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Damn it. I'm Tribal!

Entry 1940, on 2018-10-09 at 18:59:01 (Rating 3, Comments)

I often get involved in intense discussions (well, let's be honest here, they are more like arguments) on-line (mainly on Facebook recently, but at other times on YouTube and various media sites). The people I'm debating against are sometimes just idiots who clearly have nothing worth taking too seriously, but at other times my opposition make some good points and I wonder whether there's a possibility that I am (gasp) wrong!

I'm sure that on occasions I have not had the best possible argument, or have had a view which didn't encompass the best points from all sides, or even had factual errors, but in general I am fairly confident that I am usually right.

So what makes me confident of this? After all, most people think they are right, even when they are clearly wrong! Well, here's some reasons...

First, I do double-check my facts whenever I can before presenting them; second, when using controversial arguments I try to check what the people who are against my position are saying about them (this ensures they are robust); third, I try not to take an extreme position on contentious issues and recognise that the best person, organisation, or view has some bad points and the worst has some good; fourth, I look at who I am arguing with to see who the consistent opposition is; and finally, I try not to be too certain of my opinions.

I've talked about the first two techniques in the past so I want to quickly discuss points 3, 4, and 5 in this post. This idea was triggered by some recent debates around politics in the US, particularly in association with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

So let's start with point 3: I try not to be at the extremes, and to recognise good and bad in both sides of a debate topic (or all sides if there are more than 2 extremes). The people at the extremes are usually easy to spot. In the Kavanaugh case they are the people who are totally against him: who "know" he is guilty of the crimes he has been accused of, who "know" he will not be a fair judge, and who "know" he is a bad person.

Here's some example comments from this debate...

This person seems to have pre-determined that Kavanaugh's appointment will mean the end of equality in American society: "The drive for woman's equality should be ended? WTF is wrong with you people? You don't think we all benefit when our people flourish?"

And, on the other side, this one seems to think all feminism is bad: "Feminism stopped being the drive for equality some time ago. It's now an anti white male movement focused on removing men from high paying jobs and suppressing any traits of masculinity."

Here's a comment I made, which I think shows a more nuanced view: "Yes, I am left too, and would not normally support him. But in this case I think the greater good is the feminist hysteria has been defeated. Go too far and you do your movement harm, not good."

So what I was saying is that I would not normally support Kavanaugh, but the hysteria and blatant sense of self-righteous entitlement on the other side is probably even worse. So I ended up in a position where I am almost pleased when a person I don't like won this conflict. That seems to show that I am not really on either side, or at least not at the extremes.

And now to point 4: I look at who I am arguing with to see who the consistent opposition is. If I am always arguing against one side then I guess I am probably a consistent inhabitant of the side opposing them. That might make me as tribal as anyone else.

But, looking back at my history of debates I can see that I have been denigrated, abused, and threatened by both sides about equally.

When I called for tighter gun control in the US I actually got threats of physical violence from people who were for greater freedom to own guns (they live on the other side of the world, so I wan't too concerned). And when I questioned the practical benefits of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I was told I was a terrorist that should be locked up (if I was lucky). I would presume both of these groups of people occupy the extreme right.

But I have also had threats and extreme abuse from fanatics on the left. I got some really nasty comments on an anti-vaccination discussion forum where I pointed out how successful vaccines really are. I got some vicious invective from the anti-1080 lobby when I calmly pointed out that, while it has its faults, it is still a useful option for pest control. And some of the comments from extreme feminist fanatics go beyond what I would repeat on this blog. While there are people from multiple political perspectives who push these views it was obvious from their comments that the ones I encountered were from the far left.

So it seems that I am seen in equally unfavourable ways by both extremes, again indicating I am not at the extremes myself, and that I don't choose my battles based on a political bias, but by what I think is true.

Finally, point 5: I try not to be too certain of my opinion (and, as a corollary to this: I don't take myself too seriously).

Here's a comment I made from another recent debate, about feminism (yeah, I know I just ask for trouble): "I try to react to ideas, not people. Notice that I said that I didn't like the 'fake outrage'. Sure, I said 'what's wrong with you', but only because 'M' is a serial offender on this issue. I will concede maybe that was tending a bit towards ad hominem."

Notice how I said I "try" to react a certain way. I don't pretend to be perfect. And notice that I conceded that a comment I made maybe tended towards being an ad hominem. Uncertainty is good. Most people who are totally confident in their views are also totally wrong.

Here's a person who seems a lot more confident in his opinion: "Don is well known documented racist. I don't care if you can't accept it. However don't ask why Maori don't support when I've already told you."

This person seems to think that a highly subjective criticism like racism can be made as if it was a proven fact. I would have said something like: "It seems to be that Don has some racist tendencies, or at least has a rather negative view towards Maori." Note that this is referring to Don Brash who I don't really think is actually a racist at all.

Here's another example of where I presented a nuanced view when many of my opponents were just dealing in absolutes: "To be clear, I object to extreme feminists, not all. Feminazis represent the extremes of feminism, and that is what I object to. Like most movements, I think feminism started with good aims and many members still follow those aims. But there is an increasingly irrational branch which is very harmful. That is what I am criticising and unfortunately it reflects on the moderates in negative ways too."

Sure, maybe the word "feminazi" was somewhat provocative there, but at least I made it clear that I only used that word to describe the extremists within feminism.

So to people who claim I am as much a victim of "tribalism" as anyone else I ask, which tribe? Clearly not the social justice warrior tribe since they have been the people I have been criticising most recently. Obviously not the conservative tribe since I have never voted conservative and have been abused by conservatives. Not even the anti-feminist tribe since I have specifically criticised people for using the actions of extremists to criticise feminists in general. So which is it?

I was just about to write a closing paragraph, congratulating myself on my lack of tribalism when I realised there is one area where I am tribal. That is on the subject of religion, or lack of it. I am a rather tribal atheist. I do follow points 1 and 2 because I check my facts and look for flaws in controversial arguments. But I'm not so good on the other 3 points I discussed above.

I do have a quite extreme position because I really can't see a single good reason to think that any religions have any validity, nor can I see a single good reason to think a god exists. So I really fail on point 3.

And point 4 isn't looking great either, because I can't remember ever arguing against another atheist, although I might have done so on some minor points. I can sure as hell (unfortunate expression there) remember arguing against religious people though!

Finally, point 5. I certainly aren't 100% certain I'm right about atheism, because I'm not 100% confident about anything. But when I enter an argument with a religious person I assume I'm right before looking at the counter-argument too carefully, and I don't do that with any other topic, so that tells me something about my confidence level.

So I guess I do have to admit there is one tribe I do belong to: the atheist tribe. But at least that's a tribe which just rejects the unfounded conclusions of other tribes rather than being a real tribe with an affirmative message itself, so maybe it doesn't count. But every member of every tribe thinks their tribalism doesn't count so I'm not going to use that excuse.

In summary: this blog post has reached the opposite conclusion I thought it might. Damn it. I'm tribal!


Comment 1 (4950) by M on 2018-10-17 at 09:25:33:

Oh Owen, you're tribal in far more ways than that!


Comment 2 (4951) by OJB on 2018-10-17 at 10:13:30:

Well that's easy for you to say, but can you give examples, preferably with some sort of justification.


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