Saturday, May 12, 2012

Spitting at the conventional wisdom: Some thoughts on (my) blogging

Whenever I encounter advice about blogging--at writers' conferences, on websites, etc.--the message is the same: Keep it brief and to the point. 500 hundreds words or less of punchy, provocative prose. A blog isn't the place to write a feature-length article, or to get bogged down in academic details. If it get's too long, break it up into a series.

I suppose that, were I to consistently follow this advice, I'd get more page views. More people would read my stuff. Fewer people would navigate to the page, realize my piece was the length equivalent of an academic article, and promptly navigate away. More people would come back for the next post.

And, of course, some of my more faithful readers and commenters would no longer be getting what initially drew them to this blog. Some of the readers who've said they were powerfully impacted by the substance of this blog might not have been so impacted.

So, call me a rebel, but I'm going to keep writing posts that are just too damned long. I spit in the face of conventional wisdom! Nya!

But seriously, I don't think there are any rigid "rules" of good blogging. There are blogs that aren't worth reading. But a blog, like a book, is a format that allows for a diversity of approaches. There are short books and long ones, academic books and popular ones, punchy, provocative books and deliberate, thoughtful ones. The key question is whether there's a niche for the kind of blogging that you do, whether what you have to say contributes in some small or large way to people's lives. And the beauty of blogging is this: If the only life that your blogging contributes to is your own, that's enough to justify doing it. It doesn't cost anything (or needn't), so if you enjoy doing it then who cares if there's an audience of 10 or an audience of 10,000?

Those of us who blog don't all do it for the same reasons.  And not only do different bloggers have different aims and motives for their blogging, but an individual blogger's aims and motives can change from post to post. This is certainly true of me. Sometimes I want to tell a story. Sometimes I want to develop a line of argument and solicit the kind of instant feedback that blogs offer. Sometimes I want to promote my books or other writings. Sometimes I have a viewpoint that I think will help other people live richer lives. Sometimes I have a distinction to make that I think will help people think more clearly on a topic. Sometimes I want to rail against perceived injustices. Sometimes I want to be funny.

As followers of this blog know, a lot of my blogging addresses religious issues in a philosophical way intended to spark substantive conversations--establishing a vanue where thoughtful disagreement and productive dialogue is possible (productive at least in the sense of hopefully advancing deeper understanding of divergent perspectives). While I try to be less technical and "academic" even in such blog posts than I would be in a philosophical article, I also try to be more rigorous than the 500-word-limit-punchy-post-rule allows. The kind of blogging I do in these cases may not generate mass-market appeal, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for it.

Sometimes, however, I want to use the blog to participate in an important public conversation--and so I want the post to be appealing and accessible enough to actually be read by a wider audience.  I think of the conventional wisdom about blog length and content, not as some rule that you have to follow for your blog to be a good blog, but as advice that can be helpful to follow when you want your message to reach a wider audience. At the same time, I want such posts to introduce into the broader public discourse ideas and arguments and distinctions that I think will be actually be helpful and meaningful. In other words, I want what I say to provoke thought and conversation, hopefully across conventional divides and polarities.

But finding the balance between writing in a way that is likely to be heard and writing in a way that is true to my understanding of how controversial conversations ought to be approached--that's not easy. As I get increasingly focused on my current book project--on homosexuality and Christianity--I will undoubtedly be offering more blog posts that I hope will have an impact on an ongoing public conversation that's defined by strong opinions, polarization, and passion. And I'm not, in this conversation, a neutral party. I have my own commitments, my own passions. I'm not a mediator in this dialogue, but a voice for a certain view. But I want to be a voice that is clear and helpful, one that deepens understanding of the position I espouse and the reasons behind it. And I hope that my posts can stimulate productive reflection and conversation as opposed to simply reinforcing ideological divides.

One of the challenges on the issue of homosexuality and the church, however, is that I care about this issue because I care about the people who are affected by it, LGBT friends and family who I think have endured considerable hardship and suffering because of traditional views and the actions which follow from them.

And this means this isn't just an issue. There are some topics where "agreeing to disagree" is a way of showing mutual respect in the face of uncertainty. But given my understanding of what is at stake when it comes to such matters as the moral condemnation of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage, to agree to disagree is to agree to let real people continue to be harmed.

When people you love are being harmed by a practice, sometimes your humanity demands something other than thoughtful conversation about the ethics of the practice. Imagine that a child is being deeply hurt by peer abuse, but those peers don't consider it abuse at all. To them, it's "no big deal." They're just having fun. In that case, there is an important place for standing with the victim and saying, "This is a big deal! This IS abusive. It's NOT okay!" Even if saying these things doesn't convince the abusers, it may be the very thing that the victim needs in order to feel less alone, in order to feel loved in the face of that treatment, in order not to be crushed by the abuse.

Sometimes a blog post can be a gesture of solidarity with the victims of social marginalization, a gesture that would lose its power if it were less passionate, if it were more academic, if it were more "open" to the perspective of those who believe the social marginalization is justified. How do you balance the desire to thoughtfully engage with those who disagree with you--in this case, with thouse who regard a marginalizing practice as morally right--with the desire to express solidarity with those who, in your experience, are deeply harmed by the practice?

I raise all these issues not because I have good answers, but because I want to be honest about some of my struggles on these matters.

I'm sure there's a blogging rule against such meta-level posts--and against using the term "meta-level" in a blog post. Call me a rebel.


  1. Rebel...

    Eric, I look forward to hearing about your new project more as it unfolds. I'm interested to see what your viewpoint and training will bring to the conversation. I'm hoping you'll be staking out new ground... :-)

    If you don't already know about it, you may be interested in a forthcoming book by Justin Lee over at the Gay Christian Network. ( Justin's book is also a different approach to a debate that is pretty polarized these days...

    My own work one day (hopefully) will look at the intersection of Eastern Orthodoxy and queer theology. My hope is that your, Justin's, and if I may be so bold, my own work will all open different avenues to help us move past the standard arguments and reframe the issues...


  2. Eric,

    “And this means this isn't just an issue. There are some topics where "agreeing to disagree" is a way of showing mutual respect in the face of uncertainty. But given my understanding of what is at stake when it comes to such matters as the moral condemnation of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage, to agree to disagree is to agree to let real people continue to be harmed.”

    I could imagine having to take two different strategies here. As you know there are those Christians whose thinking and perspective on this has been completely shaped by one way of reading and understanding the Bible. They can only really “hear” an argument that somehow deals with the subject in a way that takes the Bible and church history seriously.

    There is another strategy too though and it comes down to the problem philosopher Peter Singer began to see when it came to ecological issues. Unless we begin to see certain issues as having some intrinsic objective status as in being wrong or “evil” beyond the sense of meaning something like, “I don’t like white wine,” it becomes very difficult to mobilize people into changing their thought patterns and actions.

    When a majority of people, those who have the power, are discriminating against a weaker minority- history tells us (examples are slavery, ancient infanticide, women’s rights, and civil rights) that usually appeals had to made wherein the abuse was deemed “wrong” in an objective sense. In other words, it didn’t matter what the majority thought or that it was presently culturally “normal” or “okay” to treat a minority differently. The appeal was to something greater than our selves collectively, something objective and outside our personal opinions or feelings even though our inner and subjective selves would often agree with the appeal. In other words our conscience was pricked. We were made to feel ashamed and to see that it was “wrong” to make people of a different skin color sit in the back of the bus or whatever the form the abuse was taking.

    The “facts” didn’t change. People were still the same color (or attracted to the same sex) but our perspective changed. Our minds changed. Our hearts changed. How has that happened historically and what do you take from that? As you suggest above, how do you get people to see that this is not just a subjective disagreement where we can “agree to disagree” as if we were talking about what wine is preferable but something along the lines of the Civil Rights Movement?

    It would be interesting to hear how you would speak to those two types of audiences.

  3. Hello Darrell

    I'm not sure there's as much work for objective moral truth to do here. Isn't it sufficient for the issue to become personal, as Eric suggests, and at this point our capacity for empathy is triggered. Whether we choose to narrate that empathy as a connection to objective moral good, or rather as a personal yearning for a particular kind of moral peace, seems to me to be less important than you paint it.


  4. Bernard,

    I was linking the issue to what Peter Singer has come around to sort of admitting when it comes to ecological issues. See:

    I think any sort of movement to see that a minority receives love, respect, and equal treatment must be based upon an appeal to an objective morality as, historically anyway, it seems to be what finally moves people (pricks their conscience) to really change their minds (hearts).

    In other words, one can make all sorts of secular appeals that it is “practical” “constitutional” or “fair” to treat and give gay people the same rights we all expect, but this didn’t work for African Americans after the Civil War or for any other minorities I am aware of. It took an appeal to something larger—something transcendental and objective. Maybe you can give me an example from history where the appeals were purely secular and subjective.

    Another aspect to this is the person who would say that there is nothing inherently wrong or intrinsically evil to how we are treating gay people right now, it is just culturally acceptable. Either is fine or equally valid—we simply have to choose what we want. It seems to me that such an attitude is not what will mobilize most people to change either their own thinking or the culture at large. It amounts to saying, “who cares—whatever.”

    Anyway, people like Peter Singer and others are beginning to see it as very important.

  5. Hi Darrell

    I'm not sure where we'll get using history, because the cases we are making are probably both supportable by the same examples - does empathy drive the narrative, or is the narrative necessary for empathy? I don't see how one could use the historical to test those propositions.

    Certainly, history is full of examples of people acting according to the beliefs that their path was righteous. Sometimes this led to progress, other times to unimaginable atrocities. The catholic/protestant warfare in Europe maybe stands as a good example of belief in objective morality going somewhat awry. Stalin could be an example of a leader who, feeling pretty sure he was serving history's greater purpose, made the world a far worse place. And I think the fact that some of the societies we'd immediately identify as having created the safest, most inclusive communities are also those with some of the lowest reported rates of religious belief, suggests there may be something to the argument that empathy can be cut free from meta-narratives of righteousness.

    None of this is conclusive, of course, and you will have no trouble providing counter examples. I'm not one who argues religion does more harm than good, I think to do so requires a naive skewing of the data, but I suspect the reverse is also true. To argue that we must commit to notions of objective morality (and here I don't speak of consensus morality, which I think is a very powerful motivational tool) in order to see progress, is, I think, to make a case that is very hard to establish empirically.

    In my country, gay rights have typically been advanced by those more disposed towards relativistic viewpoints, and opposed most vehemently by those who are certain there is such a thing as objectively right. Just one case, but it's made an impression on me.


  6. Bernard,

    I will readily admit that those with, what they think are Biblical or religious reasons, are often the hardest to convince in the area of same sex attraction. As I noted, Eric will need to address that audience.

    However, I’ve met plenty of conservative people who are nominally religious and hardly know the Bible from a phone book who are just as prejudiced against gay people as any group I know.

    I still think Peter Singer has a point and it is significant, given his philosophical background, to have come around to see the importance of an objective morality. Do you think he has a point? If so, how would that help Eric?

    More importantly, what I hear in Eric’s post (and maybe he is not even trying to make this point), is that this is an issue that rises above personal subjective preference, where we agree to disagree. We can agree to disagree over whether or not fish should go only with white wine. Why? Because it is a personal subjective preference. At the end of the day, who cares? However, when we say that gay people should be treated with love and given the same rights we all enjoy—we are saying something different. Do you see that distinction? How does an objective morality help or hinder that distinction?

    I’m not saying one must believe in an objective morality to support gay rights. I also recognize that those who do hold to an objective morality can use that to justify their prejudice.

    I still think Singer’s journey important and significant for this issue and I still think it helps to say that gay people need to be loved, accepted, and given the same rights not because of what I say or a billion people say or don’t say, but because it is the “right” thing to do.

  7. Hi Darrell

    I certainly think the Singer article is interesting, and that there's lots more to be said on this. I once had a discussion with Singer on animal rights where I essentially ran the line that his case needed to slip in an appeal to moral objectivism to work (he was unimpressed). So, it doesn't surprise me that Singer is now finding himself challenged in this way, I think personality-wise he may well always have had objectivist instincts.

    To address your questions directly, yes I see an important distinction between the preference people might show for wine, and their beliefs about the rights of homosexuals. In the first case, I couldn't care less about their preference, in the second I want them to think like I do. I strongly prefer to live in a world where others have the ability to flourish, and I actively work to try to bring about that world.

    What I don't yet see is why this set of preferences I have (including the preference for influencing the way others think - I'd hardly be a school teacher otherwise) need to be developed within the context of objective moral values. In other words, I find the step from 'I wish to live in a world where homosexuals are afforded the same rights as everybody else' to 'it is morally wrong to deny homosexuals the same rights as everybody else' an unnecessary one.

    I would argue the first step gets us to where we need to be: passionate people engaging in open minded debate, open to understand the preferences of others and ready to negotiate. I don't yet see what extra thing the second step might offer. If anything, mightn't there be the danger that believing one is right from the outset just turns the negotiation tribal? Especially if the opposition are also objectivists.

    What am I missing?


  8. Amen! The internet should be about diversity, so it's a shame to see it so often be about homogenisation, where a culture of conformity and conventions leads everyone to communicate in the same way, about the same things, until every topic under the sun needs to fit in a rigid 140 character tweet.

    I have a similar philsophy about my blog: write thoughtfully, write well out of respect for your reader, and fight against the ever-quickening pace of online culture (and the superficiality that inevitably tags along with it). In fact, I purposefully conjured its name (volnaiskra) from a word that means "slow" in honour of that.

    I also regularly break another cardinal rule of blogging: I don't stick to one subject. Today I write about anthropocentrism, tomorrow about computer games, and the next day about religion.

    For these (and no doubt other) reasons, I have a regular readership of almost zero. But I kind of like it like that. I know that somewhere out there are other slow and patient thinkers like me who appreciate reading content that's had some thought put into it and wasn't written hastily at a bus stop. I know that from time to time, someone like that will find my blog through a random google search. And so I write with those moments in mind, hoping that they'll enjoy my blog as I enjoy blogs such as yours.

  9. Hi Bernard, Darrell,

    The Canadian Conference Catholic Bishops has just issued a pastoral letter urging Catholics to speak out against, among other things, same-sex marriage. Presumably, they hold that the latter is evil in an absolute sense.

    There doesn't seem to be a purely rational answer to this: one's good is another's evil. Opposite values simply clash, each side claiming to defend absolute truth or whatever. Stalemate.

    However, there is an emotional answer: getting “personal”, empathize with others. Empathy is a universal human emotion (that we also find in chimps, for example). It often seems to me that absolute values (or the like) is most useful to preempt these basic human emotions – while no theory is needed to act on them.

    Not to say that invoking absolutes cannot be useful when it's time to convince others – but this is a different matter.

  10. Bernard and JP,

    Thank you for the thoughtful responses. I don’t want to take away from what I think is another one of Eric’s points and that is to not make this an abstract academic discussion where we forget this involves real people facing serious problems. I get that.

    Most prejudices dissolve over time by actually getting to know the “other” and realizing the similarities and universal nature of our all being in this world together.

    “What I don't yet see is why this set of preferences I have (including the preference for influencing the way others think - I'd hardly be a school teacher otherwise) need to be developed within the context of objective moral values.”

    Then where is the distinction? If we mean something different from when we say “I don’t like spinach” and “I don’t like seeing gay people not being able to legally marry,” where does that difference lie? Why shouldn’t I treat the two statements the same if I really believed they are just personal preferences? What is the appeal to? In other words we don’t feel we need to “influence” someone to hate spinach. But we do feel the need to “influence” others to either support or deny (or simply be neutral and not care) another’s ability to be legally married. Why? Just because we “feel” and emote more one over the other?

    Bernard, I think what you are missing is history. For instance, take the modern Civil Rights Movement here in the US. What we find are appeals to something greater than our individual reason or utility. We find that it wasn’t dispassionate abstract academic papers or charts and graphs that persuaded people to change their minds about African Americans. Changing the laws helped but those did not change hearts. What changed people’s minds? It was sermons.

    The “I Have a Dream” speech is what people remember. All “God’s children.” That is what I think you are missing. If you can give me a comparable movement where people were mobilized and had their hearts changed by secular reasoning alone grounded in relativistic ethics, I would be happy to hear it.

  11. Man, this is way too long. Try this:

    "I don't hold with the '500-word-blog-posts' rule. The whole point of blogging is to reach as wide a possible audience with longer, more philosophically sophisticated posts. Besides, that way I get great feedback on my work. So STFU with all that 'no long posts' nonsense."

    See? The whole post in less than fifty words. Who needs length?

    [Joking aside, I of course hope you never change: long thoughtfulness is what I come by here for. Oh, and to leave snarky comments. That too.]

  12. Hi Darrell

    As I've said, I'm cautious about using history to back up our respective viewpoints, because I suspect we'll just end up using our interpretations of history in a way that doesn't advance the discussion. Nevertheless, as you've asked again, let me try three possible cases of empathy-led revolutions.

    In NZ history, we have a indigenous/colonist partnership that, while far from perfect, is often seen as an outlier, with greater degrees of power sharing and respect than was the colonial norm. Some historians have argued that the demographic nature of early European migration led to high levels of intermarriage, and this in turn led the relationship between peoples in a different direction. In essence, once you've eaten together, laughed together, mourned together, it becomes more difficult to reduce people to easy racial stereotypes.

    Or consider the powerful influence of photojournalism in the Vietnam war. The argument goes that the ability of the population to see the damage, triggered the empathy that ultimately drove the turn in public sentiment. Ditto the coverage of soldiers' bodies coming home. Certainly great care is now taken to stage manage the coverage of military conflicts, which tells us something.

    Or, the modern end-poverty campaign, which can be traced back perhaps to the LiveAid movement of the 1980's. In this case, leading activists (Bob Geldof for example) spoke of realisation coming not through a process of moral reasoning, but rather one of being exposed, via television, to images of the dying, and being moved to an emotional state where not acting was no longer an option for them. Fundraising campaigns aimed at poverty elimination are much more likely to aim at this emotional chord than to an appeal to our sense of justice.

    Your other question, what is there to appeal to, in the absence of moral imperatives? Why, if it all comes down to personal preference, might I be driven to act, to want to contribute to the world, change it? The answer is simply, empathy. There is a part of my nature that causes me to suffer when others suffer, and to feel uplifted when that suffering abates. To answer that personal calling is, for me, to live more fully. That this empathy is a part of not just my nature, but of human nature, is the thing that gives me hope.


  13. @Bernard:

    I wrote a response to you, but turns out it was 2,000 characters too long to be accepted by this commenting system. Pretty apt considering the original blog post, I think!

    I've instead published it here:

  14. Bernard,

    Thank you for those examples. However, some I don’t find as quite analogous to the issue of gay marriage or civil rights as to minorities. For instance the photojournalism during the Vietnam War. As to the example of indigenous people of New Zealand (I assume you mean the Maori) I would disagree if you are positing intermarriage as the main reason for the partnership. In fact, from this source we are told that the low level of friction between the Maori and colonists was more along these lines: “But the truth was that a major reason for the lack of friction was that the two people lived apart and rarely met.” We also read-“European religion and culture have over two centuries had a massive influence on the Maoris. They are now mostly Christian…” (”
    But to all your examples, are you saying they arose and were led by people who were purely secular ethical relativists? That is what I was looking for. You seem to be saying, “What does it matter—why do we need an idea of objective morality?” Perhaps you thought I meant that people cannot be good nor do good without God or objective morals. I mean no such thing. Of course people can.

    However, the point was that historically people have been moved by appeals to an objective morality whereas I can think of no example where people were moved to action on the behalf of minorities by the writing, sermons, speeches, organizing, and sacrificing of those (the leaders) who identified themselves as purely secular ethical relativists. I don’t think you’ve provided an example to show otherwise.

    The other problem is that you throw out the word “empathy” as if it were this magical word that explains itself or operates without an object in mind, history, or context. We can find “empathy” in nature, but nature is not empathetic. Pure nature is about survival. Empathy has to be cultivated. Empathy has to be refined and is a long process that lies within a philosophy or world-view (or faith/religion). Some cultures were not (are still not!) empathetic to minorities or strangers. What changed that? Well, the history of Western Civilization is that Christianity had a lot to do with that change.

    It is very easy to toss around the word “empathy” after two thousand years of the Christian cultivation and shaping/investment of that word with what it should mean and how it should make us think and act.

  15. Hi Volnaiksra

    Well, I would in the main agree with you. Absolutely, our capacity for empathy would appear to have a biological basis, and the way in which this plays out is then highly influenced by cultural and lifeline factors. No argument there.

    What's more, for anybody who wishes to live in a world where we treat one another with gentleness and respect (and I certainly do) it makes perfect sense to contribute to and support a culture where empathy is valued, practised and developed. I work as a school teacher, and pretty much this sits as my core work task.

    And I agree that many/most world religions have at their core an attempt to develop just this type of capacity, and that too is something I value.

    So, is there anything here we disagree on? Maybe it's to do with the way you've interpreted my claims regarding objective morality? I don't claim that we're better off to abandon belief in objective morality, for example. I do claim, (and this, if I'm interpreting Darrell correctly, is the issue he and are digging towards), that belief in objective moral truths is not a precondition for individual moral motivation, nor is a precondition for what he and I would both judge to be social progress.

    In essence, I argue against the claim that moral relativism necessarily collapses into 'anything goes'. This is, I believe, a case of false reasoning, and I think you may have edged towards it in your 'release the prisoners' example. So, if you're interested in continuing the discussion, that might be a fruitful area to explore.

    Thaks for your time.


  16. Hi Darrell

    As I say, historical interpretations are fraught. Your choice of the man we refer affectionately to as 'Kiwi Keith' for support, is a fine example of this.

    I think I misunderstood what you were looking for by way of historical example. I don't know of any ethical relativist who led a major movement of the type you're seeking. It may well be nonesuch exist. After all, such relativism is a minority view, and further, relativists are much les slikely to say 'follow me, I have seen the light' for obvious reasons. The relativist's default position is more negotiation than colonistation.

    I'm not sure what this lack, should it exist, establishes. It certainly doesn't establish social progress requires such leaders. It may well be that incremental change is more positive and lasting than revolutions (and here we must balance the positive achievements objectivists against some of their immeasurable damage, hence my use of Stalin as a possible example).

    And I'd also ask whether the modern secular states are doing a worse job at protecting the rights of minorities. The US, with a history of strong allegience to Christian theologies, has variously embraced genocide, slavery, imperialism and a tolerance for poverty that is unusual by Western standards. I wouldn't lay any of this at Christianity's door, all of these things have had complex causes, but it challenges the view that Christianity necessarily contributes to social progress.

    We may well agree on what I possibly misunderstood was your key objection. You seem to be saying that relativists are indeed capable of being motivated to treat others well, and I initially I thought you were saying this is more likely if a person holds objectivist beliefs.

    As for the idea that current secular thinking is influenced by Christian ideology, well of course it is. In exactly the same way Christian theology owes a debt to Greek and Jewish frameworks. We'd be foolish, as we move through history, not to pick and choose all that is best (according to our own aspirations) from that which has gone before.

    As always, it's stimulating to discuss this. Thank you.


  17. I started to offer some comments on this discussion thread--relating to the issue of relativism in ethics--but my remarks became so lengthy that I decided to make them into a post. That post is now up.

  18. @ Bernard:

    aargh! I did it again. My response posted here:

  19. Thanks Volnaiksra

    Well said, and again, we disagree on very little here.

    As is so often the case in philosophical discussions, the disagreement appears to be over what we mean by relativism.

    For my part, I am using relativism to describe the position where the only guide to what is right or wrong that is available to us, is how we personally feel about it. And, explicitly, how we feel about it is a function of our personal history, both biological and cultural.

    Such feelings will sometimes converge, at least within confined groups, and under these conditions all the 'measurers' will report the same moral conclusion, which has a whiff of objectivity about it.

    This is analogous to how I think about taste in music, say. I may love a piece of music, and use normative terms to describe it, without believing others should reach the same conclusion.

    The difference is that moral decisions are often about behaviours which will affect me, and so, in pursuing my ideal world (self interest) I will often hold opinions about other's moral stances, despite being a relativist. It is in my interests they have a different point of view.

    Furthermore, because I have a capacity for empathy, and a cultural history that sees empathy express in a certain way, it will often be in my self interest to wish to see good come for others, even although it may appear to be at my expense. The calculation is that the damage their pain causes me is greater than the gain I get from inflicting it (so, despite being a relativist, I give to charity, for example).

    You are using relativism in a slightly different sense, and I suspect this is all our disagreement amounts to. I am primarily interested in the assertion, often made, that belief in moral values that are more than just inventions of biology and culture is needed in order to construct the best (as understood by the participants in the conversation) outcomes. Were it true, it would be an interesting argument in favour of religious belief, but my sense is it requires a trick to get it over the line.