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

In Part I, I introduced the idea that we should employ the principle of charity when engaging with ideas (particularly online) – especially from new and unknown interlocutors. Many problems could be prevented from occurring – such as using emotive, threatening, bullying tactics – if we read others' statements, arguments and ideas as genuine inquiries, not subversive tactics. I will now conclude why this argument, based on John Stuart Mill, is essential to intellectual inquiry.

Undermining Truth

The problem with all vitriol is the danger it imposes on truth. This is a problem that persists not only for blog commenters and trolls, but everyone – including the blogger herself. As Mill said: “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them”. If we create spaces of reasoned debate – websites, magazines, blogs – in which we always praise the prevailing opinion [of that space, not of society] and disregard with “unmeasured vituperation” anything other than full-throated acquiescence, it is no longer a space for inquiry but of dogmatic following, of uncritical agreement.

One can avoid such reactions by using and encouraging the principle of charity. Naturally there are many ways to respond to outright horrible and genuinely bizarre comments, but ones at least phrased as an inquiry or rational criticism should be responded to (if at all) in like fashion – but with the added initiative to err away from assumed hatred.

Recall that even if the view is completely wrong – women are lesser beings than men, black people are stupider, etc. – the danger is what will happen when pointing out certain facts, like: women should be treated or viewed differently than men in certain instances (women but not men can get pregnant, therefore might require special compensation from her work; they can and do physically abuse men, etc); that black males make up the majority of the US prison population; that there is a danger of foreign terrorists from Muslim countries (albeit a low one). Immediately saying these automatically invites uncharitable reading because it sounds a lot like sexism and racism, whereas they are facts – open to dispute. Does this fact mean we treat women as less than men? No. Does it mean women being abused is trivialised? No. Does this fact mean all black people are criminals? Of course not. Are all Muslims terrorists? I think my family would have a problem with that and, indeed, it’s quite the opposite.

(Note though that even though you might have the facts on your side, it might be inadvisable to mention them at every opportunity. One can also fail to communicate by being uncharitable to timing!)

Reading charitably does not even mean reading realistically or knowing the reader’s “true” intention, since that is largely impossible especially on a platform like the Internet. It means reading a comment, an idea, or a question in the best possible light, warranted only by two properties: (1) we are fallible and cannot know everything, no matter how certain we or our group might be; (2) many people are bad at communicating and sometimes have never encountered the ideas being presented, thus their asking questions should be viewed as if from a Martian rather than a murderer. 

The Symmetry

John McGowan relates a similar principle called the principle of symmetry, from Barbara Smith’s book Belief and Resistance. Says McGowan, the principle is this: “when interpreting or evaluating any statement or any set of beliefs, I should begin from the premise that those who make that statement or hold that belief aim to be—and believe themselves to be—as committed to saying and believing what is reasonable and true as I am.  The default position should not be that they are insincere… or that they don’t want to believe what is true. I should instead assume their symmetry with me.”

Like reading charitably, we should also err on the side that says people are genuinely interested in what is really the situation. No one wants to think they hold non-true views on an issue; no one wants to make a claim that is actually wrong. We, by definition, only hold views we think right. So when someone makes a claim, we shouldn’t assume she’s trying to be deliberately unhelpful, or intentionally obtuse. A frequent claim I see online is when people accuse others of “lying”, when what they really mean is “You are not viewing the situation as I am”. Lying implies knowing the truth and constructing an untruth around it. Thus, we shouldn’t assume people are “lying”, we should assume they’re expressing their opinion on the matter. It could in fact be another perspective.

Now before you consider this a relativistic stance, this doesn’t mean that this view is correct. Even incorrect views are useful: for Mill, they provide us an opportunity to really assess why we’re right; and it means we won’t be on the wrong side of history should a controversial view turn out later to be true.

But it doesn’t mean the person is lying. She could be wrong, mistaken, yet that places a burden on those who do know better, have had access to superior information, to explain that. Mill says “Judgement is given to [humanity] that they may us it. Because it is used erroneously, are [humanity] to be told that they ought not to use it all?” If she still wishes to continue along the same line of argument or belief then there is no point continuing.

Is Mockery Ever Appropriate?

I’m still uncertain at what point name-calling and derision is suitable, if at all, to inquiry. However, I think a rule of thumb should be that some people are very good at persuading using mockery, satire and so on; but that requires skill that most of us do not have. Most of us should err on the side of trying our best to respond without namecalling and putting emotions before justification – even if a view is horribly wrong. This is difficult and, probably, most of us have failed often at this: due to knee-jerk reactions, being pushed too far, touching a particularly sensitive topic, and so on. Perhaps this gets reinforced when our anger and animosity drives the offender away. But even here, this is probably not a good thing because, as Mill points out, there are greater concerns than getting a kick out of mocking someone to silence: there is the worry that such an attitude helps foster in-group tribalism, non-engagement with alternative ideas and, indeed, prevents debate from occurring since any alternate ideas could be viewed as only stemming from “bad” people.

Thus, I would urge you to use the principle of charity as often as possible since it is one of the most effective ways to guarantee discussion actually occurs, we are exposed to more ideas, and the more ideas we’re exposed to the better we’ll be at justifying ours: whether because we’ve refuted these others or because we’ve adopted better ones that otherwise would’ve been silenced.

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