Monday, May 30, 2005

Fairness in debate


Ravikiran Rao has commented on my post on the rhetoric of some right wing bloggers. He cites one of my old posts, in which I approvingly quoted some impolite stuff; in sum, his question to me is "if you want politeness in debate, why don't you practice what you preach?". Here is my response.

First things first: while I am all for politeness (why, some of my best friends are extremely polite ;-), my post was primarily on something else: fairness in debate. Impolite words such as 'idiot' cannot be, and should not be, put in the same moral bin as 'subversive' and 'antinationalist' (which, by the way, do not even sound impolite! they actually make the speaker sound erudite...), which are far more hurtful to the concept and content of the debate. Now, there is a huge difference between advocating politeness and advocating fairness, and I take full responsibility for not making this difference clear and explicit in my post.

Let me describe an incident from real life. A well known academic (let us call him Prof. X), then working in a US university, proposed about a dozen years ago a controversial plan for introducing an innovation in higher education in India. It was widely discussed and debated in the Indian press. I think it is fair to say that the opponents of his plan outnumbered its supporters.

Well, Prof. X visited several institutions in India to address the academic community about his proposal. At one such gathering, after he made his speech and asked for questions and comments from the audience, an impeccably dressed, suave-looking gentleman went upto the stage, and said something like this [I am paraphrasing here]: "Yeah, we bloody well know the kind of problems we have with our system, and we don't need any NRI bast...s to come and tell us what we should do". The audience let out a collective gasp, the discussion that followed after this outburst became desultory, the opponents of Prof. X's plan felt compelled to tone down their rhetoric even on points that they felt passionate about. All in all, the 'debate' was a disaster, and everyone was on the losing side that day.

It is this chilling effect of certain words that I was talking about in my post. I will request you to think carefully, not just about the incident recounted above, but also about which of the two words had the chilling effect on the debate there: the normal, every-day term "NRI" or the impolite word "bast...s".

In the political/ideological realm, there are many words available to the left to muzzle their opponents: US stooge, Bush's lackey, on the CIA payroll, etc. In my opinion, the words 'subversive', 'antinationalist' and 'denigrator of Indian culture' used by some Indian right wing bloggers belong to the same category, and they are just barely below the ultimate weapon: 'unpatriotic'.

Irrespective of who uses them, all these words have the same effect in the debate, and that is to unfairly handicap the opponent by indicating (sometimes using code words) to the audience that the opponent's loyalty lies elsewhere, to unfairly deny the opponent the legitimacy to present his/her argument, and to unfairly imply that his/her argument should not be given the same weight and consideration as yours. In short, these words un-level the playing field, and that is unfair.

I know now from Ravi's post that I was unsuccessful in conveying this idea. As I said, the blame for this lies entirely with me, and I should thank him for providing me an opportunity to clarify my position.

What about impolite terms such as 'idiot' (congenital, resident or otherwise)? Frankly, I don't care. I mean, I wouldn't care if someone calls me that (heck, some of you are probably doing it right now! ;-). We have too many articles (even in mainstream media) where we see things like "it is foolish (naive, idiotic, lunatic) to assume that ...", "only a fool (idiot, lunatic ..) would say that ...", etc; these words have become just too commonplace. And, I have, in my own blog, accused others of stupid tricks, and crappy interviews. To me, they convey the writer's strong disagreement, disapproval, and yes, disgust. Nothing more.

If I didn't think 'idiot' is inappropriate in debate, why did I include it in my post? Please read my post again; it has a progression (a regression, actually) of words, starting with a mild word (moron, which is struck out), going through 'resident idiot', culminating in 'antinationalist' and 'subversive', and finally hinting at the ultimate weapon: patriotism. (the progression, however, is not linear, since I put in an aside about Indian Express, etc.) I now realize that it is the inclusion of 'resident idiot' in this progression that has led to the impression that I was arguing for politeness, rather than fairness, in my post.

Update : Got carried away with bold fonts at some places in the original version; just changed some of them back to normal fonts.

19 Comments:

  1. Yazad Jal said...

    From your post above may I safely assume that "Apparently, congenital idiocy is not a barrier to becoming a Harvard administrator." is an absolutely fair statement to make?

  2. amit varma said...

    I don't think you answer Ravi's points, Abi. You might have shifted goalposts by justifying your benevolent approval for calling someone a "congenital idiot", but if "fairness in debate" is affected by terms like "subversive" and "antinationalist", then it is surely as affected by terms like "standard, wrong, conservative" and "bigoted ignoramuses" that are used in the articles that you cited so approvingly in this post. They are as devoid of "fairness in debate" as the posts by BS and SR, as you put them; and yet you condone the one and condemn the other.

    In other words: "Do as I say, but don't do as I do."

    What's that word with H, hippo-something?

  3. Anonymous said...

    Why has nobody of you people (Abbi, yazad, etc) replied to DeSouza's comment earlier?? Here it is:-

    Abi, I read Primary Red/Secular Right's response to this post of yours. I was alarmed by his claim that you "spew vitriol" at him/them. Alarmed enough to go back to this post of yours and looked for this vitriol spewed at PR/SR.

    I found three phrases you used that might have prompted PR/SR to say you "spew vitriol": one, "awsome twosome"; two, "absolutely convinced about the rightness of, well, their 'right'ness"; three, "hurled terms".

    Please do correct me if I'm wrong, Abi and/or PR/SR; but I'm unable to find any other phrase directed at PR/SR in this post that qualifies as "spewing vitriol." (Frankly, I'm not even sure about these three).

    Here are some phrases from PR/SR's own writings (in particular, since I participated in these exchanges, here, here and here):

    "offensive argument"; "revel in taking potshots at our boys"; "such obscenity"; "any other attitude [than ours] insults the memory of our amar jawans"; "If Indian liberals were to have a theme song, my country, always wrong would be its name"; "[Liberals] dilute our nationalist pride ... construct a parade of horribles ... this is a profoundly subversive act"; "subterfuge"; "drip-drip of India-bashing"; "equating India with the gutter of our neighbourhood"; [liberals] seek to pull us down in their mire"; "anti-nationalists".

    This is "reasoned argument", I believe (was that the phrase?). Not vitriol.


    Thank you.
    -Parvati

  4. Anonymous said...

    "Nobody needs to be described as silly: let your analysis show that he is. When you express opinions, do not simply make assertions. The aim is not just to tell readers what you think, but to persuade them; if you use arguments, reasoning and evidence, you may succeed."

    - This is from The Economist styleguide.

  5. amit varma said...

    Parvati

    You're shifting goalposts. My point and Ravi's point and Yazad's point is not that intemperate language is justified, but that it is hypocritical of Abi to condemn it in some bloggers' posts but to applaud it in others, purely because he happens to agree with the second group.

    If bad language should not be used, it should not be used, period. It should not matter from which side of the political spectrum you are.

    As for Dilip's comment, using selective phrases out of context proves nothing. His comment was in response to my plea to Abi, and to readers, to go and read Secular-Right India's writing and judge for themselves if he is guilty of all the things he is accused of. Surely readers are smart enough to make up their own minds on that. I happen to think Secular-Right India's arguments are mostly reasoned, though I often don't agree with him, as a look at the comments on his posts will indicate. You're free to differ.

    But as Ravi rightly said, if you must preach, have the decency to practice as well.

  6. pennathur said...

    It is possible to call someone an idiot and present the reasoning for it tastefully. Idiot/moron/imbecile/traitor/turnoat/liar and all such words have well defined meanings. So all that needs to be done is to deliver these words not simply as a term of abuse but to use them to cap a well reasoned argument. Take the example of Sandeep. He criticises Girish Karnad for his shabby rewrite of Sanskrit classics. The accusation of 'denigrator' comes with a comparison of the role of the protagonist in the original epic and Karnad rewrite. The effect of Karnad's interpretation on critics foreign and Indian is also added by references to reviews and explanatory notes. And that is why I asked TAB to discuss Bhasa and Sudraka with Sanskrit scholars and decide for himself the quality of Karnad's work.

    These new labels are a response to the "leftists" unrestrained torrent of abuse that has become a part of accepted speech. Check out this criticism of Meera Nanda by Koenraad Elst. It is true especially in India today. All some need to do is to grab a lectern and hold forth without thought or substance.

    http://koenraadelst.voiceofdharma.com/articles/politics/bogey.html

  7. Dilip D'Souza said...

    Abi, Parvati: I see you're running up against that refined debating tactic. Whatever you say, you're shifting goalposts.

    Hope that helps.

    Pennathur, if in the past leftists resorted to an "unrestrained torrent of abuse", does that mean we can abuse some people today citing that past as a justification?

    Not that abusing people amounts to anything more than what we all once learned: the abuser has nothing else to offer anyway.

  8. amit varma said...

    Ok, here's what Ravi's post was about: Abi's hypocrisy in condemning some bloggers using a kind of language while applauding others who used the same kind of language. Parvati's comment was about something else entirely, shifting focus on Secular-Right India. If that isn't shifting goalposts, what is?

  9. Gaurav said...

    If this post were given to me as an assignment for precis writing, here's how it would go - "Hum karein so kaayda."

  10. Dilip D'Souza said...

    Sleep well, Abi! I'm on the "shifting goalposts" enumeration detail. It's at five and counting...

  11. amit varma said...

    Stop shifting them then.

    That's like Thackeray saying, "I'm so tired of counting the times I'm called a communalist." As if it's the fault of others that he is! :)

  12. Yazad Jal said...

    The problem I have with this post is not that Abi talks about fairness and politesness in debate. I wholeheartedly agree with that.

    I also don't have that much of an issue with the fact that in the past Abi himself did not practice what he's preaching now. Fine, we've all made mistakes.

    But when someone points out the discrepancy, I'd expect someone with common decency to acknowledge a past error. I find that missing. And instead of a simple "oops, in the past I've been guilty of that" I see Abi trying very hard to justify himself. Not done. and worse leads to a loss of respect, at least in my eyes.

  13. Yazad Jal said...

    Dilip,

    Parvati might have a valid point to make, but it was the wrong place to make it. Actually, the logical error she made is called a non sequitur.

    And pointing out logical errors is a very valid tactic in debating. Instead of mocking their use, maybe you could respond? I've pointed one out in this comment. What is your take on it?

  14. Dilip D'Souza said...

    Yazad,

    OK, you asked for a response, you got one.

    First of all, let me say this: I cannot see what Abi has to say “oops” about. I don’t think Abi is “trying very hard to justify himself.” And I think the implication that he lacks “common decency” is absolutely uncalled for, especially coming from you.

    What was Abi’s earlier post about? To quote him, it was “about blogs that express extreme views using extreme words.” He quoted examples of what he thought were such words/phrases from two different bloggers. One of those was Secular Right (SR).

    Reactions followed. One was that SR does not use "incendiary language … unless you quote him out of context." Another referred to SR’s "reasoned manner." A third was a post from SR himself (or themselves), referring to Abi’s post and saying it was "spewing personal vitriol at us."

    Given these three, I wrote my comment (that Parvati has also repeated here). Gist: I looked in Abi’s post for "personal vitriol", found three possible phrases that might have qualified (though I didn’t think so), quoted them out of context to ask if these were what SR meant when he used the phrase "spewing personal vitriol." Then I quoted several phrases also out of context from SR’s own writings; i.e. from the man who himself bemoans the spewing of personal vitriol.

    This comment got no reaction from anyone.

    Abi later puts up another post which seems to be a reaction to something Ravikiran has written. As I understand it, Ravikiran has decided to show that this man Abi, who complains about the lack of politeness in bloggers, doesn’t practice what he preaches. So Ravikiran hunts through all of Abi’s blogging, and turns up a sort-of-trump: a January post in which Abi approvingly quotes someone else using "congenital idiocy."

    Not Abi using "congenital idiocy", let’s be clear, but someone else doing so. This is the straw that people are clutching onto, in their effort to show Abi is a hypocrite.

    To me, there is a difference between "you use terms like 'congenital idiot' for people you don't agree with" and "you have in the past approved of terms like 'congenital idiot' for people you don’t agree with" (in other words, between "you spew vitriol" and "you have quoted approvingly someone who spews vitriol"), but I see that others don’t see this difference.

    Then of course, Abi's second post amounts to "shifting the goalposts" – yes, that fine debating tactic – and he is accused of hypocrisy (which is how the word is spelled). When Parvati puts up my mention of SR’s phrases, hey and surprise surprise, that is "shifting the goalposts" too. Why should it be? After all, 1) Abi was accused of spewing vitriol by SR; 2) SR’s own phrases are held up for public display; 3) Abi gets accused of hypocrisy; 4) Why shouldn’t SR be accused of it too?

    So Yazad, you wonder why someone with "common decency" does not acknowledge a past error. Has the same wonder been applied to SR? To people in this very discussion who have used, with your knowledge, (not quoted others using) language like SR's?

    Let it be said here: personally I couldn't care less what language SR uses. I responded to those very posts I quoted those phrases from; and in fact, I too think that – while I disagree profoundly with SR – he does use reason and respect in much of his writing. I appreciate and respect that, and I hope that’s clear from the tone of my own comments on his blog.

    But if he complains about "spewing personal vitriol" while himself using those phrases I quoted, I cannot take that complaint seriously. And I wonder why commenters right here are willing to make excuses for his phrases while doing their best to find something to hang Abi with.

    Finally, Abi, the "shifting goalposts" count is up to six and counting.

    And now I leave for a Web-deprived spot for a few days. Which may mean this is the last I say on this subject. I’m not sorry, actually.

  15. Abi said...

    My thanks to everyone who commented. I really appreciate your taking some time to visit this post and express your views.

    Let me thank Yazad for agreeing 'wholeheartedly' with what I wrote on fairness and politeness in debate. As for politeness, I have made my point clear: I believe it would be a nice thing to have, but as Shiva pointed out (I am paraphrasing here), if one insists on it too much, the debate could lose its colour and passion. Therefore, I wouldn't insist on politeness; and Yazad seems to be in agreement. So far, so good.

    Yazad's original question is about whether Myers' characterization ('congenital idiocy') is fair. I am going to claim that it is more than fair, and I am giving my reasons here; if you find any holes in my argument, point them out, and I am perfectly willing to modify my position. However, please don't throw it out with a casual remark that I am trying too hard to justify myself.

    Let me give the context in which the phrase 'congenital idiocy' occurs. First, Myers quotes from a Boston Globe story:

    [begin quote]
    Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.
    [end quote]

    Myers follows up this quote with "Grrr. Apparently, congenital idiocy is not a barrier to becoming a Harvard administrator".

    Now tell me, if this exchange happened in a conversation, would you call Myers' statement a fair reaction? I would. I mean, Summers is already being hauled over the coals for his earlier utterances, and the man has the gumption to talk about autism in the same breath as women's inability to scale academic peaks? I don't know about you, if I had made this extremely offensive and odious faux pas, I would just be glad to get away with a mere 'congenital idiot'. Given Myers' sharp tongue and hard-hitting nature, I think he was too soft, and more than fair, on this one.

    If you still think that I have the habit of trying "too hard to justify myself" when the right thing to do would be to take my own words back, please take a look at the last paragraph of this post.

    As for Myers' other words pointed out by Amit, I suggest you take a look at his posts; Myers is not the sort who throws harsh words around for nothing; he backs them up with a detailed -- and yes, harsh -- analysis. As for shifting of goal posts, my original post and the present one (with comments) are there for people to see; I will let these posts speak for themselves.

    And in any case, the one thing that I find really odd about this discussion is the following: my original post was about the rhetoric used by some Indian right wing bloggers, and I put it up because I thought it deserved some attention, and if possible, some discussion. In such a discussion, why the hell are we talking about what American bloggers' are saying about an American icon in the context of a uniquely American manifestation of the problem of gender difference? I mean, our present discussion gives 'surreal' a bad name!

    I expect this to be my last comment on this issue, unless something substantial arises. By 'substantial', I mean this: I am looking to learn from people whether my way of thinking about fairness in debate is a valid one, whether it violates some logic, whether it is consistent with one's favourite philosophy of life, how to make this fairness issue more firmly grounded, under what circumstances one may justifiably use words such as 'subversive', etc. If, on the other hand, any of you wants to post comments with more of the same, strident and shrill 'you haven't answered X's question, you are shifting the goal post' for the (n+1)th time, count me out; I don't want any part in that sort of discussion.

  16. Ravikiran said...

    So Dilip, in other words, Abi opposed the use of intemperate language by others whose views he disagreed with. He enthusiastically supported the use of intemperate language by others whose views he agreed with. This is just as you said. Why is this a distinction with a difference again?

    Abi, there is a very good reason not to use phrases like "congenital idiot". If said congenital idiot turns out to be right, it puts you in an awkward situation.

  17. Yazad Jal said...

    Two small points

    1. Abi, I meant it when I said I wholeheartedly agreed with you about fairness and politesness in debate. I was not being sarcastic.

    2. Dilip, why is it that ever so often when we're discussing Mr. A, you pop up with a "Well Mr. B did that too, I don't see you complaining" argument?

  18. amit varma said...

    Abi, I do see a flaw in your justification of Myers using the term "congenital idiocy". Let's go back to the Boston Globe snippet:

    Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.

    Now, Summers is incontrovertibly right here! Autism was believed to be caused by bad parenting, and it has now been proved to have a genetic basis. The point Summers is making is well suited by the example if he gives. You might believe that that point does not further extend to the issue of women in academics, but that is a separate question, and can be argued in a civil manner. The use of "congenital idiocy" is certainly not justified.

    And nor are the other phrases I pointed out in my second comment. In
    fact, I am astonished at the sort of stuff in the Myers post that you consider to be "detailed analysis". "Boys don't have an 'innate' tendency towards science and math," he announces. And then he misrpresents Summers by writing, "the president of Harvard can stand up and seriously suggest that many people are incapable of doing great science because they have ovaries." He displays a serious lack of understanding of the issues raised.

    In fact, I note that you had quoted Steven Pinker approvingly a few posts back. Have you actually read his books? I suggest you read The Blank Slate, it will give you some insight into the issues being discussed here.

    Also, it is not "surreal" that we bring up your approval of those American bloggers posts. It is relevant because it shows how you condemn some people for debating in a particular manner, and applaud others for doing the same.

    And both you and Dilip take great please in mocking charges thrown at you ("shifting goalposts", "Quoting out of context" etc) rather than responding to them. That has a "chilling effect on the debate" as well, as you would put it. So I'm out of here. Have as many last words as you would like to.

  19. Abi said...

    Hi Yazad,

    Thanks again. Trust me, I too was sincere in thanking you. I went back and checked my comment, and the quotes around 'wholeheartedly' do look funny. I am sorry about that.