Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Tone Arguments

「Some of the worst behavior I have seen has come from some white allies who seem to think that jumping on other white people the hardest gets them extra ally points」 — seen on LJ

I make Tone Arguments. I believe Tone Arguments are appropriate to make as part of philosophical discourse. I believe that when discussing issues, philosophical discourse is the right discourse to use, not multiculturalist/affirming discourse.

First, let's understand what I'm talking about. A Tone Argument is a meta-argument in a discussion, based on standards of philosophical discourse, suggesting that passion in an argument needs to be restrained so as not to be expressed in certain ways. It is not an argument against passion in general, nor an argument that people should not care about the issue being discussed. Rather, it aims to keep the discourse civil, structured, and respectful (not necessarily of the views, but of the people).

What does it mean to be civil? This is a complex matter; one component of civility is not to seek catharsis in the expressions of one's views. Another is, if characterisation of another person's views or arguments is called for, that characterisation should be as minimally grumbly as is necessary to get the point across (e.g. "You are not making good arguments here; you assert this without support here, you are inconsistent there" is better than "Your arguments are shit and you couldn't argue your way out of a paper sack. You fail in consistency here and are ignorant there"). Dehumanisation and insults are to be avoided.

What do we do when incivility comes up? In Usenet Tradition, there is the observation (called Godwin's Law) that in any sufficiently heated/long conversation, the chance that someone will compare someone else's views to Hitler's approaches one as time goes on. Also by Usenet Tradition, that ends the discussion; the person who makes the argument is considered to have lost. Likewise, mild incivility is just cause for embarassment; well-behaved people will be embarassed when it happens, acknowledge it, and try to restrain themselves better. If they can't manage that, they'll withdraw from the discussion. Heavy incivility may end the discussion immediately; the person who misbehaved is considered to have lost and should be ashamed; ideally, they recognise this themself and apologise and run off. Less ideally, they're booted from the conversation.

Why do we require civility? What good is it?

  • Incivility is fluff. The insults add no substance to the conversation, and while decent, disciplined people will skip over that content and lose some respect for the person who is incivil, others may be distracted by it.
  • Undisciplined people might be drawn to the catharsis that incivil dialogue brings the speaker; this is mostly a danger for people who agree with the misbehaving speaker, and mostly for people who have a similar lack of discipline. That groupthought-catharsis damages the value of the discussion
  • Incivility is rude
  • Incivility will never convince the listener, or leave them with ideas to think about. It enflames tensions rather than spreads ideas, and enhances an us-versus-them mentality
  • The incivil are often less likely to have a reasoned position, because most issues are pretty complicated and it is hard for anyone to grasp nuance when they are sufficiently angry and expressing it
Note that deliberately/specifically trying to get under another person's skin through careful jabs that are not visible to most people is itself a form of incivility; each person in a discussion should take care that their points are expressed in a way that they might convince anyone listening, including the person they're debating about.

The tone argument is a meta-argument, not an argument. When we hear it, it's a call to step back and boot someone from the discussion who's broken rules of philosophical disourse; it is not a call for conclusion. Someone might be civil but wrong, or incivil but right. Losing an argument because of recognised incivility is done without prejudice to the argued cause. We dismiss the person, not the argument. We usually do so temporarily at first, but if a pattern emerges, they should get a reputation as being broken on the topic.

This is also not a call for moderate positions, just moderate discourse. There are many things in the world getting very passionate about, some of which might even be worth spilling blood over (such as slavery). Still, if we are to have a discussion on the topic, we need to be civilised about it, or we may as well not bother entering the conversation.

(I recognise that there are people who greatly abuse the notion of civility, marking as incivil any attempt to challenge their cherished views, any attempt to show their arguments to be broken, or the like; I consider that just as damaging to good discourse as ignoring tone entirely)

Tags: philosophy

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