How about “faithful reading” as an alternative to the charitable vs. uncharitable dichotomy?

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.

Avoiding divorce doesn’t make you a traditionalist
Warren Buffett’s son is almost completely wrong about charity
Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
What are you going to do with that?
  • D4M10N

    Saying it’s a heavy burden implicitly assumes that civility will somehow hold us back from reaching Dan’s stated goals. I’ve yet to see any solid evidence that incivility (in the sense enumerated in Dan’s post) has been shown to lighten the load.

  • qvsmd

    One of the problems I have with communication is that people say lots of ambiguous things. Sometimes the ambiguity can lead to interpretations that mean completely opposite things. I frequently ask people “did you mean x or y?”, but I very rarely hear other people ask for similar clarifications. I’ve asked people about this before, and typically the answer is that they assumed one of the possible interpretations without considering the others, and when they know the person who was talking, they usually assume correctly.

    “people say absurd things often enough that this may not be such a great assumption”

    Unless they’re trolling or joking, they don’t think they’re saying absurd things. Unless you know that their statement is based on assumptions you disagree with, I think Russell Blackford’s method is the right one.

  • Yvain

    Problem is, if we expect ourselves to be biased sometimes we have to deliberately overshoot.

    Take planning fallacy. If my best estimate of how long a project will take is one month, maybe I should expect two months because I don’t trust my best estimate. Here one month is being “faithful” to the evidence, two months is taking the outside view.

    I think there might be a similar problem with reading the works of people you disagree with. If you expect your brain to be biased in favor of thinking they’re dumb, then just saying “Well, as far as I can tell I read it faithfully, and it turned out not to be dumb” is dangerous. Giving it more credit than you think it deserves, in the same way you give the task more time than you think it deserves, might be a useful safety buffer.