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THE ETHICS OF DEBATING (Facebook)
or
HOW TO NOT BE A CHARLATAN
(revision of earlier discussion)

You can attack what a person *said* or what the person *meant*. The former is more sensational. The mark of a charlatan is to defend his position or attack a critic by focusing on *some* of his/her specific statement (“look at what he said”) rather than attacking his position (“look at what he means” or, more broadly, “look at what he stands for”), the latter of which requires a broader knowledge of the proposed idea. Note that the same applies to the interpretation of religious texts.

Given that it is impossible for anyone to write a perfectly rationally argued document without a segment that, out of context, can be transformed by some dishonest copywriter to appear totally absurd and lend itself to sensationalization, politicians and charlatans hunt for these segments. “Give me a few lines written by any man and I will find enough to get him hung” goes the saying attributed to Richelieu, Voltaire, Talleyrand, a vicious censor during the French revolution phase of terror, and others.

I take any violation by an intellectual as a disqualification, some type of disbarment –same as stealing is a disbarment in commercial life. It is actually a violation of journalistic ethics, but not enforced outside of main fact-checking newspapers.[Note 1]

Take for instance the great Karl Popper: he always started with an unerring representation of the opponents positions, often exhaustive, as if he were marketing them as his own ideas, before proceededing to systematically destroy them. Or take Hayek’s diatribes “contra” Keynes and Cambridge: at no point there is a single line misrepresenting Keynes or an overt attempt at sensationalizing*. [**I have to say that it helped that people were too intimidated by Keynes’ intellect to trigger his ire.]

Read Aquinas, written 8 centuries ago, and you always see sections with QUESTIO->PRAETERIA, OBJECTIONES, SED CONTRA, etc. describing with a legalistic precision the positions being challenged and looking for a flaw in them and a compromise. That was the practice by intellectuals.

Twitter lends itself to these sensationalized framing: someone can extract the most likely to appear absurd and violating the principle of charity. So we get a progressive debasing of intellectual life with the rise of the media, needing some sort of policing.

Note the associated reliance of *straw man* arguments by which one not only extracts a comment but *also* provides an interpretation, promoting misinterpretation. I consider *straw man* no different from theft.

COMMENTS
I just subjected the *principle of charity* as presented in philosopy to the Lindy test: it is only about 60 years old. Why? Does it meant that it is transitory? Well, we did not need it explicitly before before discussions were never about slogans and snapshots but synthesis of a given position.

An answer came as follows. Bradford Tuckfield (earlier post) wrote: ” I think this principle is much older than 60 years. Consider in the book of Isaiah, chapter 29, verse 21: he denounces the wicked who “make a man an offender for a word,” implying that people were focusing on specific words rather than positions, and that this is a bad practice.”
So it seems that the Lindy effect wins. In fact as with other things, if the principle of charity had to become a principle, it is because an old practice had to have been abandoned.

Thanks Tredag Brajovic for the Richelieu story.

[Note 1: Journos seem to make the mistake but freak out when caught –they have fragile reputations and tenuous careers. I was misinterpreted in my positions on climate change in a discussion with David Cameron in 2009 (presenting them backwards) and when I complained, the editors were defensive and very apologetic, the journos went crazy when I called them “unethical”, some begged me to retract my accusation.]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity

https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/668106085413318657

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We must take our fight to the preachers and financiers of terror.

https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/666292678213136386

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