Sunday, October 30, 2005

Blogging and the death penalty

On Saturday, I spoke at a couple of workshops on the subject of blogging and web activism at the annual conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty here in Austin. A lot of what I had to say about political blogging was included in a couple of pieces I wrote this summer:
But for this particular audience, I felt some additional suggestions were in order. Of all the criminal justice issues out there, opposition to the death penalty perhaps remains the one topic most in need of re-thinking or "re-framing," as the currently faddish rhetoric would have it. In Texas, depending on how you ask the question, around 70 percent of the public supports capital punishment. Bottom line: That means that activists haven't yet found the messages that, if it ever comes to pass, will ultimately will cause the death penalty to be abolished in this country.

To me, that's where blogging by individuals could be really helpful reformulating a rhetorical approach toward this complex topic. We need lots of folks blogging about the death penalty, I told them, from lots of different perspectives -- libertarian, pro-life, progressive, legal, you name it -- because right now the winning arguments that will convince the public simply don't exist, yet.

In professional politics, pollsters take "messages," essentially themes and arguments for and against a proposal, and test them using opinion research to identify the most persuasive ones. But one can only test messages that one knows about, and on the death penalty the arguments being made out in the world today just aren't persuasive to the majority of the public. Abolitionists need new arguments to be developed, new messages that appeal to widely held values, "wedge" messages that cut across ideological and party lines.

Bloggers could be a big help developing those new messages, particularly individual bloggers not affiliated with organizations who are free to try innovative rhetorical approaches, make mistakes, and experiment with message in a way that organizations realistically can't.

Blogging is a media strategy, for the most part, not a vehicle for activism -- email is much better than blogs at driving people to act. But blogging could play an important role in political message development, especially on issues like the death penalty where the terms of debate are caught in deep, seemingly intractable ruts.

I hope we see lots of new abolitionist blogs cropping up in the future -- the movment's message makers need the help.

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