Civismo e educação

Um bocado off-topic, mas ainda assim uma troca de opiniões que vale a pena seguir. Don’t be rude, you loser, por Noah Smith, e Wild words, brain worms and civility, por Paul Krugman – dois metaposts acerca da importância (ou não) de escrever sem ostracizar os adversários.

Noah Smith:

Sometimes, one of the parties in a debate is simply dishonest and unethical, and doesn’t really care if he or she is right or wrong. But more often, both sides deeply believe in the positions they take. The person in the wrong might be your opponent — or it might be you. Or, more realistically, it might be both. Putting red-haired people in concentration camps is obviously horrible, but most of our arguments are over things like Obamacare, or antipoverty programs, or financial regulation– issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

If you’re uncivil in this sort of situation — if you call your opponent an idiot, or a liar, or a nastier name simply because you think his or her argument is bad — you’re basically being overconfident. You’re assuming that there’s essentially no chance that you’re in the wrong, so it’s in the public interest for you to rail against your opponent and score points with the crowd. If you do this, there’s no chance that you yourself will learn anything from the encounter. People usually argue to win, but many times it’s possible to argue to learn.

But even if you’re arguing to win, incivility might backfire. People are naturally defensive, and they take things personally, so if you’re uncivil, they will usually (though not always) harden their position. If you want to convince the world of the merit of your ideas, then one outcome to avoid is for your opponent to leave the discussion ready to promote a bad idea even more virulently.

A third danger of incivility is that you might give your “team” a bad name. If you’re pro-Obamacare, and you fling imprecations at anyone who criticizes it, then you might contribute to the stereotype that pro-Obamacare people are vile and offensive, thus ultimately hurting the cause of Obamacare. A good example of this is the “men’s rights” movement, which sometimes makes good points, but which is known for being so abusive and aggressive that most people ignore it.

I’m not arguing that civility should be universal, or that we should dismiss uncivil arguments on the grounds of style alone. But civility has definite advantages, and these advantages are magnified when the number of civil people grows. Many arguments are a bit like thePrisoner’s Dilemma – if both people explain their positions and examine others’ positions honestly and forthrightly, in a friendly and charitable manner, then everyone benefits. The discussion contributes to the world’s overall level of understanding, and to your own. But if one person chooses to be dishonest and use the tools of rhetoric in an attempt to score points in front of an audience, then the other person has no choice but to respond either in kind, or with incivility…and the whole thing becomes a big exasperating waste of time.

So although incivility is an important tool to keep in our toolboxes, we should be very cautious about pulling it out. It’s a tough call to decide whether an idea is so awful that the only proper response is to denounce it (and its proponents) with full vitriol. In general, these cases are a lot rarer than we think. People rarely lie, and all but the worst arguments contain some grain of valuable truth. If you can’t understand how your opponent could possibly believe what they believe, odds are that you could benefit from trying harder to understand. Not always, but usually.

Paul Krugman:

First, picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. “Words ought to be a little wild,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.” You could say, “I’m dubious about the case for expansionary austerity, which rests on questionable empirical evidence and zzzzzzzz…”; or you could accuse austerians of believing in the Confidence Fairy. Which do you think is more effective at challenging a really bad economic doctrine?

Beyond that, civility is a gesture of respect — and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect. Noah felt (and was) justified in ridiculing the Austrians because they don’t argue in good faith; faced with a devastating failure of their prediction about inflation, they didn’t concede that they were wrong and try to explain why. Instead, they denied reality or tried to redefine the meaning of inflation.

And if you look at the uncivil remarks by people like, well, me, you’ll find that they are similarly aimed at people arguing in bad faith. I talk now and then about zombie and cockroach ideas. Zombies are ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but keep shambling along — e.g. the claim that all of Europe’s troubled debtors were fiscally irresponsible before the crisis; cockroaches are ideas that you thought we’d gotten rid of, but keep on coming back, like the claim that Keynes would never have called for fiscal stimulus in the face of current debt levels (Britain in the 1930s had much higher debt to GDP than it does now). Well, what I’m doing is going after bad-faith economics — economics that keeps trotting out claims that have already been discredited.

Nor are zombies and cockroaches the only kinds of bad faith; the worst, as far as I’m concerned, involves refusing to take responsibility for your actual statements. “The failure of high inflation to materialize doesn’t mean that I was wrong, because I only said that there was a risk of inflation”. “When I said that Obamacare spending adds a trillion dollars to the deficit, I wasn’t misleading readers, because I didn’t actually deny that the ACA as a whole reduces the deficit.” And of course, people who engage in that kind of bad faith screech loudly about civility when they’re caught at it.

When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate — say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing — by all means let’s be civil. But in my experience demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited the right to the respect they demand.


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