Straw men, Scotsmen, and NALTs

Arguing on the internet is, at times, like being part of the biggest family reunion in the world. Inevitably, someone you’re related to is going to behave in a horribly embarrassing way, and just as inevitably, someone from another branch of the family is going to lump you in with them. The knee-jerk response to this is to do everything in your power to distance yourself from them.

In the world of internet debate, this comes in the form of three common objections: accusing your opponent of committing the strawman fallacy; committing, yourself, the No True Scotsman fallacy; or plaintively crying “We’re not all like that!” I’m not terribly interested in breaking down the difference between the three, especially since they can often be used interchangeably. I’m more interested in a collective call to sanity. We’ve all got our drunk uncles, and we will never succeed in silencing members of our group whose ideas or manners are embarrassing to us. I’d much rather we concentrate on voicing our own attitudes and viewpoints (which of course are entirely reasonable, entirely civil, and could never be seen as an embarrassment by another member of our family!)

If you’re interested in “winning” a debate in the eyes of some easily-dazzled onlookers, then citing the ugliest and stupidest examples of your opposition is a smart way to go. If you’re interested in increasing collective wisdom and insight, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t need you to tell me that some atheists are assholes. Nobody else does either. The only people that need to hear about the extreme idiocy or assholery on a given side of a debate are the people on the same side who carry a starry-eyed naïveté about how their own ideas infallibly produce virtue and wisdom. Those folks need a harsh awakening, which any visit to an appropriately-themed message board can provide. For the rest of us? Let’s grow up and move on, hmm?

But growing up and moving on means not only refusing to attack the worst versions of my opponent’s ideology, but refusing to engage with people who attack the worst version of my own. If someone writes a long blog post which amounts to saying, “Gee, some atheists sure are smug assholes aren’t they?” I think my best response is to ignore it. Because they’re right: some atheists sure are smug assholes. I’m not, so I’m not going to respond as if they’re talking about me. I will only respond if their attack hits nearer to home: for example if they say, “Gee, it sure is smug and assholeish to believe that your understanding of the universe is better than someone else’s.” No, it’s not; I do believe that my understanding of the universe is better than some people’s, I don’t think that makes me a smug asshole, and I will readily argue that point. And if my opponent, in the course of an argument, points to some smug asshole on a message board who happens to agree with me, I will say, “Yeah, but we’re not talking about them. Tell me what smugness or assholery I have been guilty of, or stop wasting both our time.”

Anyone from a big family knows, or has had ample opportunity to learn: there’s really nothing you can do about your drunk uncle. Can’t silence them, can’t control them, can’t stop other people from unfairly comparing you to them. The best you can do is resolutely maintain your own commitment to reason and civility. Anybody worth your time will appreciate it.

One thought on “Straw men, Scotsmen, and NALTs

  1. A well said and much needed response to the tendency for groups to universalize the fringe elements of an opposing group. I’m fortunate in that my colleagues usually have thoughtful responses for their theism and take atheism seriously…that not nearly so true on the internet.

    Your post (and blog) is smart, witty, and thought provoking. I just subscribed.


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