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.

Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
Analogies for animal rights: civil rights vs. the antiwar movement
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
Abolitionism vs. reformism
  • Rain

    I look at the Civility Pledge kind of how I look at the Three Laws of Robotics. Nobody will ever completely follow the darn thing, but it’s a heck of an idea and it’s good that he put it out there for posterity.

  • Rain

    So in other words the Civility Pledge is the blogosphere’s equivalent of the Three Laws of Robotics.

    • Rain

      The Civility Pledge is the blogosphere’s equivalent of the Prime Directive.

      “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. ”
      —Jean-Luc Picard

    • Reginald Selkirk

      So in other words the Civility Pledge is the blogosphere’s equivalent of the Three Laws of Robotics.

      A completely artificial an unrealistic plot device? At least, unlike the Star Trek prime directive, the three laws were usually followed.

  • ctcss

    “Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding.”

    I really like this rule by Libby Anne. I think people need to come to terms with the idea that we can all have different approaches to life without ruining anyone else’s choice to follow a different path. I can understand why someone might choose to be an atheist and respect that choice and them, even if I personally disagree with such a choice for myself. Likewise, I would hope that an atheist could understand why I choose to be a Christian and respect both that choice and me, even if they personally disagree with such a choice for themselves.

    The thing is, not every chooser is the “evil” person we have in mind when we sometimes have a gut response to finding out that so-and-so is an X or a Y or a Z. I am a Christian, but (1) I am not a Bible literalist, (2) I chose to remain a Christian when I became an adult because I found that what I was taught about my particular Christian theology made a lot of sense to me, (3) I have nothing against good, solid science (not religious belief masquerading as science) being taught in school, (4) I think that politics and religion do not belong together at all and thus am not interested in having religious theology turned into laws for society, (5) I believe in universal salvation so I don’t think anyone is going to hell, (6) I don’t think atheists are evil or without ethics or morals, (7) I believe that everyone should do their best to genuinely regard their neighbor with love, respect, and compassion rather than with judgement.

    The point is, if someone doesn’t bother to find out and understand what kind of person I am (rather than just judging me by the worst possible example of my “label”), how would they they ever expect to interact with me in a productive way? And without truly understanding who I am and why I believe what I believe (and especially since none of us have a lock on “truth”, nor have we seen and understood all that there is to see), why should any of us try to proselytize one another? Why not let our life example draw others to us, thus making it vital that we each live out our lives in the highest way possible if we expect others to walk along with us on our path?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Uh, that’s nice and all, but if you were to show up here, say, repeating long-refuted canards about evolution, I’d feel under no obligation to waste any time trying to “understand” you more. (Not that I’m saying you would do that, but if you did.)

  • ctcss

    I agree, but you’d have to actually see me post something like that before coming to such a judgement. I have posted places where far too many people would start bringing up things about taking snakes and the whole world being flooded and non-believers going to hell just because I stated that I am a Christian. I would have much preferred if they had asked first before jumping to such conclusions. And since I already stated in my post here that “(3) I have nothing against good, solid science (not religious belief masquerading as science) being taught in school”, I would have thought that you would not bring up that point as a response to my post. Your response might have been more helpfully stated if it specified that if someone else posted such drivel (not me who just went way our of his way to declare something reassuring to a non-believing crowd) that you might dismiss them quickly.

    I keep having this sinking feeling that those on different sides keep preferring to continue the sniping rather than trying to seek a way to promote healing rather than rancor.

    Do you have any hopes along such lines, or do you think that “winning” is the only recourse, despite us living in a multi-cultural society where we should be all able to learn to respect one another, despite personally disagreeing about which path seems the best to walk on?

  • MNb

    “Engage other commenters in good faith and with the goal of understanding.”
    Great. I perfectly understand what Feser writes about Aristotelian physics on his blog. It’s still manure and given the fact that Aristotelian physics has been abandoned since more than 300 years Feser has more opportunities to find out why than he will ever need.
    So I can only conclude that Feser refuses to admit to himself that he is producing manure – he may or may not be in good faith, but his goal is definitely not understanding. People like these I am not going to approach with an indulgent attitude.
    Because manure remains manure, no matter how good my faith and how deep my understanding.

    “just because I stated that I am a christian”
    That’s not the same, ctcss. Fighting strawmen isn’t any better when atheists or anti-christians do it. When someone calls him/herself a christian I think it shows stupid ignorance to assume that (s)he believes in talking snakes and world wide floods. And yes I have made myself impopular in certain atheist circles for telling them such things.
    The point is that as soon you have told me what you actually believe – let’s say the resurrection of Jesus and he being the perfect embodiment of agape, ie selfishness love – and bring up arguments for it I still want to have the freedom to call these arguments manure if I think they are. The burden of proof is on me of course; in case of Feser that’s painfully easy. The same for assuming that all christians believe in talking snakes and world wide floods.
    For the sake of clarity: me being human I have said some stupid things as well, also on internet.

    • ctcss


      “The point is that as soon you have told me what you actually believe – let’s say the resurrection of Jesus and he being the perfect embodiment of agape, ie selfishness love – and bring up arguments for it I still want to have the freedom to call these arguments manure if I think they are.”

      This is all I would ask of anyone. I don’t mind if they think that what I believe in is incorrect, or even manure. I just want them to actually try to grasp what it is that I am stating before they come to such a conclusion. Just dismissing someone without bothering to do this first is what bothers me. That’s why I liked what Libby Anne said.

      “The burden of proof is on me of course; in case of Feser that’s painfully easy.”

      This is a remarkably refreshing and honest response. I agree, some things are much easier to dismiss. But others may not be so easy to do when honestly looked at. Basically, trying to get at the truth can be a lifelong search. (My questions regarding God and the Christian theological concepts I am trying to understand and put into practice are certainly not going to quickly be answered. Studied effort on my part is going to be required and getting to the answers will take just as long as they take.) And despite people’s desire to want to rely on the scientific method for all items of inquiry, it is not actually useful unless the item being investigated can be adequately and accurately described and capable of being falsified. For instance, the existence of God is not something that fits into such a category, which means that uncertainty about that particular question is going to exist no matter how much people would like to settle it and move on. I feel that way too many people content themselves with quick armchair critiques and then assume that they have done all that there is to be done.

      “For the sake of clarity: me being human I have said some stupid things as well, also on internet.”

      Amen to that! I have said far more stupid and inconsiderate things in real life to people than I ever have online. I can only hope that all of those people who have been on the receiving end of my lack of tact will be charitable and forgive my cluelessness one day.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  • MNb

    Well, I think CH is on the same track. At several occasions he has called WLC a liar – not exactly in accordance with DF’s civility pledge – but always backed up his accusations with verifiable examples.

  • jose

    You’re like the “Thank you for smoking” guy. :) Discussion as the art of winning arguments, not finding truth.

    • Chris Hallquist

      No, you fail.

      This isn’t about reaching a predetermined conclusion at all costs. It’s about helping other people see through hacks who’ve shown they aren’t capable of having a constructive discussion.