I’ve written before about being unsatisfied with the charitable vs. uncharitable dichotomy, and recent discussion of Dan Fincke’s “civility pledge” (see for example Russell Blackford here) has me thinking more about it. I explained my basic issue with “civility” in this post:
I have mixed feelings about the so-called “principle of charity,” which Russell Blackford once stated as, “read others on the basis that they are probably saying something that’s not absurd.” On the one hand, people say absurd things often enough that this may not be such a great assumption when it comes to figuring out what’s actually be true, people’s feelings be damned.
Now other people might mean something different from Russell (Chana Messinger maybe), but Russell’s definition is pretty close to how I usually hear it defined, so attempts to define it some very different way are likely to be confusing, so I think I’ve got a good basis for thinking calls for “charity” are problematic.
On the other hand, I think there is a common problem somewhere in this area, described in Russell’s post linked above and in a very smart comment I saw made by Democratus Reno on Facebook:
I’ve seen a lot of these fights go down online and I don’t think incivility is the problem so much as defining other people’s views for them. If you tell someone he hates women, he’ll get mad not because it was rude but because he thinks you are lying about his views. This can get complicated because why people say they hold their positions, why they think they do and why they really do are often three different things, but I think the key is to only engage with things people actually say and inferences you can mmake from what they say (you must show your work in this case) not what you assume they believe or what their “side” believes.
Maybe it would be helpful to, instead of insisting that people read charitably, insist they read faithfully, adhering as much as possible to what the writer actually wrote. So you don’t have to assume they couldn’t possibly be saying anything absurd, but you shouldn’t just assume they’re saying something absurd either. To accuse someone of an absurdity, you need to show them asserting it, or have a clear-cut argument their words imply it, or something of that nature.
In that sense, we can reject calls for “charity” while also condemning “uncharitable” readings if what we mean by that is putting words in someone’s mouth, always assuming whatever interpretation of a view is easiest to attack, etc.
Side note: if it’s true that the big problem with certain online fights is not incivility, that itself seems like a good reason to reject any detailed “civility pledge.” Dan’s pledge, if adopted in full, is a pretty heavy burden on how we conduct our conversations and such heavy burdens aren’t something you want to take on unless they actually solve the problem you’re trying to solve.