Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cite your opponents

There was another interesting discussion that came out of the whole "elevator" thing.  I should provide a quick summary of the "elevator" thing so you actually know what I'm talking about.
1) Rebecca Watson says she is tired and wants to go to bed. It’s 4:00a.
2) Unknown Male approaches Rebecca in the elevator and asks her if he’d like to come to her room.
3) Rebecca says no and then goes to her room.
4) Rebecca makes a video in which she mentions the situation.
5) Stef McGraw responds to the video saying that situation doesn’t sound as bad as Rebecca made it out to be.
6) Rebecca calls out Stef in front of her friends and peers at a conference.

(Summary stolen from Hemant, with names inserted)
And then people complained that Rebecca was wrong to name Stef when she criticized her.  Rebecca doesn't agree!
For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?
I acknowledge that naming a person may subject them to public humiliation... but not naming names is passive-aggressive.

I should add, this is not just about naming names.  It's a more general issue of citing the opposition.  That means naming, linking, quoting.  Or at the very least, you should cite evidence showing the existence of the beliefs you criticize.  Failing to do this is one of the major ways an opinion essay can fail.

Have you ever read something that you felt like it was trying to criticize you, but you're not sure because it doesn't identify anyone or any group?  Have you ever wondered: Is this criticizing other people who are stupider than me, or is it trying to claim that I'm that stupid?

And even if you're on the same side as the critic, you might want to know: Is this a straw man?  Where do these beliefs come from, and how prevalent are they?  Where can I read more about what your opponents say, possibly so I can write some criticism myself?

I consider citing opponents to be particularly important, because blogging experience tells me that it is one of my own weaknesses.  Because of the way I think and the way my memory works, I tend to avoid naming names.  I get some impression or idea in my head, and it becomes completely disconnected from the context of its inspiration.  And then, weeks or months later I write a post about "privilege", "utopianism", or the like.  This okay to do once in a while, but unless I put in some effort, it will happen all the time.  Seriously, I shudder to look at the older parts of my blog archives.