Infighting or Healthy Debate?

Greta Christina

In the skeptical and atheist communities, we often wring our hands over how much infighting goes on. Every time another firestorm of controversy consumes the Internet, many of us become alarmed at the rifts dividing our community: weakening us, burning us out, making it harder for us to work together on issues that we have in common, and draining our time and energy from the battles we all share.

Yet at the same time, one of the things we value most about our community is our willingness to disagree—with our leaders, with our heroes, with one another. We understand that dissent and debate are how good ideas rise to the surface and bad ideas get winnowed out, and we relish the fact that we have no dogma that we’re all expected to line up behind.

So where is the line between infighting and healthy debate?

I strongly suspect that much of the time, we draw these distinctions very subjectively. If we personally think an argument is important, then of course it’s a healthy debate; if we find an argument either boring or upsetting, then it’s obviously divisive infighting. It’s the old “emotive conjugation” thing: I am debating; you are infighting; they are creating deep rifts.

So I’d like to propose some possible semi-objective standards for deciding whether a disagreement in our community is infighting or healthy debate. Or rather—since I think the difference isn’t a clear either/or dichotomy—I’d like to propose some standards for where to draw the line on the “infighting/healthy debate” continuum. (This isn’t meant to be the final word on the subject, by the way. I’m very much thinking out loud here. I’m sure there are ideas that I’m missing, and I want this to be the start of a conversation rather than the end of one.)

Is the criticism focused on ideas and behaviors, or on people? “I disagree with you”: healthy debate. “I have serious problems with what you said/did”: healthy debate. “You’re stupid/evil”: infighting.

Are the participants in the debate willing to listen to people they’ve disagreed with before? A good idea is a good idea, even if it comes from someone we think is a jerk. If we’re focusing our debates on ideas and behaviors instead of on people and personalities—see above—we need to accept that.

Now, this can be tricky. Of course it’s legitimate not to trust someone if he or she has a consistent pattern of being untrustworthy. And of course, we all have deal breakers. To give just one of my own examples: I am not willing to engage with people who have used threatening, misogynistic, or sexually violent language against me or anyone else. (Unless, of course, they’ve since apologized and made amends.) I’m not going to tell anyone else what their deal breakers should be. We all have to follow our own conscience about that.

But if our list of deal breakers is long and getting longer—along with our list of people we’re not willing to listen to—I think that’s a good sign that our debates aren’t healthy. If we only engage with people with whom we’ve always agreed about everything, we’re eventually going to become atomized, each of us listening only to ourselves. Expecting others in the community to agree with us about everything contributes to the tendency toward tribalism—and tribalism, I think, is one of the key markers that distinguishes be­tween infighting and healthy debate.

Are the participants in the debate willing to disagree with people they’re usually allied with? Like the above but reversed. A good idea is a good idea, even if it comes from someone we think is a jerk—and a bad idea is a bad idea, even if it comes from someone we generally like and admire.

This one can also be tricky. It makes at least some sense to cut people slack if they have a long pattern of good behavior. But if we’re defending ideas and behaviors from our friends that we wouldn’t accept from anyone else—and if our defenses of these ideas and behaviors are turning into rationalizations and getting more and more contorted—that’s a strong sign that the debate isn’t healthy. Again: our willingness to disagree with each other is a strength, not a weakness. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.

Are old fights irrelevantly dragged into the conversation? I have found that it’s just about impossible to even say the name “Rebecca Watson” without someone bringing up Elevatorgate. I could write a blog post about how Watson likes apple pie and thinks kittens are cute, and someone will bring up Elevatorgate. This, in my opinion, is not helpful.

Yes, sometimes old fights are relevant to the current one. But lots of times, they’re not. And they tend to open up old wounds and divide people into camps based on where they came down in the last debate. If we’re having a new debate, and we’re about to bring an old one into it, it’s worth stopping and asking ourselves, “Is this really relevant?”

Is much of the debate turning into a meta-debate over who was mean to whom first? Tone-trolling is infighting, almost inevitably. If an argument is focusing on who said what to whom and when and how and in what tone and whether which people were mean or unfair or deliberately misunderstanding each other . . . it almost never makes for productive discourse. Unless you consider the social interactions of seventh-graders to be a model of productive discourse, that is. If we see that happening, I think we should try to shift the conversation back to the actual content of the actual topic being discussed. Sometimes this means taking the high road—being the bigger person and letting obnoxious insults pass. Suck it up. Virtue is its own reward.

Is much of the debate turning into a meta-debate over whether we should even be having the debate at all? I find it baffling when someone’s sole contribution to a debate is, “Why are we even talking about this? Why are we wasting our time on this topic?” It’s like going to a discussion board about golf and asking why everyone there is wasting their time talking about this boring game.

Except that it’s not actually all that baffling. It’s a classic “Shut up, that’s why” gambit. It’s a way of trivializing concerns that many other people consider legitimate. And it’s a way of derailing the conversation, so that its actual substance doesn’t have to be addressed. All of this is divisive rather than productive.

Is there any evidence that will convince us to change our minds? Religious believers aren’t the only ones who make unfalsifiable claims or who persistently move the goalposts for what kinds of evidence will persuade them. This is a human tendency, and we all do it. It doesn’t make for productive resolution of disagreements though.

So if someone is making a not-at-all-extraordinary claim, one that’s thoroughly backed up by extensive evidence—such as the claim that racism exists and is a real problem with observable bad effects—and people are constantly moving the goalposts for what kind of evidence would convince them of this claim and are demanding more evidence for it than they would for homeopathy or Bigfoot, it’s hard to see that as a healthy, productive debate. A suggestion: if a debate seems to be getting bogged down, let’s state clearly what kind of evidence would change our minds—and ask the people we’re debating to do the same.

Are the arguments being presented to people who can do something about it? There was a recent debate on my blog about sexual harassment policies/codes of conduct at atheist/skeptical conferences, in which one person was objecting vehemently and at great length to one particular piece of wording in the American Atheists’ code of conduct. When asked whether he had expressed these objections to American Atheists— who have publicly stated that their code of conduct is a living document open to change and have expressly solicited feedback on it—he dodged the question and said that the person arguing with him was trying to “shame him into silence.” If you’re more concerned about winning a debate in an Internet forum than you are about making your case to people who can effect the change you’re advocating, it’s hard to see that as anything other than infighting.

Are positive solutions being proposed? This one, I think, is huge.

If a debate is focusing entirely on proving other people wrong, to the exclusion of proposing actual, practical solutions to the issues being discussed, that sets off every “infighting” alarm bell that I have.

I should be very clear about this: I don’t think positive solutions have to be proposed instead of simply smacking down bad ideas. I think smacking down bad ideas is important. In fact, it often has to happen for positive action to take place. Discussions of how best to address racial inequality, for instance, aren’t going to get very far if we don’t first persuade people that racial inequality, you know, exists, is a bad thing, and is worth addressing.

But what if the en­tire debate is focused on “here’s why you’re wrong,” and nobody is saying “here, specifically, is what I think the problem is and what we should be doing about it”? That’s an excellent signpost of an unhealthy, “infighty” debate.

And that’s a good time to start making specific, positive, practical suggestions about what we should be doing.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

In the skeptical and atheist communities, we often wring our hands over how much infighting goes on. Every time another firestorm of controversy consumes the Internet, many of us become alarmed at the rifts dividing our community: weakening us, burning us out, making it harder for us to work together on issues that we have …

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