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.
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.
Previous Posts About Better Arguing
- An Example of Steelmanning: The Issue of Gay Marriage and Polygamy
- Being Charitable
- When I Say Charity, I Really Mean Due Diligence
- Acknowledging Counterarguments
- When to Consider Reconsidering Your Position
- Call Harm, not Foul: Being Careful About Language, Especially Calling People Racist/Sexist/Etc.
- About Nuance