As bloggers we generally do not hold ourselves to the same writing standards we would if we were writing for school or work. Blogging is a hobby, a way to relax, so doing rigorous research before posting, providing a Works Cited with at least ten sources all in meticulously correct MLA, and revising the post several times to ensure that the structure is the most effective one we can think of are not expected. Likewise, we can usually scrape by with providing much less evidence for an argument than we would if we thought the stakes were higher.
However, when we adopt this approach we also lose sight of why we learn to do what we do in school or at work. That is, we aren’t trained to conceive of an original argument, make sure our sources are credible and objective, and provide sufficient evidence just so we can get an “A” on the paper at the end of the term. Rather, we are trained to do this because being able to evaluate an argument, to use rhetoric effectively, and to evaluate the arguments and rhetoric of others are important skills that affect our daily lives, even if that just means we can recognize a bad financial decision or a manipulative junk food ad when we see one. And, of course, the American school system has always been conceived of a way to make individuals into informed and responsible citizens. Learning to argue, learning how to assess the arguments of others is political.
To tell ourselves that we are able to, in a sense, switch off our brains we are done with the day, home from school or home from work, places us at the mercy of all the messages around us. Advertisements, Facebook posts, memes, Twitter arguments, and the news media are consistently using rhetoric in service of an agenda. If we aren’t savvy, we’re likely to buy into whatever we read because it seems, at face value, to be correct (especially if we already agree with the sentiment behind it). However, not everyone writing on the Internet has researched the topics they are speaking about. Sometimes people writing on the Internet do appear to have done research–but a closer look reveals the research is dated, from a biased or non-credible source, or somehow skewed to give a false perception. As we find ourselves launched into a world of “alternative facts,” it’s important to remember that we are responsible for becoming aware of the rhetoric being used to move us and of learning how to research the facts. Consistently using the critical thinking skills we have been trained in is how we can effect real change in the world.
We should be bringing our critical thinking skills to blogging and encouraging others to engage with us in lively dialogues about the issues we discuss and the ways we discuss them. We should be wary about reading posts that make claims that are not true or cannot be backed up by evidence. We should be careful ourselves to do research so we can prevent ourselves from making false claims. Likewise, we should be wary of individuals who encourage us to not read, to not assess things from ourselves, to just take the word of the semi-anonymous individual on Twitter. Blindly accepting claims without asking for evidence, without doing the research ourselves, is dangerous.
We should also be encouraging each other to assess our arguments fairly and to interact with them in critical and productive ways. We need to be careful about letting our emotions guide our reception of an argument. It’s possible to support a position and still recognize that some arguments in favor of that position are weak or not based on credible evidence. Pointing out a flawed argument does not make anyone a bad person or an opponent of the cause. Rather, recognizing that an argument is flawed can only help strengthen your position. You cannot convince others to accept your position if it seems to be built on outdated research or biased sources. You can convince skeptics by piling the evidence on them.
Book bloggers don’t need to all turn into semi-professional researchers overnight. However, we should be encouraging a culture that seeks the truth and that is willing to question, to debate, and to learn–and, yes, to do our own research whenever we see a sketchy claim and before we write any claims ourselves. We need to be practicing our ability to make an argument and to assess evidence every day. The skills we need at school and at work are the skills that are going to allow us to make a difference in our communities and in our politics.