Greta Christina on infighting vs. healthy debate

A week ago, Greta Christina posted an article she had written that originally appeared in Free Inquiry on the difference between infighting and healthy debate. Her suggested criteria are mostly very good, with a couple I’d quibble with and a couple that look hopeless.

The good: Greta emphasizes the need for people to be willing to do things like listen to people they’ve disagreed with before, disagree with people whose “side” they’re usually on, and be persuaded by evidence. These are all, obviously, very important. One thing I might add in the spirit of the first two is that you shouldn’t insist on seeing people as being on one side or the other in the first place, if they freely disagree with people on both “sides.”

My quibbles: Greta asks, “Is the criticism focused on ideas and behaviors, or on people?” While I’m generally in favor of the former, when there’s a pattern of behavior, sometimes drawing an appropriate conclusion about the person’s behavior is unavoidable. At the same time, I’m in favor of being cautious about that. And maybe Greta wouldn’t disagree with any of what I’ve just said; maybe she’d say that while infighting is generally bad, sometimes it too is unavoidable.

Similarly, I agree with Greta that meta-debates tend to be annoying, but sometimes they may be unavoidable. Especially when someone starts by saying, “oh no, look at this horrible thing these people are doing for no reason”–it’s hard not to respond, “actually, they were doing that because ________.”

The two that look hopeless are the last two, that ask whether the arguments being presented to people who can do something about it, and whether positive solutions are being proposed, look like nice ideas, but seriously, this is the internet. If we were talking about political fights, would anyone think it was sensible to ask, “have you written your congresscritter about this?” as a trump card?

And the demand for positive solutions again, sounds nice–who could be against positive things?–but the reality is that a bad idea is a bad idea regardless of the presence of a “positive alternative” (unless you count “not that” or “let’s not implement the bad idea”). It’s a little too reminiscent of Christians demanding atheists present an entire theory of morality before rejecting the theory that you should kill gays when the Bible tells you to.

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