Public morality & the darkside of DIY

A few months ago I came across a retweet by Henry Jenkins about a blog theme (dubbed a “Hotspot”) by Civic Paths focused on the Dark Side(s) of DIY. I was planning my DIY Publishing course at the time and was intrigued that someone was trying undo some of the romanticism the term professes even in the most critical research. Civic Paths includes a group of scholars and activists at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism invested in the effects of participatory culture; the group was started in part by Jenkins whose books and white papers on digital media’s effects on participatory culture are foundational.

The range of issues covered in this Hotspot included some of DIY’s more obvious problems –the creation of audience/community, struggling to fund projects, and sorting through the various stacks of aesthetic failures — but a few of the pieces looked at how a DIY framework can harm what’s defined as legitimate political knowledge. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, for example, looked at Kony 2012 and the internet memes that made fun of the people (i.e. youth culture) for not understanding the full implications of their support of Invisible Children — and inadvertently propagating its misleading campaign in the process. Such memes painted them as gullible, hypocritical, or simply ignorant. Kligler-Vilenchi’s concern is that although we want knowledgeable citizens, the Kony memes served to discourage political participation by setting up a standard for the “informed citizen ideal” instead of striving for a more “collective intelligence model,” where the cumulative affect of Kony was more knowledge about Uganda. Don’t participate, the memes imply, unless you are willing to understand the full capacity of your participation.

In another brief-but-insightful post, Kjerstin Thorson compares the slogans of news programs of today and yesterday. Contemporary news taglines, which boast of reporting facts and letting viewers decide, significantly differ from Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is.” Cronkite’s slogan is obviously problematic because it “cuts off debate about alternative interpretations of the news, and closes down the possibility that the news agenda is larger than the artificial container of a TV show.” But Thorson’s essential point in the piece is that the we-report-you-decide rhetoric of contemporary broadcast news interpellates audiences as wholly responsible for the formation of their opinions (or in the context of this week’s readings, their morality). Thorson’s problem with such interpellation is similar to Kligler-Vilenchi’s: it leads to an informed citizen ideal that positions the audience as timeless, endless researchers:

“DIY-powered notions of informed citizenship imply that this kind of information consumption—across multiple sources, always seeking out the story behind the story, never trusting, getting there first, doing it not only yourself but by yourself, on your own is the only right way to arrive at a “real” opinion, one that qualifies citizens to vote or to take other political action.”

In terms of rhetoric, this leads to an endless rabbit hole of inquiry in search of a nebulous truth. An honest example: I am perhaps as guilty as the next citizen of engaging in a political debate online and using a recently-googled source — usually from Pew, the government, or something from a hazy memory — to establish a fact that provides some public capital but faithfully attests to my lived experience. For example, in a recent gun control debate with my cousin on Facebook, I was invited to research gun-related crimes in states with strict gun regulations. Instead, I pointed him to the AAP’s statement on guns in the home to explain, statistically and rationally, why I don’t have one in my house. Later, in a separate post, another family member pointed me to this. From what I observed after Newtown, this kind of discussion — where “rational” arguments and data fly past users at record speeds — went on in several online discussions on FB. While there are plenty of disadvantages of this kind of civic discourse, the benefit is that users — whether they admit it or not — have a better understanding of how gun control debates generally flow (providing they are actually reading each other’s “proof”). Nevertheless, as I mentioned to my cousin, I would rather have the discussion at a bar — what Goodnight calls the private sphere — instead of FB. Because the truth is, I often run out of time in the endless forum of social media. This is a variation of Thorsen’s point: who has time to be an ideally informed citizen? Moreover, can we embrace Kligler-Vilenchi’s collective intelligence model if the 21st century expectation of an informed citizen overwhelms us to the point of disengaging from the political process entirely (or at least discursively).

Of the four articles we read this week in 631, all but one were published before the social web. G Thomas Goodnight’s “The Personal, Technical and Public Sphere of Argument” is the exception (1999); it circulated era where two-way website communication was increasing, but blogs were still in their infancy. That said, because of her insistence on a model of public morality centered on active craft by humans — “daily and locally” — Celeste Michelle Condit’s “Crafting Virtue” (1987) initially feels most compatible with contemporary, networked public discourse. My larger question this week is how networks have impacted this set of readings and if it is ever possible to participate in the crafting of public morality given some of the limitations raised by the Civic Paths bloggers. Do these networks and ecologies simply overwhelm us and, thus, our responsibilities to a public morality?

In that case, perhaps some of the other authors in this set — Goognight, Thomas Frentz, or Walter Fisher — have significant points, and public morality is now more than ever necessarily “privatized,” to borrow from Condit’s characterization. That is, Condit posits Fisher and Frentz especially as making a case for the privatization of morality through three assumptions: (1) a generally pessimistic view of the state of public morality and (2) employing a “conversational” model of moral discourse, which (3) emphasizing individual moral growth over the collective. These assumptions, according to Condit, subvert the fundamental functions of public discourse where “[p]ublic advocates rarely convince each other, but given a rhetorical model, they do not have to do so.” Instead she argues, “[c]ompeting rhetors persuade third parties–audiences–and create a ‘public consensus’ that does not require the approval of every individual on every point–although it requires a general minimal satisfaction” (308). Condit, in effect, supports the sort of collective intelligence model touched upon by Kligler-Vilenchi where public participation in moral argumentation can be limited so long as people — many people — do it. Though our participation is imperfect, in other words, we are morally obligated to do it.

Although Condit positions herself as incompatible with Frentz, I wonder if what Frentz is advocating, the practice of rhetorical conversation, can add up to Condit’s view of public morality as collective craft. That is, the millions of FB conversations about gun control add up to a collective clarification of our moral imperatives. For Frentz, a rhetorical conversation is “a narrative episode in which a conflict over opposing moral viewpoint re-unites the agents with their own moral histories, with the moral traditions of which they are a part, and–perhaps mod important–with an awareness of the virtues” (291-92). Rhetorical conversation, then, requires participants to evaluate their own moral histories which (perhaps) leads to a stronger awareness of their individual telos. In a social system, of course, such telos are not unique. Perhaps for me it is a pacific existence (or at least a resistance to rhetorical fear), but for others it might be the rights of the individual (and I’m trying to be generous here).

Finally, I think Goodnight’s various spheres are useful in understanding the difficulty Thorton is trying to describe in her blog post. Goodnight argues that as social(ized) rhetors, we participate in various superstructures called spheres, constructed by discourse practices, in order to deal with uncertainty. According to Goodnight, within the personal sphere rhetors make unpreserved oral, impromptu, time-bound arguments using evidence from memory or whatever is immediately available. The technical sphere on the other hand consists of a requisite, professional community that communicates discursively through refereed platforms. This is, of course, the court of law, the world of academia, etc. The public sphere transcends both the personal and technical spheres to apply to the entire community or citizenry. The problem for Goodnight, and for Fisher as well, is that the public sphere has been diminished by two forces: a dominant technical sphere (Fisher might call this the rational paradigm) where “specialization is necessary to make knowledgeable decisions” (258-259) and a narcissistic private sphere, where the “celebration of personal lifestyle” which inspires politicians to offer only “personalities” and “false intimacy” (259). This “decline of deliberative practice” is only more depressing to Goodnight with the advent of the web technologies where said deliberation if “replaced by consumption” (260). Goodnight ends his piece suggesting that “[i]f the public sphere is to be revitalized, then those practices which replace deliberative rhetoric by substituting alternative modes of invention and restricting subject matter need to be uncovered and critiqued.” By whom? By none other than “the theorist of argument” — the professor — who “could contribute significantly to the perfection of pubic forms and forums of argument” (261).

As elitist as Goodnight’s conclusion sounds, I actually agree that one of the most promising solutions for a reassertion of deliberative practice would be schooling (and the humanities more specifically); however, his goal of perfection is what reminds me that the informed ideal citizen often comes from academia in the first place, whether its from arrogance or complex self-righteousness. So what responsibility do we as teachers and scholars have for suggesting to students (and even ourselves) manageable ways to think critically without asking for an endless pursuit to truth? When is closure necessary and productive? Finally, what responsibility do we have as theorists and teachers of argument to empower students to become more than consumers without being consumed by the responsibility of that pursuit?