Huzzah Better Arguing!

The atheist community has seen its share of controversy and Big Issues and Deep Rifts. Every week, it seems, some event, from the smallest comment on a facebook thread to a public address at a major conference, sparks an internet conflagration, spawning tweets, blog posts and facebooks statuses galore, and further entrenching the “sides” we keep seeing over and over again. As Cliff says (though about something else), “It’s bizarre and disturbing the way an issue becomes a Designated Controversy,” and I agree. It’s sad to me to see the same blowups and the same arguments, when I want so much for us to move forward and to engage more productively with each other.

But sometimes, things don’t go wrong. Sometimes, people react and respond reasonably and thoughtfully to each other. Sometimes, people argue and the internet doesn’t explode. And since the internet is a volatile substance and charitable argumentation can be incredibly difficult, I think we all ought to be honoring and praising the people involved when Things Go Well.

So, Richard Dawkins and Miri Mogilevsky: really, really well done.

It all started when Richard Dawkins went to twitter to discuss the British public shooting and in the ensuing conversation, got called an “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.”

The conversation then turned to what racism and sexism are, whether they can be said to happen to white people and men and how important definitions are. Obviously, this is a topic that incites a lot of anger and strong opinions, and all of these were easily findable in the twitter discussion that emerged. (Though I must say, from what I can tell, the tweets that flew back and forth where rather more restrained than they might have been, and all those responsible for that deserve praise.)

Miri observed this minor brouhaha, and as a blogger, decided to blog about it, resulting in the great post On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism. This post went over what had happened and then gave an analysis which, while richly and thoroughly critical of Dawkins, was compassionate and thoughtful. Here are some of the things I think she did well:

“Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light.”

  • She engaged with Dawkins’ understanding of the word racism and instead of dismissing it, explains why she thinks it’s not useful (and by the way, arguing that certain definitions are more useful than others rather than more right than others is infinitely more productive).

“It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people…But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power.”

“As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals…Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.”

These tactics and writing approaches are wonderful. They are thoughtful, productive and charitable, and yet they remove none of the critical bite that makes up the backbone of this piece. I think I can say that even someone who started out being fairly sympathetic to Dawkins could have read the piece and taken the criticism to heart, without immediately feeling defensive or attacked. In fact, I happen to know someone did. Who was this mysterious person sympathetic to Dawkins’ position?

Richard Dawkins himself.

That’s right. Richard Dawkins commented a blog disagreeing with the author and everything didn’t go wrong! (Those of you familiar with some atheist movement history will likely be quite surprised) In fact, he was pretty damn reasonable. You can see the full text of what he said here, but again, I’d like to point out some of the important aspects of his comment.

(6). Where annoyance spilled over into outright pain was the implication that, because I felt strongly about (1), (2), (3) etc, this must make ME a racist. That pissed me off royally and actually hurt. Indeed I find it all but unforgivable.

People tend to become angry when called racists, which I’ve talked about before. I don’t think it’s a very good strategy. Again, pretty understandable, and again, it gives us important information.

  • He explained why he was bothered by others refusing to engage with his definitions and usage of language, and clarified his position on dictionary definitions.

(3). Because, for brevity, I quoted a dictionary, simply to show that the sociological technical term was not universally agreed, I was annoyed that people gave vent to a sort of anti-dictionary prejudice, even calling dictionaries a tool of white, male oppression (reminiscent of a famous feminist who called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual”)! Actually my feeling is that whether or not we use the DICTIONARY definition of a word is less important than making sure we use the SAME definition as each other…But I was accused of a kind of naive dictionary worship, which was grossly unfair.

Now, no one has to agree with Dawkins here, or even be more sympathetic to his position. I think the comment after his gives very good rebuttals to most of his points. But I do think, no matter our opinions on the content, that we have to admit that Dawkins was being restrained and reasonable, and given how much he was being attacked (even rightfully!), it was extremely commendable of him to do so. As a result, there hasn’t been a blowup! I imagine Miri’s comment thread is a little ridiculous, but I haven’t heard anything about loafergate, or Mirigate, or elevatorgate II. And that is thanks to Dawkins being reasonable here.

But why was he able to be reasonable? I am pretty sure that he would not have been nearly so restrained (even given that he was likely doing damage control) if Miri’s post hadn’t been so wonderfully thoughtful.

What we see here is a story of success. We see people who disagree about the values and facts of a case, who are criticizing and rebutting each other, who nonetheless made thoughtful, reasonable points, engaged in good faith and a result were able to turn what could have been a Big Fat Controversy into an everyday disagreement. That’s a testament to civility, and it’s also a testament to Miri and Professor Dawkins, who kept their cool and made the internet, and the atheist movement, a nicer place to be.

Blogathon Wrap Up

I know this is a few days late, but I think it’s nice to have a place where all the posts are in the same place. I also really wanted to have a place to put this beautiful word cloud I made on wordle. It has all the words from all my blogathon posts, scaled to reflect the frequency of their use. I love that I seem to talk about people a lot. The other top words are pretty broad: think, just, know, like, good. They’re my go-to verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But there’s also: math, religious, questions, atheists and argue, and that all seems to describe me pretty well.

blogathon word cloud

For those looking for what I wrote, here are the posts:

My Blogathon Announcement: Where I said I was doing it and explained why I thought it was important.

Beginning Blogathon: Where I talked about why the Secular Student Alliance is so important and wonderful (and also how I got lost getting to where I was going)

What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago: Just a bunch of thoughts on what makes groups succeed and thrive.

On Challenging Religious Beliefs: On why I’m working on not seeing challenging religious beliefs in social settings or online as so cringe-inducing, and why I’m glad people actually do it. (Big honking caveat: All normal social conventions like appropriateness and respect obviously need to apply)

Maaaaaaaath: How and why math is so freaking great. Includes crocheted hyperbolic spaces and some light cursing.

Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community: On my suspicion that arguments about infighting and about accomodationism vs confrontationism might be based more on emotional bias than on good arguments.

Safe Spaces for Racists: On what a space where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions without hurting people might look like. Note: title is meant to be catchy/provocative, not an accurate description of what I’m hoping for. By the way, if you like that post, you might like this one, called, “You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It“, in which I announce I’m actually trying to create this space.

Brain Crack: A bunch of silly random ideas I’ve had floating around, like getting kids to teach their own classes and having churches serve as homeless shelters.

That’s all! Thanks so much for reading.

[Blogathon] Safe Spaces for Racists

I said in my post criticizing the Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions page that I agreed with various people that it would be a good idea to have spaces where people could ask “politically incorrect” questions or say “politically incorrect” things that would then be discussed calmly and charitably, with no backlash or criticism. The question, though, is what that kind of space would look like and how it would work.

Here’s what I envision (there are other ways this could work, of course, this is just one idea):

A subreddit, much like AskScience or AskHistorians, called something like AskSocialJustice or PoliticallyIncorrectEducate (like Transeducate, a great subreddit)

  • You have a verification system that gives flair (tags next to your username, essentially) that indicates what your field of knowledge is. Things like “sexism” or “racism”, or perhaps framing it the other way “feminism” or “anti-racism.” Just as in AskScience or AskHistorians, it might be optimal to have only academics in the subject be given flair, but I’d be happy to have Jessica Valenti or Ta-Nehisi Coates in there, obviously. People who know a lot about the subject and are accustomed to writing about it.
  • The rules in the sidebar are:
    • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
    • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
    • Questions that are good questions but not phrased as well as they could be get rewritten, with the original in strikeout (I don’t even know if this is possible). This lets questions from people who don’t know as much through, but keeps things more respectful and demonstrates how discourse should work.
    • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and also mention to people that they’re being less respectful or helpful than they could be, and give concrete advice and even rewritings of the comment or question to model what the discourse should look like.
  • Mods also allow any good responses, but emphasize the flaired/tagged experts on the topic

So in the end what I envision is questions like:

  • Why can’t I use the word X, but other people can?
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a Y, doesn’t it just mean blah blah blah?
  • Why do Z people always do A? (Actually, this one would probably get rewritten as “I notice that Z people are more likely to do A than Y people. Why?” so that we encourage people to write what they observe instead of what they infer.
  • I know it’s a stereotype, but actually, B’s totally always do C.
  • Is G X-ist?

And I envision the responses being of the form:

  • Well, here’s the history of that word and what it means to people and what harm it causes when non-Z people use it.
  • So, in some sense, Y does mean that, but its meaning has changed because of these historical events, and now this is the effect it has on people.
  • You may notice that because you’re influenced by the stereotype of Z doing A, and so you don’t notice that Y does A a lot as well. It may also be that they’re more likely to as a result of alpha, beta and gamma cultural influences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why does A bother you?
  • Well, B actually isn’t true. The statistics indicate that C is a lot more common, even though popular media and even news outlets emphasize B far more.
  • G certainly comes out of an X-ist culture, and it might perpetuate it, but the benefits of G could outweigh those in the cases of R, S and T.

Responses would follow the guidelines of charity and civility laid by myself, Dan Fincke and others. They would be academically rigorous but as free of jargon as was humanly possible, and accessible to readers of a variety of educational levels. Responses would also contain concrete advice for how to act or what to say, giving useful potential scripts where helpful. Questions asked frequently would probably end up constituting their own page that people would get linked to if they asked the same ones.

That way, people of all beliefs, from the merely curious to the rabidly racist, get their questions answered, and they stay anonymous. They get thoughtful, charitable answers filled with resources, should they want to investigate further. The answers are logically and academically rigorous, and delivered without moral judgement or abuse, even if moral judgement would in general be thoroughly warranted. (I think there would also be a way to say, “Yes, that’s X-ist and it’s an awful thing to say to someone. Here’s why..) within these guidelines, since that doesn’t have the same effect as simply calling them an awful person. There would be plenty of empirical data provided whenever possible. Responses would emphasize the real, tangible ways that bigotry and prejudice affect people and their lives, so as to cultivate empathy, but also place responses in historical, economic, political and sociological context.

What do you all think? Would this work? Would these spaces be good? Productive? Would they still “make bigotry fester”? (Which I’m not really sure is a thing) . Would they still hurt people and spread bigotry? What would you add or take away from the rules or approach? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

Green Donate

Why I Support the Open Letter to the Secular Community

I am really thrilled that a group of secular organizations came together and wrote an open letter to the secular community about online communication. They’ve called for a change of tone and substance in online argumentation, in the hopes that arguments will become less personal and more productive. Like everyone else, I have no idea whether it will make any difference, but I’m really glad to see more and more people and organizations publicly supporting a certain type of discourse. I happen to believe that productive and useful discussion is a good idea on a practical level, helping us win arguments and learn more, and I also think there’s an ethical dimension to how intellectually honest we are about other people’s arguments and to how we’re treating other people. But more than that, this is a community issue. Everyone knows the internet is kind of a cesspool, but these organizations aren’t speaking out publicly to talk about the internet at large. They’re talking about to atheists, agnostics, the “nones”, we nonreligious folk who make up this community. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and the community in online form is a very loose collection of secular, atheist and skeptic networks, blogs and forums. But it’s still there, and insofar as it’s a metaphorical space that we inhabit and use to interact with each other, meet people, plan events, engage in activism and talk about issues, it’s worth protecting. Right now, one of the threats to the ability of the community to act like a community is the way that online discussion is happening. Is this an existential threat? No. Is it the only threat? No. But it’s one we can and should do something about. So thank you to Jesse Galef and Dan Fincke, for talking about this stuff starting years ago, and thank you to these organizations, who are trying to get us all back on track.

I also happen to love a lot of the specifics they’ve put into their letter. I’m more and more coming to the opinion that moderation of blog comments is crucial. It simply creates a better space for everyone, and doesn’t allow support for trolls or harassers to accrue. Communicating privately with people to clear up misunderstandings before lambasting them online is brilliant, and it’s an idea I’ve loved since I heard Hemant Mehta talking about it at Chicago’s skepticamp. Why wouldn’t we want to clear up misconceptions before they adversely affect our opinions or writing? And of course, listening and being charitable are important practices that are very close to my heart. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Of course, there’s been plenty of criticism of the open letter, and that’s great. Nothing is perfect, and discussion helps us learn more and more. However, I think most of the criticism is off the mark, and I’d like to explain why, in a few posts.

But before I go into specifics, what I’d like to tell everyone who doesn’t like the letter is: The Open Letter is probably not talking about what you think it’s talking about.

That is, it probably (probably) isn’t calling for the end of the online comments you want to see around. Up and down the Friendly Atheist comment sections were people grievously concerned that they weren’t going to be allowed to criticize certain bloggers or ideas anymore. Leaving aside that this open letter and these secular organizations have no ability to forcibly stop anyone from saying anything on the internet, criticism isn’t the problem here. Content generally isn’t the problem. It’s not an issue that people want to say how much they hate Freethought Blogs or various prominent people or whomever. It’s that to do it, some people make false accusations, state claims based on rumors, call people feminazis, femistasis and worse, harass by email, comment and blog, and send illegal and despicable rape, death and other violent threats. If you’re not doing those things, you’re probably not the problem, and no one is trying to curtail your free speech.

(On that note, and I can’t believe I have to say this, blog moderation is only censorship under the broadest possible definition, and it’s a totally reasonable form of it, social disapproval doesn’t infringe on free speech and calling for a higher level of discourse isn’t fascistic. Everyone on board? If not, let’s talk in comments.)

Similarly, to those who felt the open letter didn’t support feminism strongly enough, you may be right, and I’ll address those specific concerns in my next post. But one concern I saw over and over again was that the kind of behavior the open letter wanted to see stopped was the kind of behavior that victims of harassment and marginalized people take on their own behalf, and so the open letter served to perpetuate both harassment and marginalization by criticizing those who speak against it. Again, I really don’t think that’s what these organizations are talking about. They’re not talking about people who get angry because people are awful to them. They’re not talking about people and ideas being called out for being insensitive or offensive or cruel. They don’t want people to stop standing up for themselves or stop pointing out problems or stop making legitimate criticisms. They want people to stop being considered enemies because of who they associate with, and people who are asking sincere questions (even if thoughtless) to not be treated as if they were malicious, and claims not to be trusted without verification. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing that, it’s not a problem. That, anyway, is my interpretation of the letter.

By the way, it’s a good place here to say that I DO NOT think these problems are on the same level. Insults and harassment and rape threats are orders of magnitude worse than being someone being misinterpreted and thought offensive when they meant no harm. What they have in common, though, is that they do harm to discussion and to the community.

That harm is what the writers of the open letter would like to see ended. And everything else they speak out against is what everyone should be against. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what “side” you’re on. There is a basic level of discourse which must be present for anything productive to take place. Of course skeptics should “trust but verify.” Of course as atheists, many of whom were once religious, we should all remember that not everyone knows what we do. I’ve argued before that of course all of us should be charitable, if not to our interlocutors, then to their arguments, and if not for their sake, then for all the observers. Of course we as internet users should care about the kind of space we create. And of course as intellectually honest people we should take care to only write things that are true and not spread misinformation.

For instance, yesterday, in the Friendly Atheist comment section about this very issue, the following exchange took place,

Me:

Person A, do you really think this is groupthink? I think the idea is to come together and really work on improving the community. Isn’t that the same kind of thing you write about?

Not Person A:

“i don’t need “improvement” thank you very much.

people tell me all the time that there is something wrong with me, and that i need “fixing.” you know who?

anti-gay religious groups and racists, to name just a few. do you really want to join those ranks? you’ve already made several statements on this thread that i disagree with, am i better positioned than you such that i should decide what is best for you, in the name of “the community?” it seems to me like that is what you, and this letter, proposes to do.”

This is the kind of thing the letter is talking about. I got compared to anti-gay religious groups and racists in a way that was ludicrously out of step with what I said. This is bad discourse. This is the kind of thing that should end. Not feminism, not standing for yourself, and obviously not free speech.

Whatever we believe, I think the ideas in the open letter are ones everyone should agree with. They’re basic due diligence. They’re the foundation of our ability to talk to each other. And I want to make sure we can keep talking to each other.

That’s why I support the Open Letter.

The Privilege of Charity, Part II

Having ventured into the question of privilege and how it relates to the approach I’ve been putting forward (I really need a pithy name for it; any suggestions?) from one direction, I need to tackle it from the other, more interesting one: Is charity too much to ask?

Is it akin to this comic, where we ask everyone to do the same thing, to practice due diligence in argumentation, but the request is still ludicrously unfair because of the differential abilities of the people involved? Is it true that marginalized people cannot be expected to be charitable to people who intentionally or accidentally use harmful words or convey harmful ideas?

A commenter in an atheism plus thread about this excellent piece on how privileged folks respond to the world being changed around them expressed it in this way,

“For lack of better wording, the parts of me that are oppressed just sighed a bit. It’s a piece that touches on tone, even if it’s not 100% about it. There are days when I can handle my tone, and days when that just is not going to happen. There are days when I can hand out some sympathy and understanding for a person who is clearly just trying to grasp it all. And there are days when I just want to be surrounded by people who already get it, and aren’t asking anything of me.”

This commenter is expressing a sentiment about ability; they simply cannot always be charitable, and so it is ridiculous to expect it of them. I am entirely sympathetic to this. It is hard to talk to people who are long inferential distances away from you, or who are ignorant or apathetic to issues important to you, or who are perhaps being intentionally cruel. It is incredibly tempting to “smack down” the offenders with the wittiest, snarkiest, most “burn” inducing response you can think of, or perhaps tell them exactly how bigoted and awful they are, or any number of other approachesI’ve been arguing against. I understand and agree. I experience that desire myself on a regular basis.

In such instances, charity is indeed, like so many other things, easier for the privileged. People who are privileged have an easier time being emotionally distant enough to not feel overwhelmed by anger, sadness or frustration. People who are privileged don’t have to be triggered, or fear for their life or safety as a result of certain conversations. People who are privileged are less personally invested in the outcome of arguments.

But if you believe the claims Dan Fincke and I have been making, then charity and diligence are both of ethical and strategic importance, whether or not they are privileged pursuits. Being wealthy is a privilege, too, for instance, and that doesn’t change the fact that money is helpful in achieving certain goals, including social justice ones. Wealth being a privilege doesn’t mean that SJ-oriented groups shouldn’t try to raise money. In the same way, even if charity is, in this sense, a privilege, we have to do it anyway. If we are going to argue, we must do it properly. So my answer is no, charity is not too much to ask.

But that is an abstract answer. What about specifics? How do individuals make decisions about how to engage?

Offshoot Discussion 1: There are only two kinds of spaces: safe spaces and educational spaces.  

I firmly believe that charity and diligence are possible for most people in most circumstances. But I freely grant that they are not for all or in all cases. I have certainly felt the inability to respond productively to someone who was really pushing my buttons. When any of us find ourselves in this situation, we should remove ourselves from the conversation. If we need to talk about the issue or the incident, we should find ourselves a safe space. That’s what they are for, and they are great.

But there are only two kinds of spaces as relates to social justice discourse: safe spaces and educational spaces. And educational spaces, where there are those who must be convinced to agree with our causes, can be won or lost on the strength of persuasiveness and argument. Educational spaces are where we must work to be as effectively convincing as possible so as to win support and allies. Educational spaces are where we don’t want unproductive arguments and uncharitable approaches to get in the way of our missions.

To be absolutely clear, I do not in any sense desire that marginalized people be left out of the discussion. Their input is absolutely crucial to making the world better. Without, their ideas, stories and perspective, it is impossible to fix the problems faced by those society mistreats and renders invisible. Anyone, including the (often rightfully) angry, frustrated, offended, can and should participate in public conversations. It is merely the case that we must all hold ourselves to the same general standards, and refrain from engaging if we cannot.

Offshoot Discussion #2: Allies, use your privilege right!

Because charity is, as I’ve admitted, easier for the privileged, it’s my opinion that the privileged should engage in it as much as possible. Natalie Reed, in this fantastic piece, says,

“l context it occurs within (such as a feminist reading and discussion group, or an abuse-survivor’s support group, or a feminist subreddit), it becomes a means by which the importance of a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced and non-oppressive approach to trans issues can be normalized and affirmed as an aspect of that social context…And so long as you benefit from cis privilege, and you acknowledge such social inequities as a bad thing, it IS kinda your responsibility to take whatever opportunities you have for helping make things a bit better. And that includes educating each other. And being nice about it, if that’s what the situation demands.” [Emphasis mine]

And the atheism plus commenter, in the same comment from above, says,

“After all, my privileged half (of course) is saying, “I can do that.” As in, I can see myself nearly 100% keeping my tone calm when I’m in the ally position. I can see myself in “education mode“. I can see myself handing out sympathy while still guiding someone by the hand, when I know they so badly just want to understand what’s going on, and they don’t want to end up the “bad guy”. I have the privilege that their questions don’t hit a nerve with me. I can use that, and should use that.” [Emphasis mine]

It is the role of allies in general to consider how best use their own privilege to the advantage of the marginalized they seek to support. Any ally who feels that charity is overly privileged should consider using their own privilege to do the hard work of charity and due diligence. They, and any marginalized person who feels able to engage in this way, can push conversations forward, moving past mere calling-out to more thoughtful, nuanced discussion about how to improve our communities and societies.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

The Privilege of Charity, Part I

Is the construction of “civil discourse” one that benefits those who already have power? Is my attempt to create spaces where arguments are more productive fundamentally disadvantaging to the people I might be trying to help? Is the very ability to be charitable a privilege?

I think not. But I think these are very good questions, and I’m going to address them.

The issue of the potentially privileged nature of the approach I’ve been discussing lo these many weeks can be split into two main parts: focus and ability. Focus is about the first and second questions above, in which the emphases and priorities of those who defend the approach are brought under scrutiny. In other words, do we care about the wrong things, possibly as a result of our privileged viewpoint? Ability is about the third question above, in which we must ask ourselves whether we are asking for something unreasonable. Does charity require a skill or characteristic that marginalized people tend not to have?

This post will be about focus. The next will be about ability.

The approach I’ve been outlining has three major pillars, which all intertwine and intersect:

1) Effectiveness of Persuasion: Most of the arguments I’ve made have rested on the assumption that the goal is to persuade or convince other people, whether they are in the conversations or merely observers. Given this goal, there is for every situation some optimal approach that is most likely to result in the goal being attained, even if it’s one we can’t know. I have argued that certain methods and approaches have a higher success rate than others.

2) Due Diligence: I reframed “charity” in an almost deontological way, with a basis in the belief that certain forms of discourse are good and others are bad. I defined due diligence fairly broadly, encompassing a wide variety of approaches. Nevertheless, I think there are a number of responsibilities that are incumbent on people who argue, on the internet or elsewhere. I have never stated what specifically I think falls out of this category, but Dan Fincke does an excellent job here.

Importantly, this belief is not in fact deontological, and mostly serves as the set of actions that are most likely to lead to an effective argument.

3) Charitability: The ethos of my approach can be described as one based on empathy, both of emotion, in which we understand how people feel when they are disagreed with, attacked or made to feel that their identity is threatened, and of reason, wherein we seek to understand what others believe and why.

This has an ethical component which may be somewhat separable from merely the best way to win an argument, but it, too is part of what I think is necessary for arguments to be effective.

So, one by one!

1) Is a focus on effectiveness privileged?

Yes and no. I do not think it elevates Voldemort and the Death Eaters over Dumbledore’s Army to suggest that the DA learn better and more powerful spells. It is an attempt, in fact, to do the opposite, to reduce the power differential by improving the tools of the weaker, more just, side. It fundamentally seeks to advantage the marginalized, not disadvantage them.

In some cases, the privileged, whose wands are untouched by actual battle, might appear to be cluelessly asking, “Why don’t you just use better spells?” But anyone who actually offers the olden textbooks filled with spells of hitherto unknown power is helping to make the army stronger. In doing so, they are reducing the effect of privilege, by giving the marginalized access to the quality of tool potentially restricted to the privileged, (itself an equalizing action), and then, by that very action, making the battle against the structures that marginalize in the first place more likely to be won. It is well known that there is a two-prong element to marginalization that allows it to be entrenched so deeply. First a group is marginalized, and then their marginalization removes the tools they need to fight against it. The quest for effective argument is itself two pronged, working to counter both of these elements of marginalization.

To use this West Wing example again: yes, what we see is an older white man correcting, maybe even “educating” a younger black man. Is Aaron Sorkin racist? Maybe. But is Judge Mulready doing harm to the cause of affirmative action and anti-racism? I think not. (Relevant portion 7:18-7:47)

1b) But it is the marginalized who are in the midst of the fight. Do they not know best what they need to win? And if so, is it not privileged to offer, even demand, a change of strategy that has not been asked for? Why have I not asked the marginalized (which, in most categories, I am not), what they need, and supplied that?

This gets three answers. Before I begin, though, it is worth pointing out that my arguments have not been addressed only to those involved in social justice, but to everyone who argues for anything. And insofar as they relate or have been related by me to social justice, I have not been only addressing the marginalized, but also their allies. With that in mind:

One, I have given what I think is useful. Whether or not it is rests only on the strength of my arguments in favor of the approach. If it turns out that what I have offered is useless, then perhaps I have been the clueless privileged person mentioned above, trying to change what did not need changing, or at least did not need the change I could provide. But if not, and I currently believe not, then I have helped in the best way I know how, which I believe is my ethical responsibility.

Two, as a woman, I do belong to a historically disadvantaged group. In fighting against that disadvantage, I am a feminist. That doesn’t give me the right to speak for all women or all feminists, but I think my approach would be highly useful to feminists and greatly improve the efficacy of feminist rhetoric. Given that, in my readings and research I have seen no reason why the effectiveness of argument might be helpful for feminists and not for anti-racists, or trans activists, or gay activists or anti-ableism activists. If someone has one, I would love to hear it.

Three, I belong to many historically advantaged groups. I am white. I am not poor. I am cisgendered. I am able-bodied. In the fights for equality that center around those axes of identity, I am an ally, not a member. And I believe it is precisely my job as an ally to spend a lot of time in arguments, trying to convince people to be and do better. This is even more true if it is in fact the case that being charitable is a privileged thing. Great! I’m privileged! Most of us are privileged in some form or another! Changing the minds of other privileged folks is one of the things we can do to make our privilege useful. The next blog post will expand on this greatly.

2) Due Diligence: Is a focus on due diligence privileged?

No. I do not think that agreeing on a baseline of appropriate and proper conduct in argument privileges one group over another, even if the groups have unequal power to begin with. Is this an example of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls a “dehumanizing hyper-morality”, in which we require of the marginalized goodness far beyond their humanity in dealing with oppressors? No, I do not think so. In an age where there are few physical barriers to being heard (though of course there are others), I think there are ethical standards that are entirely reasonable for anyone engaging in argument. We do not abuse; we do not bully; we do not use damaging slurs. Look at the list I created; is it truly asking too much? I again point my readers to this Dan Fincke piece where he explains these ideas in full.  And again, I think due diligence makes us more effective against the effects of privilege. It’s hard to see, then, if I am correct, how it could itself be privileged.

3) Is a focus on charitability privileged?

No. It certainly looks as if it could be, since the concept might frequently be applied to Social Justice Warriors, claiming they should be charitable to privileged people, a situation which looks suspiciously like protecting the privileged from criticism. But it does not need to be so. First, I must reiterate, that I believe and have argued that charitability makes arguments more effective. It is a rare thing that more knowledge is a hindrance rather than a help. Knowing our opponents, how they make their arguments and what compels them to believe what they do, can only help us convince them. Second, it is a core social justice concept that the privileged are in general not themselves the oppressors. They are caught up in an oppressive system, just like everyone else. It happens to be that they benefit from it, and often perpetuate it, but they are not it. It is a tragedy that white people have learned that their worth lies in their superiority and entitlement. It is a tragedy that men are taught that their masculinity rests on dominance and physical prowess. It is a tragedy that straight people have so little confidence in their expressions of love that they must institutionalize them to protect them. The humanization (and subsequent persuasion) of these opponents, then, is as fundamental to the work of social justice as everything else.

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“Charity” Is Totally Badass Activism

I started out by thinking of my approach to persuasion and argument as charitable. It’s a nice way to think about and respond to other people. It’s going the extra mile in really making sure you’re addressing what they’re saying and doing the best job of defending your position.

But then I thought that it wasn’t a good idea to think of this approach as just the nice thing to do. That makes it seem like something good, but not in any way obligatory or incumbent on us. It also made it seem like I thought we should always be nice and gentle and sweet to people who are wrong in really harmful ways, and I don’t think that.

So then I thought the issue could be reframed as one of due diligence. That in a specific set of contexts, in which we’re discussing with people (even if it’s the whole internet) whose minds we’re trying to change and whose minds we think we can change, we have a set of responsibilities, even duties, that constitute proper and productive discussion.

But people still think that I’m in favor of not calling out badness and harm properly, of censoring ourselves so that we can fit in, be nice, be accepted, not cause too many problems. None of that is true. So here’s another way to think about the things I’ve been talking about.

“Charity” doesn’t have to be “accomodationist,” moderate, forgiving, tolerant of intolerance. “Charity” can be the most intense, powerful, evangelistic form of activism.

raisevoice

This gets used again because I like it so much. Although, it should say “Don’t just raise your voice.” Because speaking out is important too.

Being charitable means your arguments hit exactly where they need to, since you understand the position of the other side. It means you can address the strongest part of someone else’s argument, because you know what makes it compelling to them.

Being diligent means you care about doing argumentation right, and that you make stronger, more compelling arguments as a result. It means you fight fair, and thereby demand respect from those you’re trying to win over.

Steelmanning means you can take down an especially strong argument, leaving the one you’re actually addressing in pieces beneath it. It means no one can run away from the argument with the excuse that you didn’t take them seriously or address them properly.

Using words carefully calls people to task in a way they understand. It forces people to examine their beliefs because they’re being spoken in a way that makes sense to them. It doesn’t allow people to ignore new ideas because they don’t know how to think of themselves as a bad person. It doesn’t give anyone an easy excuse to tune out truth that’s hard to hear.

Acknowledging counterarguments makes sure that no one can assume you don’t have an answer. It shows that your side can respond to whatever is thrown at it. It shows that you know exactly what your opponents are up to, and that if it was good you’d reconsider, but it’s not, so you won’t. It makes you far more able to claim your position strongly and without excuse. (That’s what skepticism is, after all: knowing what would convince you otherwise and knowing it’s not out there.)

It goes on and on. To change the world, we’ve got to change some minds. The most effective way to change minds, then, is going to be one of the most effective forms of activism. That’s why judicious and thoughtful and good argumentation is so important and powerful.

I do not think this approach is always the right one. I think it is right for a set of contexts, and not others. I think it has its limitations, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post. But I do think that this approach has an unfair reputation for “being too nice” and all that goes along with it, which I want to correct simply as follows:

It is not weak to think carefully about how to do activism effectively; it is not self-censorship to be concerned with arguing more convincingly. It is exactly the kind of unrelenting, agitating, subversive practice that gets us what we want. 

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