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Charity, Accuracy and Being "Nice" in (Online) Debates

January 13, 2013, 1:59 PM

In the middle of writing and reading about gun policy and morality, I was horrified to see responses to writer Sam Harris' essay on gun control. For example, this one by Ian Murphy makes no coherent argument and, uses more expletives and (inaccurate) character attacks than a drunken sailor; but I also saw it throughout my Twitter timeline and elsewhere. Russell Blackford, too, encountered this and indicates why - regardless of your view of guns or Sam Harris - this is a problem.

I want to expand, therefore, on this.

Like many issues, regardless of what “side” you support, a failure to recognise that your opponents are not monsters, are indeed striving moral beings like yourself, is an unhelpful, immoral attitude to hold when engaging in discussion. What occurs from this lack of humanity, aside from unnecessary character attacks, stereotyping, ad hominems, and Strawmanning, is an inaccurate assessment of your opponent’s view: being inaccurate means being wrong. This is primarily why I defend, so strongly, a principle a charity.

I want to be right, just as I assume we all do. To mount an argument that, in fact, does nothing or little to counter what your opponent actually says would be exactly doing it wrong. Thus, to be charitable has nothing to do with being “nice” but being accurate. I care more about my arguments being accurate than whether I come off as a guy you want to have a beer with: hence, my attempts at charitable reading are focused on accuracy, not friendliness.

Demonising, character attacking, mockery and so on are indicators of knee-jerk responses that provides no insight into the debate itself - only into your personal reactions, which, save your diary or loved ones, are of no concern to us. Worse still when you bury legitimate points in invective, we as readers are denied knowledge because the force of your emotive replies jaggedly masks the rigid structure of proper argument.

We should, furthermore, attempt to find the best arguments from our opponents - whether from their "side" or in their actual pieces of writing/statements - in order to accurately defend ourselves and promote our views. If we hold views only because we’ve been pitting them against the sickliest of arguments, we will be crushed when the beast itself enters the arena, alive, healthy and better built. Our arguments then are the weak ones and, more importantly, the inaccurate ones.

Image Credit: Vasilchenko Nikita / Shutterstock


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