Interpretive Charity and Heated Debate

I wanted to add to the discussion my co-bloggers have started on discourse norms.

Consider the following sample dialogues

1)
A: “I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B: “I think you’re mistaken about that.  Just as criminal background checks make good sense, so would some sort of red-flag or mental health history screening.  Indeed, since we already use criminal background checks, we could easily combine the two, plus it would help if there weren’t easy ways to circumvent the background checks.”

2)
A: “ I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B*: “That’s outrageous.  You think guns are more important than kids’ lives?”

3)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B: “I disagree.  I am not depending on any particular religious doctrine when I claim that human life begins at conception. It’s a developmental spectrum, there are no sharp dividing lines, so if we don’t respect the new life that the pregnancy represents as early as possible, it’s a slippery slope.  As to the reasons why women might want to terminate, sure, if there’s a legitimate medical rationale that the mother’s life is in jeopardy, I can see that, but I think a lot of what you’re calling psychological reasons could be addressed through counseling, spiritual or secular.”

4)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B*: “That’s outrageous. You think it’s ok to murder babies to preserve some illusion of women’s autonomy?”

————————

You may have noticed that dialogues (1) and (3) read very differently than (2) and (4).   That’s because in (1) and (3), the B character is responding to the A character’s arguments with different arguments.   In (2) and (4), the B* character does not actually engage with A’s arguments at all, but goes right for “baby-killer.”   Regardless of your view on either abortion or gun control, you should be able to see that in (2) and (4), B* is not arguing in a rational way, whereas B is arguing rationally in (1) and (3).   Does A actually hold the position that B* alleges?  Almost certainly not.  This is commonly known as the “straw man” fallacy; in this case augmented by an emotional appeal.  We know this because in the other pair of dialogues, B is offering actual counter-arguments. 

Why does this matter?   Because when people argue about these things, they have two sorts of objectives.  One is changing the mind of the other person, or perhaps onlookers.  The other is changing public policy.   But neither of these goals will be served with arguments that do not engage their opponents.  It’s totally implausible that A will respond to B* with “oh goodness, I didn’t realize I was advocating baby-killing, I hereby change my position.”  What happens instead is the discussion goes nowhere.

Sometimes we just get angry at people who disagree with us, and we are bewildered that others don’t see things our way.  But we should resist the temptation to straw-man.  If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to argue with people, you’re certainly not required to do so.  But if you do think it’s worth arguing about, then your objectives will be better served with interpretive charity.  What actually is the other person’s position, and why?  Why do they think your position is wrong?  Is there something that might be common ground?  Are you talking past each other?  Are you sure that your position is informed by facts and logic?  Do you have any talking points that might be misinformed?

Sometimes we never resolve disagreements on highly controversial issues.  But if you hope to get anywhere, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

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