This is a reposting of some comments I made on this awesome post about arguing effectively. I liked the wording I used so much I decided I wanted to post this stuff here, too, because I don’t think I’ve expressed this particular conundrum this well before. I’ve edited the comments a bit and smashed parts of them together to make them more post-worthy and add some context. Ready? Go!
Most of the time I see people respond badly to being accused of bigotry/racism/misogyny, the accusation of is justified in the literal, technical sense that they are doing something that fits a reasonable, functional definition of bigotry. But people respond badly to such accusations for reasons I understand, and there are times when I do want to comment, myself, on the language people use to call out bigotry. Even when those people doing the calling out are technically correct, and even when they aren’t asking my advice.
The problem is that tone/wording advice is so incredibly ubiquitous among people who just want to shut down the argument—it’s so frequently a tool for getting to “Shut up, that’s why!”—that I’m wary of ever using it. I think about all the people I’ve talked to who wish Dawkins would be a little less “extreme”, for example, and vehemently disagree with all of them. Not only do I think his manner of engaging with atheist issues is rational, I think it provides a good example of how being extreme (relative to social norms) can do a lot to move the Overton window (sidenote: I don’t think Dawkins chooses his language with intent to be extreme, I think he tries to be truthful, and an appearance of extremity is a side-effect of that because of how religion is ingrained in our culture).
In a way, I think this all boils down to inferential distance problems. The problem with directing strong language at someone like that guy who’s rejecting modern feminism is that he doesn’t understand where the anger or bigotry accusations come from—to him it seems so over-the-top that it’s logical to assume it’s irrational. On the other hand, the problem with him using the language he did to reject feminism is that so many people who aren’t thoughtful about these issues have used the very similar language to denigrate feminism, and by doing the same thing, he is unwittingly associating himself with that long history of determined ignorance. He is making himself look just like the people who suck. If some people, in response, are saying “Well, if it looks like a duck…”, they’re also making a logical assumption from their perspective.
That seems like the core of the issue. The responses seem entirely rational within the inferential context of the people on either side of the divide on the issue. So do we say, “Hey, guy, you’re the privileged one, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself to bridge this gap”, or “Hey, feminist, you’re the one expressing an issue, it’s your responsibility to educate sufficiently to bridge this gap”? Or both? Maybe there’s no point in placing that responsibility at all, I don’t know.
I remember back when the whole Penny Arcade Dickwolves thing happened, Jerry Holkins made a post that, among other things, talked about how he didn’t think any meaningful form of conversation was possible between them and the people accusing them of perpetuating rape culture. I think he was wrong, but I think he was touching on the crux of the issue: there’s this huge gap, and in a lot of cases there’s no one to blame for the gap, and no one on whom it’s reasonable to put all the responsibility for bridging it, but it must be bridged somehow.
I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I think I finally have a decent grasp of the question I’m asking. How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other? In particular, how does one do this when the issues involved are powerfully important and emotional, but the existence of the issues, and the existence of the inferential gap, and the responsibility for bridging that gap, can’t be set squarely on anyone’s shoulders?