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On Charitable Reading

Started by clehrich, October 16, 2004, 05:37:08 PM

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Lately on the Forge, I have noticed a lot of what might be called "uncharitable reading."  I'm not going to point fingers or give references here; there's no point in raking up old coals.  But it's happening at every level: new posters, the old guard, and everything in between.

I mean that I see a lot of responses that essentially say, "I don't get what you're saying, and you're wrong."  Or, "I don't get what you're saying, this is a stupid topic."  Or, "I don't get what you're saying, you have to prove to me that it's worth discussing."  Only the last is even plausible, logically, but on a forum like the Forge it seems to me that if you don't find a topic interesting, it's your own problem not to discuss it; leave the discussion to those who do find it interesting.

The same thing occurs constantly in my own students when they write about scholarly arguments, and I have some suggestions.  I am not a moderator around here, as you know, but I suggest that everyone – and I mean everyone – think a little about his or her own posting habits.

Slow Down
M.J. Young is probably the most constant defender of slowing down; others give him lip-service, but don't put the point into practice.  Threads have a habit of appearing, receiving a page or more of responses before the bewildered initiator even gets around to comment, and then dissipating.  Sometimes Ron steps in and tells everyone to pipe down until the initiator gets a chance, but this isn't always obeyed.  Furthermore, the amount of time allowed to give someone a chance is very brief, as in hours.  If all those responses were interesting and valuable, it should take more than a few hours to process that much stuff.  What's being encouraged here, just by the structure of discussion, is snap judgments, shallow thinking, and a refusal to change one's mind.

Read Carefully and Thoroughly
Many arguments and misunderstandings are based on fast reading of a post, not examining every word and phrase.  Someone says, "Usually, X happens," and respondents reply, "No, X doesn't always happen, you're wrong."  This is just sloppy reading, and it happens I think because people are reading too fast and trying to post rapidly.  If it's not sloppiness, it's intellectual dishonesty, so I'm going to be charitable and assume sloppiness.

Try To Understand
This is the biggest problem, and solving it takes time and effort.  If you read a post and think you understand the point being made, but you think that point is totally ludicrous, you should assume that you've misunderstood.  Don't assume the other guy is an idiot; try to see it from his point of view.  Ask yourself, "How could he think that?  What's he got in mind?"  So far as I know, nobody here is a complete fool; one has something in mind when one makes an argument, and it is the reader's job to try and figure it out.  Push the argument around in your mind, using all the examples and analogies and whatnot proposed, until you're very sure you understand what the poster has in mind.  You should also be able to defend the argument: you should be able to see why the poster believes it.  Only then are you really qualified to challenge it.

Deal Directly With Incomprehension
If you simply cannot understand what is being said, ask yourself whether you are being over-hasty.  Have you considered it from all sides?  Is it possible that the poster has made a typing error – excessively common around here, of course – that is making it tricky to understand?  If the best you can do is guess that the poster wrote X but must have meant Y, you must begin any response by noting that this is how you interpret the post.

Assume Terminological Slippage
Especially with relative newcomers to the Forge, if something seems a little off-base, consider the possibility that the poster doesn't quite understand certain local jargon terms.  Before you go any farther, try to figure out (a) what the poster thinks the term means, and (b) what, on that basis, his argument is.  90% of the time, the argument doesn't really require the term as such.  The correct response to this, if you have something to say about the argument, is in two parts: (1) a very brief correction of the terminology, followed by a restatement of the original argument made by the poster, now using the term correctly (or not at all); and (2) a response to the argument itself.  Once one respondent has done #1, it should not be repeated.  What happens all too frequently is an exhaustive correction of the term and no response to the actual argument.  Part of what some people call the "elitism" of the Forge is this behavior, which is entirely the respondent's fault.  That's right: every time you do this, you validate the criticism that the Forge is a bunch of elitist, pseudo-intellectual snobs.  If the poster is an old-timer, you can be tougher about terms, but still you need to consider whether they really matter to the argument as such.

Deal With Examples
If someone proposes a concrete example, from actual play or a plausible hypothetical, you must respond to it directly.  Proposing a new example instead is just ground-shifting.  If you don't understand why the example is supposed to demonstrate the point, then read it again, and don't respond until you understand what the poster has in mind.

Don't Get Het-Up About Examples
Illustrative examples are presumably intended to be illustrative; if they don't work for you but you understand the argument anyway, then set aside the example and deal with the argument.  Instead, we constantly get this exchange – Initiator: "My argument is X.  For example, Y."  Response: "Nope, Y shows Z, blah blah blah about Z."  Initiator: "I want to talk about X."  Response: "No, we have to talk about Y and exclusively Y and that means Z so keep quiet about X."  The correct response would have been: "I think Y shows Z, not X.  So let's talk about X on a different basis."  And possibly, "Does my new example, Y-prime, work for you?  Here's why I think it does."

Analogies Are Not Arguments
This is the extreme case of the above two points about examples.  Initiator: "I want to talk about X.  It's kind of like Y."  Response: "Y is a dumb analogy, because blah blah blah."  Or: "Y is a dumb analogy.  It's like Z instead."  Start by asking yourself whether you get what is meant by the analogy.  If you do, and you think it a silly analogy, then forget the analogy and deal with the argument.  If you don't get it, then try to figure it out.  Only respond to the analogy if you understand it and agree that it is a useful analogy.  Otherwise we just end up with one of those long-winded arguments about cars and gear-shifts and other nonsense.

Recap: Figure It Out
To restate the #1 point here.  Lots of people are reading posts and saying, "No, I think that's stupid," without first asking, "Do I see what he's saying?"  Then you get into a back-and-forth about you-said no-I-said no-you-said no-I-didn't.  Any value in the original post is long since out the window.

Of course it is the poster's task to try to express him- or herself clearly.  But it is the reader's task to try to get the point.  If posters are not being clear, respondents should try to assist them to be so; they may be unclear because they are not quite certain of their ground and would like help from others.

When a reader does not get the point and attacks, the reader is simply being uncharitable.  If you simply do not understand someone's point, consider shutting up and waiting until someone else figures it out.  If a couple of days pass and nobody responds, maybe it's time to ask for clarification.  Nobody should be impressed that you have been the first to leap forward and say, "I don't understand."  Congratulations – you may well have demonstrated either a lack of intellectual ability or an unwillingness to listen to others!  Hoorah – you're stupid or narrow-minded!

Here's hoping that this will be read charitably, of course....
Chris Lehrich

Clinton R. Nixon


This right here is now required reading, at least according to me. It's been made a sticky for this forum.

Thank you for the time you spent writing it.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Steve Marsh (Ethesis)

Quote from: Clinton R. Nixon on October 16, 2004, 07:39:49 PM

This right here is now required reading, at least according to me. It's been made a sticky for this forum.

Thank you for the time you spent writing it.

This one is great, especially:

Assume Terminological Slippage
Especially with relative newcomers to the Forge, if something seems a little off-base, consider the possibility that the poster doesn't quite understand certain local jargon terms.

I see that all the time professionally (my real world site is )


As someone new to this forum, I must say this post is gold. I hope I can always live up to the challange it sets before me.



Really dug reading this -every forum should have this stickied to its FAQ. fact, I think everyone should read it, including world leaders and FOX news presenters :P