I’ve been pondering something which was motivated by a recent – rather unsuccessful – exchange I had with someone. I won’t say who it was as I have no desire to ever encounter them again. I would also prefer that those who can guess, refrain from doing so. What I’m going to say is more of a general observation – motivated by that encounter – than something specific to that particular exchange. I don’t really feel like being accused of directly criticising someone without giving them a chance to respond. I certainly don’t have any intention of allowing this person to comment here again.
What I was pondering was why, given that during this particular exchange I had said something that was not technically correct, I didn’t simply openly acknowledge that and try to move on? Normally, I’m happy to do exactly that. The reason, I think, was that the response to my comment was not a query as to whether or not what I’d said was correct, or a request that I provide evidence, or a counterclaim; it was a response that not only categorically stated I was wrong, but also immediately implied something about my character. How does one respond to that? Yes, you’re right, I was wrong and I am a (insert appropriate characterisation here). It’s one thing to agree with something that’s clearly factually correct. It’s another to agree with someone else’s interpretation of what that fact implies. Maybe there was a way to continue the discussion constructively, but it was fairly clear that the discussion had already degenerated and continuing wasn’t really worth considering (I did continue briefly, but that was a mistake).
One of the reasons I was thinking about this is that it does seem as though this is quite common. I seem to have encountered a number of people (some of whom, I think, should know better) who insist that others agree both with the facts they produce and with the interpretation of those facts. Furthermore, there’s often the implication that if you don’t agree, there’s something wrong with your character. It’s clear that in some circumstances, this may be fine. There are certainly many things that all of us would agree are unacceptable. When, however, it comes – for example – to an error in a scientific paper, that would seem – to me at least – somewhat more nuanced. We might all agree that there was an error. That, however, doesn’t immediately tells us what that implies with respect to the results in that paper. We might agree that what someone has said is incorrect. That doesn’t immediately imply that they were lying, or that they had said it intentionally. Sometimes, it may not even be obvious that what the other persons claims to be a fact actually is one.
To be honest, I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily unique to one side of the debate. I suspect you could probably find at least some comment threads here where something like this might have happened. However, in my experience at least, it seems much more common from those who I would regard, in some sense, as on the other side of the debate. That could indeed be my bias, but might also reflect the lack of any substantial evidence to support their position.
I was going to add that it’s disappointing if people who are genuinely interested in honest debate, employ such a strategy. However, I’m now fairly convinced that most who I’ve encountered, and who do this, are not actually interested in a genuine discussion. They’re interested in scoring points and then crowing about it afterwards. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t annoy me but, ultimately, I don’t really care what a group of semi-anonymous online commenters claim to think about me. I should acknowledge that this is a bit of a rant, so apologies if it seems unfair or seems to mis-characterise part of the debate. As usual, happy to be convinced, by those who can actually construct a coherent argument, that I’m wrong.