Saturday, November 04, 2006

Carnival of Citizens: advancing public debate

The public sphere is in disarray. Dominated by demagoguery, mudslinging, and dogmatic regurgitation of partisan talking points, there’s scant room left for fair-minded deliberation about the issues we care about. The Carnival of Citizens is a response to this challenge: it aims to foster genuine dialogue between bloggers of diverse perspectives, to bring us one step closer to the ideal of a healthier, more deliberative, democracy.

What’s a “carnival”? A blog carnival is a regular (e.g. weekly or monthly) roundup of blog posts from around the web. Anyone is invited to submit a relevant link for consideration; the carnival “host” then collates the best of these into a single post, or “edition” of the carnival, which briefly introduces each of the accepted entries.

The point of this arcane exercise is to help bring together an online community of writers and readers. As everyone knows, there’s a wealth of information available on the internet: the difficulty is knowing where to look. The best carnivals serve as a portal into a blogging community. If you’re interested in philosophy, for instance, the Philosophers’ Carnival serves to showcase some of the best posts from philosophy blogs that you might not otherwise have noticed. This exposure likewise benefits the blog authors, who see their work presented to a broader audience.

Why a “carnival of citizens”? There’s no readily identifiable community of “citizens” who blog in a deliberative spirit. My hope is that this carnival will forge such a community from individuals, united in their civic ideals, who may previously have been unknown to each other. I trust that there are many open-minded bloggers and readers out there who wish to challenge their preconceptions through reasoned dialogue with fair-minded political opponents. The Carnival of Citizens exists to bring these people together.

Topical scope: The Carnival of Citizens covers all topics of “public debate”, i.e. politics and applied ethics, very broadly construed. This may include issues of broader cultural interest – e.g. science, religion, and philosophy – insofar as they connect to public discourse or matters of general interest. We also invite “meta” discussion about the public sphere, rational discourse, and general civic issues. Note that special “themed” editions might restrict their scope to a particular issue, however. (Advanced notice will be given, so that interested bloggers have plenty of time to prepare a post on the given topic.)

Key Guidelines: The defining feature of the Carnival of Citizens lies not in one’s choice of topic, but rather the way in which one approaches it. Hosts will be very selective in this respect. Submissions that demonize one’s opponents, or that are otherwise unconstructive in tone or style, will be instantly rejected. Note that this need not preclude passionate criticism of public figures. One must simply take care not to tar all the well meaning (if misguided) citizens who have yet to be persuaded to abandon their support of the unscrupulous leader. More generally, entries must be conducive to public debate, and hence engage rather than insult those who might initially be disposed to disagree with the author’s thesis.

Participants are expected to approach the carnival in a deliberative spirit. There are several aspects to this: (1) You should welcome comments that offer reasonable dissent and counter-arguments. (2) Dissenting comments should still aim to be generous, helping the other to see flaws in their previous view, rather than trying to embarrass them or otherwise score cheap points. (3) You should be open to the possibility of changing your mind, if presented with sufficiently compelling reasons. (4) The discussion should be viewed as a collaborative effort of inquiry, rather than an adversarial dispute, or a brute assertion of conflicting beliefs or values. (5) Above all, you should exhibit good will and respect towards your fellow citizens and interlocutors – e.g. refrain from impugning their intellectual honesty without good reason.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to understand those who approach an issue from a different background, bringing foreign assumptions to the table. Incomprehension breeds suspicion, poisoning the public sphere. It is thus crucial to approach the discussion in good faith, and assume that one’s interlocutors have done likewise.

Ideally, the Carnival of Citizens provides a forum for those who wish to persevere through their initial mutual incomprehension, to obtain a deeper understanding – and perhaps, eventually, a resolution – of the disagreement. If these civic ideals resonate with you, I hope you will give it a go!

N.B. Those who lack a blog of their own may still participate by emailing me their contribution, which I can publish here as a "guest post".

Support the Carnival:
1) Contribute with a submission.
2) Spread the word: post about it on your own blog, and encourage your readers to sign up to the carnival newsletter to keep informed about upcoming editions.
3) Volunteer as a host (email me if you're interested).