Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has an awesome post about a terrible argument:
Recently, Alas, A Blog wrote an article saying that Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, — and…
No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another.1
You should probably go read the whole thing because it’s great. But in case you don’t have time, here’s the highlight of Scott’s takedown of Alas, A Blog‘s argument:
In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.
So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.
Yes, yes, yes. This is how you think productively about mind-killers.
See what happens when you actually give a damn about the people on the other side? See what happens when you model them as people, instead of, I don’t know, machines designed to transform food and water into misogynistic arguments? What happens is that you start to actually understand them and then maybe you can have a productive debate that doesn’t end up with everyone flailing around madly like usual. (Maybe. The last part’s still hard.)
I see this happening all the time and it makes me really sad. Especially because of how frequently it happens to people who hold completely reasonable and opinions. They go around thinking (justifiably, usually) that they’re right about something, and then before long they’ve lost sight of the fact that the person they’re arguing with is a real person with a real background and experiences and emotions, not some abstract idea of The Other Side that they have to score points on.
Please don’t let this happen to you. Repeat after me:
My opponent is a real person.
They are not some abstract set of arguments.
They are a complicated lump of thoughts and feelings and desires and beliefs, just like other real people.
They are not there to “score points on”, but to find the truth with.
My opponent’s values are not insane.
If it seems like they are, I will think harder.
Then I will figure out what is actually going on and solve that problem, instead of ranting about them to my friends to show off my brilliance and correctness.
For clarity, it does not necessarily reflect my views that I’m praising a piece attacking a pro-choice article. A bad argument is a bad argument. ↩︎