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.

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You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It

Last Sunday, I laid out what I thought a proper space for “politically incorrect” questions and opinions would look like, because such a space can go drastically, cruelly, wrong. Now, I’ve decided to make one. I’m making a subreddit where those questions and opinions can get answers.

There are many reasons people might have a question about race, sex, disability, or related issues they’re afraid to ask their friends, family or teachers. They may not know how to phrase it respectfully. They may have a question that they know will offend but that they’re desperate to know the answer to. They may actually be bigots who are looking to make people mad. For whatever reason, I think there should be a space where, if they abide by principles of respect, civility and good faith, they should get their questions answered. The subreddit I intend to create will be an educational and discussion-based place. Questions will be answered without judgement. Answers will explain how and why some actions or word are appropriate or not, and place questions of bigotry or prejudice in their proper academic, sociological, political, economic and historical context. They will inform and educate while minimizing harm to the relevant marginalized groups. They will include concrete tips, approaches and scripts, so as to really help people move forward in the world. They will be respectful, civil and charitable, perhaps far more charitable than what is deserved. After all, charity can be totally badass activism.

This will be its own space, with its own rules. I do not think these rules make sense elsewhere, nor should people have to abide by them elsewhere. But I like the idea of a place where everyone agrees to be just ridiculously civil and respectful, to use their emotional energy or their privilege or their desire to educate to great effect. This is not the only form of education and activism. There are many others, which are crucial and vital and must exist as well. But this is a form that I think there isn’t enough of. Tumblr upon tumblr will tell people that it is their job to educate themselves about social justice issues. That may be right. So this is one place they can do it.

Some of the rules:

  • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
  • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
  • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and give users suggestions on how to be more respectful or helpful.

You can find more of the rules here and at the actual subreddit when it goes live.

If you think this is important and useful, if you agree largely with what I’ve written here, and you want to get involved, look out for the link when the subreddit goes live! And if you want to be even more involved, I want you to be a moderator for the subreddit. Just answer a few questions here, and if you have the same vision I do, you’re in!

I think this could do some real good. Here’s hoping!

———————————————————————————

P.S. If anyone is wondering why I think this is so important, here’s something I wrote in a blog post about Social Justice education some time ago:

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

If you want to know more about my take on activism, social justice, better arguing and charity, check out these links:

[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.

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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.

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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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Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

Research2BeDone has put his finger on what I agree is the most fundamental problem facing those trying to discuss social justice issues with people who aren’t familiar with the concepts involved: large inferential distances. Inferential distances are those gaps between our knowledge and the knowledge of others that make it hard to convey ideas. The example given over at Less Wrong is:

Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn’t already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam’s razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation.

Similarly, one SJ-oriented friend might be able to convey to another SJ-oriented friend why complaining about the term “cisgender” on the basis that the term is stolen from chemistry is problematic with a single step. They don’t have to explain about the way labels can empower or how words can do harm or how derailing works or what cisprivilege is, let alone privilege in general. They can just allude to all of that shared knowledge and assume it’s understood and believed. For the mathematically minded, all the lemmas have already been shown, and from there the theorem is a one step proof.

But without being able to assume all of the information, ideas and analysis that go into the Social Justice™ system, it’s much, much harder to explain what’s going on. In fact, you can’t do it directly at all. To properly make the argument, some patient and charitable soul would have to start from the beginning, the core axioms, work through all the basic approaches and forms of analysis, arguing all the way that they are legitimate and worthwhile, then showing how they apply to the situation in question, and hoping desperately that they’re still paying attention by the end. And that’s in the best case scenario, where it doesn’t disintegrate into slurs, derailing or unproductive mud-slinging before the explanation is over. Just like in math.

It seems unfair, of course, that in order just to convince someone to stop believing harmful and incorrect things, that much work has to be done. The answer seems obvious, if you already have all of the knowledge, information and assumptions. But from the other side, it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s not rational to find it obvious. Without an explanation that starts with assumptions that are in fact shared, someone who doesn’t currently agree with our fictional Social Justice Warrior doesn’t have reason to believe what they’re being told. Just as so many creationists disbelieve science because it rests on the concept of the scientific method (which they do not accept), and mathematicians dismiss proofs that require unproven assumptions (except the unproven assumptions they like), this non-SJ-er must reject the notion that “cisgender” should be a required part of hir vocabulary. (Much like hir). Note that mathematics and creationism have somewhat different truth values. It doesn’t matter; this is still how it feels from the inside to believe some things and not others.

How do we change that belief? More specifically, “How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other?”

By bridging the gap! Get rid of it entirely, by meeting the person you’re talking to where they are.
The following steps provide a guideline (much of which is laid out originally here):

  1. If you require a baseline of civility or respect for the conversation to continue, make it clear from the outset. In the spirit of “you don’t have to get it to respect it,” you can demand that arguments must be in good faith and that certain words that you feel are harmful and cruel not be used for the duration of the conversation.
  2. Find out how far back the disagreement goes by finding the most basic assumptions you agree on. Best way to do this is just to ask: “Do you agree with this? How about this?” until you figure it out.
  3. Start from there and make your case. Try not to use jargon or specialized language that the non-SJ-er doesn’t use without definition. Step by step, get them from their column to yours. If you find you can’t prove your point from that far back, it’s time to ask yourself again why you believe what you believe.

Tips

  1. Obviously, use all the techniques I’ve been talking about. Anticipate counterarguments as you walk them through your case. Argue the best version of their position. Be willing to change your own mind. Don’t insult them, even if they deserve it. Don’t assume their intentions are bad.
  2. Since you’re taking them through a long series of steps, be willing to accept compromise. Be happy if you took them through some of the steps, even if you had to stop there. It’s all a journey.
  3. Similarly, since going through this many steps is hard, see if there are any places to make it easier. Skip nonvital steps. Condense and simplify if you get the opportunity. This will both help your argument and teach you what parts of your argument are required for the rest to stand and what parts are not.
  4. If, in order to agree with you, one or more of their identities might be in jeopardy, be careful. Allow the entire thing to be a thought experiment. Try to fit it in with a more deeply-held identity. Try to help build up a belief structure that will replace the one they’re abandoning. Remember that it may not be “just an argument” to them either.
  5. Being able to construct your own argument from first principles is great. Being able to construct the other side’s is even better. It allows for so much insight into why they don’t agree with you in the first place, which makes you more charitable and more effective when you’re looking to win them over.

The tips might look intimidating, but the important part has only three steps. It’s really that simple. It’s hard to be perfectly persuasive all throughout the argument, it’s hard to make an argument that extensive, and it’s frustrating to do it over and over again. But it is simple. For those willing to do it, arguing with people who have entirely different assumptions is just the task of laying out a path, slowly but surely, from one set of beliefs to another.

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

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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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