For Norm Geras: What is it like to be a blogger?

My contribution to Thinking Towards Humanity: themes from Norman Geras, Manchester University Press, 2012.

What is it like to be a blogger?

Hume famously observed that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. He wasn’t expressing a whimsically inflated sense of his own importance, but pointing out that logic doesn’t determine how we weigh the world versus our finger. We have to love the world in order to be able to weigh it properly. Looking it up in a table of weights and measures won’t do the job – we could see the arithmetic and still shrug and say yes but it’s my finger, the world is none of mine and I don’t care. We have to care in order to make choices properly – to make them in such a way that we don’t place our own petty desires above everyone else’s deepest needs. (We have been learning lately, if we didn’t already know, that bankers and investment wizards could use some intensive training in this.) Morality is rooted in feeling, Hume told us, and researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt have been elaborating on the idea recently.

To be moral we need feeling, we need the right kind of feeling, we need educated feeling – we need to do what Martha Nussbaum called ‘cultivating humanity.’ It is arguable (and many people have argued) that the education of the feelings, and in particular sympathy, is one thing that literature and story-telling can do better than anything else. Numbers, by themselves, don’t tell us enough; ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ has less force than a pain in our own finger; but a story about one woman raped and killed can turn us inside out. In a world where ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ is no invented paradigm but a brute fact, along with row upon row of similar facts, clearly anything that can help to cultivate sympathy and empathy is of the highest value.

The primatologist Frans de Waal notes in Our Inner Ape, citing research on children and empathy by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, that empathy precedes language. Zahn-Waxler has found that children a little over the age of one year respond to feigned sadness, pain or distress in family members, and attempt to comfort them. Cognition and feeling mix, and the mixing is all important. Few animals can do it, even a little, as De Waal observes:

 All scientists who’ve set out to find consolation in monkeys have come up empty-handed…Monkeys fail to provide reassurance even if their own offspring has been bitten. They do protect them, but show none of the cuddling and stroking with which an ape mother calms down an upset youngster.

Monkeys, it appears, are more like the autistic narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who describes human anguish as one might describe a cloud-burst.

 And then Mother said, ‘Oh my God.’

And then she didn’t say anything for a long while. And then she made a loud wailing noise like an animal on a nature programme on television.

And I didn’t like her doing this because it was a loud noise, and I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’

Empathy is all-important (yet, De Waal notes, until very recently scientists lumped it ‘with telepathy and other supernatural phenomena’) and anything which promotes and strengthens and expands it is of the greatest importance. The haunting final book of The Iliad illustrates this, when Priam begs Achilles to remember his own father and in doing that to pity Priam’s grief for his own son – and it works: Achilles consents to let Priam retrieve Hector’s body, and the two of them mourn together.

Literature and the liberal arts have long been seen as one way, or the way, to cultivate these capabilities – to awaken and foster what the Eighteenth century called ‘sensibility.’ Hardness and indifference were thought to be incompatible with a taste for Cowper. That is far too easy, of course; we know all about the cultivated slave-owner or colonial administrator or Nazi officer who read Aeschylus or Goethe in the morning and had someone whipped in the afternoon. But the effect needn’t be as lawful and predictable as a pharmaceutical to be real. In a world where lapses into brutality seem to beckon on every corner, anything that gives people experience of empathy and compassion must be of value.

Story-telling is not the only thing literature can do, however, and literature is not the only source of story-telling. Movies and television are full of stories (though often ones that convey the thrill of violence and leave suffering and empathy out of the picture). Journalism relies heavily on stories to build a bridge between ‘100,000 raped and killed,’ and felt human misery. Parallel to journalism, another rich source of an inward, subjective view of human experience and suffering is the personal diary. It’s a great pity that Western literature took so long to come up with the idea – wouldn’t we love to have a diary of Euripides, Augustus, Shakespeare, of merchants, soldiers, farmers going back many centuries. Historical novelists have been inventing some, but how we would love to have the real thing.

We don’t have the real thing going far back in time, but we do have a new abundance of contemporary diaries in the form of blogs; they travel only a few years back in time but they reach out widely in space. Blogs can’t tell us anything directly about the inner life of a victim of the Inquisition or the Black Death or a 6th century invasion, but they can tell us a lot about the inner life of someone in Khartoum or Baghdad or Peshawar right now.

There is a lot of journalistic condescension toward the genre, which is perhaps inevitable between the paid and the unpaid, but it overlooks the usefulness (to put it crudely) of this new window.

Many writers prefer the formal, finished, professional, impersonal work to the loose unbuttoned conversational essay or diary. None but a fool ever writes except for money, Samuel Johnson said with characteristic bluntness, and his young friend Boswell was a bit of a fool, artlessly filling his diary with his furtive sexual bargains, his toadying, his dreams of glory. But how fortunate for us that he did. Another way of looking at the blog is that it is not merely a slovenly intrusion on the guild, but a vast sample of our contemporaries’ inner lives of a kind that no one has had before.

One of many recurring themes on Norm Geras’s blog is the myopia of critics of the genre – the genre as such rather than particular instantiations of it – who focus on potential or actual flaws while ignoring potential and actual virtues. Of course, a genre with no barriers and no editors is just that – but boring badly-written self-obsession is not the only outcome. It turns out not to be true that none but a fool ever writes except for money.

But we already knew that. Pepys wasn’t paid to write his diary, nor was Kilvert paid to write his, nor was Keats paid to write his letters. What of it? They are now valued a good deal more highly than any number of salaried works.

The flaw in Johnson’s dismissal is that not everything worth saying can command a market. Voluntary writing, writing done for its own sake, may be mere self-indulgence, or incompetent, or of interest to no one but the author, but that is not the only possible outcome. The great advantage of voluntary writing is freedom from other people’s agendas and constraints, and some people – many people, in fact – make good use of that freedom.

Just for one thing, paid commissioned writing has a pre-determined size and shape, which conform to existing conventions – the short article, the long article, the story, the novel. There’s little if any market for a single paragraph – but it is perfectly possible to have an interesting single paragraph to say. There’s no law of nature that says a single paragraph is inherently too small to bother with; it’s just not a publishing convention. (The New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ is one home of the very short piece, but that’s an exiguous niche.) Weblogs (to give them their full baptismal name) offer a capacious platform for brief observations, thoughts, overheard remarks; they make it possible to think, dreamily, that nothing is lost.

They also offer a platform for long pieces, and middle-sized ones, and any combination of short and long and medium one chooses. The weblog is, in short, a new literary genre, a new branch of the liberal arts – an expansive, flexible, always-evolving, shape-shifting, liberating genre. It is like the novel in this. The novel has always been the antithesis of Aristotelian rules governing dramatic unities – capable of jumping from continent to continent, from century to century, from narrative to reflection to dialogue, with an involved author or a distant one. Blogs have the same ability to make their own rules on the fly.

In that sense blogs have a kind of natural alliance with human rights. It is possible for conservatives and theocrats hostile to the concept of human rights to be bloggers, but the fit is inherently uneasy. The two endeavours fight each other. Blogging is an undeferential activity, so a deferential mindset or an authoritarian one will feel out of place practicing it. This intuition is backed up by the fact that authoritarian regimes make a habit of arresting bloggers – China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Burma to name a few.

Norm Geras’s blog fits into this situation as a key fits a lock, by being just the kind of blog that authoritarians fear most, because it is everything that the authoritarian mind is not: broad, curious, reasonable, argumentative, inquiring, thoughtful, ironic, secular, and adamant about the importance of human rights. It is in short a conspicuously liberal blog, and this in more than one way, yet the ways are interconnected.

It is liberal in the obvious sense in that it is very often focused on issues to do with human rights, interventionism, tyranny and what to do about it, international law and justice, war crimes, universalism and the like. But it is also liberal in the way it approaches such issues: via measured argument as opposed to vituperation and misrepresentation, and via open unfettered inquiry rather than by peremptory demands for conformity or silence. And in the broadest and most basic sense it is liberal in the breadth of its interests. Along with discussing liberal politics it also converses about the liberal arts – literature, jazz, cricket, films, popular music.

Cricket at first blush may seem to have nothing to do with human rights (although in fact authoritarian terrorists have recently been targeting, precisely, international cricket matches), but games and recreation and play are part of an expansive rights-based conception of human beings. Other ideas conceive of humans as tools or slaves or disobedient subjects, whose pains and pleasures don’t register on the tyrant’s meter. A universalist egalitarian liberal picture of our species empathizes with and relishes its pleasures, it achievements, its works of art, whether the poem, the film, the well-played match, the song.

To put it another way, a somewhat therapeutic way, it seems plausible that fostering an enthusiasm for a variety of kinds of human accomplishment is one way to foster a profound reluctance to smash human beings in large (or small) numbers. Norm Geras’s blog is one place where a new branch of the liberal arts shows how a passion for various human games and concern for human rights can join hands and work together.


  1. Sastra says

    You can write. Now I have to reread it and think.

    “I enjoy regularly reading some blogs” doesn’t command much respect as pastimes go because blogs are not considered a literary genre, but a sort of modern blight. That just didn’t seem right to me. The positives are usually shoved under the negatives. Not here. Bravo.

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