Persuasion, Tone, and the Blogosphere:
Brian Leiter has a very interesting post up at the Leiter Reports defending the blunt and fairly dismissive tone he sometimes uses when blogging on political questions. If I understand Leiter's post correctly, the gist of his argument is that there isn't much point in trying to engage political questions seriously on a blog because: (1) blogging on big political topics almost never actually persuades people, (2) taking an opponent's arguments seriously legitimates those arguments, and Leiter is confident enough he is right that he doesn't want to do that, and (3) lots of people in the blogosphere are offended by his style only because they are "intellectual lightweights with trite opinions and limited analytical skills" who cannot see that he is clearly correct [with respect to what he calls the 'easy' questions, such as the War in Iraq, Social Security, and the like].

  It seems to me that these arguments for the most part are reasons not to blog at all about political questions, rather than to blog about them in a dismissive way. Leiter does offer two affirmative reasons to blog about politics, however: 1) "to alert like-minded readers to ideas and evidence and arguments which help strengthen their convictions regarding the truths they've already understood or glimpsed," and 2) to "give some expression to our collective outrage and dismay."

  I have two thoughts in response. First, my sense is that Leiter underestimates the number of his readers who are smart people open to persuasion on big political questions. Leiter is right that lots of people are hellbent on sticking to their guns, whether those guns are left or right. They will take on any argument they find that helps the cause, and there are lots of blogs both on the left and right to help them. What makes the blogosphere interesting, I think, is that there are a surprising number of people who are somewhere in the middle, or who have tendencies one way or the other but doubt their instincts and want to learn more. Lots of those people find their way to the Leiter Reports; its non-political posts have made Leiter's blog sort of a law professor's Wonkette. The blog has a large and loyal readership, and my sense is that lots of those readers are intelligent and open to argument on a number of important political issues.

  Second, my own view is that taking an opponent's argument seriously usually does not have the legitimizing effects that Leiter suggests it does. If anything, the opposite happens more often. First, there is the question of timing: If a weak argument is common enough that is it worth addressing, then a large group of people must actually believe it and already think it is legitimate. Second, blogging against that argument in a dismissive way often adds to the legitimacy of the argument, rather than takes away from it, as it recognizes that the opponent's argument is important enough to attack while not actually offering a reason to disagree with it. Finally, I think lots of people interpret a dismissive tone as a sign of weakness. It's a variation of the old lawyer's joke that if the law is against you, pound the facts; if the facts are against you, pound the law; and if the law and facts are against you, pound the table. When readers see a blogger pounding the table, many are likely to assume that there must not be a very good argument to be made in support of that view. "If it's so obvious that you're right," the thinking goes, "Why not just explain why?"

  Of course, neither of these arguments means that it is a bad thing that Leiter or any other blogger uses a particular tone. Blogs are the creations of their owners, and bloggers are free to create them in any way they please. I personally find Leiter's approach pretty entertaining, at least on the whole. But I do think that use of a dismissive tone comes with some considerable limitations.

  I have enabled comments; as always, civil and respectful comments only.