my blog, na opportunity for me to examine my own motivations. I share it in the hope that it sparks some interest in others, that it helps others think differently about their own motivations.

    Lastly, someone sent me the following article this morning. I have no idea if this person sent it to me in response to this blog post or not, but it strikes me as particularly relevant. So here it is:

    I Suck

    Thank you for your comments. I hope the conversation continues.

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