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Not Part of the Debate Club

Charlie Jane Anders has a great post up at io9 about arguing on the internet.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been someone you wouldn’t want to invite to your party unless you want to subject people to a heated discussion of Star Trek: The Next Generation or the novels of Iain M. Banks. One of my earliest memories is of arguing on the schoolyard over who was cooler, Batman or the Doctor from Doctor Who. (I pointed out that the Doctor has two hearts, to which the other kid replied: “So does Batman!”)

So this gig, getting to be a loudmouth here at io9, has been a dream come true.

A big part of the fun of pop culture, and especially geek culture, is the debates. The internet lets us have those debates that we used to have at conventions and comic-book stores in a much wider forum. And in the process it’s deepened our relationship with the stories and ideas we love. From day one at io9, we wanted to be a part of not just covering geeky topics as news, but also helping to start intense conversations by sharing our opinions.

As you may have figured out, I like to argue. This particular kind of argument is a delight, and one that’s not exclusive to geeks. Falling into this category too are those late-night philosophical or political debates that a lot of us had in college, or those endless debates about the Oxford comma. (I’m pro-comma, for the record, because it is occasionally useful, and I like some consistency in my punctuation.)

One of the best parts of the article, however, is Charlie Jane’s recognition that not all arguments are created equal.

At the same time, I’ve definitely written things I regretted afterwards. Like that piece about atheism and science fiction a while back — that was a case where I hadn’t fully thought through what I was trying to say, and I wrote something kind of half-assed, that hurt people who already felt marginalized and under assault from mainstream culture. (And in retrospect, a lot of what I had been reading as “smugness” from a few of my fellow non-believers was probably more like anger at that marginalization.) I’m sorry about that.

Greta notes that this is an excellent example of how to apologize when you’ve gotten something wrong, and it is, but it’s more than that. It’s also a great example of the “debate club” problem–when treating argumentation as fun becomes an issue in itself. This paragraph and a couple of other points in her article highlight how this happens.

Part of what makes geeky arguments so much fun, of course, is the low stakes — we’re not doing brain surgery, and nobody’s going to die if we say the Enterprise is neater than the Millennium Falcon, or vice versa.

You’ve noticed, perhaps, that political arguments are much more fun in college than they are otherwise? College is a sheltered space, or it tries to be. Dorms, food halls, campus clinics–these things are designed to take away the concerns about housing, food, health, and transportation so students can concentrate on studying. They don’t always function that way, of course, and not everyone can afford them, but that’s the idea. Low levels of worry; more time to think and learn.

That makes those political debates, except for the ones about education funding, mostly academic. Anyone can take a side and argue free of real-world consequence. That isn’t true once we leave school and deal more directly with the implications of those political positions that were once…well, academic.

Philosophy, or the bits of it that we tend to argue for fun, are just as remote for most of us. Likewise the Oxford comma. Unless I’m in the middle of a legal battle that rests on the interpretation of an ambiguous document, the most that will happen if someone disagrees with my stance is that I’ll have to stop and reread a sentence. And if someone disagrees with me that Peter Davison is still the bestest Doctor ever? I think you get the idea.

It’s different when the argument you’re being asked to engage in “for fun” is essentially the same argument you have to have over and over in order to be allowed to fully participate in society. Or, say, to avoid being beaten to death, depending on where you are and what the argument is.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but there’s no way that can be fun. It’s just more work, with very high stakes, that you can neither afford to skip nor allow yourself to lose. I think Charlie Jane has been on the other end of that argument enough to empathize when something that may be academic fun for her isn’t for someone else, but it’s still nice to see it laid out so cleanly.

Plus I can never prove that I’m right or you’re wrong, or vice versa.

When you’re talking about fictional universes, right or wrong answers can generally only be extrapolated, unless you’re talking to the creators of those universes. Even then, few of them can keep track of their creations in the detail required to answer everyone’s questions. When we’re arguing about relative merit, we tend to elide the fact that we’re talking about what is “best for me” instead of what is “best for everyone ever”. There really are no right answers.

That isn’t always true for arguments about the real world. Sure, there are still plenty of “best for me” kinds of disputes, but there are lots of debates that go on where we have real data. It’s complicated, and few people are aware of the theories needed to contextualize it, but we have the information.

The people who understand the data and theories? Generally a subset of the same people for whom these debates are nothing like academic. I doubt anyone would be surprised by that if they stopped to think for a moment. Who else has the same motivation?

There is little as frustrating as someone who thinks arguing in ignorance is jolly, at least when the outcome matters. Arguing about quantum woo with someone who badly misuses basic physics terms is eye-rolling. Having that debate with a friend of your sick grandparents who didn’t have a good physics education while people are trying to sell them quantum woo in lieu of real medical care is maddening. And sickening when you realize they’re just arguing for fun.

Half-assing it on a geek argument is no big deal. It might annoy your debate partner if they’re looking for a challenge. Half-assing it on an argument that does have a right and a wrong, and where that right and wrong matter in the real world, is a whole different thing. If you want to argue on those matters, I’ll tell you what I would tell a creationist who wanted to argue about biology: Study your subject. Learn about the topic you want to spout off about. This stuff is complicated, but other people have taken the time to sort it out. You don’t have to start from scratch, but flaunting your ignorance is an ugly thing.

It’s worse when you’re doing it for fun.

Kudos again to Charlie Jane for sorting all this out, apologizing so well, and writing an article that will hopefully help others sort this out for themselves.


  1. says

    Unfortunately, in the U.S. creationism arguments are high stakes in the real world, because it is still being taught to children. We aren’t a post-superstitious society yet either.

  2. Beth says

    You might find this bloggers POV interesting. I can’t say I agree with him, but it did give me cause to think further about on-line discussions:

    “…A discussion that may be largely academic for many participants can be of great personal import and impact for others. It is considerably more difficult for such individuals to establish the distance between person and issue that is demanded for conventional disputation. Establishing this distance becomes all the harder when they feel that their personal stake in the issue is threatened by the other voices in the conversation….

    …Within this transformed public discourse, values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘nonjudgmentalism’, and ‘reasonableness’ are paramount – all values that result in the restriction of reason and the claims of challenging discourse from realms in which they formerly operated. ‘Tolerance’ is perceived to deny any right to subject individuals and their core beliefs and identities to the claims of any greater truth or the challenge of a broader conversation. ‘Nonjudgmentalism’ denies the right to be rigorous in forming and applying considered judgments, particularly moral ones. ‘Reasonableness’ denies us the right to introduce our deepest convictions into public discourse. To be ‘reasonable’ is to expect much less from rational discourse and the power of persuasion, reining in the socially unsettling force of challenging debate, seeking rather to settle matters using the decidedly limited resources of consensus principles…..

    …Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse….

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on his perspective.

  3. Silentbob says

    Sorry, but this sounds uncomfortably reminiscent of the argument I hear from theists all the time (a.k.a. the Courtier’s Reply).

    Half-assing it on an argument that does have a right and a wrong, and where that right and wrong matter in the real world, is a whole different thing. If you want to argue on those matters, I’ll tell you what I would tell a creationist biology professor who wanted to argue about biology the existence of God: Study your subject theology. Learn about the topic you want to spout off about. This stuff is complicated, but other people have taken the time to sort it out. You don’t have to start from scratch, but flaunting your ignorance is an ugly thing.

    I tend to think that if one’s expertise is really that much greater than that of one’s opponent, then one should have no problem demolishing their arguments. Or as Einstein supposedly said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”.

  4. octopod says

    Silentbob, the problem with that is that regardless of how easy something is to explain, when you’re arguing something that you’ve had to argue before, demolishing the same old arguments is just wearying. Have you ever graded free-response questions in a science class? If your students all have the same misconception (and they will), no matter how easy the response is, after a while you’re just bone tired of giving it and you go AAARGH and go get another drink before tackling the rest of the heap because it’s just all the same damn thing.

    And that’s without even taking up the part in the post about “if the outcome matters”, which increases your investment in the argument and makes it immediately more work as well.

    Basically, if the answer exists already, it’s just polite to go and do some basic reading on it so that you don’t contribute to the general exhaustion of the people you’re asking to engage in dialogue with you. Atheists who want to argue theology, by and large, have already done some of this and are unconvinced, which is why they’re (a) atheists and (b) looking for an argument with a theologian.

  5. octopod says

    And Beth, I thought this comment was the most interesting thing on that page, although I don’t think the author responded to it particularly lucidly. The heterotopic discourse he describes, I think, is exactly analogous to the “college debates” in this post: a setting where everyone is presumed intellectually equal, and where the matters under discussion are ones from whose direct effects all debate participants are at least slightly shielded. And unfortunately that just doesn’t exist on the Internet.

    Of course the blogger responds with something like “the problem with including women is that they spoil the discourse because men want to be nice and polite and sympathetic to them”, which, well, we’ve all seen exactly how much water that Manly Protective Impulse carries, so I’m not sure exactly what universe he’s living in…

  6. says

    Silentbob, if you’ll recall, the Courtier’s Reply was a postscript to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The difference here is the “real world” part. Also the “does have a right and wrong” part. Arguing theology is very much like arguing over any other fictional universe.

  7. says

    I managed to miss the debate about serial commas (I looked it up) and now I am outraged that I was taught there is only one way. Why didn’t they TEACH THE CONTROVERSY?!???

  8. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    I personally don’t understand the “fun” of debates over politics, or stuff as stupid as Han Solo vs. Capt. Kirk. Competition is so elevated in some cultures that it is ridiculous. (And that’s all it is: competition for its own sake. You don’t even need facts, logic, or a good argument for debating.) Among other things, this is what is wrong with the justice system in the U.S.


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