Arguing when you know the conversation isn’t going to be constructive

Okay, after my quick declaration that I’m not signing Dan Fincke’s “civility pledge,” let me get a little deeper into the problems I see with it. Here’s the first point of the pledge, quoted in full:

1. I commit that I will engage in all public arguments with a sincere aim of mutual understanding, rather than only persuasion.

I will make being honest, rationally scrupulous, and compassionate my highest priorities. I will conscientiously remain open to new ideas. I will consider the well being and growth of my interlocutors more important than whether they simply agree with me at the end of our exchanges. I am under no obligation to respect false or harmful beliefs or to hold back from expressing my own views or reservations forthrightly. I may even express them with passion and conviction where such are justifiable. Compatible with this, I will always respect my interlocutors as people and their rights to express their own views without personal abuse, even when I find myself riled up by them. I will cut off communications that are counter-productive to others’ well being or my own. I will respect others’ attempts to bow out of debates on particular topics or with me in particular. If I feel that I am in a position where my anger and frustration at the behavior of others, even entirely legitimate anger and frustration, is making the conversation less capable of constructive progress, I will remove myself and come back only at such time as I can be constructive again.

Now let me tell a story: when I attended the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, I was first to one of the microphones, and wanted to ask Craig how he could accuse Harris of straying from the debate’s topic and then turn around and attack Harris on things like determinism, when determinism wasn’t part of the debate’s topic either.

Well, I decided to let one undergrad go ahead of me in the line… and somehow that turned into a whole lot of people going ahead of me in line, and I never got to ask my question. I told someone else about this immediately after the debate, while there were still people milling about in the lobby talking and getting books signed–by Harris, while Craig just sat there awkwardly because apparently far fewer people wanted to get their books signed by him.

Anyway, they asked why I didn’t go up to the book signing table and ask Craig then. The answer is that I never expected an honest answer from Craig in the first place, and the point of the question would’ve been just to put him on the spot in front of the audience. (Yeah, you’re not supposed to do that in a Q&A, but I was going to keep it brief and be relatively subtle about it, so I make no apologies.)

This is just one example of a general principle: very often when I engage with people on issues of religion, what I’m saying isn’t really aimed at whoever I appear to be talking to. It’s really something I’m doing for the benefit of any spectators who happen to be watching.

Craig’s flagrant dishonesty is unusual, but many of the people I write about are still not people I would ever expect to have a constructive conversation with. Alvin Plantinga spouts off on the evolution-creation controversy without seeming to want to understand what mainstream scientists have to say on the subject. Alister McGrath grossly misrepresents Dawkins because Dawkins dared to state the obvious about the Old Testament. And so on. (For all that and more, see my draft chapters of book #2.)

Constructive engagement with religious believers is great if you can find it. But my experience has been that even when I’m interacting with religious apologists who seem more reasonable at first, the results are often disappointing. So I’m back to performing for the spectators. Yet even though it’s not constructive dialog, I still think it’s worth doing (sometimes).

Now, to say something that’s even directly at odds with Dan’s pledge: if you see a post on a creationist blog saying something that’s obviously wrong, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a comment for the sole purpose of trying to convince people at the creationist site that they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean you can pursue persuasion at all costs (including at the expense of honesty), but you don’t need building mutual understanding as a goal.

This is, I take it, also at odds with how Libby Anne has defined civility:

For the simplest explanation of what I mean by “civil discussion,” I would point to my comments policy. I actually only have two rules:

1. Attack arguments rather than people. In this vein, refrain from personal insults and avoid needless vulgarity.

2. Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding. In other words, no trolling and no proselytizing.

The way I see it, proselytizing does not mesh well with the second part: Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding. I guess I see proselytizing as trying to change someone’s mind without being willing to listen to them in turn. At least, that was my thought process when I composed my comment policy!

To be clear, as far as this blog’s comment policy goes, proselytizing (or what think of what I think of proselytizing) is often going to run afoul my no-spam rule. And I do think it’s necessary to apply basic reading comprehension before responding to something someone else has said (something apologists like Craig, Plantinga, and McGrath often conspicuously fail to do). But I find it odd to think that failure to seek mutual understanding, beyond basic reading comprehension, constitutes bad faith.

One other point I’ve been meaning to talk about somewhere for awhile now: a lot of the stuff I do on this blog may be a good example of how what’s good for society may not be good for the individual. I think taking on the intellectual posers is a valuable exercise, but it’s often not fun. A psychologist might say it requires behaving in ways that do not display the trait of agreeableness, and agreeableness is one of the main personality traits correlated with happiness. So doing this kind of thing may not be good for your own personal happiness.

That doesn’t make it wrong to do, because again I think it’s socially valuable. But I am seriously thinking about trying to downshift the amount of this stuff I do after finishing my current book project, and spend more time on more happy-making things.