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Maximally ungracious: straining to violate principle of charity

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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When you disagree strongly with someone, try giving them benefit of the doubt. Interpret what they have said, written, or done in the most generous possible way — the best motives, the most honest mistakes. React to the strongest, sanest version of their argument that you can imagine. This is the “principle of charity.” It’s a thing. It’s literally what Jesus would do, if that floats your boat.

It’s a thing you don’t see a lot of it on the internet, of course. The internet is where the principle of charity crawled off to die of a broken heart, circa 1998.

I kid. Oodles of people still extend the benefit of the doubt to people on the other sides of various ideological aisles and chasms. But the failure to do so is still a major theme in my inbox, even in otherwise friendly messages. I see a lot of pointed challenges to the worst/dumbest/weirdest possible interpretation of what I’ve written — “love your work, but don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to say that people who stretch are stupid poopy heads?” Yes, that would be unfair, dear reader, but only if I’d actually said it.

I answer a question of that basic type about a dozen times per week.

Then there’s the angry ones! Those fun folks are working to ignore any evidence that my position might be more nuanced or reasonable than their angry charicature of it. They are maximally ungracious. For these people, it’s clear that what they really want to do is yell at me, and their so-called “criticism” is just a sort of casus belli.

These failures to apply the principle of charity, or active efforts to undermine it, do not have their own official name. It’s just being un-charitable. Also known as just being a jerk. This lack of a good name contributes to chronically underestimating its importance. It might be doing more harm than any number of false equivalences, antecedent denials, and reifications. Being uncharitable is the reason many fallacies are deployed in the first place.

For my part, I will sometimes try to see past the terrible manners of a critic, on the off chance there’s a valid criticism snuggled betwixt the insults, but I get way too many comments to deal with them all meaningfully, and so by far the easiest (and most tempting) way to narrow it down is to just ignore the rude ones. The instant I detect a Class III PoC Violation … swish, into the digi-trash.

There’s a whole class of emails in the “dear-jerk-your-article-sucks” class that betray themselves in the first few words, and so they are the first to go: they’ve completely wasted their time, but only a split second of mine.

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