Thursday, May 25, 2006


Yeah, okay, I've changed my mind. Harshness doesn't seem likely to achieve anything productive, except perhaps as a kind of tasteless entertainment. And even if some views don't merit respect, that's not a good enough reason to be mean to the person who holds them. Insulting others will merely make them more defensive (as I suppose I've been myself), and perhaps even make the pernicious view more sympathetic to fence-sitters. There's really not much to be said for it. It should be possible to make the flaws of a view clear without resorting to polemical rhetoric, and if so, that's surely a more appropriate ideal to aim for.

I agree with this much from my other post: reasoned polemic is permissible in the public sphere. It's not like intellectual dishonesty or other starkly unreasonable behaviours, which I think we have a strict obligation to avoid. But it would be a very minimalist conception of ethics which only asked what we mustn't do. I don't usually accept mere adequacy in myself, and this should be no exception. If we can make an intuitive distinction between being 'reasonable' and 'considerate', I think some of my blogging behaviour has focussed too exclusively on the former. It's acceptable, but, well... not great.

I don't think it's spilled over into real life yet (at least I hope not!), but arrogance is a bad habit and one I really shouldn't be cultivating, even online. Thinking back to comments I've recently left on other blogs, some are needlessly abrasive. Again, the points I made were perfectly reasonable ones, and I wasn't horrible or anything. But certainly less considerate than I could -- and should -- have been.

Richard Dawkins has defended his notoriously polemical style thusly:
I care about what's true, I care about evidence, I care about evidence as the reason for knowing what is true. It is true that I come across rather passionate sometimes - and that's because I am passionate about the truth.

That does sound admirable in itself. But there are other things we should also care about, our interlocuters surely among them. You know, the plutonium rule and all that. If I say something breathtakingly stupid, I'd prefer others to point it out in a nice way. Rigour and tact needn't be mutually exclusive.

So, apologies for being an ass. It's something I'll try to work on.


  1. Anyone who has followed the intelligent design debate should know exactly what you are talking about.

  2. Wow, Richard; just when I think you've reached the limit of the extent to which you can impress me....

    Finding the happy medium here is very difficult, since it varies somewhat from case to case, and I don't think it's surprising that everyone misses the mark occasionally. (I do think there are occasions where reasoned polemic is called for, and rare occasions when even harshness is called for -- the hard part is saving them for occasions when they are called for.) I know I do. It's also part of the problem with the habits the philosophically trained pick up -- I think most of us tend to focus on 'reasonable' and have to take a deliberate step back to remember 'considerate' -- rigor tends to push out tact when you have habits that make it easy to focus on it. But I always think it's impressive when someone can step back and admit it.

    Of course, blogging is itself more complicated with regard to this because it involves juggling not only the conversation itself, but also all the purely incidental facts of life that affect one's mood, etc. Because it's informal we tend to say what's on our mind and forget that it's written and public; because it's personal we tend to throw ourselves into arguments, but since all the interaction is mediated by the computer, it's impersonal enough that we tend to forget that we are dealing with real people who can be hurt; because it's conversational we tend to forget that tone shows up differently on a computer screen than in our voice; and so forth.

  3. I'm impressed.
    I thought it was much too soon to expect that sort of reassessment.

  4. I think that the basic problem is that it's so easy for people to slip into warlike argumentation. In many different ways, harshness can push things towards warlike argument and away from rational inquiry. What Richard highlights here is that, even if you use harshness that is well-supported by reasoned argument, it is likely that many people will see the harshness more clearly than they see the argument, especially if the harshness can be construed as being directed at a person (even if you don't explicitly direct the harshness at anyone). To the person on the receiving end of the harshness, and to their allies, this can be taken as a declaration of war, to be met in kind (often with minimal engagement with your reasonable argument). Your allies might take it this way, too, and join in the escalation/degeneration. To onlookers who aren't attached to either side, it can be taken as a sign that you're something of an arrogant thug, which is offputting, and could lead them to be sympathetic to the other side. And, perhaps most seriously, it can drive away people who value reasonable, truth-seeking, unwarlike discussion, when those are precisely the people that you want to be attracting. Reasonable, open-minded discussion in pursuit of the truth is unfortunately rare, and if that's what you're trying to produce then you don't want it to be camouflaged in polemical rhetoric.

    Another point is that you don't want to be developing bad habits. Being open-minded, appreciating your own fallibility, and valuing truth rather than victory (or your opponent's defeat) are goals that you have to be continually working towards. Even if you try to only use harshness and polemic appropriately, supported by argument and directed at those who deserve it, there's a significant risk that you'll slip into some warlike habits which you will carry elsewhere. This is especially likely when your rhetoric puts you into many battlefield-type environments.

    This analysis is all very one-sided. I do think that polemic has a place, but for the most part, I think that that place is not at Philosophy, et cetera. And, to turn Aristotelian (or even indirect utilitarian), I think that people are more likely to err on the side of too much polemic rather than too little, which means that it's advisable to aim away from excess polemic and towards deficiency.

  5. I think Dawkins is an excellent example since, despite his skill as a writer and popularizer his sometimes over the top polemics do his position more harm than good. (IMO)

  6. Pat,
    I think you might be treating the GOP in the same way that people on the left despise the GOP for viewing foreign countries.

    I.e. "them and us", "no point negotiating", "pre-emptive attack" "axis of evil" "as long as it takes". Maybe it is American politics that created these views.

    I think at least you could wait for them to break the rules first, and every now and then give them an opportunity to re-enter rational debate.

  7. Of course there is a point at which you have more productive things to do with your time than argue with a person who isn't listening - in which case telling them your too busy might be the way to go.

  8. I think he WAS, generally speaking, operating in "good faith" just he had a Scotoma the size of Texas.
    I would say it is your adverserial system, in part, that creates that. ie he is so used to completely partisan attacks that he gets out of the habit of having reasonable discussions involving critical evaluation of evidence.

    If you know the left will oppose you and the opposition party will play for votes no matter what your proposal is, then there is no new evidence added by either of these things happening.

  9. Same effect for the left in regard to attacks from the right but there is probably more diversity (in most topics) on the left.

  10. Maybe we get a twisted view of the US from here but the impression one gets is that you are at each others throats - even if it is "the left" vs. "Democrats and Republicans". And that the standard of your debate is low (regardless of who is debating).

    Also you don’t seem to be giving examples of "knives in a gun fight" your giving examples of the soldiers turning their guns around and shooting at their own citizens.

  11. Anyway, do you really think you can defeat the republicans by calling them evil enough times?

  12. You seem to be inclined to take an aggressive posture not just to GOP supporters but to people like me (who would absolutely vote democrat if I was an American).

    > And campaigns are characterized by the worst kind of ugly character assassination.

    I find it hard to believe this happens just via one side. Negitive strategies are like an arms race, you take it up a level in response to the other side doing the same.

    > It has nothing to do with calling them "evil" (great straw man).

    By evil I mean - someone you oppose as opposed to trying to understand and negotiate with (and I understand that is what you are proposing). I don’t really know any other way you could mean it, except maybe something religious.

    > Rather, the tone is adopted for the sake of motivating the base and convincing moderates.

    How is that working for you?
    As far as I can tell it lost you the last election. The moderates thought you were crazy. (And I am quite god at picking elections)

    > P.S. As for the crack about the standards being low, Aussie and British standards don't seem all that impressively greater, but maybe you were referring to France.

    No French standards are even lower (than british). I am from NZ of course.

    And you might not be impressed by it but they do seem to be better in all those countries.

  13. And BTW even with me all the posture results in is geting me more defensive.

  14. > Since self-identified moderates and independents went overwhelmingly for Kerry, it doesn't seem like you get it right here.

    You lost. So all that means is that too many voting democrats now identify as moderates (what does that say?).

    > It HAD NOTHING TO DO with Kerry being considered "crazy."

    Did I say that? I think we are confusing various issues here.

    >Exit polling indicates that the margin of victory was primarily...

    This sort of logic is an over simplification of psychology. besides if we belong to a club and loose an election by one vote was it my vote, or your vote?

    > The period of greatest negotiation with the GOP extremists was 2002.

    1) I am trying to move beyond any suggestion that democratic Members are the problem in general, maybe they aren't. Maybe they are doing the best job possible to cover up for the far left - or maybe they are turning on the left because deep down they are just a bunch of brutal pragmatists.

    I will accept your point, if you like, that Kerry's campaign and that of the democrat’s leadership was pretty civil. But it is the overall impression that matters. The impression that results in voting moderates ending up as voting republicans, and voting democrats becoming moderates presumably so they don’t have to associate with the far left.

    > The period of greatest negotiation with the GOP extremists was 2002, which was also the scene of the Democrats greatest electoral defeat.

    You should have destroyed the republicans in the last election - you must have looked pretty terrible to a lot of voters to have lost.


    Your obviously a partisan (no offense intended), But as per my original point I can't take what you say as anything other than only one side of the argument any more than I would take a republican to be telling me both sides of the argument.
    The same would be true for any intelligent person who discussed these matters with you.


    BTW if you don’t know you are taking a posture towards me its worse than I thought

  15. I also suggest many people would see it this way.

    *If the democrats voted for the Iraq war to give Bush a stick but opposed war - they are either hypocritical to oppose it, or too stupid to be in parliament.*

    If you can't read mr bush how you going to fair with a genius leader from an actual real other country!

  16. It seems you are having a bit of difficulty understanding my position.

    >The obvious implication here is that Kerry lost because thought he was crazy.

    I did not mean "Kerry" when I said "you".

    > (1) is irrelevant.

    This is twisted by the fact that you are talking about democratic senators and I am not.

    And the current strategy isn’t working because if the strategy was "to win if the republicans don’t try" then it isn't much of a strategy.
    You of course would say they didn’t fight hard enough which is a potentially valid position - but apparently the Democratic Party thinks you are wrong since they elected Kerry over Dean and will probably elect Hillary next time.

    > (2) is merely an ad hominem.

    No I don’t mean it that way - I stated what the implication was, you seem to have ignored that. Ways out of this are for you to cite neutral sources etc.

    > I love it! You think that the Democrats should negotiate with Bush

    No don’t. You have confused two things.

    1) being civil and realizing that they are rational people with rational motives
    2) Realizing that those motives are counter to your motives.
    I personally think 1 actually helps you get your way.

    > How is it hypocritical to oppose a war that is fought under conditions that you never supported?

    You are responsible for the predictable consequences of your own actions. Are you saying they were not predictable?

  17. I have worked in the quasi-law enforcement field for 13 years, and I have learned the need for argumentative adaptability. When I am standing in a burned out, crack infested neighborhood, tactful articulation will get me killed. It is not the same tone or demeanor that I would take with the wait staff at a restaurant. It is not the meaning of the words, per se; it is the intent. A lyric diatribe can be just as cutting as a terse tongue-lashing.
    The Writhing Of Something Nailed Down In Torment

  18. I’ve found careful appropriately targeted conversation allowed me to avoid ever being in a physical fight that I didn't want. Still, I am happy you are the quasi-law enforcement person and not me - I’m sure your much better at it.

  19. Ill try to represent the issue I guess

    This is a random example of pretty bad strategy/debate
    I’m sure there are tons more of these I think I can remember a whole (basically neutral) website devoted to this sort of complaint about the level of debate.

    In places many of the recent elections I have noticed the loosing leader making a huge fuss about something that the far left (or right) cares about but are just not things that change voting decisions or that are vote losers. I suggest the members loose the plot because they are too worked up fighting (in terms of the public front). They also alienate midle voters and motivate their opposition.

    > But I have already pointed out that moderates did not vote for Bush .

    My point, again, is that since you won the elections under Clinton, and won the moderates, it would appear since then you have converted democrats into moderates and moderates into republicans OR you got non voters to vote republican - either way you have a problem. Do you have another explination?

    > 2) Dean is now the head of the Democratic Party (chairman of the DNC).

    I don't think that is addressing the point I raised. Presumably one picks one's candidate to win an election - one picks one's chairman for other reasons (maybe his political connections?).

    > One can be a moderate on policy positions yet think that one must be partisan in one's political tactics.

    I think you are annoyed at a "straw man" here. I don't think democrats should lie down and take it.

    > Do you want me to footnote my posts?
    > Again, this is just an ad hominem.

    Aren't you an academic? Maybe I’m getting confused.

    > Your response has been "You are a partisan, you can't possibly be right."

    You are engaging in what Richard or a more hostile debater would call "blatant intellectual dishonesty" I.e. clearly misrepresenting my position and attributing it to me. However I would look for a reason and instead say that you really did read what I said as saying that because of the way you are invested in the argument.

    > One can be rational and not negotiate in good faith, lying and cheating to get what one wants.

    Good faith is a nice thing to have in a debate, so is civility, as is rational debate.

    > But I agree that being civil and accomodationist, seeking good faith agreement and consensus, is the way to go. MOST OF THE TIME.

    I’ll take any agreement I can get at this stage!

    > Didn't they make a mistake by following your prescription to not be partisan?

    Being partisan prevents you from understanding the other side. Not understanding them prevents you from winning. This is part of the reason why bush is in so much trouble with Iraq Al Quaeda etc he doesn’t understand his enemy (or the Iraqi people etc), he is a faith based planner not a pragmatist.
    Understanding someone, talking nicely to them and respecting their opinion doesn't mean you can’t shoot them in the head if absolutely necessary.

    Also Osama is just another example of the effect of partisanship. He has been shaped by what many people say about the USA (Although largely a dynamic in his own country).

    I know some (very powerful) Chinese businessmen who feel the same way. Basically that the USA is guilty of everything the partisans accuse it of (some of which are half true and some of which are totally untrue) and as such China needs to utilize "appropriate strategies" - making me wonder how high up the attitude goes (and what effect it will have when they are much stronger than you are).

    > It clearly isn't hypocrisy if they thought the war was a good idea then, but not now and they oppose it now.

    The AUMO was for a specific president as opposed to a theoretical document that is pretty fundamental to it's nature. It is a bit like authorizing police to do things without warrants. It is no problem, if they only ever act as you want them to (and they will probably act with good intentions too).


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.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.