The Merit of Letters
February 20, 2015
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.
This response was so eloquently written and directly reflects on how I perceive change in the world. After reading 'Foundation' when I was around 16 I started to think more into this mindset. Change myself and hopefully those around me, because changing the world so quickly isn't going to happen easily. Small individual changes can have drastic results. My generation (20 y.o's) is full of "But there's nothing I can do about it" sayers, it is a shame. Which is strange. One could argue that our world has become an extension of ourselves (or vice versa), to some degree, and not many people care. An attempt, as the letter puts it, is worth it.
For the record, I wish I could write that well and apologies if I've missed the mark with this comment. I consider this a heavy but insightful read, especially for my puny brain haha.
Posted by: LukeNorman91 | February 20, 2015 at 06:02 PM
Thanks so much for your comment! It's hard to get people to submit thoughtful comments these days, so I appreciate it every time someone does so.
You say 'you wish you could write that well' - well don't forget I have twenty more years of practice than you! :) I've spent a lifetime practicing how to write, getting slowly better at it. It took commitment. If you want to write well, read more and write more - it really is the not-so-secret secret of good writing! :)
I agree that your generation falls too easily into shrugging their shoulders and saying they can't change the way things are (as you say) and also, similarly, into denying their own responsibility for things that they could actually change. I think we've fallen into making excuses for not changing the world and ourselves. Can't we at least give it a try? It would be better than the alternatives! :)
Thanks again for commenting - you are welcome to share your thoughts with me whenever you like.
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | February 22, 2015 at 11:43 AM
Thanks Chris. I usually refrain from commenting on blog posts, as it usually equates to a discussion about which console is better, or Hitler.
That is exactly what I plan on doing. I found myself selling video games the other month to make room for books. Asimov, Lovecraft, Clarke. Staple authors it seems (though not for my generation), but it beats most of the stuff on the shelves in Asda.
Change is something we all strive for I guess, but its value differs. Western society currently lives in the instant satisfaction era. I suppose that is why change isn't as longed for right now, its not instant. Technology gets faster, communications, but not ideas. Nothing personal, because it all requires time. I suppose I'm genralizing a lot there, but its hard not to think that.
Cheers Chris, always a pleasure.
Posted by: LukeNorman91 | February 23, 2015 at 04:48 AM
Thanks for extending our conversation here!
It is true that geek forums descend all too rapidly into pissing contests and extreme comparisons, although when I started blogging there was a lively exchange of ideas between the blogs that I thought heralded something significant. Alas, Big Money moved in with social media platforms, and the blogs have become the refugees of the internet...
"Staple authors it seems (though not for my generation), but it beats most of the stuff on the shelves in Asda."
*laughs* Since your interest is in (and around) science fiction, I recommend having a go at some of the cyberpunk authors. The typical references are William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker. I highly recommend Rucker's sequence "Software", "Wetware", "Freeware" and "Realware" (although I'm not certain I've read the last one). The first two were both Philip K. Dick Award winners.
Also, even though it may seem like a hill to climb, Frank Herbert's "Dune" is outstanding. The full sequence is a slog, although it is worthwhile in the end, but the first one (which one a Hugo and Nebula - actually, the very first Nebula award) is essential reading.
"Change is something we all strive for I guess, but its value differs. Western society currently lives in the instant satisfaction era. I suppose that is why change isn't as longed for right now, its not instant. Technology gets faster, communications, but not ideas. Nothing personal, because it all requires time. I suppose I'm genralizing a lot there, but its hard not to think that."
This is a generalisation, of course, but it's one that I would support. I would make the same observation, but in a slightly different way: we are addicted to our technology. We have sacrificed a great deal of the human experience to it, in order to live in a world of easy gratification. But such a world is never satisfying, because the quick fix rapidly fades. Everything worthwhile requires effort. When we forget this, we forget the value of life itself.
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | February 25, 2015 at 06:41 AM
(Originally posted via http://docsurge.com/blog/2015/blog-letters-values-and-more/)
Thank you so much for your blog-letter, 'The Merit of Letters'. I do not intend on getting the last word on this discussion, but do hope that by continuing to demonstrate and practice the Blog-Letter, it will continue to attract interest (which it appears to have).
I want to touch on your point: '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.'
This is interesting. I agree that Values are something different from Principles. Perhaps they are the unspoken or less organized aspect of Principles? Values can be passed on to us by family, society, or invented by our own volition. To value something is both a goal and an action, while Principles tend to be an explicit statement and thus less dynamic.
If I may be so bold, I am going to also suggest the additional Values of Openness and Transparency. The former being your stated intention to welcome all, regardless of status or standing, the latter being the practice of writing these letters in the open so that any can be witnessed (and thus be invited to participate).
It was my intention was to formalize the concept of the Republic of Bloggers, and while it shall remain a more informal entity, I believe that your establishing a set of Values can attract others seeking the same things we do. This appears to be the case with your commenter Luke.
So it is my view that our first experiment with the Blog-Letter and the Republic of Bloggers has accomplished something. The Values you have cited are sustainable and virtuous, and in review I find the transformation of our original question to be pretty remarkable.
'The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
— Carl Gustuv Jung
Thanks and warm regards,
Posted by: Doc_Surge | March 08, 2015 at 05:54 AM