Infighting or Healthy Debate?

This was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

In the skeptic and atheist communities, we often wring our hands over how much infighting we do. Every time another firestorm of controversy eats the Internet, many of us become alarmed at the rifts dividing our community: weakening us, burning us out, making it harder for us to work together on issues we have in common, and draining our time and energy from the battles we all share.

Yet at the same time, one of the things we value most about our community is our willingness to disagree: with our leaders, with our heroes, with one another. We understand that dissent and debate are how good ideas rise to the surface and bad ideas get winnowed out, and we relish the fact that we have no dogma we’re all expected to line up behind.

So where is the line between infighting and healthy debate?

I strongly suspect that, much of the time, we draw these distinctions very subjectively. If we personally think an argument is important, then of course it’s a healthy debate; if we’re finding an argument either boring or upsetting, then it’s obviously divisive infighting. It’s the old “emotive conjugation” thing: I am debating; you are infighting; they are creating deep rifts.

So I’d like to propose some possible semi-objective standards for deciding whether a disagreement in our community is infighting or healthy debate. Or rather, since I think this difference isn’t a clear either/or dichotomy: I’d like to propose some standards for where to draw the line on the “infighting/ healthy debate” continuum. (This isn’t meant to be the final word on the subject, by the way. I’m very much thinking out loud here, I’m sure there are ideas that I’m missing, and I want this to be the start of a conversation rather than the end of one.)

Is the criticism focused on ideas and behaviors, or on people? “I disagree with you”: healthy debate. “I have serious problems with what you said/ did”: healthy debate. “You’re stupid/ evil”: infighting.

hands over ears
Are the participants in the debate willing to listen to people they’ve disagreed with before? A good idea is a good idea. Even if it comes from someone we think is a jerk. If we’re focusing our debates on ideas and behaviors instead of on people and personalities — see above — we need to accept that.

Now, this can be a tricky one. Of course it’s legitimate to not trust someone if they have a consistent pattern of being untrustworthy. And of course, we all have dealbreakers. To give just one of my own examples: I am not willing to engage with people who have used threatening, misogynistic, sexually violent language, against me or anyone else. (Unless, of course, they’ve since apologized and made amends.) And I’m not going to tell anyone else what their dealbreakers should be. We all have to keep our own conscience about that.

But if our list of dealbreakers is long and getting longer — along with our list of people we’re not willing to listen to — I think that’s a good sign that our debates aren’t healthy. If we only engage with people who we’ve always agreed with about everything, we’re eventually going to become atomized, each of us listening only to ourselves. Expecting others in the community to agree with us about everything contributes to the tendency towards tribalism… and tribalism, I think, is one of the key markers distinguishing between infighting and healthy debate.

Are the participants in the debate willing to disagree with people they’re usually allied with? Like the above, but reversed. A good idea is a good idea, even if it comes from someone we think is a jerk — and a bad idea is a bad idea, even if it comes from someone we generally like and admire.

This one can also be tricky. It makes at least some sense to cut people slack if they have a long pattern of good behavior. But if we’re defending ideas and behaviors from our friends that we wouldn’t accept in anyone else — and if our defenses of these ideas and behaviors are turning into rationalizations, and are getting more and more contorted — I think that’s a good sign that the debate isn’t healthy. Again: Our willingness to disagree with each other is a strength, not a weakness. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.

elevators sign
Are old fights being irrelevantly dragged into the conversation? I have found that it’s just about impossible to even say the name “Rebecca Watson” without someone bringing up Elevatorgate. I could write a blog post about how Rebecca Watson likes apple pie and thinks kittens are cute, and someone will bring up Elevatorgate. This, in my opinion, is not helpful.

Yes, sometimes old fights are relevant to the current one. But lots of times, they’re not. And they tend to open up old wounds, and divide people into camps based on where they came down in the last debate. If we’re having a new debate, and we’re about to bring an old one into it, I think it’s worth stopping and asking ourselves, “Is this really relevant?”

Is much of the debate turning into a meta-debate over who was mean to whom first? Tone-trolling is infighting. Almost inevitably. If an argument is focusing on who said what to whom, and when, and how, and in what tone, and whether which people were mean or unfair or deliberately misunderstanding each other… it almost never makes for productive discourse. Unless you consider the social interactions of seventh-graders to be a model of productive discourse. If we see that happening, I think we can try to shift the conversation back to the actual content of the actual topic being discussed. Sometimes this means taking the high road, and being the bigger person, and letting obnoxious insults pass. Suck it up. Virtue is its own reward.

Is much of the debate turning into a meta-debate over whether we should even be having the debate at all? I find it baffling when people’s sole contribution to a debate is, “Why are we even talking about this? Why are we wasting our time on this topic?” It’s like going to a discussion board about golf, and asking why everyone there is wasting their time talking about this boring game.

Except that it’s not actually all that baffling. It’s a classic “Shut up, that’s why” gambit. It’s a way of trivializing concerns that many other people consider legitimate. And it’s a way of derailing the conversation, so the actual substance of it doesn’t have to be addressed. All of which is divisive, rather than productive.

evidence stamp
Is there any evidence that will convince us to change our minds? Religious believers aren’t the only ones who make unfalsifiable claims, or who persistently move the goalposts for what kinds of evidence will persuade them. This is a human tendency, and we all do it. And it doesn’t make for productive resolution of disagreements.

So if someone is making a not-at-all-extraordinary claim, a claim that’s thoroughly backed up by extensive evidence — such as the claim that racism exists, and is a real problem with observable bad effects — and people are constantly moving the goalposts for what kind of evidence would convince them of this claim, and are demanding more evidence for it than they would for homeopathy or Bigfoot… it’s hard to see that as a healthy, productive debate. A suggestion: If a debate seems to be getting bogged down, let’s state clearly what kind of evidence would change our minds — and ask the people we’re debating to do the same.

Are the arguments being presented to people who can do something about it? There was a recent debate on my blog about sexual harassment policies/ codes of conduct at atheist/ skeptical conferences, in which one person was objecting vehemently and at great length to one particular piece of wording in the American Atheists’ code of conduct. When asked whether he had expressed these objections to American Atheists — who have publicly stated that their code of conduct is a living document open to change, and have expressly solicited feedback on it — he dodged the question, and said that the person arguing with him was trying to “shame him into silence.” If you’re more concerned about winning a debate in an Internet forum than you are about making your case to people who can effect the change you’re advocating… it’s hard to see that as anything other than infighting.

Plus sign
Are positive solutions being proposed?

This one, I think, is huge.

If a debate is focusing entirely on proving other people wrong, to the exclusion of proposing actual, practical solutions to the issues being discussed… that sets off every “infighting” alarm bell that I have.

I should be very clear about this: I don’t think positive solutions have to be proposed instead of smacking down bad ideas. I think smacking down bad ideas is important. In fact, it often has to happen for positive action to take place. Discussions of how best to address racial inequality, for instance, aren’t going to get very far if we don’t first persuade people that racial inequality, you know, exists, and is a bad thing, and is worth addressing.

But if the entire debate is focused on “here’s why you’re wrong,” and nobody is saying “here, specifically, is what I think the problem is and what we should be doing about it”? That’s an excellent signpost of an unhealthy, infighty debate.

And that’s a good time to… well, to start making specific, positive, practical suggestions about what we should be doing.

Infighting or Healthy Debate?
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14 thoughts on “Infighting or Healthy Debate?

  1. 1

    I think healthy dissent is healthy. On that level, it’s a “duh”.

    I disagree with “leaders” all the time. Dawkins, Harris, PZ…heck, I’ve disagreed with Dan Dennett. Who disagrees with Dan Dennett? And, of course, I thought Hitchens had completely gone off the rails with regard to the Iraq debacle. Nobody’s ideas are 100% aligned with my own. Why should they be?

    But each and every one of those people has earned my respect in countless other ways. So, if I disagree with Dawkins on the subject of whether a Muslim can believe in flying horses and be a credible journalist, well, that’s just me thinking for myself. (FWIW: Lots of highly reputable journalists believe in water-walking, death-defying demi-gods/god-avatars.) So, I always give them the benefit of the doubt, and I keep an open mind when evaluating what they’re saying.

    However, and this is the big “however” in your second point — I don’t extend the same courtesy to the slyme. Reap Paden, Justin Vacula, “vjack” and all the rest have absolutely nothing to say that is worth listening to.

    Why? Because they have proven themselves over and over again to be intellectually incapable of understanding the simplest of arguments. They attack person and not idea. They mock and slander without ever trying to bring forth a credible argument. They think bullying and harassment is an effective debate tactic and not an example of abhorrent immature behavior.

    Fuck them. I won’t have anything to do with them. And if I miss out on something “important” because of that — well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. And frankly, the likelihood of that happening is vanishingly small in any event. They’re emotionally immature and intellectually stunted. I’m quite sure the only thing I learn from that type of person is how to not engage in interpersonal relations.

  2. 2

    Kevin @ #1: Yup. Not disagreeing in the slightest. That’s a big part of why I wrote this:

    “Of course it’s legitimate to not trust someone if they have a consistent pattern of being untrustworthy. And of course, we all have dealbreakers. To give just one of my own examples: I am not willing to engage with people who have used threatening, misogynistic, sexually violent language, against me or anyone else. (Unless, of course, they’ve since apologized and made amends.)”

  3. 3

    I feel like I have been saying the same thing for awhile. (only much less coherently)

    I can hardly stand to read anything anymore because the comments are filled with petty feelings and hurts long since passed. I would much rather hear the ideas discussed and not an attack on an individual.

    Sometimes the facelessness of the internet makes it too easy to be way more bold or rude than people tend to be in person.

  4. 5

    A lot of that gets easier if the parties concerned can begin to see their own ego and sub-group preferences and resentments as less important than the job of advancing, in this case, skepticism and atheism. Dedication to the larger cause can allow people who can hardly stand to be in the same room together to work together.

    Of course, working together doesn’t make any of those other issues go away. It is a delicate balancing act between getting people to march in something close enough to lockstep to be effective and thrashing/fighting/negotiating/massaging interpersonal/inter-group disagreements/misunderstandings/differences/jealousies/resentments.

    Not to mention that some otherwise good people with only the best of intentions just can’t prevent themselves from acting out their own internal conflicts, stirring the pot, or scratching the itch they feel when everybody is getting along. For every two people there are three contradictory and deeply held opinions. The inherent human tendency toward ambivalence and cognitive dissonance are drivers for a lot of conflicts. Both internal and interpersonal.

    On the one hand anybody with the smallest amount of sensitivity to issues like misogyny and racism will find it difficult to deal with people using blatantly/egregiously offensive language. It can be a deal killer. Particularly when the person at fault answers objections by essentially doubling-down. On the other side those sorts of issues are thousands of years old and are not going to be settled to anyone’s satisfaction any time soon and demanding ideological and rhetorical purity is also a potential deal killer. Taking the rhetorical rough edges off both sides helps but it isn’t as simple as splitting the difference. One side is clearly more right/functional/correct than the other. You need guidelines and community standards. But you can’t make hashing out those standards and negotiating the differences so big an issue and time sink that the larger collective purpose is lost.

    None of this is made any easier when the coalition you are seeking to maintain is more liberal than not. Conservatives pride themselves on their insensitivity, ability to march in lockstep, and sacrifice their feelings for the ideological effort. All the better to roll over and dominate their opponents. Liberals pride themselves on their empathy, sensitivity, individual conscience, and unwillingness to use nasty methods to get to sweeter ends. Liberals want their rhetoric, methodology, and ends to be coherent. Ideally all actions are determined by enthusiastic unanimous consent by all involved. It is a much harder job.

    Herding cats is an appropriate metaphor.

  5. 6

    I once had an unusual case of using “Why are we even talking about this?” in a meta way with a racist troll I once roasted: He cited a study that found a very small difference in average IQ between children of different races. Noteworthy is the part he missed: the variation within each race dwarfed the variation between races. Even if I were to accept his baseless assertion that this IQ difference between the races was genetically based instead of caused by the usual historical, cultural, social, and economic factors (which the paper went out of its way to avoid claiming, being aware of its numerous limitations), race would still be a poor guide for evaluating someone’s intelligence.

    So I pointed out all that and bluntly asked him what decision-making processes I would need to change if he were right. Essentially, I was pointing out that by citing that study, he was arguing that the effect of race on IQ was almost negligible, and thus not worth acting on. If I was hiring people based on their IQ, I would still give every applicant an IQ test and pick the person with the highest score. There’d be no reason to throw out all the black people because they’d still have a good chance at being the highest, even if it wasn’t completely even odds. In other words, “so what?” What were the positive things we could do as a society that were justified by this claim?

    Of course, the logic of the request didn’t penetrate his skull, and he took it as me saying that I didn’t know why I was arguing with him and he laughed at me for spending a non-zero amount of effort. Of course, he chickened out of answering when my readers and I kept asking the question.

  6. 7

    I’d especially like to see more examples of people on either side speaking about disagreements with their own side. Perhaps these “friendly” disagreements among allies can act as a model for the “unfriendly” disagreements. Actually, what disappoints me (just a little!) about this list most is how it obliquely references several times what the “other side” is doing wrong, and lacks any examples of healthy disagreement.

  7. 8

    Great article, Greta. However, I fully expect the response from the Slyme Side to be, “It’s all FTB’s fault that this isn’t a healthy debate.” It’s almost as if much of that particular debate is turning into a meta-debate over who was mean to whom first. 😀

    On an unrelated note, am I the only one bothered by the fact that the “evidence” stamp in the stock photo you used doesn’t actually match its inked counterpart?

  8. 9

    As long as we stick with the fact that the principal issue dividing us lately is the question of how to move out of the “boys’ club” it and its forerunners had become. This is a great time to be a secularist, when we have the makings of a truly universal, diverse and inclusive secular movement.

  9. 12

    I disagree with you”: healthy debate. “I have serious problems with what you said/ did”: healthy debate. “You’re stupid/ evil”: infighting.

    Actually, our position when it comes to slyme is clear and no dichotomy needed: “I have serious problems with what you said/did, and you’re stupid/evil.”

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