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Just as a quick note, since I know a lot of people (including myself) have been scratching out heads over the avalanche of straw men that kicked off this mess, and wondering what the heck is going on with that. I’ve had and observed several conversations that basically go:

  • Other person: Alex said X.
  • Me: No she didn’t. She said Z.
  • Other person: No, she said X.
  • Me: But see here? Look. At the words. She says Z.
  • Other person: Well I disagree. She said X.
  • And so on forever until I gnaw on my desk.

I know I’m not the only one. And I’ve seen a lot of dismissive variations on “these people are idiots.” Yeah, I get that this is frustrating, when you can’t even get the other person to acknowledge that a fact is, you know, actually a fact1. But it’s an enormous mistake to dismiss people who disagree with you like this as stupid/delusional/insane2.

[ETA: Please note that this is specifically in regards to arguments that involve untrue facts or statements that are provably untrue. Policy arguments, value judgments, and the like? I don't think you should be dismissing people as stupid/delusional/insane over that either, but it's also not the topic at hand here.]

To start with, then you start sounding like people who say things like, “All liberals want to destroy free speech.” Or whatever. It’s sloppy thinking, it’s dehumanizing, and if your opponent in an argument is doing a thing that’s pissing you off, it behooves you to not retaliate by doing the same thing.

The thing you have to realize is generally, people who point at an untrue fact or statement and indicate that this is the hill they are willing to die on are not stupid. They are more likely just very, very invested in a worldview that requires said untrue fact or statement to be true.

Carol Tavris did an excellent talk about this at TAM 2011, in regards to dissonance theory: (start at around 10:30 for the really pertinent stuff)

This is the money quote:

The problem we face then is not just bad or foolish people doing bad and foolish things and justifying them. It’s good people, smart people, ethical people, competent people who do foolish and wrongheaded things and justify them in order to preserve their belief that they’re smart, good, ethical, and competent.

Does considering the situation from this angle make any difference to the current argument? Eh, probably not. Lines have already been drawn, and I feel like a certain set of self identified “conservatives” are invested in the idea that Alex is the evil queen of the liberal literati and wants to force every writer to adhere to a ridiculous checklist. Somehow. (Originally a hyperbolic statement? Quite possibly. When it’s being repeated and defended like actual truth, though, it stops being merely a ridiculous rhetorical device.)

But I really wanted to point this out because it happens on the internet. A lot. And it’s easy to dismiss other people as stupid and willfully blind, particularly when the frustration level starts to climb. But if nothing else, going to that mental place effects your rhetoric, which can mean sounding like a total jerk if there are undecided bystanders, and also act as confirmation for such belief affirming statements as, “all [group] are whiny assholes.” Etc.

And I also wanted to point this out because each and every one of us is capable of being in this mental position. (I know I sure have been before, and it’s not a fun hole to climb out of.) So be mindful of that. Be as critical toward your own reasoning as you are to anyone else’s.

As in all things, your mileage may vary. Goodness knows I’m not perfect at this, and I have zero room to be preaching at people. But I felt compelled to point this out because I’ve been making a very conscious effort lately to be mindful of the basic humanity in other people, even if they lack the courtesy to recognize my basic humanity and that of my friends in return.

That’s the kind of person I want to be. Even if sometimes I can only manage it after I’ve stepped away from the keyboard, taken some deep breaths, and counted to ten. Twice. In every language I know the numbers for.


1 - Welcome to the goddamn life of anyone who has ever done any research related to climate science. Whee.

2 – And seriously stop using insanity or implications of mental illness as a go-to. Political opinions and nearly all conspiracy thinking are not mental illness. This is not a path you want to go down, and it’s extremely insulting and dismissive to anyone who has an actual mental illness. (And this is a thing I need to be aware of myself, since I have a tendency to throw around the word crazy. Sigh.)

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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