What the Hell, Asshat?

*This post has been edited*

Yesterday, Ethan Siegel of Starts with a Bang fame wrote a post called “Weekend Diversion: How to Argue.”  In this post Siegel talks about there being good ways to argue and bad ways to argue.  He even put up a helpful graphic to emphasize good vs. bad arguments (not made by him).  Here it is:


I’m sympathetic to the concern that if people are going to engage in debate they act in some kind of reasonable manner, which, for me, means addressing the issues at hand rather than calling someone names.  A big reason I’m sympathetic is that, like most people reading this, sometimes I get into debates online.  Often these debates are frustrating as many of the people on message boards and the like are more than happy to sling insults rather than address relevant issues.  In light of that, I found myself nodding vigorously when I read the post by Siegel. 

What I did not expect was anything like the response from Isis the Scientist who wrote her post here.  She wrote, “I find Ethan’s post derailing and counterproductive at best, offensive and naive at worst.”  She continues to hammer away at Siegel, saying that his post is an attempt to maintain his position of privilege, and that he wants to prevent others (Others) from having a voice.  She even replaces his graphic with her own:


Maybe you are not scratching your heat at this.  Maybe you see this, and it makes all the sense in the world.  But if so, you are not me.  I am just puzzled.  Nothing in Siegel’s post said anything about sex or ethnicity.  He never even hinted at it.  He merely suggested that there are good arguments and poor ones, and that, to quote him, “on my site” (italics his own), you had to use good arguments, that you had to actually address the issues, if you wanted to participate in discussions with him.

The reason I find this so weird is that a number of people on Isis’ journal chimed in agreeing with her.  And that just leaves me wondering, again, what the hell?  Isis provides a number of points that sound great, and they would make a fine argument if anything Siegel suggested any of the things Isis perceives.  But he doesn’t.  As such, things like “Being Polite in the Discussion Does Not Make your Message Civil” and “The Fact That You Don’t Understand the Argument Doesn’t Mean the Other Person is not Being Clear,” while correct, have no relevance to Siegel’s argument at all.  Isis misses the point of Siegel’s post completely.  That makes me wonder, is she projecting?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that it’s confusing and a little frustrating when people jump all over you without actually touching on anything you said.  

For me, this is merely something to muse over.  It isn’t like someone jumping on you for no good reason on the internet really matters.  After all, it’s the internet.  If you get your feelings hurt every time some nameless and faceless individual attacking you for things you haven’t done, you need to cut your LAN cable.  But it is weird.  It makes me wonder just what is going through these people’s minds.  What do they think is going on?  Where do they go so wrong?  How do they get such a wrong idea about what you’re saying?  Seriously, what the hell?

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15 Responses to “What the Hell, Asshat?”

  1. The Masked Avenger Says:

    I see where Isis is coming from, though I don’t know how to feel about it. I guess I agree on principle, even though I personally try to maintain a level of civility to at least some degree in my “debates” because I try not to be confrontational. But as there are a number of implications involved in that decision alone that are worth examining, that’s derailing and I’ll save that for my own time.

    The idea that there is no room in a “debate” for name-calling is based on both the assumption that civility is something the hypothetical you reserves for deference or respect of some sort, and that the person the hypothetical you is debating with is somehow automatically deserving of that deference… which (especially if the person is saying something hideously offensive) you might not feel about that person. If you don’t respect the argument, it’s very easy to not respect the person behind it, and name-calling is a good way to say, “I’m not looking to engage you because I think you’re not only wrong, but so wrong that this is only going to be completely unproductive.”

    And I understand that from a personal perspective. I know that when I’m presented with an argument I think is complete BS, my initial inclination is less, “This person is mistaken; I should rectify this,” and more, “What a schmuck! This conversation is over!” And the implication that the schmuck in question is somehow deserving of my time and energy in engaging him can be problematic in an ivory tower sort of way. I doubt I would have learned all this if I hadn’t been privileged academically myself.

    So it makes sense to me. But I guess what you’re having trouble with is what happens when the person doing the mudslinging is wrong, and that happens a lot. And I don’t have a good answer for that other than to call them an asshat in return and then think of ways to find out their address so you can send them anthrax. I mean, no amount of civility is going to keep people from being either wrong or willfully ignorant so it’s best to choose your battles carefully.

    • Jim Says:

      I don’t know how you see where Isis is coming from on this. Clue me in.
      Sure, there are times when attempting any genuine debate is a waste of time. But I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue seems to be that Siegel says that if you’re going to get any attention on his blog, you’re going to have to do more than call him an asshat. If you want him to treat you with any respect at all, including not just banning you for being a troll, you’re going to have to offer up a certain quality of argument. He put up a mediocre (at best) graphic to show what kinds of responses he thinks are best.
      Isis’ response to that seems to be something like “You just want to preserve your privilege!” But there doesn’t appear to be anything in Seigel’s post that suggests anything of the sort.
      If the concern was what counts as “addressing the issue,” then I would get Isis’ point. But she offers no reason to think that Siegel is doing anything like unjustly excluding people from the conversation. In fact, being familiar with what’s going on in the comments, Siegel’s concern is that people come in and get angry but offer little to no argument for their own position or for their opposition to Siegel’s. In that case, Isis’ post just seems completely off-base. Moreover, it’s often hard to know what the background of the people in the comments is, and the worst trolls (and I think Siegel would agree) are not those who use poor grammar or otherwise appear to not be an academic. Must worse are those people who constantly use jargon and name-drop at every opportunity (Kwok, infamous on ScienceBlogs, the site that hosts both the blogs in question, is just that kind of troll) but never make a real argument or say anything sensible at all.
      Funny enough, I think your last sentence captures Siegel’s position quite succinctly, and I don’t think Isis should jump on you, either.

      • The Masked Avenger Says:

        Well, first, to be fair, Siegel’s post doesn’t start out with, “Here are some new rules for commenting on my blog,” though he says something to that effect at the end of the entry. If I may paraphrase, he starts out saying, “When any of these situations come about, it’s time to argue, and this is how one should do it.” He doesn’t initially give a context, so it comes off as though he feels this is the right course of action in any situation where a disagreement presents itself (and honestly, I think he genuinely believes that). If it’s clear to you (with probably more context than I have, as I’ve only read this post and Isis’ counterpoint) that he’s referring ONLY to his blog, then that’s completely his prerogative. But in this piece, he comes off as though he’s speaking in more general terms; that he’d like all discourse to involve civility and structured arguments.

        Then, he goes on to say that “yelling at someone that they’re wrong without explaining what’s actually correct” is a bad idea. Not all debates are what our president would call “teachable moments”. Isis goes on to suggest it is an act of privilege to expect someone to explain to you why you’re wrong about something. Now, in academic circles, it’s a requirement to be able to substantiate an argument in a given fashion but not everyone has access to that information (and that expectation), and by assuming that as the default, you’re requesting everyone play the game by your rules. On your blog? Fine. In life? Not fine.

        Not only that, Siegel goes on to say that sticking to the top two tiers of the hierarchy is the only way to sway “other intelligent, thinking people to your side”. I can imagine Isis participates in a lot of debates about identity politics, where that phrasing comes up a LOT, and from the wrong people. Now, you can argue that in more hard scientific debates, where there’s a greater chance of something having a concrete wrong or right answer, this is moot. But it seems Isis can’t divorce the personal from the political, and feels it necessary to racialize/sexualize Siegel’s argument to put it in a different perspective. She’s saying, “The world doesn’t operate this way, so who are you to request this of us?” I can’t say she’s wrong for that. Unless, of course, he was talking specifically about his blog. Then… whatever.

        I don’t know how to convince you she has a point. Perhaps I’m only sympathetic/empathic to her reasoning because I had a similar emotional (and possibly irrational!) response to Siegel’s post. Even with a clear intent to be witty, his charm didn’t work on me. But this has come up in other situations, too, and the only real answer I have for it is that hard science people are probably used to presenting information and their accompanying positions in a way that is foreign to those of us not in that field, and probably likewise for anybody with any other specialty. That’s a problem I don’t know how to fix.

        • Jim Says:

          I suppose that I don’t think that Siegel would disagree with your points about not every debate being a “teachable moment.” However, I’m not Siegel, so I don’t want to presume to speak for him. Also, I am coming at this with a different context in mind, that of the kind of response that pops up on his blog and others, especially those at ScienceBologs.com. Moreover, I deal with that kind of stuff all over the internet, and it’s becomes quite frustrating to have people argue with you yet never address your points or explain what’s wrong with what you’re saying. I think that’s the larger context.
          Also, I don’t see why not being impressed by Siegel’s writing style should be a mark in favor of the idea that his post is an attempt to preserve his own privilege. As I’ve said, I just don’t see that.
          Perhaps Siegel could have been more specific. Perhaps he could have said that the debates he had in mind were only those on his blog (which I think he came close to actually saying) or only those where rational debate is possible. I just find it unlikely that he would think that when someone is yelling in your face that you shouldn’t respond unless you can clearly articulate each of the problems with the yeller’s argument. I don’t think he was being that broad, and I don’t see why anyone would think such was the case.

          • The Masked Avenger Says:

            I understand that it’s aggravating when someone attacks you without considering your points. I also understand that it’s aggravating when someone tells you that your rage is unproductive because it doesn’t benefit them, particularly when they’re condescending about it. And it’s also aggravating to deal with people who talk as though they have a natural right to be heard because they’ve never been silenced as an Other.

            You’re saying that Siegel couldn’t possibly have been talking about all that stuff in a general sense because of the types of people he was addressing– name-dropping troll types. Maybe that’s true; I’m willing to accept that. And maybe it’s just a terrible coincidence that he would choose to use these really sort of loaded (in a social context) phrases, about using civility to “sway intelligent people” and how telling someone they’re wrong without further engaging them is a “bad idea”. It may very well have been an unfortunate choice of words on his part. But the truth is that these arguments are made all of the time by people who make them with the specific intent to silence Others and marginalized people in a conversation, and the implication is that white men, as the default in society, are immediately considered objective and rational. As an example, look at what just happened with Justice Sotomayor, who was basically told flat-out that she would have a harder time making rational, objective decisions because she was a Latina from the Bronx.

            I’m willing to accept the possibility that that wasn’t Siegel’s initial intent, which is probably one of the reasons why I wouldn’t have responded the way Isis did. But just as your emotional response to what he said had to do with what you’ve been dealing with around the internet, so did mine.

          • Jim Says:

            To be clear, I think it’s possible that Siegel meant all that in the most general sense, I just don’t think it’s likely given the general background and the last bit about it being his own blog.
            I guess I want to say a couple of things. First, I get how certain kinds of language have been used to marginalize Others. That said, I’m not sure what one should say to express things that I think are right if the words he used are off limits. I mean, I do think it’s true that (assuming the point of a debate is to hash out ideas and not to defend oneself, merely fight, whatever) civility is better to sway intelligent people. It just turns out that being an asshole is a turn-off to people who regularly discuss complicated ideas that require a significant level of training (like evolutionary biology, astrophysics, etc). Also, it does seem to be a bad idea (again, in the context of talking about ideas) to tell someone they’re wrong without further engaging them. If I write, “For reasons x, y, and z evolutionary biology calls into question the entire notion of a ‘function’ for human beings, for a teleology,” and you respond “My dear sir, you are quite incorrect,” and refuse to say anything further, I am unlikely to give your criticism much thought. In fact, I can’t give it much thought. Just saying I’m wrong without telling me anything else really doesn’t tell me anything at all. You might have well as said, “My dear sir, strawberry.” What part is wrong? What’s the flaw? Are you saying that I’m wrong about what evolutionary theory suggests, or are you saying that thing doesn’t even exist? I just need more information to even listen to you.
            See, I don’t see the Sotomayor thing as support for either of the things you’ve listed. In fact, it seems like support for Siegel. If someone can’t come up with an explanation of why being a Latina from the Bronx is an issue, I’m won’t care what they have to say. However, if someone could produce documents and video showing that all people of that background in her neighborhood were, as children, given some drug as a terrible experiment by our government, and that drug had the effect of shutting down the area of their brain responsible for moral reasoning at age 55, then I would see why their concern might be legitimate. But just yelling “She’s a witch!” isn’t going to persuade me, and I suspect the same is true for Siegel. In fact, I think that was his whole point, that coming on his blog and yelling or refusing to back up what you say will only result in being ignored.

          • The Masked Avenger Says:

            Well, I was using the Sotomayor example less for Siegel than I was for myself, as an illustration of unchecked privilege in socially-sanctioned action and how the notion of what it means socially to be rational and objective is based on one’s ability to dissociate themselves from their race, gender, etc. As for Siegel and Isis… last I checked, both of their comment sections devolved into piles of straw men and communicative slop so I feel like it’s fair to say that two self-important “rights” make one gigantic wrong.

            (Semi-OT: All this is making me think of the documentary Resolved, where a high school debate team of inner-city black kids come up with a new style of debate to combat what they feel is an inherently racist competitive style. Incredible movie; watch it!)

            Can you request the pyramid in a conversation without it being necessarily problematic? Sure. I think there are different rules for different areas, and I’m sure you’d agree with that. If a bunch of scientists are talking about the best way to develop a drug for Disease X, it’s probably best that the conversation doesn’t involve attacks on each other’s mothers and name-calling. If all parties of the debate understand it to be academic, the conversation is naturally going to be at a particular level.

            But it’s when things become more informal that the real trouble starts. Maybe you’d disagree, but I feel like blogs, message boards or even intimate conversations between friends are spaces where I think it’s a little less fair to ask that of someone. There are always going to be trolls and the willfully obtuse and people who just don’t give a damn about what the hypothetical you thinks in these situations and I think it’s a little pretentious to ask they acquiesce to your preferred level of communication. Now, don’t get me wrong– for my space, I feel like it’s fine to set the tone. But on the parts of the internet that do not belong to me, not to mention intimate, real life situations? That would make me a class-A tool.

            And sometimes you have to pay attention to how people are arguing and tailor yourself to the conversation. To me, when you want to be diplomatic, there are things you have to give up. Sure, name-calling and physical threats are some of the things that you give up, but the number one thing that most people who request “civility” forget to check? Condescension!!!! And honestly, I consider that to be an ad hominem attack on its own, so I would also consider name-calling to be a legitimate response to that.

            In the end, I think we’re coming to the same conclusion: it’s the internet. And at the end of the day, that faceless IP address that said blah blah blah to you is just an asshat.

          • Jim Says:

            I disagree with nothing you’ve said here. That’s what makes this such a funny situation. I’d bet both Isis and Siegel agree with that as well.

          • Liza Says:

            I think it’s possible that the people who request civility but forget to check their own condescension do so because they don’t realize that they are being condescending. In fact, I think it’s likely. One reason for this is that people sometimes apply opposing standards for what “counts” as condescending. For example, when I become engaged in a conversation about ideas, I tend to assume 1) the other person probably doesn’t have my academic background and 2) the other person probably does understand inductive and deductive reasoning (even if he doesn’t call them that), thinks evidence is important, etc. Now, it may be the case that I am wrong on one (or sometimes, strangely, both) count(s), but I think it’s condescending NOT to assume that the other person isn’t going to respond to point-by-point-justifications and evidence-based explanations. Because I work in social services, I have a great deal of non-academic experience with people who are the “Other”- racial minorities, the mentally ill, and the extremely poor- and I have learned that many people in my line of work think that it is inappropriate to talk to a client as an intellectual equal. Instead, they choose the opposite tack by appealing to authority or platitudes rather than engaging in a debate with a client, and dumbing down explanations because they assume that they client won’t care about or be able to understand his own case. I think this is the real condescension. It’s one thing to assume that a person probably doesn’t have my academic background and isn’t going to know the jargon that I know, but it’s quite another to assume that this person isn’t going to be able to follow my arguments or make sense of reasonable explanations. In fact, it kind of offends me when someone suggests that reasoning of this sort is a tool of white, male oppression. I have been condescended to by lots of people (mostly men, and mostly white) who thought they were smarter/more rational/more knowledgeable than I, and their use of reasoning or evidence was never the threatening or offensive element of what they said. Instead, they got angry, upset, or otherwise “emotional” when they realized that they were losing an abstract argument to a young woman. In other words, they did exactly those things which Siegel lists as objectionable. White male privilege did not to give these men a special monopoly on the tools of reason or science, but it might have given some of them the illusion that they had this monopoly which is why they felt confused and angry when they realized they were losing the argument. I worry that the kind of arguments that Isis is making have the perverse effect of reinforcing this illusion, rather than dispelling it.

  2. Brent Says:

    It seems to me that she is using him to make her own sociopolitical statement, willfully ignoring the original point. It also seems that this is stemming from some sort of personal bitter resentment towards him. I find that to be counterproductive at best, since she just fell right into one of his categories.

  3. Tim Says:

    I personally think that everyone should yell insults with metaphoric reference to their argument. That way, both sides of the brain are satisfied.

    Also, you are an asshat.

    …a strawberry asshat.

  4. The Masked Avenger Says:

    Sorry for the thread jump, y’all; I can’t get to the reply link.

    Okay, so condescension: I totally agree with you that it’s the white/male illusion of privilege that they have the monopoly on logic. And as a young woman of color, I know exactly what it feels like to watch white men become angry with me when I argue with them, and I know what it’s like to have my request for disengagement denied by white men who want to continue to shout me down. So please let me know if I’m misunderstanding you, as what I’m hearing is that you’re afraid that her post reinforces to people steeped in white/male privilege that women of color are irrational/illogical/not objective, etc. If what Isis is saying is reinforcing this illusion to them, I don’t understand how it’s her fault. It’s not (or at least shouldn’t be) on the onus of the Other to educate, enlighten, or even maintain a civil and demure tone in a discussion on the dynamics of oppression because those expectations are part of the illusion of the power differential– “be gentle with me when you tell me about how I hurt you”. If anyone walks away from reading what she said with the impression that women of color are irrational, incapable of objectivity and unnecessarily rageful because they can’t rise above all that race and gender crap, it seems to me she’s not the one with the problem.

    I have no beef with the assertion that these tactics are a tool of white/male (and even classist) oppression. It’s academic. People like you and I and Isis have been given access to it, but that doesn’t mean it was constructed in a cultural vacuum. And her point, I think, was really that that kind of stuff really only works in academic settings, so to assert that all arguments should be handled that particular way (whether he was actually suggesting that or not, the world may never know) is problematic. I know I can’t use that pyramid in my neighborhood. Not because people I know are incapable of understanding it, but because that insistence on engagement and entitlement to an explanation is a mark of privilege, and her pyramid illustrates that. Should everyone be granted that expectation? That’s a more difficult question. I don’t know if it’s more internalized inferiority keeping people from addressing this expectation or internalized superiority making people think they have access to it in the first place.

    And as awful as it may sound, I can’t really manage to feel any sort of sympathy for people who are condescending without realizing it. I’m routinely offended by these people. I guess it’s easier for some people to get wrapped up in ideas and constructions and defenses and all that but the number one thing for me in a discussion is to remember that a person is on the opposite side. Just because something’s logical doesn’t mean it’s accurate, and since I can’t think of a belief that I have that isn’t informed by my cultural upbringing, social designation, educational background, etc, I assume the same is true for the person I’m having a discussion with. For that reason, I’m not as focused on consensus or being right. Now, as stated, I have very different rules for academic debates, where it’s very important to be as sound as possible. But in my personal life, I’m not focused on that, and it’s more important that I’m not alienating who I’m talking to.

    But I’m not suggesting the pyramid not be used in “real life” situations. I think for most of us by now, it’s second nature. But I just think it’s also important to remember that this is a tool coming from a very particular cultural background, and if someone doesn’t find it valuable, it’s possible they have a good reason.

    • Liza Says:

      I guess the thing that bothers me here is that I have trouble making sense of a better way of treating a person than by engaging them as a rational equal. Now, if what you are saying is only that we cannot and should not always expect a rational explanation or justification out of another person, then I wholeheartedly agree. In my work at the homeless shelter I deal with people who are living in the midst of crisis, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for their whole lives. They are seeking practical help, short-term solutions, and ultimately, opportunities that will help them to resolve the situation and get out of a crisis, and they are not in the position to ask meta-level questions about their values or choices. So, when I work with a client to make a goal plan, I don’t cross-examine him about how his SSI check disappeared by the fifth of the month with no bills paid and nothing to show for it but some cigarette butts and losing lottery tickets. He doesn’t owe me a rational defense or explanation of his actions, but I do owe him an
      explanation about how budgets work and how to file a claim to get rental assistance through HUD because that’s my job. I owe it to him to explain that he’s unlikely to get housing assistance unless he gets a payee (someone who gets your check, pays your bills, and gives you what’s leftover) because of his record of non-payment. It would be condescending if I did not offer a rational, evidenced-based explanation of my recommendations to my client because I figured he was too irrational or apathetic to understand.
      Now, I get that my assumption that people can have a peaceful, reasonable exchange of ideas is the product of an upbringing where people frequently did engage each other that way with no ill effects. If I had grown up in a place where the wrong words would lead to violence or the wrong political view would lead to even more violence- as many of my clients have and do- then I would probably be more keenly aware that the assumption of a safe, peaceful, exchange of words is itself a luxury of my middle-class American upbringing. Also, I understand that, simply by virtue of my position, most of the time my interactions with people from a different social class/background do not put us on equal footing. I am in the position of power as the social worker, and they need help, so they go along with the protocol of the agency which I enforce.
      Having recognized those realities, I still don’t get see how any other exchange is preferable to the one in which I give reasons and explanations for my recommendations and I allow the other person an opportunity to explain his position, reasoning, etc. Is there any alternative that is preferable?

      • The Masked Avenger Says:

        I’m not saying that we “cannot and should not always expect a rational explanation or justification out of another person.” I believe that, but that’s not my point.

        I am also not suggesting that it somehow isn’t condescending if you do not inform your client of his situation. I believe 100% that is an example of condescension. I don’t understand, however, how that as an example disproves condescension in a situation where someone believes my “irrational” response to them is solely based on my perceived inability to behave correctly, especially with little-to-no self-reflection of their part in the exchange. A lot of what is involved in making the judgment of what is or is not rational is its relationship to what is expressed as socially normative– which is by its nature problematic to those of us who do not fit in that construction of normativity.

        I have no problem “resorting” to the ad hominem attack, particularly when I am in a situation where I am dealing with someone that I find condescending, presumptuous, paternalistic, and/or stigmatizing. And it’s not because I don’t understand their reasoning, or that I was brought up in a space where decidedly irrational things like brute force or insults were commonly employed and I don’t know any better, or even because I’m a coward that doesn’t want to engage that person because of my disinterest in confronting the possiblity that I am wrong. It is because I have decided that person is a tremendous asshole and the conversation is a complete waste of time. They can walk away from the conversation continuing to think any one or a combination of those things about me, or perhaps that I am a big meaniepants that doesn’t want to persuade them to see my point, but I really do think it says more that they’re obviously invested in the impossibility that they are any one of those things I mentioned, or that it should somehow be excused because they don’t intend to be. If someone tells you that you’re pretty adept for a girl, and they don’t intend for it to be condescending, does that make it acceptable? And are they entitled to the respect and deference that a solid, logical argument against that would imply? If you’re the kind of person who would present a series of solid, logical arguments as to how that line of thinking was problematic in the hopes of informing and persuading that person, then kudos to you, but my response is to simply tell the person that they’re an asshole and go on with my day.

  5. katy Says:

    i’m totally bewildered as to now ethnicity and sex was even brought into the topic. how does that relate to the hierarchy of good argument in debate? that chick is seriously on something, or sucks at reading.

    “But it seems Isis can’t divorce the personal from the political, and feels it necessary to racialize/sexualize Siegel’s argument to put it in a different perspective.” -masked avenger

    the fact that she did makes complete nonsense out of whatever intent she had with her post. seriously, what do her views and perceptions about social class have ANYTHING to do with what she was replying to? like, because this guy pointed out how to specifically structure a good argument and pointed out how you could also suck at it means he’s a privileged white male and his analysis should be disregarded? LOL. seriously, how is siegel sexist or classist?

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