Blogs and responsibility

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Since this is a blog, I’m going to write my first post on responsibility and blogging. What is the relationship between the two? The answer might seem to be ‘nothing,’ but this is too fast. Responsibility can be found even in the least likely of places. It’s practically everywhere.

First, we would do well to consider the two most popular accounts of responsibility: the character view and the control view. On the character view, responsibility is a matter of a person’s character, quality of will, or moral personality. On the control view, responsibility is a matter of having and exercising reasons-responsiveness. (These are rough approximations – there’s no space to get into details and nuances). To illustrate, consider a common example: is an alcoholic responsible for his alcoholism? On the character view, he is responsible if he decisively endorses his alcoholic impulses or values them on balance. On the control view, it depends if the alcoholic impulses are amenable to reasons-responsiveness, or utterly compulsive. If the latter, the person may not be responsible.

So how do blogs enhance and/or undermine responsibility on these two metrics? Let’s address the two theories in turn.

Blogs can enhance character in two ways. First, they can enhance reflective agency by providing us with a forum to critically evaluate our beliefs and values. This allows us to consider and decisively endorse or disavow our lower-order attitudes. This is not a new capacity, but an extension of a capacity that we already have: the capacity for self-reflection. Blogs lay out our thoughts in such a way that we can reflect on and evaluate them. On the other hand, if responsibility is a matter not so much of critical reflection but of values (whether reflectively available or not), then blogs can enhance agency by permitting us to construct a coherent narrative, in which our values are clearly articulated and integrated in a coherent system. This can strengthen the integrity of our moral personality.

On the other hand, blogs can undermine character by giving us the ability to create any virtual narrative or identity we please. If our online identity is radically different from our real-life identity (i.e., radically inauthentic), this can create a second life, undermining the coherence of the self. Furthermore, blogs often present only one side of our personality – typically, the best side. In general, people do not air their dirty laundry online. So even if our virtual identity is not completely fabricated, it is likely one-dimensional. This, too, can undermine the integrity of our character, if we feel that we have to live up to a false public persona. Character is strongest if it is coherent, and blogs can threaten our evaluative consistency.

Now consider this question from the perspective of control. On the one hand, blogs allow us to control how we present ourselves to the world: we can publicly display whichever aspects of our private life we please. On the other hand, some kinds of public disclosures are censored and stigmatized. For example, we can disclose our mental health problems, but at the risk of backlash from insensitive commentators. Negative comments can affect the way that we construct ourselves: they can affect our capacity for agency and autonomy. Foucault commented on this aspect of public judgment long before the Internet emerged, and specifically on how surveillance can ‘discipline’ us by compelling us to internalize it (1975). Although there are salient differences between online forums and the Panopticon, online commentary can have a similar effect, compelling us to suppress and/or cultivate certain parts of our identity according to public opinion. So in this way, blogs can undermine the control that we have over our agency by instilling ‘discipline.’ In extreme cases, online backlash has resulted in people losing their jobs, families and friends, as Jon Ronson documents in his latest book, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ (2015), and this can have devastating effects on agency, which depends on social possibilities. But on the other hand, blogs can also enhance control by letting us explore an identity that may not be recognized in our cultural environment, and letting us seek out like-minded people. The upshot is that, as with character, the effects of blogging on control are ambivalent and variable.

 

It is worth considering a slightly different account of responsibility: McKenna’s conversational model, on which responsibility consists in a conversational exchange amongst two or more interlocutors, where one person acts, another reacts, and the first person responds (McKenna 2012). Do blogs enhance or impair responsibility on this model? Since blogs are meant to be read and commented on, they can enhance responsibility as a conversational practice, since they provide an additional vehicle for responsibility exchanges (in addition to face-to-face communication). And this vehicle has a particularly broad scope, since it is international. This is relevant, since more diverse feedback can foster better (more enlightened) moral agency, by exposing us to different perspectives. Blogs can also enhance responsible agency inasmuch as comments, if made judiciously, can bring to light relevant information. For example, if I write a terrible blog entry and someone points this out to me (constructively), this helps me to write a better entry next time, enhancing my blog-writing agency. Likewise for morally-laden comments, which can specifically enhance moral agency. Of course, the tenor of the post matters: too many posts are abusive and unhelpful, and these can undermine responsible agency by scaring people into censoring and inhibiting themselves. So again, blogs have the potential to enhance responsibility, but only under felicitous circumstances.

So the moral is, blogs can enhance responsible agency, but only if they are used responsibility.

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