Arguments, and assumptions of bad faith

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that the news cycle – especially here in South Africa – is hitting fresh heights of bonkers-ness just about every day. And where scandalous news emerges, outrage on social media follows.

Outrage is oftentimes merited, and you should please not read this post as a complaint about people getting upset about things (although, as David Mitchell points out in a characteristically amusing column, it might be a problem that outrage has become our default setting).

More important than the outrage itself is the motivation for the outrage, in both senses of motivation – the originating argument or cause of it, and then the retrospective justification of it, where I think too many of us are operating in bad faith.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of the “principle of charity”, Wikipedia’s entry opens with: “In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.”

To put this into practice, one strategy might be to apply Rapoport’s Rules, summarised by Daniel Dennett as follows:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

But instead of taking this approach, much online commentary, whether in the short-form of Twitter or in blogs and columns, seems to be a frantic dash to demonstrate the evil of your opponent’s point of view.

There are important debates going on about left-wing politics, political correctness and what counts as fair and unfair criticism. It’s important that these debates aren’t won by those who claim that being offended is always a trump card, because that a) incentivises victimhood and b) is a race to the bottom for what entitles you to claim protection from offence.

It’s good to be challenged – we are often wrong (regarding science, for example), and need to be told so. But how we tell each other that we’re wrong is the problem, in the sense that if you criticise from a position of assumed certainty that you’re right, and your opponent wrong, nothing good is likely to come from the interaction.

I’ve so far stayed out of the Jonathan Chait debate that was occupying so many people in (the broad and very difficult to define) online political community I belong to. There are far too many triggers for hostility in the issues he raises, with a concomitant low probability of sober reflection on the issues.

But now that the fire of that debate has gone out, I do want to point you to his piece responding to his critics, in which he (rightly) reminds us that the fact that some people complain about political correctness simply as a way to excuse or mask their bigotry does not mean that others might also take offence too often, and for the wrong reasons (for example, the race or gender of the speaker, regardless of what the speaker is saying). To quote an important passage from that piece,

making distinctions is important and valuable. Voting may present us with limited and imperfect choices. But when we analyze the world, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to binary choices. We can oppose both racism and inappropriate responses to racism. Indeed, that kind of multifaceted thinking is a special responsibility for liberals.

imagesHaving begun this post with a vague allusion to issues in the South African political landscape, let me close with the specific case of the City of Cape Town having approved the renaming of a road in honour of the conservative apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, who can among his achievements apparently count ordering the murder of 5 children (and a Nobel Prize).

I was one of the handful (around 250) that opposed the renaming during the consultative process, while around 1700 wrote in support of it. My reasons for opposing it were offered in a previous post, so I won’t rehash them here. But I do want to say something about last week’s council meeting, at which the City approved the renaming (initially proposed by this group of “prominent Capetonians“).

According to news reports, (at least) two quite disturbing things happened at this council meeting, to which I’d add one example of the language of politics gone utterly mad.

Disturbing thing number one is that our Mayor, Patricia de Lille, was apparently taunting ANC councillor Tony Ehrenreich by waving a red clown nose in his general direction whenever he spoke, and accusing him of engaging in “clown politics”. To my mind, if the Mayor engages in debate as if it’s happening on a school playground, there’s more than one person playing “clown politics”.

More disturbing, though, is this detail of how the council meeting proceeded (my emphasis):

The ANC then asked to caucus and, on their return to the chamber, found that the meeting had proceeded without their input. ANC councillors were outraged. The Speaker’s calls for order were drowned out by ANC councillors banging on desks while chants of “no” rang out. Smit then ordered the ANC to leave and the hall to be vacated.

The council sitting was moved to another room, with many DA councillors also shut out as metro police blocked ANC councillors from getting in. Chaos erupted when ANC members tried to force their way in, resulting in a tussle between some ANC councillors and metro police officers. There was continual shoving and pushing as ANC councillors tried to storm the room.

For the next two hours, ANC councillors tried to get in while remaining DA councillors were gradually escorted into the room, where ACDP and FF Plus councillors participated in the discussions.

I’m sympathetic to the DA and de Lille’s claim that the ANC might sometimes act in ways that are aimed at making the City “ungovernable”. But when you’re taking a decision regarding renaming a road after an apartheid president, in a city perceived by some as being racist, it’s quite mad – in terms of effect on public perception – for only the DA, ACDP and FF Plus to be debating the motion and making the decision (a separate issue to whether they were quorate, which they were).

Furthermore, if the meeting did proceed while the ANC was taking a break to caucus, that indicates serious bad faith on the part of the Democratic Alliance, in that they don’t give any impression of being interested in engaging with the ANC or Ehrenreich’s arguments.

In general, that’s the problem I’m highlighting in this post, in full awareness that doing so is hardly novel. But for those of us that care about debate, and its value in showing us where we’re wrong (which is essential to becoming more often right about things), the occasional reminder of why we do this, and how to do it, hopefully serves a purpose.

In our little corners of the Interwebs, or in meatspace, we can do better than simply yell at each other, or presume malice in others before we’ve even bothered to try and understand what they are saying. It’s difficult, to be sure, and I often fail at it myself. But not doing so, or giving up trying, simply cedes all public discussions to the idiots and the ideologues.

In closing, on the Humpty Dumpty language of politics, consider this quote from the Mayor of the City of Cape Town, on the ANC’s opposition to the above-mentioned street renaming:

[The ANC] are opposed to progressive politics and anything that is not backward-looking and embraced by the cold hands of racialised politics.

Renaming a road after an apartheid president is “progressive politics”? As a friend said on Facebook, “Yup, what self-respecting revolutionary could be against honouring a freedom fighter like FW? I want to cry.”

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