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May 21, 2012

Can Blogs Be Used to Resolve Conflicts?


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Greg Laden

Someone is always wrong on the Internet. The idea that the most free-wheeling part of the Internet--blogs--would be a place where conflict is resolved seems laughable.  The detachment of argument from social cues normally used to moderate our conversations combined with the intentional sloughing off of civil norms means that the only resolution that happens here might be the screen resolution of your computer.  It would be easy to say that the Internet is where conflict is born, not resolved.

But that would miss an important point.

Almost all the conflicts I've observed in this milieu are problems that were already out there somewhere but in many cases hidden and thus unacknowledged.  We can ask, if a conflict resides latent in meatspace, does it make a noise?  And the answer is: Not until we start talking about it.  For example, a misogynistic subculture among the overlapping communities of "skeptics," computer gamers and "Men's Rights Activists" has come to light (and probably reinforced itself) in the context of blogospheric discourse. Now drawn out, it is being critiqued, isolated, and reduced in its size and significance.  Local news items that bring up questions of racism (remember Gates Gate?) have become the substrate for national discussions.  Biology teachers can read and speak about the conflict between parents who don't want their children exposed to evolution and their responsibilities as educators in relative safety on the blogosphere, something many can't actually do in the teacher's lounge. 

I have seen and to some extent engineered tangible, but small, examples of conflict resolution.  For example, I've blogged about the controversial topics of homeschooling and gun control for the specific purpose of attracting people on opposite sides of the discussion, in order to demonstrate the pitfalls of a highly polarized debate. In the case of homeschooling, things did not go so well, partly because I was very new at blogging and partly because the polarization is intense, though not in the way most people would expect. The main conflict in homeschooling is not Christian anti-evolution homeschoolers vs. traditional education advocates, but rather Libertarian-leaning strongly anti-formal-education families, most but not all of which are anti-evolution, and very distrusting of any person or institution that even looks their way.  With firearms-related issues, things are much calmer and more manageable.  "Pro-gun" and "pro-gun control" segments of American society overlap a great deal, and many actually agree on key issues.  For each group, there is a body of polarized rhetoric that tends to stifle discussion with members of the other group. That rhetoric is often logically flawed or based on misconceptions.  Once those problems are addressed, people start to agree, and this seems to work well on blogs.  I've written an overview of conflict in opinion, and resolution of conflict, here: Settling Conflicts: Guns and Homeschooling

More specific issues, small but not trivial, have been addressed and resolved.  Is blood ever blue? (Not really.) What is the meaning of bacteria that seem to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in DNA? That question was settled on the Internet in a few days, but might have taken a few years to work out in the journals.  When the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were affected by a major earthquake and tsunami in April 2011, we all re-discovered the "pro-nuclear" and "anti-nuclear" cultures, both wrong about lots of stuff, both with valid concerns and criticisms of the other. That conflict is influencing energy policy in a major way, and it is being addressed on the Internet.  I think the blogosphere will end up helping more than hurting as we find our way through the maze of complex questions accompanying nuclear energy and safety. 

If you are wondering how the blogosphere might someday serve to settle complex issues, refer to the Federalist Papers and related documents.  Some say those missives were really an 18th century flame war.  That is probably an overstatement, but it is an example of building a rhetorical kiln in which to test by fire an argument that would need to last long term.  The blogosphere is too young to write its biography as a conflict-ridden nuisance.  Perhaps at this point we are just beginning to collect the firewood. 

Greg Laden, PhD is a science communicator and blogger. Read his latest posts here: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/.