There has been a lot of discussion in the past couple of months about issues relating to civility and politeness in online debate. Much of that discussion has focused on the the expression of anger and the recourse to insults and abuse in debate – understandably, because this is perhaps the most visible aspect of civility, and the aspect that has the most effect on people engaged in debate. I think that’s a discussion worth having – we need to find some compromise between using norms of politeness as a tool for silencing dissenting voices, and endorsing an anything goes approach where people can be as abusive, hurtful or threatening as they like. But I also think this misses out on a more important, because more fundamental, aspect of civility, namely: the principle of charity. Acceptance of and compliance with the principle of charity is a basic requirement of civility and should be regarded as a necessary condition for engaging in public debate – if someone is not prepared to be charitable, then we shouldn’t be prepared to debate with them.
As critics of notions of civility and politeness rightly point out, these norms have always been used as a tool to exclude some people from the discussion. Indeed, that is their function – they serve to exclude the uncivil, and therefore to allow debate to proceed without being derailed or disrupted. And it is true that these norms have often been interpreted in such a way as to justify the exclusion of people raising difficult questions, or to stifle dissent. One very quick and easy way of discrediting one’s opponents, or excluding them from discussion before it has even begun, is to label them as somehow unreasonable, and therefore not worth our time arguing with. And of course, historically it has often been members of oppressed or disadvantaged groups who have been labelled unreasonable. Particular groups, such as women or ethnic minorities, are socially coded as ’emotional’, and therefore irrational or unreasonable; this is then used to justify excluding them from discourse. They are told: “we are prepared to talk to you, if you would only calm down and be reasonable!” This occurs even though such groups are no more prone to anger or emotional outburst than others. They have just been culturally defined as emotional; and even though such groups may have legitimate cause for anger or outrage, and may be entirely justified in feeling anger, and expressing it. So it is easy to understand why some people are unhappy being told they need to be more polite before we will talk to them about their concerns, and why many activists reject all calls for civility in discourse as an attempt by the dominant and powerful to silence dissent and exclude troublesome voices.
But this is too quick. We cannot possibly proceed to have a discussion without some ground rules, if only to allow us to discuss anything without the conversation being derailed by irrelevant concerns. Whenever we engage in debate, we all implicitly accept a rule that says we will try to stay broadly on topic, and only make points that are relevant to the matter at hand – hence why feminists are so frequently frustrated with responses to their arguments that simply say – “well what about men, they have a tough time too!” Similarly, we all implicitly accept a general norm of truth-telling – those who break this rule and tell lies are only able to do so by virtue of the fact that we have all accepted the norm of truth-telling, which is what enables the liar to be believed. Even those who argue for allowing a broad range of expressions of anger and other emotions would presumably want to draw the line at threats and ad hominem attacks (and indeed, most of those who want to allow aggression and abuse as expressions of anger tend to apply this only to the side of the argument they believe is right, and therefore justified in being angry. Few people are happy to let the powerful and the privileged be aggressive and abusive to their opponents; it is regarded as a tool to be used by those lacking in privilege.) So, once we’ve accepted all this, we are already well on the way to acknowledging that there need to be rules governing civility and politeness in debate – we just have to agree on what those are.
I think there are good reasons for us to restrict certain forms of expression on the grounds that they are excessively aggressive, hostile or abusive, for reasons that have surely been elaborated on elsewhere – it’s disrespectful, hurtful, and it’s counterproductive. But before we even get to the stage where we are levelling insults or being aggressive, we have a more fundamental duty of civility to apply the principle of charity.
The principle of charity is fundamentally a methodological presumption of rational argument that has various formulations, but says something like: we ought to try to understand any position in its strongest, most persuasive form before we attack it. But I think we should also consider it a moral obligation that we owe to anybody we engage in debate with, in whatever forum that debate may take place: we owe it to them to try to interpret them and their views in their strongest, most persuasive, and most reasonable light. Rather than imputing to them the view we believe that people like them usually hold, or the view we want them to hold because it’s easiest to attack, we should make a good-faith, sincere attempt to understand what it is they might actually mean, assuming that they, like us, are reasonable people.
A lot of work is done in this principle by the notion of reasonableness. In the context of public debate, I think reasonableness has two elements: first, respecting others as equal parties in the discourse; and second, arguing in good faith and making a sincere and genuine attempt to persuade others of the rightness of your views, or to get to the truth. If you don’t meet either of these conditions, then you are not a reasonable participant to the discussion, and other reasonable people are perfectly entitled to exclude you.
As a reasonable person, you ought to accept and uphold the principle of charity when debating with others. This principle requires you to do the following things:
1. Assume that the person you are talking to is reasonable, just as you are reasonable. Of course, this assumption may be overriden by good evidence that the person you are talking to is not reasonable – if they’ve just called you a stupid bitch, for example, they’ve clearly indicated they don’t respect you as an equal participant to the discussion. If they’ve obviously lied to you, then you are justified in assuming they are not making a good faith attempt to engage in debate. But until there is strong evidence to the contrary, charity requires you to assume the person you are debating with is reasonable, until they prove themselves to be otherwise.
2. Given that you are assuming them to be reasonable, try to interpret what they are saying in the most reasonable light. What is the most reasonable possible explanation for what this person has said? So for example, we should assume someone to be well-intentioned and yet misguided and ill-informed, rather than leaping to assume they are bigoted or malicious. This requirement is something like Hanlon’s Razor – don’t attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity. If someone asks questions, we should assume that they are genuinely meant in the spirit of inquiry, rather than motivated by more malicious or sinister intentions. Furthermore, we should assume that the person is arguing in good faith and is sincere – that they genuinely believe the view that they profess to hold. (Unless, of course, we are trying to work out whether a particularly obnoxious viewpoint is being sincerely professed or is an attempt at satire – in these cases, charity would have us interpret it ironically, until we have good evidence otherwise). We should also recognise the scope for reasonable disagreement – that is, that there are issues on which people can hold opposing views, and yet neither one be unreasonable.
3. Assume that the person you are talking to is rational, just as you are rational. That is, assume that they have the same capacities for rational thought, reasoning and logic that you have, and that these are operating properly. Again, this assumption can be overridden in the light of good evidence, but until we know either way, we should assume our interlocutors to be rational and well-informed, and assume that like we do, they seek to hold a set of beliefs that is logical, consistent and rationally grounded.
4. Given that you are assuming them to be rational, try to interpret what they are saying in the most rational light. Try to reconstruct their argument in its most logical, coherent, consistent form, and then attack that where appropriate. This means we avoid erecting straw men versions of people’s positions to be gleefully knocked down.
This might all seem rather obvious; and indeed, if you are a decent critical thinker then it should be obvious, as it is an important presumption in our reasoning processes. But I was motivated to write about it because in online debate, I see the principle of charity being violated daily; people interpreting others’ well-intentioned but misguided statements as evidence of bigotry; people twisting and interpreting others’ words to make them seem malicious or sinister. (On a charitable interpretation of this failure of charity, this happens unintentionally; being less charitable, I suspect some people deliberately misread and distort others’ views.) And it is this, as much as anything, that leads to feuds and fallouts and the outpourings of fury and vitriol we have seen recently. Being interpreted uncharitably is a form of injustice, and makes people angry. Particularly when this uncharitable interpretation is accompanied by abuse or insult, they are likely to respond in a similar fashion, and before we know it, a vicious and unpleasant war of words has broken out that is upsetting on all sides. A lot of this could be avoided before it’s even begun if we kept the principle of charity in mind when engaging in debate, and thought of it as a moral constraint on our interactions with others that it is up to us to police.
So as a rule of thumb, I propose a Golden Rule for public debate: Interpret others as you would have them interpret you.