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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All-or-nothing is All Wrong

Let us imagine an enormous cavern. Two people who are arguing with each other are on two pillars with spotlights above them. The rest is darkness. Their goal is to get the other person to switch columns. Using an all-or-nothing approach is like talking only about the rightness of Column B and the utter uselessness of Column A, and in fact Columns C-Z as well. Nothing but total agreement is acceptable or has any value at all. There’s a lot wrong with this approach.

1. It’s wrong: It is almost never true that only one position in an argument is reasonable or acceptable. A finite amount of evidence (which itself might be reasonably interpretable in multiple ways) usually gives us a range of positions that could be arrived at rationally given different starting positions. Ignoring those multiple pathways is an intellectual mistake, especially if the people are arguing are have different sets of evidence and different approaches to analysis. For example, when arguing about a complicated subject, not first principles, it’s irrational to think that someone should concede on a point that runs counter to their core assumptions. Arguing about environmental policy when disagreeing about global warming rationally shouldn’t lead to agreement without a proper discussion about global warming, and it’s therefore irrational to expect it.


2. It’s unproductive: Even in cases like a (mostly) round earth, evolution and taxes being a necessary part of government, where there really is only one answer, it is hardly ever the case that accepting nothing but full agreement is a helpful approach to getting someone to change their mind. It’s the column situation above, where Person B continues to argue that Column B is *obviously* right and Column A *obviously* wrong, without telling anyone how to get from one to the other. Even if it seems clear that they should switch, without that knowledge, it’s much safer to stay at Column A rather than grope around in the darkness.

This is basically by definition the wrong way to have an argument. It doesn’t acknowledge any possible counterarguments. It’s not at all charitable to Person B’s Column. It’s not nuanced. It’s a dig-your-heels-in, battle-to-the-death kind of argument. Those don’t tend to change people’s minds. That’s why intransigence is far more likely to lead to backfiring, defensiveness and offense than the desired result.

Also, it’s not even a real argument. Ignoring entirely the possibility of being wrong makes arguments farcical. Not taking anything your opponent says seriously if it doesn’t agree with your position takes away the possibility of learning from them. It’s not a true engagement with the ideas, and it essentially ignores the fact that your opponent can think.

3. It’s a win for irrationality: Even if the all-or-nothing approach worked at changing someone’s mind, it seems that would be almost certain to be a result of deference to a more confident opponent rather than a true acknowledgment of the intellectual benefits of the other position.

All of the points I made above about why these arguments probably won’t change anyone’s mind are the same reasons that make the unlikely agreement unlikely to be rational. After all, arguments that only allow for full agreement don’t tend to lead to a sober analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of two or more positions. They don’t involve a proper assessment of the available evidence. They don’t weigh alternative interpretations of the evidence. It’s hard for me to see, then, how that agreement could actually have been arrived at in a rational way.

This is a problem. We don’t want people just to believe one thing over another, but also believe it for the right reasons. We don’t want to bludgeon our opponents into agreement; we want them to actually agree on rational grounds. Besides the obvious reasons, the only way that they could go on to defend that very position to others is if they understood why they agreed with it in the first place. And also, when we allow our opponents to really think about the position, they might even teach us something.

4. It’s mean: Demanding utter concession makes arguments ugly. It’s a shaming, humiliating approach. It means there can be no compromise, and sometimes not even an acceptance that someone might need to think about something for awhile. This creates a punishment for being wrong without any useful way to become more right, other than total, even unthinking (see above), capitulation. Without full agreement, Person A will simply continue on with how wrong Person B is. Even when there’s been some movement towards column A, Person B is still totally wrong about everything they haven’t conceded yet.

There is a true cruelty to that, one which, frankly, disincentivizes thinking. Because if what someone gets for engaging with new ideas, or even trying to see what changing positions would be like, is the same constant pressure, and no acknowledgement of their thinking, they have no reason to do it any more. Mind changing is painful enough as it is; making it harder only makes it less likely to happen.

How to Do It Better
Every argument should be a chance for everyone in it to learn something. That’s why it’s so great when skeptics are fervent about knowing what would convince them they were wrong, which is the equivalent of knowing the series of steps that would take them from their column to someone else’s and the willingness to walk them if there is sufficient evidence. This ensures that every discussion is, to greater and lesser extents, about every participant making sure they believe what is best supported by the evidence. Arguments like these foster a respectful environment of mutual learning, where everyone is, at least a little bit, productively unsure and figuring it out together.

Arguments should also be, as much as possible, imbued with a spirit of good will. When someone makes a good point, praise it, whether or not it helps your position. (Though, tactically, you should certainly praise them when it seems like they’ve understood or agree with one of your points). Make their arguments better. Acknowledge insufficiencies in your own argument. Tell someone when they’ve made an argument you haven’t heard before, or one that taught you something. Admit when they bring up a piece of evidence you hadn’t heard before. Learning is a process, so offer compromises, even if they’re not totally the position you want them to have. In all things, foster an environment of learning rather than battle.

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Don’t Make it About Identity

The day I started calling myself an atheist, I was reading The God Delusion during Rosh Hashanah services (sorry Rabbi Goldberg!) when I was about 14 years old. At the time I was calling myself a pantheist, but when Dawkins dismissed the notion as “sexed-up atheism”, I felt I could no longer bother with it either. But there was a final hurdle. I shuffled through the seats over to my father, sitting in a different row, and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up, I whispered fearfully, “Babbo, am I allowed to be Jewish if I’m an atheist?” With a smile he said something like, “Well, my reconstructionist synagogue never cared.” (Point of reference: He’d never told me he was an atheist before this).

What a relief! I could breathe easy again, knowing that a crucial identity was salvageable even as another crumbled. It was this which allowed me to immediately start identifying as an atheist. It would have been much harder, and perhaps harder even just to allow myself not to believe in God, had I been told otherwise.

Identity is very hard and uncomfortable to change, so we avoid that change whenever possible, even if it means maintaining a position that another part of us might know is wrong. This is where we get phenomena like cognitive dissonance and denial and confirmation bias; we’ll do seemingly anything to not have to totally reconfigure ourselves. Arguments about identity, then, become very unproductive very quickly. So if we want someone to change their mind,  we shouldn’t make the argument about identity at all, if we don’t have to. If you’re arguing about tax rates, don’t make it about Democrat vs. Republican. If you’re arguing about the Affordable Care Act’s exemptions for churches, don’t frame it as religious vs. nonreligious. All you’re asking for is their brain’s Identity Protection Racket to kick into high gear and end the conversation.

This goes double when you’re “on the same side”, both vying for the title of True Type, like True Christian or True Rationalist. When that happens, the conversation has stopped being about the issue at hand and started to be about the ability of the people involved to protect their emotional investment and their sense of self. That’s terribly unproductive and also overly harsh, for everyone. Stick to the argument at hand, and don’t let it become  the Battle of the Identities.

(And by the way, this all goes triple when the title you’re fighting for is Good Person. That’s the kind of identity we’ll protect at all costs. Threatening that (by trying to get someone to admit that they’re racist or sexist, for instance) usually gets you a lot of trouble. Whenever possible, stick to the facts and the specific argument.)

In fact, what this very cool study suggests is that, far from challenging an identity, we should affirm the relevant identity of the person we’re arguing with. In a sense, try to see them as they see themselves. Make sure they know you see them as what they identify with, and make sure that they know that the debate is not about whether they have a right to that identity. How?

  • You could emphasize the importance of their identity to the debate: “As a Christian, don’t you think you should support helping to universalize healthcare?”
  • You could separate the issue in question from their identity: “Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you can’t like the fiscal cliff deal.”
  • You could even bring in salient figures that match their identity that agreed with you on a position: “Freidrich Hayek, a libertarian (classical liberal) thinker, supported a minimum wage for everyone, possibly paid for by the government.”

He also supported cool mustaches and hair gel, apparently.

These approaches make the argument not about whether or not their identity is correct, but only about whether their position is correct. That’s not only important to the productiveness of the argument, but also to how we’re treating our opponent. After all, our identities are very important to us. Challenging them makes a discussion personal and tense in a way they often don’t need to be. Asking people to think of themselves differently is a tall and difficult order, and it should be treated as such. It isn’t the kind of thing to do thoughtlessly, in the context of a debate that’s about something else.

When we remove the debate from the identity question, we get a much easier and less emotionally fraught issue, which is much more likely to result in a changed mind. That’s what my father accidentally did for me by assuring me that I could remain a Jew. He made me feel like my core was remaining strong and the god issue was just tinkering, which made it easier to change my mind on that question. And even if no minds are changed, the discussion is much more likely to be a productive one, since no one is forced to feel like they have to defend their own identities.

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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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Call Harm, Not Foul

Note: The links in this piece are particularly good; I recommend clicking around.

Sexist. Racist. Homophobic. The all-purpose “bigot”. We have these words for a reason. They are used to label people, actions, institutions and ideas which exhibit the worst elements of society. They’re used when we want people to listen, to pay attention, to take us seriously when we are desperately trying to point out the inequality, the inanity, the inhumanity of punishing gender and racial and sexual and ethnic and religious minorities for being different. We want to push people to do everything they can not to be sexist, not to be racist, not to be the kind of person they shouldn’t be.

And we did it. Hooray! It is now the worst thing in the world to be a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. That’s why people will do everything in their power to make sure that their actions, ideas and institutions aren’t seen or construed that way. (Except, of course, change their actions, ideas and institutions.) It is offensive, now, to be called a racist. There is literally nothing in the world that cannot follow the words, “I’m not a racist but…” Everyone else is the real sexist/racist/etc for pointing out sexism/racism/etc. We ostensibly live in a post-racial and post-feminist age.

All of this makes it sadly true now that to call something or someone racist or sexist is often seen both as too charged to provoke productive discussion and too passé to warrant true engagement. This poses a problem for the people who are looking to point out and eradicate the various forms of bigotry, since people are no longer (if they ever were) willing to listen to their participation in the problem.

Now, there are obviously many times when the outright calling out of bigotry remains important and useful, even if it’s not met with the best of responses, both in terms of persuasive tactics and because it is often appropriate for marginalized people to express their anger the way they see fit. But I think there are also times when a different approach might be useful. When we’re engaging in conversation with people who are listening (that is, not criticizing public figures or public events) and we’d like to convince them of our point of view, we could drop the actual words of sexist, racist, bigot, misogynist, homophobe, etc, at least some of the time. Even if we’re right, and even if we’d very much prefer to call a spade a spade. Instead, we describe what we mean by those words. Why?

1. When we call someone something bad, especially when they don’t think of themselves that way (i.e. as a racist, sexist, etc.), their impression is that we are labeling them a Bad Person and The Enemy. It’s comes off like grabbing someone off the street, slapping green armor and an insignia on them and saying, “Welcome to Green Army. I hate you.” It makes further productive conversation almost impossible, because now they’re on the defensive. Even if it’s true, it is legitimately hard and uncomfortable to be told you’re  a bad person or doing something bad. So they feel they’re being personally attacked, and that they have no way out except to fight back. They’re going to want to win, not listen. We have killed their mind, and possibly our own as well.

2. The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.

3. Sometimes the words make the discussion more muddled instead of more clear. In the social justice context, we mean totally different things by ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ than other people do. Atheists well know how there seems to be a real disconnect on what different people mean by religious liberty. Gay rights activists often have experience of having religious conservatives swear up and down that their opposition to marriage equality and other legal action just. Isn’t. hateful. And everyone who’s tried to point out problematic language and been told that “offense is taken, not given” is similarly aware that offensiveness means really different things to different people.

That means we’re using words that the people we’re talking to just don’t get or genuinely don’t feel apply to them. That means all we get for our effort is confusion, anger and offense. They really think our accusations are wrong or don’t make sense, so instead of the sting of a well-crafted attack, all they can sense is the barrage of bad feeling coming their way, to which they do not respond well. The complexity of the issues we’re tackling is manifesting as perceived imprecision and  inaccuracy. That’s bad news for a productive conversation.

4. That mess (described in #3) is just what we get for calling things and ideas and political positions sexist or racist or homophobic. It gets way more complicated when we think about calling people those things. What does it actually mean, to call someone a bigot? Is it a claim about what they ‘really’ ‘truly’ believe, about their internal psychology? Is it a claim that there is something fundamentally sexist/racist/anti-atheist/etc about them? Does it mean they will always be those things? Those are strange and difficult claims to make.

Luckily, we don’t need to assert anything about people’s essential qualities or hidden beliefs to criticize their thinking and behavior or talk about the effects they’re having on people, movements, communities and societies. The words can complicate a conversation that could be simpler and more focused.

5. Someone being sexist or racist is hard to prove in general, and especially hard to prove to the person in question. It’s not impossible, and in many cases it is absolutely worth doing. But why do the harder thing when it’s easier to prove things about harm? We know about stereotype threat and chilly climates and implicit bias and the erasure of atheists from public life and so many other things. Why get mired in definitions when we can prove the problem directly?

6. Finally, the big abstract nature of these concepts can remove our thoughts and our discourse from what’s actually at stake: Discrimination, violence, pain, unfairness, harassment, hurt.

What do we do then? We do what any good rationalist does when words are getting in the way: we Taboo them, which means getting our ideas across without the words themselves. Does that mean putting on kid gloves? Does it mean letting bad people get away with not getting called out on their badness? No. It just means we replace the words in question with what we mean by them.

When we say a policy is religiously illiberal, what we mean is that a powerful religious group is using its power to impose its ideas and beliefs on others. When we say someone is sexist, we mean that they buy and feed into harmful negative stereotypes about women that make it harder for women to be treated equally. When we say a group is homophobic, we mean that it supports ideas and policies that hurt queer people and deny them their rights. So let’s say those things.

As I said above (and elsewhere), this analysis doesn’t always apply. After all, we have these words for a reason; they can often convey precisely what we mean them to. But I think this approach is really useful for conversations in private or on the internet with actual people who might feel personally offended by being directly or almost directly called a bigot of some kind. It might even just be good as an exercise, so that we can make sure we know what claims we’re making and why. Furthermore, there is certainly room to combine this approach with the more traditional one, using words that have the rhetorical punch and emotional resonance we’re looking for but also defining them carefully and supplying ample evidence. The core element of this approach is simply that we consider the effects our words have on the people we’re looking to convince and change, and make decisions about our language accordingly.

When we do, the benefits abound. Our conversations get more productive, since everyone is using the same language to talk about the same things. We get to argue about the facts, and not about definitions. There’s less defensiveness all around, since no one’s character is being impugned. Our arguments are more accurate, since we’re talking directly about the subject matter at hand instead of proxies for it. Furthermore, harm and consequences are things we can have direct evidence for, which we can then demonstrate to other people. Best of all, our arguments get more compelling, since we’re pointing out the actual harm to actual people that comes from people acting badly, which makes it more emotionally resonant and harder to ignore.

We are people who argue. We want to convince people. Let’s not give anyone an excuse not to listen to us. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to be convinced by us. Let’s give ourselves the best chance of making the world into something better.

Note: I wrote about this issue in a feminist context extensively on a pseudonymous blog. If you’re interested in reading it, feel free to send me a private message.

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Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

In a previous post in this series on Better Arguing, I argued that it was important to be charitable when arguing with others, and in particular, to take the arguments against one’s position seriously. But sometimes, people don’t even seem to acknowledge that there are any counterarguments in the first place, and that’s a problem all on its own. I see this all the time in my running of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance. People throw things like the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro’s Dilemma at theists and expect them to repent on the spot. Yes, those are interesting and important. No, they are not the death-knell to all theistic arguments. Jews, Christians and others have had thousands of years to come up with counterarguments, and any debater should know at least some of them.

So when people say things like:

“My problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all.” (In the comments section)

I get a little concerned. As my friend Doni, who wants it to be known that he is a theist, says, “smart people have done a lot of stupid things, and they all thought they had good reasons for doing them.” For the vast majority of arguments, smart people can and have disagreed, which means there are at least fairly good arguments on both sides. It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find or think of any compelling objection to your own position. The UNC Writing Center delightfully points out that,

“It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.” (Bolding mine)

When you ignore counterarguments, it makes your argument much weaker, since it’s assumed, especially if these counterarguments are common, that you don’t have any response to them. It also shows that you haven’t done your research, which also makes you a less compelling debater. Finally, since people likely do in fact disagree with you, it’s uncharitable and off-putting to presume in your discussion that their arguments are obviously wrong.

But let me be charitable and assume that the commenter (and all the people they stand for) has in fact done their research. It’s possible that they’ve really done the work to make sure there’s not a single compelling scrap in any of the arguments for god. If you find yourself in this position, the next step is to steelman. By Voltaire and Bayes’ Theorem, there is a nonzero probability that you are wrong. So what would the world look like if you were wrong? What evidence would you use to prove your new position? How would you argue for the other position, if you had to?

Now let’s say that you’ve done all that, and every argument you’ve considered has been found totally lacking. It’s still important that even if you don’t buy any of the arguments, you understand why your opponent does. How can you convince someone if you have no idea why they believe what they believe? And even more to the point, how can you convince someone if you make it clear you think they’re ridiculous or stupid for believing what is “obviously” wrong? (P.S. If this happens to you a lot, it might be worth reexamining what you mean by “obvious”). The most compelling arguments are empathetic. They involve seeking to understand why the people you’re arguing with find a position intuitive or believable or compelling and working within that belief system to arrive step by step at your own.

If I was arguing about why Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione, for instance, and I somehow, shockingly, couldn’t count on my audience to agree with me, I might write something like the following:

“I think it’s true that Ron shows a lot of care and love for Hermione that you don’t see him show elsewhere. He also matures immensely throughout the books, culminating in his support for the saving of the house elves, something obviously quite dear to Hermione’s heart. He’s a rock for her, in some sense, a familiar and much loved presence through so much turmoil in both their lives. There’s a lot of room to say that Ron develops as a character throughout the series and presumably beyond so that his relationship with Hermione becomes less childish and more mutually fulfilling, which is why they end up together. While all of that is admirable, though, Hermione, being brilliant, generous and all around awesome really deserves someone who is as badass as she is (the chess game and destroying the locket horcrux are great, even crucial, but they don’t hold a candle to Hermione’s list of accomplishments) and more importantly, who cares about school and learning and nerdiness as she does. Nerd girls deserve partners who can keep up with them, challenge them, and take joy in their intelligence, not demean it (she says without a shred of bias). So clearly Hermione should have ended up with a *spoiler* non-dead Cedric Diggory or something.”

And I would say that even if what I really wanted to say was

“Are you freaking serious Ron is so mopey and annoying to her for so much of the books even though she is pure awesome, basically fixes everything that goes wrong and is the predominant force allowing Ron and Harry to stay alive and relevant for seven years.”

There’s probably room for both, in different contexts, at different times. Certainly there are cases in which one must limit the number and degree of counterarguments one tackles. But it’s clear to me that when arguing, we should all be looking to develop the habit of assuming that people will disagree with us, acknowledging that they might just have some halfway decent reason for doing so, and addressing those objections thoughtfully. It makes us more credible, empathetic and well-informed, and hopefully more persuasive. To good arguing!

On a more serious note, Natalie Reed does what I’m talking about here excellently in her post Sophistry and Semantics about language and terminology around trans issues, especially in the second paragraph. There are several other good examples sprinkled throughout the links in this post.

Previous Posts about Better Arguing:

Basic but also hilarious resources on counterarguments:

Listen to Others as You Would Have Them Listen to You

As James Croft says in his post, Responsible Reading, “Effective communication is not entirely the responsibility of an author or speaker: the people reading a work, or in the audience of a talk, also have responsibilities they must meet if the encounter is going to be optimally fruitful.”

Based on that idea, I want to expand on my discussion of steelmanning and talk about all the different habits we can develop so that we become effective readers or listeners when we’re responding to someone else’s arguments. That will be one series of posts, and then I will write several from the point of view of putting forth our own arguments. Let’s begin!

Above all else, a productive interaction requires the receptive party to Be Charitable. Charitability may become my broken record, now. But I don’t mind, because it feels incredibly important. Everyone who argues with others knows that it feels awful to have someone assume the worst of our positions, to not take them seriously, or to misunderstand them entirely.

“You support lowering the minimum wage? Why do you hate poor people?”
“You’re a Catholic? So you don’t mind child abuse.”
“You’re a liberal? Why do you like killing babies?”
“You’re an atheist? Why do you like eating babies?”

So being charitable, I can see how some people would see things this way. But it itself is still an example of being uncharitable

While occasionally entertaining, this kind of thing can make the entire work of arguing seem useless. If we want to make public discourse better, we have to get into the habit of not doing the same sort of thing to others. We have to assess all the possibilities for what someone might have meant, and not just assume the worst ones. We have to make sure to deal with what our opponent is actually saying, or might actually mean. When we don’t address someone’s real arguments, our counterarguments entirely miss the mark, since they’re attacking arguments that haven’t been brought up, and we convince neither our conversation partner nor anyone else watching. In such a case, we fail to do our job of defeating incorrect ideas.

The best counterarguments not only address arguments that are actually on the table, but also come from a place of empathetic epistemology. I’ve always described it as “mind-mapping,” that work we do to try to understand why our opponents believe and why. It’s about imagining what it feels like to believe what others believe from the inside. It means having a sense of what it would be like to have another worldview, where all rational connections spring from certain premises you may not share and all evidence is filtered through it. It requires understanding why that worldview is emotionally compelling in the first place, how it claims to “make sense.” And mostly this understanding comes out of taking arguments seriously and doing good research. The people who are really good at it are able to make entire arguments from another point of view. It’s hard work, but without it, we’re likely to miss others’ true beliefs, and thereby miss a chance to truly and properly engage.

If we’re not charitable, discussion tends not to get very far. As so many of us have experienced, when people feel that their true arguments are being ignored, they tend to shut down and get angry. The argument becomes heated and unproductive, and then no one gains anything of value.  Even if you are a generally charitable person, it’s worth making an extra effort to make sure that you’re responding conscientiously to an argument you don’t like or don’t agree with, so that everyone can learn from each other. How else will we make sure that we know more about the world today that we knew yesterday?

Example (added later): N.T. Wright, a prominent Christian theologian, has said that, “The guillotine and the gas chamber are two of secular modernism’s most potent and revealing symbols,” the implication being that secularism is somewhat responsible for Hitler and his genocide. I personally find this to be a horrendous and cheap rhetorical point, a clear case of Godwin’s Law in action. Holocaust appropriation is immensely frustrating, and no more so than when Christians, historically not friends of the Jews, appropriate it for the purpose of attacking atheists, another minority religious group. And while that interpretation might end up being right, I was wrong when I accounted for no other possibilities. I was set straight by a dear friend, who pointed out the following: that if historically secularism did indeed lead to moral atrocities, then Wright had a responsibility to say so; that a certain understanding of moral law does preclude secular morality from having any weight; and that such views needed to be allowed in the public discourse. Agree with him or not (and I’m not sure I do), he was right that I hadn’t tried to understand the situation from Wright’s philosophical point of view or even considered alternate interpretations (less awful ones, that is) of what he’d said. In order to demonstrate that my opinion was correct, I had to address other possibilities, and attempt to look at them through the eyes of a different worldview. Only then could I really address what was said with due rigor and intellectual honesty.