I get into lots of arguments on the internet. I think they are the inspiration for the majority of my blogging content. When I came across this video, it characterized my interactions with the alt-right and fascists on the internet with astonishing accuracy. Perhaps it will remind you of some interactions you’ve had in the comment section of this blog.
This video discusses how even when we make cogent, logical, and well-evidenced arguments we can often appear to be losing when we engage with others who only want to converse in bad faith. This is because humans don’t necessarily develop positions on pure logic and reason. This works in the alt-right’s favor.
I think this is worth thinking about, since we skeptics tend to focus solely on the arguments and the logical structure and the supporting evidence. Often we overlook the context in which these conversations take place and the broader effect of these conversations. We can use the best arguments that we are capable of and soundly defeat our opponent intellectually, but the greater effect may be giving attention and notoriety to bad faith actors and shift the public dialogue away from fruitful discourse and towards whataboutery and sophistry. It may feel good to keep the intellectual high ground, but is that necessarily a good tradeoff if by spending time on sophistry we allow bad-faith actors to control the public conversation on any given debate and allow harmful beliefs to spread?
This is a regular theme of my blogging, and I have gotten more than a few accusations of being a regressive leftist who doesn’t want to engage with the other side. I assure you that it’s absolutely not true that I avoid debate, and I am happy to engage in dialogue with any other good faith actor. The reason I write about this subject so much is illustrated in the video. It dives into the fantasy of putting people in their place intellectually, which I think is a fantasy. I think many liberals as well as skeptics have an unjustified belief that if we simply make good arguments and have lots of dialogue the good ideas will necessarily shake out, and I’ve lost faith in that position over the years.
The reason I impress this so much is not because I don’t think we should engage. I impress this because I think that dialogue always being helpful is possibly the largest unjustified assumption that skeptics hold. I’m happy to engage with the other side. But as this video describes, even when an alt-right persona online appears to be engaging with you by throwing out attacks and accusations, they are really dismissing you publicly over and over again (and making you appear wrong even if the absolute opposite is true).
The narrator mentions that so many of these interactions are held in public, and that’s because these debates aren’t just debates, they have the added effect of drawing attention to their bad-faith position. I’m actually quite interested in engaging with the other side, and have offered to speak one-on-one with some of these people arguing with me privately over Skype. Absolutely none of these actors have taken me up on my offer. You would think if they were truly interested in engaging with me, they’d be happy to have a one-on-one conversation where we could discuss things in real time with room for clarifications and nuance. I am more than happy to engage with the other side in personal, one-on-one conversations, but I get the impression that these folks aren’t looking for a collaborative search for the truth, they are looking for attention.
Of course, I could be wrong, but I think it’s something we should consider. The point shouldn’t be to avoid dialogue with the other side. It’s that we should do it intelligently.