Thursday, May 25, 2006

On Civility and Polemic

I gather from recent comments that some people disapprove of the polemical tone of some of my posts. I'd like to say a bit more about that general topic, as it relates to blogging ethics and ideals of public discourse.

Now, there's a lot to be said for calm and friendly exchanges -- especially on abstract philosophical topics, but it's also an appropriate ideal for political issues of reasonable dispute, where each party can hope to learn from the other in a climate of mutual respect.

But not all topics are like that, and there is a legitimate place in public discourse for passionate polemic and harsh criticisms. Some false views are sufficiently misguided and pernicious as to warrant our scorn, and not merely our calm deductive refutations.* It is not necessarily appropriate to politely engage with homophobes or creationists as if their position merited serious consideration.** That could give them a false air of respectability, which they do not deserve. Some scientists avoid this problem by simply ignoring creationism, allowing the blight to fester unimpeded. Some partisans merely hurl insults, which doesn't achieve much either. One appropriate response to pernicious views, in my opinion, is reasoned polemic. You engage seriously with the view whilst making it clear that you don't take it seriously. You mock it mercilessly, but in the context of a substantive argument which establishes fairly and reasonably why it deserves to be so mocked. The aim: to prove the other view not just false, but ridiculous.***
* = Or, as Chris Clarke puts it, "it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can't afford medicine."

** = See my post on open-mindedness. We should of course be open to the possibility of revising our views. But absent any actual reasons to do so, we may be confident in rejecting those views for the time being.

*** = As Amanda Marcotte writes: "Mockery is an excellent way for people to convey their values systems and progressives shouldn’t cripple ourselves by abandoning this tool. Just as mocking someone’s race encourages racist values, mocking someone for being racist encourages anti-racist values."

Different people may disagree on what views deserve such polemical treatment. I expect many would include homophobia, racism, sexism, holocaust denial, torture-apologetics, creationism, religious fundamentalism, etc. Some might add climate change denial, strict egalitarianism, ethical relativism, absolutist deontology, or propertarianism.

This is a legitimate part of civil discourse. If people don't want to risk public criticism then they shouldn't advance pernicious ideologies. I'm not going to treat respectfully the views of a homophobe or a torture apologist, nor those who value property more highly than people. I will engage with them seriously and sincerely, and do my best to rationally show why their views are ridiculous. In so doing, you can expect me to express both my arguments and my ridicule.

Such polemic is still bound by important intellectual/ethical standards, to help prevent misguided polemical abuse of undeserving targets. In particular, it is crucial that harsh criticisms still be reasonable criticisms. So if my criticisms are shown to be unreasonable then I will retract them and apologize. Intellectual honesty demands no less. That's simply the risk one takes in playing the polemic game: if you go wrong, you've got to take responsibility for that. It does take some discernment, and won't always be appropriate. But strong criticism per se need not be denounced as "uncivil". So long as it's backed with adequate substantive argument, such reasonable criticism can be an entirely appropriate contribution to public discourse. Some views ought to be publicly recognized as ridiculous. But as with anything else, the way to establish this is through critical reasoning.

So, to clarify my views on "blogging ethics", let me reiterate my firm commitment to reasoned argument and intellectual honesty. And let me also emphasize that this is perfectly consistent with justified polemic that may occasionally offend the thin-skinned. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to cause offense. Sometimes the truth hurts. (As Steve Gimbel writes, "There is no right not to be offended. Reality is an offensive place. Deal with it.")

See also my old post on "attacks and arguments".

Update: scrap that. The above describes a legitimate blogging-ethical policy. But it isn't mine.


  1. Aren't you applying "naive utilitarianism" to legitimate debating? (of all places to apply it!)

    I have lot's of thoughts - but I'm trying to be tactful.

  2. No, the requirements of intellectual honesty are as strong as ever. You're not allowed to lie or misrepresent the other's position merely in order to make them look bad (no matter whether you think this might have good consequences). And you'd want to avoid intellectual "bullying" and other unreasonable behaviour. I simply mean to suggest that strong criticism should not be considered out of bounds. Restraint will often still be called for. So it may be a little misleading for me to endorse "merciless mocking" -- that's certainly subject to all sorts of qualifications. I guess a lot will depend on the specifics of the situation, hence my point about the need for "discernment". Alas, that detracts from the crispness and clarity of the original post. Damn complications.

  3. Another thing I should clarify is the limited scope of legitimate ridicule. It's never appropriate to mock someone on the basis of some innocuous or irrelevant characteristic (say for being fat or ugly). Rather, one should restrict one's focus to what's really blameworthy about them, i.e. their holding of pernicious positions for flimsy reasons. It's reasonable to draw attention to just how shockingly bad their arguments are. It's not reasonable to mock them on extraneous grounds. (Amanda makes a similar point in her linked post.)

  4. "the limited scope of legitimate ridicule" well-said.

    One of the problems that is here is that our contemporary discourse is far from rational. I have critical thinking students ask me every semester what to do when the other person refuses to engage in rational discussion. suppose you have clearly pointed out and explained a fallacy, given a well-supported argument to the contrary and the person simply refuses to engage you or worse, screams obscenities? My usual response is that you just don't try to talk to those people. but what happens when those folks control the discourse? At that pont, it seems as if we may be in a rhetorical state of nature. i hate that thought and want to be talked out of it.

  5. Color me more in favor of more dispassionate dialog.

  6. "You engage seriously with the view whilst making it clear that you don't take it seriously. You mock it mercilessly, but in the context of a substantive argument which establishes fairly and reasonably why it deserves to be so mocked. "

    I'm not entirely clear about what you think the criteria should be for a position or argument to be mock-worthy. It has to be ridiculous, I take it, but that ends up being kind of circular. If your goal is just to mock somebody, then I suppose it's fine. If your goal is to mock somebody in order to show off for others who think it is just as ridiculous as you think it is, then mock away, I say. But if you are trying to convince somebody of that the position is false, mocking that position can hurt you, I think. For me, at least, if I'm watching (or reading) to people argue their respective positions and one is mocking the other and the other is being quite civil, I tend to be more sympathetic to the person who is being civil.

    Mocking seems to only add entertainment value for people who already agree with you. But it is going to backfire on you for anybody who disagrees with you or hasn't made up their minds.

  7. 1) Generally mocking gives an impression not of careful punishment for wrong thinking but instead excessive arrogance and a self centred desire to build oneself up.

    2) Mocking is what I would term a negative strategy. You try to cause harm to the other side in order to make them provide more benefit to your aims. This undermines the benefit of debate.
    Almost by definition one thinks their own arguments are good and the others sides are various degrees of mock worthy (and everyone is at least a little mistaken). I would suggest that applying a principle that makes it legitimate floods debate with negative strategies is a problem (unless, maybe, they are in response to other negative strategies).

    3) at an empirical level I think not having the strategy is better (at least from experience).

    4) One of the most important things I think is that it is possible to engage with the argument (as you see it) but not with the person's mind. I.e. to either attack a position you think is relevant but isn't, or to debate with hidden assumptions the other side doesn’t hold.
    If you don’t engage with their mind and particularly if you do it with mockery you close options for debate and create options for conflict. One would hope one would be honest about their intentions to use negative strategies.

  8. Yeah, actually, I gave it some more thought overnight and came to similar conclusions. I'll write a follow-up soon.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)