Sunday, January 02, 2011

how to be uncharitable

A link on Drudge led me to a page at, where we see the accusatory headline: "Liberal Star Blogger Ezra Klein: Constitution ‘Has No Binding Power on Anything’; Confusing Because it’s Over 100 Years Old." When you watch the video, however, you do hear Klein refer to something not having any binding power, but in the context of the interview, it's plain that he's not referring to the Constitution itself, but rather to the upcoming GOP recitation of the entire Constitution. Also, his remark about the Constitution's age, when taken in its full context, merely points out the trivial truth that, as an old document that was the product of its time, it is now subject to various interpretations by us modern folk.

I don't know enough about Klein to say one way or another whether he is, as one rightie commenter put it, a "Communist tool." But I can't see that what he said was any cause for alarm or consternation. I do, however, feel that Breitbart's headline is dangerously misleading and needlessly provocative. Aren't there enough legitimate problems with the liberal position to occupy conservatives? (Full disclosure: I feel this to be true of both philosophies; conservatism isn't problem-free, especially in its application.) This video seems to have been posted for little reason other than to stir up outrage.

If you're going to have a serious discussion or debate about some topic, philosophers recommend a stance known variously as charitable interpretation, interpretive charity, or even charity in/of interpretation. The basic idea is that, before you return fire after hearing an argument, you do your utmost to view the argument in the most positive, charitable light possible. If the argument has obvious weaknesses due to sloppiness, etc., you reconstruct the argument in a way that repairs those weaknesses, and only then do you respond with your counterargument. Aiming at a straw man is, while fun, a shallow and ultimately shameful tactic, and does nothing to forward the discussion. Breitbart seems to have deliberately misunderstood what was going on in the above-linked interview clip. His provocative headline indicates, if anything, his cynical desire to exploit the rage of people who should know better. This sort of tactic should be beneath him.

In the event that the Breitbart page is pulled or altered, here's a snapshot:

I get the feeling that many of those 1300-plus commenters should have watched the video before commenting.



SJHoneywell said...

This is hardly surprising. And while we should know better, it's hardly surprising that most of us don't. We live in a sound-bite world, where it's become common enough for a comment to be taken out of context and turned into outrage.

Too many people are looking for a reason to be outraged by anything the see from an opposing philosophy as a moral justification for their position. It's easier to be outraged, because it's easier to react than it is to think. The fact that we've allowed for reaction rather than thought to be an appropriate response to anything is a sad reflection on us all.

Charles said...

I tried to come up with a snarky and humorous comment, but every time I managed to type out something it made me sad.

So I'll just say this: the internet is pretty much a breeding ground for knee-jerk reactions.