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John Stuart Mill, Internet Trolls & the Principle of Charity, Part I

September 5, 2012, 1:55 PM
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In ‘On Liberty’, one of John Stuart Mill’s concerns was the best way to conduct ourselves, since conduct in expression was central to his moral claims about individual liberty. Mill was passionate about correct conduct in the exchange of ideas since it was for him the most powerful way for individuals to learn new ideas and alter their beliefs. When this occurred, society, Mill thought, would be better as the best ideas would be embraced, since all the worser ones would’ve been countered effectively. With this in mind, it may help to consider his ideas in light of online writing.

The Internet has allowed people the ability and platform to: threaten and intimidate athletes and their fans; tell celebrities what terrible persons they are for opposing cyber-bullying leading to attempted suicide; and send rape-threats to a woman making normal inquiries into the nature of her preferred industry (and other women in general online). It’s a powerful tool for communication that all too quickly can be used for terrible exploits.

Though many surely are trying to simply let their vitriol fly or are attempting intentional trolling, all too easily we forget some are genuinely sincere in their views. Just on the subject of women, for example: People really do think raped women should be blamed if they’re wearing revealing clothing, aren’t legitimately raped if they get pregnant and, if they’re too sexy, cause earthquakes. If people can hold such irrational views, maintained with everything except reason, is it any wonder that the Internet allows us to encounter people being not only irrational but threatening?

However, things become also difficult between similar-minded individuals, when one side begins to paint the other using the brush of irrationality, ripped straight from the troll’s hand. This happens between feminist academics, secular activists, and major political analysts. All broad groups with usually their most important goals aligned (and I mean broad: a better world, equal treatment of women, calling out religious moral authority and irrationality, fixing the budget and choosing the best kind of leader, etc.).

How to Hold the Best View

There is nothing wrong with debate and discussion; indeed, my worry is always when groups under such broad rubrics start reciting the same things. Conflicts about nuances matter, since the nuances are the lines in the sand separating us. But we’re all on the same shore, and simply gazing out in different directions. Being able to engage in debate, discussion and critical dialogue with anyone – including and, perhaps, especially those who support you in most instances – is important to your own intellectual integrity, respecting the ideas you hold, and respecting your interlocutor.

As Mill highlighted a person “is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show that experience is to be interpreted… Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.” For Mill this allowed us to step ever closer to the truth of a situation or gain ever more clarity on ideas. This was the most important goal of all rational debate and, for Mill, thoughtful discussion one of the most powerful ways to acquire it.

This was so because, as an individual, you were exposed to many different sides of an idea, thus meaning you had no excuse except to hold the best available view on the subject having encountered and engaged with all or most of the others.

“Being cognisant of all that can… be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers – knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter – he has a right to think his judgement better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process”

Mill here is not defending expertise, per se, but merely arguing for only holding views once you have engaged in a “similar process” as one who considers himself an expert (reading differing views, including those who you think wrong, especially the best versions of those views).

But what are ways to achieve this consistently? What kind of conduct could help us, especially given the Internet climate of outrage, anger and hostility? One powerful principle is that of charity, where, upon meeting the expression from a stranger, we at first err on the side of thinking his expression is one of seeking clarity, truth or explanation; charity asks us to fight, with everything we have, against viewing malice, evil or, in contemporary terms, “trolling” from interlocutors.

Failing the Principle

It seems to me that many discussions fail at the start because of an unfair reading or one that unintentionally abstains from charity. For example, if one is discussing feminism and what we can do to prevent misogyny from occurring, questioning the realities of widely-accepted defences invites accusations that you’re a sexist or misogynist. Or, if you question what makes the evidence produced by scientific racists wrong, you could be viewed as one strand away from donning a white hood. My views regarding consensual incest and sanctity of life have invited assertions that I enjoy being raped, am a “waste of sperm”, and so on.

People can afford to be vicious to their Strawman construction of a bad person because, as Mill paraphrased his opponents, “none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs” and “there is nothing wrong with restraining bad men”. Who, aside from a bad person, could oppose the view that women should be given equal rights, protections and treated like persons? Who, aside from a bad person, could think all black people are stupider than non-black people? By constructing our opponent into a bad person, it allows us to be uncharitable; we can be certain that he deserves the vitriol he gets.

But reading charitably means avoiding such constructions. It means, firstly, avoiding thinking that whoever utters such phrases is automatically a “bad” person. Yes, he may end up truly being bad, but upon first reading, the principle of charity asks us to err on the side of genuine inquiry, not malicious intent.

Worse than this is the self-fulfilling prophecy, the bloody cycle of viciousness, such uncharitable reading creates. As I say, most people probably would not consider themselves racist and would feel incredibly hurt to be considered as such: thus, primed by the racist accusation after making a genuine (but perhaps badly-phrased or –timed) inquiry, the accused might react emotively. He starts defending himself with the same vitriol as was aimed at him. Both parties are drawing from an armoury of communication we most of us should avoid (as I’ll explain tomorrow in the final section).

Sexism, racism and other horrible views can be demonstrated. Where is it that someone is displaying racist tendencies? It’s not enough that she’s questioning why evidence is bad. This is not a sufficient criterion to consider somebody to be a racist, sexist, homophobe and so on.

Asking for evidence is usually a good question. What is far worse is you not having a reasonable response for the person you consider to be “bad”. Yes, racists and sexists also ask for evidence but why should we not be able to provide evidence, reason and justification to even these? To try silence them through intimidation and dismissal should not be the go-to move for genuine inquiry.

Says Mill: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure [that the opinion was false], stifling it would be an evil still… All silencing of a discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. Are we really so certain of our views that we will hear nothing even remotely that will undermine it? Certainty of a view is not the same as its reality or morality. The assumption of infallibility is one of the many forces that often lead to much human error as history has shown.

Or as Mill more eloquently put it: “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.”

Continued in Part II: How vitriol undermines truth, an alternate principle and when mockery is appropriate (it’s not).

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John Stuart Mill, Internet ...

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