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Fighting Words


JT of Patheos put voice to the trend that any discussion of hot-button issues always seems to spiral downhill:

“Not only are they wrong, they must also be malicious or have some sort of agenda against something or someone that led to their wrongness….Now, this isn’t to say that agendas and assholes don’t exist – they most certainly do…Often from atheists and believers alike we seem more interested in tearing down our opponents by trying way harder to paint our opponents as evil people and getting around to deconstructing their arguments second (if at all).”

This tendency is a result of the fundamental attribution error: we judge another’s character, and therefore their intent, based on their actions; we judge our own character based on our intent, not the outcome of our actions. It’s a judgement error caused by the inability to know another’s mind. The only information we have about another person is how they act, and what they tell us about how they act; when the two conflict, we often go with how the person acts. A person who acts badly is indistinguishable from a person who is malicious. The two are the same thing for purposes of everyday character judgement.

Distinguishing the two does matter. People are not automatons incapable of learning. To say otherwise is to claim that a single bad act is enough to thoroughly condemn the person, a claim that they cannot change, and therefore is an excellent argument for bigotry and the death penalty.

More to the point, the idea behind this manifestation of the bias is that of safety. A person who does a thing maliciously and a person who does the same thing with the belief it best serves society will both treat you the same way. The point is they both act the same, and you should protect yourself against them both. This is probably why face-to-face confrontations generally go badly, as the drive to protect against this perceived threat is at its maximum. Same goes for real-time interactions, like debates and other such events–perhaps the debaters themselves are trained to have zen-like responses, but most audience members won’t, and thus we get degradation from both sides. The outcome of these topics determines how people treat each other, their very life trajectory. These topics are never “purely intellectual” in the way that particle physics is, no matter how much some insist they can be handled that way. A person’s very life is a hell of an investment they need to protect.

On the other hand, we now have the ability to step back from real-time interaction, to reflect upon our gut response. We can consciously ask ourselves the questions that our unconscious handles for us. Is it appropriate to react to this person as a threat *at this time*? Can I edit my pending response for unnecessary bile and assumptions? All of this is now possible. We aren’t perfect at it. Heated debate is absolutely not a thing of the past.The outcome still matters, it still affects how that other person will treat us. But without being in person, and with the ability to remove yourself from your immediate reaction, we can find out why people do things, how they think, rather than impose upon them our ingrained assumption of how they think.

Engaging in this manner will make you feel as if you’re agreeing with the other person, as if you’re letting them win. You are having a debate, not a research session, so to be interested in the other person’s reasoning feels like you’re being won over. The audience will certainly see it that way. This is especially true if the other person is not returning that interest, even more so if they’re taking the traditional path of attacking you. Debates are not set up to gain understanding. Were that the point, people would have no problem simply attending the “other side’s” conventions and asking questions there. We instinctually reject doing such things because it feels the same as giving them credit they don’t deserve–we have made up our minds, we’re sure of ourselves, there’s no reason to “shop around” unless you’re unsure. Again, the problem is that we assume we know what everyone else is thinking, why they think it, how they got there, without having any such knowledge. That knowledge is an illusion based on multiple biases. It’s useful when you run into someone who could do you harm, but when you’re attempting to do research it’s a hindrance.

The motivation behind the person’s stance does matter. You can’t just engage with why said stance is wrong without going back through all the education and supports holding it in place. Stating why discriminating against gay people is bad doesn’t really work; to wit, it’s contact with those people that changes minds, that suggests these people are just like everyone else, that there’s no harm in anything they’re doing–the big wins are often when a close friend or family member comes out. Tackling an argument purely on the intellectual level doesn’t do much when people do not hold their beliefs in a purely intellectual form. As said before, these topics aren’t an “intellectual debate”, you can’t treat them that way, people don’t approach them that way, and you won’t win it that way. At least not with the people who are firmly planted in their chosen values. Does it help to have an intellectual dimension to your approach? Yes. You just won’t get very far if that’s your only path of engagement.

All this is part of why political “debates” are nothing more than talking points and personal attacks, but that’s a different topic.

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