Debating Charitably

In the age of emotionally-charged bickering replacing reasonable discussion (especially when it comes to politics), framing the opponent’s argument in a way that’s easy to defeat is a common tactic. If you’ve heard about “straw man arguments”, you know what distortion of the opponent’s position does to debate – it reduces two sides to arguing past each other.

If you look at how people who care about discussion try to alleviate the problem of finding a set of common points to argue, you’ll probably find out about the “principle of charity”. It’s pretty simple: try to interpret the other side’s argument so that as many statements as possible turn out to be rational. Not because you have to agree, but because a common ground is necessary for finding solutions, and undermining someone’s rationality rarely gives you any.

But a cursory glance at the state of most public debates shows that we’re not generally treating this principle seriously. Why? One of the answers, it seems, lies in the fact that conflict is simply entertaining. And in a society that expects entertainment in life, the most spectacular forms will always triumph over the reasonable ones. That’s where the audience will gather. And the result is that even though we know better, our appetite for emotional outbursts overcomes us. It’s as though, in the words of Neil Postman, we want to “Amuse Ourselves to Death”.

Nobody is a saint when it comes to arguing, and I am as guilty of misrepresenting people’s arguments at one point or another as anyone else. It’s something that just happens in exchanges. But once you know of it, there is no reason to not try and be charitable. If you want to be taken seriously, why not treat the other side as such?



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