On bizarre misinterpretations (also accomodationism)

One of the persistent frustrations of engaging in any kind of debate anywhere is when one person misinterprets what another has said, and then attacks it on that basis. Sometimes it’s understandable, if what was originally said was vague. Sometimes it’s done maliciously, just to make the targeted view easier to attack (with perhaps a dose of self-deception behind it). But sometimes, I see misinterpretations that are totally bizarre in ways that would be unnecessary if the goal was merely to attack the view, and sometimes those cases show up in ways that makes me think there’s no malice behind it. What’s up with that?

Often, what I think is going on is basically this: Alice says something, and Bob filters it through a bunch of assumptions he shares but Alice doesn’t. But rather than clearly see and then explain the disagreement to his audience, Bob just re-states Alice’s view in a way that implies all those assumptions that Alice doesn’t share, and launches into his critique from there. Cue Alice’s “WTF!?”

A recent example of this comes from someone named Froborr, talking about some things Greta Christina’s written (HT: Ophelia):

So, according to Greta Christina, her primary goal as an atheist is to make most of the world’s population suffer the trauma of losing their faith, so that they can then be better (read: more Greta Christina-like) people with truer (read: more similar to Greta Christina’s) beliefs. And I should be okay with this, because she promises not to use legal coercion or violence to bring it about.

I am not okay with this.

Here, the key assumptions that Greta is making include that it’s generally better to believe truths than falsehoods, and that God does not in fact exist. Note that that doesn’t entail thinking that if you get one particular issue right, that means you’re automatically a better person overall than people who get the issue wrong. And with people who don’t share Greta’s assumptions, I think they can be expected to understand why, given that Greta makes those assumptions, she has the view she does of this issue.

Froborr describes Greta’s position as a matter of just wanting other people to be like her. Which is an utterly ridiculous way of describing her position. Obviously I think my beliefs are (mostly) true (see the preface paradox), but that doesn’t mean me being pro-truth is just a matter of me being pro-other-people-being-like-me. Aside from the preface paradox, I may generally like it when  other people to agree with me, but I don’t much care if they, say, adopt my style of dress, career plans, or otherwise become like me in other ways.

Froborr, however, seems to think there’s not much of a distinction between “being pro-truth” and “thinking everyone should be like you.” Why not? Well… I could guess, but I honestly don’t know. Froborr doesn’t say. They just work that assumption into their description of Greta’s view. And because the author feels no real compulsion to explain what they think about that, or why they think it, that makes this an unusually useless article, and difficult to even give a worthwhile response to.

This maybe isn’t Froborr, but I think some people who do this think they’re being charitable or clarifying what you said or whatever. Because hey, their assumptions are correct, and who wouldn’t want their view re-stated in terms of the correct assumptions? In reality, though, even doing this with the best of intentions tends to cause confusion at best, and may just get the other understandably pissed off at having their views misrepresented.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com Ryan Ottman

    I actually like to restate what other people said and then respond. It gives us a chance to clarify misunderstanding right off.

    For example, suppose you said X. I reply that I think you said Y and counter with Z. If you think I have restated your position fairly (X ~ Y) then you can address Z. If you think I have been unfair you can disregard Z and explain why I have misunderstood X in the first place.

    Of course your point stands if I was trying to set up a straw man or am intentionally misrepresenting you somehow :)

  • Patrick

    As charitably as possible, I think the assumptions that are doing all the work in Froborr’s argument are these:

    1. Losing one’s faith is an excruciatingly painful experience.

    2. Most religious people aren’t harming anyone, including themselves, and life (theirs and others) won’t be noticeably improved by their deconversion.

    3. So on balance is bad to try to deconvert people, no matter how you do it, because that will make them go through the pain of deconversion for very little benefit in terms of human happiness.

    Less charitably, Froborr then throws on a bunch of other crap.

    1. The assumption that anyone Froborr doesn’t like must believe that the ends justify the means in all possible situations.

    2. The very Slacktiverse assumption that words that make people feel bad are as bad as forcibly attacking someone, and so they can be referred to interchangeably.

    By the time he’s done, he finds himself claiming that Greta Christina wants to forcibly convert the entire world, against its will, using whatever means she can grasp, no matter the harm it causes to people.


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