Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
A few days ago, I posted about a piece by South African author Tauriq Moosa, relating to such things as the practice of charitable interpretation on the internet. He has now followed up with a Part 2, which again emphasizes the Millian conception of intellectual inquiry.
Tauriq (who tells me he’d rather I call him by his first name in posts like this) begins by talking about the danger for truth of engaging in vitriol:
This is a problem that persists not only for blog commenters and trolls, but everyone – including the blogger herself. As Mill said: “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them”. If we create spaces of reasoned debate – websites, magazines, blogs – in which we always praise the prevailing opinion [of that space, not of society] and disregard with “unmeasured vituperation” anything other than full-throated acquiescence, it is no longer a space for inquiry but of dogmatic following, of uncritical agreement.
Quite so. Tauriq responds to this by emphasising the principle of charity, and that, in particular, it is better to assume you are dealing with someone who has somewhat opaque (to you) thought processes or an unfortunate way of expressing their view, or who is, perhaps, simply mistaken about something, rather than that you are dealing with someone who is disingenuous or horrible. Again, that seems like good advice, at least until you see a pattern of behaviour that suggests you really are dealing with a vicious person.
And even if you see what looks like a pattern, you can’t easily be sure where somebody is coming from. The same questions or ideas may be provoked in different people who have very different overall value and belief systems – in most cases, you’re getting only a limited sample of what this person is really like and of what may actually be bugging her. There may be important aspects of her that are hidden from your view.
Tauriq then has quite a bit to say about mocking or deriding people. Here, there might be some room for disagreement, or at least for further thought, so permit me to quote him at some length:
I think a rule of thumb should be that some people are very good at persuading using mockery, satire and so on; but that requires skill that most of us do not have. Most of us should err on the side of trying our best to respond without namecalling and putting emotions before justification – even if a view is horribly wrong. This is difficult and, probably, most of us have failed often at this: due to knee-jerk reactions, being pushed too far, touching a particularly sensitive topic, and so on. Perhaps this gets reinforced when our anger and animosity drives the offender away. But even here, this is probably not a good thing because, as Mill points out, there are greater concerns than getting a kick out of mocking someone to silence: there is the worry that such an attitude helps foster in-group tribalism, non-engagement with alternative ideas and, indeed, prevents debate from occurring since any alternate ideas could be viewed as only stemming from “bad” people.
I’m very much in sympathy with all of this. In particular, nothing is gained by creating an environment so hostile to an interlocutor that he or she gives up, perhaps feeling frustrated or hurt, and goes away. Where’s the intellectual progress in that? Even if you have, in a sense “defeated” this person, you have not thereby defeated her argument. In fact, you’ve deprived yourself of something that you should normally welcome: an opportunity to hear an argument that might, if you seriously consider what strengths it may turn out to have, prompt you to change your mind (at least on points of detail), or to add extra nuance, depth, or clarity to your position.
Even if it becomes apparent that you’ve heard it all before, there may be others, i.e. bystanders, who have not, and who might profit from seeing your interlocutor add a bit to the debate.
That said, I do think there is a place for mockery and denunciation. For example, it may be legitimate to tell someone that she’s being ridiculous insofar as she’s relying on a premise that seems absurd, or for a conclusion that’s absurd on its face. You might want to use rhetoric, imagery, etc., to try to get your interlocutor and others to shift perspective and see the absurdity that you (think you) see. That’s a legitimate way to argue, and it is not simply a way of trying to drive off a despised opponent.
Sometimes it may, in fact, be legitimate to denounce or ridicule people in the third person – e.g. if someone who really does appear dangerous seeks political power (Mitt Romney may well be an example, though there are even worse political candidates around), or if someone who already has power of some kind is using it unfairly, or cruelly, or with disastrous incompetence.
Sometimes there’s a degree of urgency about responding to this, perhaps opposing it with all your force, or perhaps just dramatically distancing yourself from it. You may need to take a stand and expose someone whom you judge to be truly harmful, or at least acting truly harmfully. But all this is different from situations where the person concerned is involved with you in a Millian quest for truth. And in any situation at all, considerations of fairness and accuracy – and a sense of your own fallibility – might make you pause and reflect before trashing someone who might actually, overall, be a good (and, as most of us are, emotionally vulnerable) person. You don’t want to be a bully, a cheat, or a dogmatist.
I’m tempted to conclude with something as sententious as, “Only mock ideas, not people.” This would allow reductio ad absurdum arguments, but not much else. Although it’s a tempting maxim, I, for one, could never abide by it. I don’t think we should attempt such an onerous, unrealistic reform of our behaviour. There is, I think, a place for vitriol and mockery and denunciation. The take-home lesson, rather, is just that this place is a smaller one, sometimes a much smaller one, than we might reflexively assume. We should at least think about it before we reach for the weapons of vitriol, mockery, and denunciation.
That applies most especially when we are dealing with interlocutors who are, themselves, acting with substantial civility and arguing in what can reasonably be construed as good faith.