Political debate is thriving as academics blog on

September 22, 2006

"If you want a quiet life, don't talk online about the Middle East," says Jon Pike, chairman of the editorial board of Engage , a web-based journal set up in response to the Association of University Teachers' decision to institute an academic and cultural boycott of Israel but now a much broader political website and journal.

Pike, a lecturer in political philosophy at the Open University, has been repeatedly abused for his views published online in Engage and on the Guardian Unlimited website. He once received a letter calling him "a Zionist Nazi".

"In many ways, the web is an appalling forum for debate, particularly blogs, as they tend to foreground anonymous commentators. The anonymity means people are abusive, there are accusations of bad faith and a tendency for nasty rhetoric."

Nevertheless, Pike says the web has energised political debate among academics, adding that on the Left, where the Blair-Brown split has opened up new opportunities for discussion, the academic debate is more interesting than the one taking place in Westminster. Pike says there is also a lot of cross-pollination between academic websites.

"There used to be a contrast between intellectuals in France and Britain. In France, they were valued and academics acquired the function of public intellectuals. In Britain, there were few examples. I think the web revolution has changed that, and there is something of a resurgence of public intellectuals in Britain, and that's a good thing."

Although online sites such as the Leiter Reports and Crooked Timber - run by professional American philosophers - get around the problem of "nasty rhetoric" by refusing to post anonymous comments, Pike says that online journals that are open to all comments, including anonymous ones, do challenge academic aloofness and pomposity.

"The sites are no respecter of status. You don't get any deference to professors or to people who say 'research shows...' People reply: 'Post a hyperlink to the research then, and we will see for ourselves.' That is a virtuous kind of Socratic dialogue model. You don't know anything about the person you are having the argument with, and what's at stake is the argument itself."

Pike says that disenchantment with left-wing political parties has also found expression online "in terms of people thinking through and arguing the consequences of the changing world and the threats we face". Pike is one of many academics who signed the online Euston Manifesto, an alternative political vision for Britain.

He says it is no surprise, and indeed welcome, that academics have been the ones to engage most in these online debates. "They are the people who won't leave issues alone, who have time to think through things and look at underlying assumptions."

The danger is that online debates can become all-consuming; Pike would rather not say how many hours he spends on them and on writing lengthier articles for Engage . "It's not easy keeping up. The whole process is a bit addictive and can take over your thinking too much."

But he adds: "There's no obligation to comment, but if you think you have something worth saying then you have to say it."

For more information, visit: www.crookedtimber.org



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