Monday, March 14, 2011

On taking offense and derailing

I don't know how obvious it is, but over the past year, my views have been skewed towards a form of political correctness.  I know that PC is used nearly universally as a pejorative, and thus has come to describe many truly negative things.  This is especially true in skeptical circles, where it is thought to prioritize politeness over truth.  But sometimes PC is appropriate precisely because we value truth.

So that's my extraordinary claim, that critical thinking and political correctness sometimes align.  It is my new long-term blogging project to support this claim, and also attack it so that we may know its limits.  I'm very interested to know where my readers stand on this so I know what direction to go in future posts.

Exhibit A: The "easily offended"

On The Thinker, Jeffrey said, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the 'easily offended' to become good critical thinkers."  Based on his personal experience, he proposed three (non-exhaustive) categories of easily offended people.
First are those who tend to use being offended as a manipulation tool to stifle discourse on a topic, thereby avoiding arguments they don’t wish to face.
The second form is related to emotions. Some people are thinkers; others are feelers. Feeler-types tend to become emotionally attached to their opinions.
The third category is comprised of people who actively seek opportunities to get offended by anything that appears (or can be made to appear) to run counter to their pet cause.
Now, I can see where Jeffrey is coming from.  I don't think Jeffrey is an atheist, but this is a pretty common response to atheists.  Do something as simple as put up a sign advertising an atheist student group, and it will offend people.

And yet these categories don't sit well with me, because they echo standard derailing arguments used against marginalized groups whenever they complain about said marginalization.  Just to name a few of these arguments:
You're Being Overemotional
You're Just Oversensitive
You Just Enjoy Being Offended
Being Offended Is Great For You
You're Taking Things Too Personally
I asked Jeffrey what he thought the difference was between the arguments he made and the ones appearing on "Derailing for Dummies", and he thought it was a matter of whether there was a legitimate basis for being offended.  Well yes.  People who have a legitimate basis for being offended have a legitimate basis for being offended, and those who don't don't.  But I think this is failing to get at the heart of the issue.

Instead, I would try to draw a distinction based on the question: Who is doing the derailing?  Is it the offended person who says, "I don't want to talk about it, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for bringing this up in public"?  Or is it the other person who says, "You're taking this way too personally!  Talk to me after you've calmed down."

Guess what?  Both sides can derail the discussion.  It's not just the side that gets emotional about it (with or without a legitimate basis).  It can also be the person who can't see past their opponent's emotion, and decide to make that emotion the focus of the argument.

(For the fallacy geeks: This is a form of the Fallacy Fallacy.  That's when you spot something resembling a fallacy, such as an emotional argument, and proceed to ignore any real arguments they make.)

But let's take it one step further.  Riddle me this: Is it really so counterproductive to derail an argument that would itself be unproductive?  I slam down trolls all the time, saving me time and energy for the discussions that at least have a chance of being productive.  Of course, this depends on me having a realistic view of which discussions would be productive and which would not.  I wouldn't want to fool myself into thinking that all discussions attacking my beliefs are unproductive.

What can we get out of this?  Not much, since we're talking pure generalities.  If someone is getting offended and trying to derail, you should say something to persuade them that the discussion will not be so unproductive as they think.  Start by avoiding cliched arguments.  And if you're going to derail the argument by focusing on your opponent's emotions, at the very least do it with some self-awareness.