For such a short missive, your previous blog-letter has taken rather a long time to mull over. The essential question I have been pondering is whether your viewpoint of the relationship between principles, policy, and practice is something that applies to all human activity. I do not believe that it does.
My suspicion, which I am unable to confirm or deny but can only continue to consider, is that this way of doing things is what the Victorians bequeathed us with their masterful skills at founding and maintaining institutions. An institution requires principles, develops policies, and within that framework practices are applied. But this institutional approach generates massive problems for reasons I explore in the chapter of Chaos Ethics entitled “The Tragedy of Bureaucracy”. While there is much that we cannot pursue without institutional arrangements, there is also much that is impossible within institutions.
One of these problems that I am becoming acutely sensitive to is that the practices of an institution are the institution; the policy envisioned to fulfil principles becomes merely a rulebook to refer to in the case of disputes. Perhaps policy does help frame practices in some situations, but the larger the institution, the more the disconnect between policy and practice. We sleepwalk into thinking that you can change an institution by changing its policies – but that only works to the extent that there is a judiciary presence actively enforcing that policy, or people willing to embrace the new policy. Changes to policies only work if they change practices. We might do better to start understanding our organisations as networks of practice and stop imagining that policies are a necessary foundation for practice, or that policy is the best way to express sets of equally abstract principles.
So you ask ‘what principles inform your practice of virtuous discourse?’. If ‘principle’ means an ideal that guides the formation of policy, my answer is none at all. Because the strength of the Republic of Bloggers is precisely that it is immune to policy, and is therefore free to act in any way imaginable. Yet at the same time, the practice of virtuous discourse is informed by its values, so perhaps you could turn those into principles if it were strictly necessary. Those values include, but cannot be restricted to, politeness, insightfulness, fellowship, eloquence, and wit. I do not believe these can be simply elevated to principles without a distortion of intent. They are rather the aesthetic and moral qualities that makes a discourse virtuous, in my sense. They express the merits of letter-writing, and thus also express the merit of letters.
It is for this reason that other forms of social media are inferior to blogging for the purposes of virtuous discourse. Twitter is a great place to exercise one’s wit – it is the site that most causes me to channel Oscar Wilde – but its water-cooler shallowness makes it a poor place for fellowship, and its policies limit insightfulness to 140 characters and replace politeness with vengeful blocking. Google+ and Facebook seem as if they can either support fellowship (by connecting an already existing community) or insightfulness (by pooling voices on a single topic) at the frequent cost of discarding either eloquence, politeness, or both. There are no walls to make good neighbours, and the disposability of the form discourages quality writing as everything is swiftly lost in the tumult of meaninglessness. Email can support all the aforementioned values, being another form of letter writing, but as private missives they lack that which makes social media public and therefore open to discovery and engagement of voices as yet unknown. The blog-letter is the most obvious form of public discussion suitable for virtuous discourse in my sense.
So if there is a principle to the Republic of Bloggers, perhaps it is just this: to engage in virtuous discourse in public, so that others might join the conversation. The possibility of new encounters, new connections, is key here; even as a merely potential outcome, there is more to gain from practices that are open in this way than from those that simply bind together a small but closed band of individuals, or that sweep away our collective intelligence in a banquet of idle distractions. It matters less, in my view, what is discussed – although it is certainly my hope that something valuable might come from doing so. But it is important to appreciate that changing the world need not – perhaps cannot – come from imagining principles that will formulate policies. The most assured way of changing the world is to change ourselves, and by sharing our concerns and our thoughts through virtuous discourse, we might indeed change ourselves. At the very least, it is worth the attempt.
Thanks for continuing our conversations,
Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.