Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"What people say"

Over a year ago, I commanded everyone: Cite your opponents!  This is a big meta-issue among bloggers who are social critics.

As a critical blogger, I'm used to reading comments that give me pause, and I think, "I could criticize that in a blog post!"  What many of us do then, is rant about "People who say X".  But privately we're just thinking of one person who said X.  Or two people.  Two is a crowd!

So I said we should buck that trend, and link the stuff that gets us started.  For several reasons:
  1. It keeps you honest.  It is harder to make something into a bigger deal than it is, when it becomes clear that you were referring to a single youtube commenter.  
  2. It keeps you honest.  It is harder to misrepresent what a person says when you link to exactly what they said.
  3. When someone is clearly keeping themselves honest, they are ultimately more convincing.
  4. It allows readers to actively participate in the criticism by digging up new problems with the original comment.
  5. It makes it clear exactly who and what you're criticizing.  For example, if you talk about aggressive atheists, I don't know if you're talking about a former roommate who wouldn't leave you alone, or if you're just prejudiced and see all vocal atheists as aggressive.
In the spirit of citing specific examples, I will cite an old Rationally Speaking post on the "mysogyny wars [in the atheist/skeptic community]".  Massimo takes an indeterminate middle ground stance, agreeing that we definitely need to acknowledge the misogyny in our community, but also decrying some of the arguments used on the feminist side.  For example:
...it doesn’t follow, as it has been claimed in the heat of the misogyny wars, that anything a woman says in this department goes...
"As has been claimed" could mean one commenter on youtube, a misinterpretation, or exaggeration.  Or maybe someone notable really said it.  Who knows?  Some readers will get to thinking, maybe he thinks I've said that--he's strawmanning me and my entire faction!  This is how flame wars start.

I complained that the post desperately needed specific examples, as did the rest of the public discussion on feminism.  Massimo said that he had specific examples, but this one post was to make more general comments.  And I said fair enough!

Indeed, I think I should moderate my previous conclusions.  I think it is overreaching to say that it is always best to cite specific examples.  Perhaps I merely wish to assert the value of citing specific examples.

The most common counterargument I've heard is that when you cite a specific person, you're "attacking" that person.  If that person has site statistics, they'll see what you said and attack right back.  You've just turned it into another internet drama!  A lot of people don't have the emotional energy for that, and consciously avoid it.  Also, experience tells me that these fights aren't particularly productive.  They tend to focus a lot on interpreting vague comments.  Thus, if the goal of citing opponents is to have a more productive discussion, it frequently fails at that.

On the other hand, citing your opponents keeps you honest, and makes you more credible.  No extenuating circumstances can change that.  If you're unable to cite any instances of aggressive atheists because you're afraid that they'd refute you, then so much the worse for your attempted argument!

Above all, it's worth being conscious of the decision (when reading and writing) to cite specific examples or to speak in generalities.  Take it with a grain of salt whenever people talk about "what people say".