“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. 

————————————————————————————————-

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

When to Consider Reconsidering: A Quiz

In this Better Arguing Series, I have argued that one of the ways that we can exercise due diligence in argument with others, is by acknowledging that counterarguments to our position exist and taking them seriously. But what does taking them seriously really mean? We aren’t going to agree with those counterarguments, right? Otherwise we’d be on the other side of the argument! How sure are we allowed to be that we can dismiss the counter argument? More broadly, what does taking counterarguments seriously really entail?

I’m so glad you asked! For this express purpose, I’ve made a quiz!

The Better Arguing Quiz: What To Do When You Encounter a Counter(argument)

Step 1: We start with a number. It could be your birthdate, 6 times your favorite number from 1-10, or the number of windows in New York. It’ll be most helpful, though, if it’s the probability you put on your belief being true. What do I mean by that? Well, what odds would you put money on if someone was betting on this belief? Or how biased would a roulette wheel have to be before you felt more comfortable spinning it than betting on the belief being true?

Put your number here ___

Step 2: Mark all that apply:
__ The person disagreeing with you is or appears intelligent/rational
__ The people agreeing with you…don’t
__ The argument is one you’ve never heard before
__ You learn of any evidence that doesn’t agree with your point, from the argument or elsewhere
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about the weak parts of your argument
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about certain arguments or facts
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with one or more of your core values
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with you on related issues
__ You forgot why you believe the thing you currently believe (don’t laugh, it happens to me all the time)

Step 3: How many did you get?
0 marks: You’re good! Keep your position as is, and remember to keep arguing well!
1-3 marks: You should consider restructuring your position so it takes these things into account.
4-6 marks: You should consider spending some significant time with websites or books or other places with arguments against your position so you can see if you can come up with defenses to them.
7-9 marks: You should consider re-evaulating your position from scratch. Go back through all the arguments, facts and research you can find, and see where you land.

I’m a little bit kidding, but mostly not. If someone who is as smart as us and who shares our premises disagrees with us on something, probability theory really does say that we should have a higher expectation of being wrong than we did before. And if we hear an argument that we haven’t heard before that sounds similar to one we have heard and don’t like, then we’re more likely to dismiss it (something called the inoculation effect). So we should be extra sure to remember that that behavior is a red flag, and that for every argument, if we haven’t heard it before, it counts on its own.

As a result, these red flags end up being really informative about how sure we should be about our positions. For example, they don’t tend to come up when I argue with Flat Earthers (not that I do that much) or Creationists. They occasionally come up when I talk about feminism. And they come up a lot when I talk about politics or economics. Wonderfully, that’s precisely the decreasing order of sureness with which I hold positions in those areas.

When we argue, we shouldn’t just be able to change our minds, we should also be able to change our confidence. So let’s use this checklist (and any expansions if people want to suggest things in comments) as a way to remind ourselves to always be questioning our sureness in our positions, so that we can be sure we’re getting as much truth out of every argument as possible.

Previous Better Arguing Posts