Being Contrary

A couple years ago on my old blog I wrote about dealing with trolls. I haven’t thought of that piece much, but recently I’ve caught myself wondering “Have I become a troll?” I imagine that occasionally some people think so. I’ve been banned from posting on a couple Facebook pages, and presumably those admins consider me a troll or other garden variety asshole. That’s their right and I’m not complaining here.

I often feel the need to ‘splain myself, if for no other reason than to better know and understand myself through the act of writing. I don’t think I’m a troll. I’m not deliberately antagonizing people for the schadenfreude value. I don’t call people names or impugn their character.

So I’ve noticed lately that I’m regularly countering certain arguments on both sides of pitched cultural battles: gun control, abortion, and GMO agriculture are the biggest three, but there are others. Occasionally I do this back-to-back, where I finish posting a rebuttal of an argument for gun control only to find another conversation where I post a rebuttal of an argument against gun control. Do I just love arguing? I rarely persist long in these debates. Once I’ve made my point, I move on.

I also sometimes find myself defending people with whom I disagree when they are attacked (not their ideas, but their persons).

I’ve learned about the Arguments as Soldiers problem. I refuse to endorse arguments for “my” position that lack merit. Usually I can’t stop myself at not endorsing and go further still to call out the bad arguments and explain why they’re bad, and offer better ones. I do this for my allies and opponents alike. In the latter case, this is the reverse of the “straw man” fallacy, known as the steel man approach. Give your opponent a better argument than they are using and explain why it is better. Then address it. This demonstrates that you care about their position so much you know it better than they do. You can win the respect of your opponents if you do it right, and that may be the only gain to be had. If you have any hope of “winning” an argument with most people, this is it. I acknowledge that most of us are arguing from emotion, most of the time, myself included. I have my own cognitive biases I’m only dimly aware of, if at all. In some situations I get emotionally attached to my position and search for every argument I can find to back it up without really hearing or considering the other person.

For more on this problem of emotional bias, see The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment by Jonathan Haidt (PDF format).

I’ve written before about our need for enemies. The further out one goes along the political spectrum to the fringes, the more extreme the enemies become. For the far right, it isn’t enough that President Obama is going to raise their taxes. In their paranoid fantasies, he is coming for their guns so he can intern them in UN Agenda 21 depopulation camps. For the far left, it isn’t enough that Monsanto is another greedy corporation that cares more about shareholder profits than the health of people or the well-being of the earth. Their paranoid fantasies have Monsanto actively working on the same depopulation agendas, deliberately poisoning and enslaving humanity.

I see the same kind of demonization of opponents in the abortion battle. The most extreme elements in the pro-choice camp see patriarchal conspiracies to turn women into baby-breeding factories, ala The Handmaid’s Tale. The most extreme elements of the anti-abortion camp see Planned Parenthood as a tool of Satan, celebrating blood sacrifice because they hate life.

So I counter these demonizations. I try to take my opponents’ stated motives at face value. I may not believe in their stated positions, but I respect that they are earnestly held. I try not to invent unspoken motives. When we demonize our enemies and make them out to be worse than they actually are, we hurt our cause. Our enemies know their real motives and see the demonization for what it is. They may assume the worst of us in return. They may have the thought that since we don’t respect their stated positions and beliefs, maybe it is because we are actually lying about our own.

I’ve had allies say to me “the other side is lying, so we have to lie to keep the playing field level”. That approach ensures perpetual war and suffering. Maybe our enemies do lie. If we can avoid falling into the same trap, we can usually count on the truth emerging over time. We can win by staying on the side of truth even when the cause looks hopeless.

I’m essentially an atheist and have this same experience of being contrary at times in debates over religion. I don’t believe there is a god or other supernatural force of any kind. In my cosmology, everything that exists is, by virtue of existing, “natural” (so that word is almost useless in most contexts to me, but I admit limited distinctions of nature vs culture/technology). My atheism doesn’t spring from a hatred of religion, however. I get frustrated when I read other atheists attacking religion as the source of the world’s problems. I see the good done by Christian friends and family. I respect them as persons, and I respect that their beliefs are earnestly held (I may not respect the actual beliefs in all circumstances, but that is a topic for another blog).

So my contrary nature isn’t a reflex. In almost all cases, I’m arguing not for the sake of arguing but because I believe we can do and be better. I fear that assuming the worst motives of our enemies inflames cultural wars that are already on fire. Where many gun owners fear government tyranny is coming along with gun control, I fear civil war first. Social media is giving some people a perfectly polished echo chamber of opinion. I have friends who use “Likes” of things they oppose as a basis of de-friending (i.e. they’ve removed everyone from their Facebook friend’s list who Likes the NRA or Likes Mitt Romney).

I don’t know how much good my arguments do. I fear that I rarely, if ever, sway any minds or hearts. If Jonathan Haidt is right, our most deeply held convictions are emotional at their core, so logic and reason cannot touch them. Lately, I’m despairing at the state of my culture, as it seems to be spiraling down a hole. I consider that for my own personal sanity, I may need to take an extended break from social media, or heavily modify how I use it to avoid most of the political and religious content.