Thursday, 18 February 2010

Debating Tips

Esther Inglis-Arkell takes some time out from her busy Batman-worshipping schedule (hey, she has her comic book obsession, I have mine) to slap down a particularly irritating form of internet argument she dislikes.

Basically, I think she's pretty close to being dead on, though I'd add that whilst "You have to consider my feelings, and I don't have to consider yours" is a pretty objectionable position to have, I think one can offer a similar argument of "Just because I have accidentally offended people does not give you carte blanche to deliberately offend me." That latter point has to be accompanied by an apology, otherwise Inglis-Arkell is entirely correct that it's just hypocritical whinging, but alongside an admission of guilt, it is possible to offer it without inconsistency (though whether or not anyone should be particularly sympathetic is another matter entirely).

There are two reasons why I mention this. The first is by way of suggesting people might want to read Scan_Daily's own response to the initial argument (which kicked off over comments regarding transgender people that were judged significantly - though almost certainly accidentally - offensive; there's a link so you can judge for yourself should you wish) which is a reminder both of how far we still have to go in creating a society in which we can all happily coexist, and how foolish it remains to argue that the attitudes of others only become issues when laws are broken.

The second reason is to add my own complaints over a specific form of internet tactic. Commentator Jason on the 4thletter thread attempts to (partially) defend those Inglis-Arkell is criticising by saying:
In a place like Scans_Daily you’re not talking to anyone in particular until someone responds to something you say. So “You have consider my feelings, and I don’t have to consider yours.” is actually, “I wasn’t talking to you specifically and didn’t mean to offend you, you are talking directly to me and you’re being rude/hurting my feelings.”
I very rarely visit Scans_Daily, and have never read the comments threads before today, but presumably Jason is right, and like all comment threads plenty of what is written there isn't intended to be a response to anyone in particular (though at least arguably every comment not specifically addressed to someone else is intended for the author of the post).

The problem I have with Jason's stance is that it lets far too many people off the hook, by implying you don't have to consider how people might interpret your opinions, accusations or judgments, just so long as there isn't a name in there. If you're listing your issues with a group of people, it should come as no surprise when individuals from that group (or indeed from outside that group, I can imagine plenty of scenarios in which I would object to someone specific being attacked even though I myself was not) take exception to what you're saying.

It's no less irksome when used to describe a particular opinion or standpoint, because it allows someone to deride others for holding a position and yet protest innocence when any specific holder of that position objects to the smear. At best it's just thoughtlessness ("I don't need to worry about whether this is a fair comment since I'm not throwing it at anyone specifically") and at worst it's a deliberate method for insulting/criticising people and then spluttering indignantly when they attempt to defend themselves. It's about one page before "I was only joking, and the fact that that was impossible to infer in the toneless world of internet forums is entirely your fault!" in 101 Ways To Avoid The Ramifications Of Your Behaviour On-Line.

Of course, people tend to take shortcuts, myself included, so I've no doubt one could dig up multiple examples of me seeming to generalise positions or not attribute them well enough to the people who generally hold them. My argument then is not so much that this shouldn't be done (though it should be limited, and in an ideal world people, including myself, wouldn't do it at all), it's that it is important to understand that those whom an example of this practice has offended have that right. If someone wants to have a go at me over my latest rant about conservatives, then either I'll agree with them or I won't, and then decide whether or not I think further explanation or even an apology is required. I might even point out that the qualifications on my rant preclude them as a target (though as mentioned above, that hardly invalidate their right to object). What I hope I never find myself doing is arguing that since they weren't specifically referenced, it is they who are acting unreasonably.

1 comment:

BigHead said...

Dear me, that is a pretty ridiculous flame war.

I admire rex's restraint. I would have responded much more robustly.