Arguments, Social Justice, and Bridging Inferential Gaps

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?

Who cleans up the gumbo?

4 comments on “Arguments, Social Justice, and Bridging Inferential Gaps

  1. Pingback: Link Roundup 3: Conversations About Communication Across Power Gradients | Research to be Done

  2. Pingback: Link Roundup 3: Conversations About Communication Across Power Gradients | Research to be Done

  3. I’m the guy referred to in Paragraph 3.

    To restate something from my own piece, I am not rejecting feminism so much as embracing humanism. There, I can do the exact same work for equality of all peoples, regardless of sex or sexuality, without having my efforts marginalized due to my own unchosen sex (itself I find an impossible hurdle to overcome, as I am always going to be a white male).

    This is a good piece, and should hopefully open a lot of doors of conversation. I just felt I should clarify my own personal choice.

    Vincent Truman

    • Thanks for the clarification, and glad you liked it. I keep forgetting that these posts do that pingback thing 🙂

      For the record, on the stuff you mention about privilege, I am of two minds. While I don’t think it makes sense to tell someone their opinion is necessarily irrelevant because of their privilege, I do often see people take comments about their privilege this way when it’s not what the commenter intended. Obviously, without having seen the conversations you’re talking about, I can’t say for sure what was happening in your case, but if you think that’s a possibility, I highly encourage you to read this. It’s one of the best explanations for privilege that I know, and I think it does a great deal to explain why privilege (often justifiably) ends up serving as a catch-all explanation for why people who have privilege often have opinions made largely of ignorance. Whether or not that’s the case with the conversations you had, if people were making that assumption, that post does an excellent job of explaining why they might.

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