“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.


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. 


Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

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.