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Tuesday, January 10, 2006


How to talk to a Modernist

Happy New Year!

I regularly read David Brin's blog. He's a science fiction author who's got some really interesting ideas about modern civilization. Unfortunately, on one of his latest posts, there has been bit of a dustup between him and another blogger, Whiskey1, in which they've both gotten angry and disgusted with each other. I personally think both these folks are smart, thoughtful people, who would benefit more from continuing rational dialog with each other. I posted this message to both their blogs in an attempt to get them to see things from a neutral perspective. Yeah, I know, it probably won't do any good, but I had to give it a shot. Oh, well. Here's my two cents:

Ugh. Is it too late to plead for calm and forgiveness from both sides? David, Whiskey1, you guys have let a series of small misunderstandings mushroom into fullblown mutual disgust that I think is unwarranted and unhelpful.

Stop inhaling the indignation fumes and look at what the other guy is telling you! David, a couple comments up you mentioned the "Paraphrasing Challenge" that I actually think is a great way to have a constructive argument, but then you didn't do it regarding Whiskey1's arguments. In an attempt to bring the situation into perspective from a neutral observer, I'll try it for both your arguments. Let me know if I don't accurately represent you.

The pragmatist in me tells me that this won't do any good mending fences between two strangers on the Internet. Why should you guys listem to me anyway, right? However, the optimist in me tells me that at the very least I'll improve my own arguing skills, and I can't make the situation any worse. The worst that can happen is that you both, in addition to hating each other, hate me as well, right? :) Well, here we go:

You're upset because you perceive Whiskey1 leveling a personal attack at you by "putting words in your mouth" and asserting that you hold positions that you don't actually hold. You're also miffed that he has missed the main point of this particular blog post to rant about your use the phrase "aristocratic tax cuts."

You're upset because David doesn't address the substance of your critiques and chooses instead to respond with insults. You perceive hypocrisy when the guy who espouses that we should avoid falling into the trap of false dichotomies and vilifying one's enemies resorts to nothing more than personal attacks when confronted with counter arguments.

Did I get your positions right? For what it's worth, here's my perceptions on both positions:

When I look at Whiskey1's posts, I see some good constructive criticism in there. Granted, he makes some claims about your position on tax cuts that seems like a big leap from your one "aristocratic tax cuts" statement. However, I could also interpret this as a rhetorical device to get you to see what effect your words might have on people with different perceptions and assumptions than your own. Even though you are against "class warfare," the "aristocratic tax cuts" language can evoke that perception in some people, particularly the rational conservatives and libertarians you want to reach. Whiskey1 pointed this out to you, and perhaps overreached by claiming that you actually are against tax cuts for anyone. However, you didn't calmly refute that claim, or respond to the critique that maybe your use of "aristocratic" langauge was a poor choice. Yes, the body of your writing on this blog and elsewhere refutes this, but your direct responses didn't address Whiskey1's substance, which is poor form in an argument.

I also submit that, as the guy who is shouting warnings at every opportunity about avoiding the "indignation high" and trying to see your opponent as a fellow rational human being rather than an evil monster, you have some high expectations from the peanut gallery. Speaking for myself, I expect you to "practice what you preach" and show us how it is done when you argue. Not that I expect you to be perfect (you are still human after all) but I do expect that you should have a better-than-average perception that distinguishes mere misunderstandings from pure malice. And I know, you have time constraints, this blog is a hobby, and you're not as careful in the comments as you are in the main post. I'm willing to give you plenty of consideration for all those factors. Still, I think you missed an opportunity here not to indulge your anger.

And Whiskey1's opinions of you are not hidden away behind your back, they're two clicks away on his blog. And they're not slander (or I guess libel, since it's in print). Other than some profanity, they're no worse than anything he's said "to your face" in your blog. He also gave you some substantial compliments.

I think you could have addressed the point about "aristocratic tax cuts" better. I think your constructive criticism would have been better received had you not made the assertion that David was calling regular people aristocrats. At least, that's the way I initially perceived your comment. And, come on, you know David isn't espousing the traditional liberal "tax and spend" canard.

Yes, he was wrong to call you a moron and not address the substance of your criticism. But, minus the moron (point in your favor) isn't that what you've done with his main post? You've ignored his major point about tyranny to focus on a poor choice of language regarding the Bush tax cuts, and then expanded that to claim that David is against tax cuts for the middle class. Isn't that a bit of a leap? In previous exchanges, you've seen that David is rather impulsive, even rude, when responding to comments on his blog. He's got limited resources, and sometimes he'll overract to statements that on further consideration can be interpretted less hostilely. But haven't we all done that sometimes? I also realize that it seems like pretty hypocritical behavior for the guy who coined CITOKATE to insult you rather than address your criticisms. I'm not defending that. But rather than trying to resolve his misunderstandings of your position, you've added fuel to the fire by holding on to your own misunderstandings of his position regarding "aristocratic tax cuts."


... So does any of this make sense? Do you think maybe you both are overreacting to perceived insults? I realize that this is maybe too late since the real insults have already started flying on both sides, but I thought it was worth a shot to try and make peace. Maybe the "indignation high" has worn off?

I'm reminded of the Simpsons episode "Two Bad Neighbors" in which George H.W. Bush moves into a house across the street from the Simpsons. Homer and Mr. Bush immediately dislike each other, much to the chagrin of their wives. When Marge invites Mrs. Bush over for tea, they discuss their husbands' behavior:

Barbara: I really feel awful about your lawn, Marge. George can be so stubborn when he thinks he's right.
Marge: Well, Homer, too. They're so much alike.
Barbara: Too bad they got off on the wrong foot. It's just like the Noriega thing. Now, he and George are the best of friends.

There is much wisdom in the Simpsons. :)

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Hi Charles,

So, I am responding here, rather than at my blog, because I recently made a hard and fast rule not to respond to comments on my blog. I've preemptively banned myself before I say something stupid... or at least, something even worse than my typical content.

I appreciate your plea for rationality. You make good points, and I'm glad you put yourself forward like this.

But sometimes two people just don't get along, and it really is bad for my health to read or comment on David's blog. It would probably be bad for his health to read mine.

But I will try to take this experience to heart, and hopefully use it to become a better communicator. Your critique of my arguments in particular is appreciated.

Thank you again for your efforts on behalf of civilized communication!

Hey John,

Thanks for the response. I appreciate your point of view. Given the fact that you already posted a conciliatory message on David's blog before I finished my post, my comments seem a bit superfluous. I think that was a great show of good faith and class on your part, and I'm hoping David will show what he's made of with a similar response.

Maybe I'll drop by your blog occassionally to see what's up. I'm much more of a silent reader/listener than an arguer, but who knows, maybe you'll provoke me :) I can't promise frequent updates (or inteteresting posts) here, but you're always welcome to stop by as well.
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