Thursday, November 13, 2008

Communication and Etiquette

It had to happen sooner or later. The contentious discussion over Chris Hedges' latest Truthdig column, "America the Illiterate," has been sidetracked by arguments over the relevance or propriety of readers identifying and trying to correct errors in comments submitted by others. When this happened over on The Huffington Post about a year ago, I wrote about it in a post that I called "The Illiterate Blogosphere," deliberately choosing a title that would reflection the emotional dimension of my position. As I recently wrote, that is a position beside the likes of Karl Kraus and Robert Musil, who, from their vantage point in Vienna during the early twentieth century believed passionately that the decay of the proper use of language was an omen of the decay of the culture speaking that language. Those who have followed my attempts to deal with this topic probably remember my citing that Musil spent the better part of his daylight hours marking out all the errors in the daily newspapers! However, in the context of what seems to happen when one makes such a practice a public one through the Internet, it is probably relevant that Musil kept his critical marks to himself!

I also hold to the principle of the medieval trivium, which is that communication rests on the triple foundation of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Thus, there are ways in which we can push the envelopes of grammar and even logic in the interest of rhetorical impact. All that really matters at the end of the day is whether the communicating agent really has something to communicate or is just "wasting air" (in deference to Dukes of Hazzard fans). We can all "read through" texts that would be torn apart by a writing professor at "some mid-western or southern state school" (in the words of one Truthdig comment); but those texts still lack the clarity of expression that most of us would prefer. They would benefit from good editing, but the Truthdig "comment space" not a forum in which content is edited before it is released. However, even with that shortcoming, I take comfort in the fact that the discourse there has not gotten as ugly as it did on The Huffington Post.

When we are engaged in personal correspondence, we usually know how to behave in response to a poorly worded text: We try to convey what we understood, possibly explain why we read the text that way, and try to confirm our understanding. That is the best we can do in the absence of a third-party editor. (Editing one's own text is always a risky matter for a variety of reasons.) An Internet forum for comments, however, is a bit like personal correspondence where everyone gets to look over everyone else's shoulder. Seeking clarification that can sometimes be frustrating, if not downright maddening; but those of us committed to participating do what we can, because we all seem to share the conviction that this stuff is worth reading.

I share the distaste expressed in a comment by "Leefeller" for what I would call pedantry for its own sake. However, I also believe there are times when clarification would serve the flow of discourse. If that clarification involves raising what appears to be an error in logic, grammar, or even rhetoric, then the error should be raised. The responsibility of raising it, however, also carries the responsibility of doing so with the "tone of voice" (so to speak) appropriate to the occasion. In the pre-Internet days this was called "netiquette;" and it has basically died off with the enormous inflation of participants since those Dark Ages. The decay of netiquette is a major reason why I tend to foam at the mouth whenever I hear talk about the "wisdom of crowds;" but I would like to believe that it can be restored in more limited communities (such as Truthdig) whose members tend to have common interests and values.

One final point: I have tried to live by the discipline of reading the entirety of any text I write before hitting Submit or Send or, in this particular case, "PUBLISH POST." It does not take a lot of time; and I catch a lot of those little things (about a dozen of them in this particular case) that are easily repaired. If each of us were a bit more patient with the process of "speaking to the world," be it through the blogosphere or the commenting process, we might then discover that "the world" is more patient with us; and we all might be better informed by the ensuing events!

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