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Bennett Attacks Ito, or How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Joi Ito recently posted a paper on emergent democracy, as well as writing an op-ed on the subject for the South China Morning Post. ("Emergent democracy" refers to the concept that decentralized, collaborative Internet-based structures, blogs being an example, can potentially lead to more direct forms of democracy.) All was well until, in the comments for an emergent democracy item on Joi's site, Richard Bennett made the following comment:

Reading your paper "Emergent Democracy" I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally. Even if we have tools to make direct democracy possible, in certain limited contexts, it simply doesn't follow that it would be a superior form of government to representative democracy.

You're welcome to read what I've written about your paper on my blog. While I tried to be nice, it's hard to take any of this seriously.

I don't know Bennett personally. I do know Joi, and I know he is intimately familiar with how Japanese legislative bodies and the Japanese government function, and with political theory generally. Bennett is entitled to his opinion, but not only do I believe him to be wrong, I believe this is most certainly not an example of civil discourse.

Bennett's comment ignited a firestorm of comments on Joi's site, with Joi's friends coming to his defense. (I was unaware this debate was raging, and am only now chiming in.) Over the next four days, Bennett's comment led to over 40 responses and counter-responses. Bennett threw a red herring into the debate with the following:

Lovers of emergent systems... expect us to take as an article of faith the notion that direct democracy "couldn't possibly be worse" than representative democracy. Yet we know that many systems of government are much worse than representative democracy: the genocidal dictatorships of Iraq and Zimbabwe, for example. Given that many of the advocates of "emergent" systems are also supporters of Saddam Hussein's government, I suppose this claim shouldn't be surprising.
Reading this led me to Bennett's blog to try to understand him better. Presuming our blogs reflect who we are, or would like to be, his blog says much about him. For example, here's what he had to say about the death of Fred Rogers yesterday:
Our long national nightmare is over
At long last:
Feb. 27, 2003 -- Fred Rogers, who for more than 30 years touched the lives of children and parents as host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, died of stomach cancer Thursday at age 74.
Thank God. Now we can raise a generation of children who don't believe each and every one is "special" even if they never do anything special. Fred Rogers' legacy is narcissism, nothing more and nothing less. His special effects really sucked, too.
I include this because I think it's especially illustrative of the style of discourse that Bennett prefers.

After 18 comments by Bennett alone on this one topic on his site, Joi posted the following:

Mr. Bennett has a very dismissive and insulting way of engaging and is a good example of "noise" when we talk about the "signal to noise ratio"... My Bennett filter is now officially on so I won't link to his site or engage directly with the fellow any more... IP ban warning has been served.
Not having been in Joi's position -- I don't have comments on my blog, purely for technical reasons -- I don't know what I would do in the situation in which he finds himself. I am fundamentally opposed to censorship, but asking someone to please take their protest off one's own front lawn isn't restricting free speech -- it's requesting common courtesy. I don't know how I would feel about hosting personal attacks on my friends and myself on my very own blog, but I suspect I'd be none too happy.

Bennett responded with the following:

Political theorist throws in the towel
Cowardly Joi Ito as much as admits that his ideas about the so-called "emergent democracy" are incoherent and indefensible, and concedes defeat by banning me from leaving comments on his blog (right after I said by-bye). Read the whole thing, it's a hilarious example of the kind of reasoning that's very stylish in France these days.

Apparently the boy can't control his lust for power after all.

Is Joi frustrated with Bennett's debating technique? Yes, as I would be -- I find it not only counterproductive, but offensive. Is Joi within his rights to ask Bennett to go somewhere else, and to threaten to enforce this request with an IP ban? Yes. Is Joi a coward? Speaking as someone who has known him personally for years, I can attest to the fact that he is anything but. Has Joi admitted "that his ideas about the so-called 'emergent democracy' are incoherent and indefensible?" Absolutely not. Has he conceded defeat? In no way, shape, or form -- he has simply decided that he doesn't want to spend any more of his time debating with someone who seems uninterested in genuinely understanding the point of view of others, and who debates through the use of red herrings and personal attacks.

Now Jeff Jarvis has weighed in:

Bennett vs. the world
: And I'm siding with Bennett.

Joi Ito gets surprisingly pissy about Bennett just because he doesn't happen to think that Ito's Emergent Democracy essay is brilliant. A [former] denizen of the Well defends Ito against Bennett. And Ito "turns on the Bennett filter."

Hey, opinions are exactly what make democracy great. Opinions are precisely what emerge from a democracy...

If you're afraid of opinions -- or worse, afraid of jokes -- then you're afraid of people; you're truly afraid of democracy.

Calling Joi a "coward" isn't a joke. Linking emergent democracy advocates to supporters of Saddam Hussein isn't a joke. Are they opinions? Yes, but not all opinions contribute in a positive way toward civilized debate and shared understanding. To put this in terms to which someone of Bennett's political persuasion could more easily relate, what does it accomplish when anti-war protesters compare Bush to Hitler? It accomplishes nothing -- at least nothing useful to their cause. It's an ad hominem attack that, to reasonable ears, merely casts doubt on the attackers themselves.

Bennett could have said to Joi, "Based on what I've read of it, I disagree with fundamental aspects of your thesis on emergent democracy. I'd like to understand your ideas better and engage you in a discussion about them." Instead, his very first words on the topic that he posted in Joi's blog were, "I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally," and the debate degenerated from there. What Jarvis and anyone else who supports Bennett need to ask themselves is this: when someone starts a debate like that, are they truly seeking an intelligent exchange of ideas, possibly leading to mutual enlightenment, or are they simply trying to draw attention to themselves by seeding discord?

Put simply, I'm siding with Joi -- not because he's my friend, which he is, but because he's right.

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