Three Rules of Thumb for Open and Fair Discourse

(This was originally posted as a discussion topic to the VCD (Vampire Community Discussion) group on Facebook. I have modified and expanded it a little bit for this context.)

Ultimately, my goals always are for people to learn to cooperate with different beliefs, views and experiences and to develop a respect for difference. I would love it if all the different factions and groups, whether in the GVC (Global Vampire Community) or GOC (Greater Otherkin Community), could develop a respect for one another regardless of who they are, recognizing these are differences of culture, worldview, experience, identity and belief. I wish people would cultivate a healthy attitude towards differences, or, even better, a general love of difference. I have always loved difference for how interesting it makes different people/beings, all the fascinating things they think which I could not create.

I find myself growing weary of the constant unproductive bickering that happens in all of the communities and also across “human” society, so I’ve decided here to discuss what things can motivate productive discussion, moreover, how our communities can productively cooperate with recognition that it is highly diverse, multicultural, a hub of interfaith dialogue between different belief systems and secular views.

For consideration, here are three very important aspects to civil discussion and debate. These are hardly the only three aspects of maintaining an open and respectful discourse with others who do not share our views, but they are three I think are decidedly lacking in discussions in society in general.

1. Principle of Charity (sometimes known as the Principle of Rational Accommodation).

This is considered a basis for philosophical discussion. This acknowledges that no one’s viewpoint is complete or ever ideally argued. Before an individual even argues against another position they must at the very least understand it extremely well in the perspective of the Other and to represent it with as much fidelity as possible.

Even more importantly, one must improve the other’s position first, as best as one can. To refute a position that is not argued well is not to refute the actual idea or belief. It could be that the idea or belief is actually right and the better argument would actually demonstrate one’s own position to be wrong. A lot of times, by expanding upon and arguing for our “opponent’s” view we may even discover that it is much better than our own, once we have expanded upon their viewpoint for ourselves. This principle is based upon a recognition that whenever other individuals engage in discussion, we are all fallible. The evaluation of an idea or belief should not be based upon our accidents or limitations in being able to talk about those ideas or beliefs.

Consider the fact that an individual’s belief might actually be correct and quite convincing, except that they, in the situation of the discussion, may not argue it particularly well. Let’s assume their belief is actually correct. If the other individual dismisses it only on the grounds of how it has been presented, then they actually have missed recognizing a correct viewpoint because of their own biases against the way that viewpoint has been argued in that moment. The principle of charity turns us away from our cognitive bias, which favors our views over others by default, and instead requires us to engage with the other’s viewpoint actively, arguing for them, even if, at first glance, we consider their view to be wrong. In philosophy, we often talk about giving a charitable reading, which means that, even if we do not agree with how a view has been argued in the text or discussion, we first assume that they have a point, and we try to see the merits of that point by constructing a better argument for their position. Then, if that argument is better than our own, well, we have discovered that actually our position wasn’t as cogent or convincing to begin with. And if we can still show that the viewpoint is wrong even with a better argument, we have made a much stronger case for our own viewpoint because even the better version of the other viewpoint fails.

2. Principle of Extending Rationality and Reflective Equilibrium.

Reflective Equilibrium is a term that was coined by philosopher John Rawls, although it was first formulated by Nelson Goodman. The short of it is that reflective equilibrium is a state in which most of an individuals’ views and beliefs are internally consistent with each other (meaning they do not contradict themselves often or hold cognitive dissonance). When we recognize rationality in the individuals with whom we are discussing, we are extending a general assumption that the individual is rational and engaged in pursuing reflective equilibrium (adjusting and correcting their own views for consistency). This is to extend generosity in recognizing that all individuals are decent and reasonable, seeking reflective equilibrium (that they introspect and think about their views often and try not to contradict themselves). Certainly not all individuals are reasonable all the time, but in interactions, one is not to judge the character or intellectual power of an individual based upon their beliefs or positions up front but rather to recognize when they have displayed a lack of civility in the interaction.

Think of this principle as a general rule of thumb we follow for discussion, not as a conclusion about the world and people (it is not meant as a description of the world but as a prescription for how to treat the world). The principle holds that one should always assume first in open and civil discussion that the other individual has a good reason for holding the view that they do, that they have given their views a lot of thought, that they have considered how their views relate to other views they and others hold. This is to counter another cognitive bias: the tendency for an individual to devalue other viewpoints different from their own on the basis of judging an individual’s character, personality or judging viewpoints based upon assumptions about the kinds of people who hold them. Otherwise, judgments of reasonability only serve to detract from rational argument and sabotage others by drifting into ad hominem attacks instead of reasonable discussion. Reflective equilibrium is generously extended to the other that they have considered and brought their beliefs into consistency unless otherwise demonstrated.

This is something that a lot of outsiders to our communities could use when encountering our own beliefs that we are nonhuman. Oftentimes, their tendency is to treat our beliefs as inherently bad based upon some individuals they might have interacted with that gave a very bad impression of us as a whole, or based upon their own biased assumptions of what we think, feel or experience without ever actually engaging with us in any meaningful capacity. Such a judgment is a bias; it is overgeneralizing a group, and it is also using an ad hominem from that overgeneralization in order to refute an idea or belief based only upon who holds it. On the flip-side, if individuals in our nonhuman communities desire civil discourse about their nonhuman identities and being with others, they should also apply this principle of extending rationality to individuals who question them, not immediately assuming irrational hatred or ill-intent simply because the other individual does not understand.

3. The Open.

Probably the least discussed in the context of the philosophy of debate because it is more of an idea that is explored in what is sometimes called “continental philosophy”. The Open is something of a disposition or attitude we have towards difference and uniqueness. That is, openness is a recognition that one is a very limited individual with a limited perspective of the world. There is more to the world than one understands or could possibly know, so when we encounter what we do not understand, we refuse to immediately reduce it to what we know (assumptions). The quote that comes to mind is what the titular character Hamlet says in Shakespeare’s play:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Open is to exist within a vast expanse which is unbounded and always permits novel encounters and entanglements. In terms of attitude, it is a kind of “readiness” to always meet such encounters as interesting differences, rather than a “conquering attitude.” When we are Open, we privilege the Other’s voice over our own when they are discussing perspectives, experiences or viewpoints that we do not share, understand or have ourselves. That is because we are valuing difference in and of itself, and what is there to learn by hearing our own voice over and over and over again?

The Open is, exactly as it sounds, open. I do not mean open-mindedness. The Open extends well beyond that concept. If we contemplate the Open, what we are perhaps exploring is the notion of perpetual irresolution, emergent tensions, and the encountering of that which is outside of our conceptions. The Open does not presuppose that anything has ever been satisfactorily explained because there is always more to everything, things outside the boundaries of what we have conceived or presupposed. The Open is an attitude we have when we encounter difference; or rather, it is the open field in which differences can encounter each other with recognition of actual difference, or alterity. The Open is always extending outwards away from oneself, a recognition of limitless possibility and an openness to that possibility. The Open is not “closed”.

The Closed, in contrast, juxtaposes their own worldview upon all other views; it is reductive. Difference is erased and reduced to what confirms the closed individuals’ views. An easy example is in how absolutists treat each other’s viewpoints. If an individual is an absolutist atheistic materialist, they will always assume that there is no merit to spiritual viewpoint’s content in and of themselves, but should be reduced and explained by way of their materialist assumptions. If an individual is an absolutist theist, they might treat all other religious, spiritual and atheistic views as only explained by their theistic viewpoint. In this case, anyone who disagree with them might be “deceived by the devil.” In the atheistic absolutist’s case, they assume that all spiritual beliefs are irrational to begin with and therefore reduce these to “errors of thinking” without considering any rigorous, experiential or cogent viewpoint of spirituality.

In both cases, the atheist and the theist are closed because they cannot even encounter real difference from themselves and therefore cannot realistically expand their own understandings and knowledge of the world through encountering perspectives not their own. They do not even hear what the other is saying with the meaning that is intended. They assume that the meanings behind the other’s words are only their own meanings from their own worldview, and their own framework consumes and swallows up the other’s worldview, rather than encounter the other’s worldview as significantly different from one’s own and requiring an understanding across different perspectives of reality. The absolutists therefore closes themselves of to even alternatives to either of their positions, such as spiritual materialism, for instance, animism that is not religious but expresses spirituality as imminent in material reality itself without doctrinal theism. Or what about atheistic spirituality? In this case, there are no deities, and yet there are spirits. This is very common among indigenous spiritual beliefs. Notice how the Open is actually far more interesting (I think) than either of the theistic or atheistic positions. Most people do not even know about these radically different perspectives of spirituality. What about spirituality without religion? What about spirituality without gods or worship? What about atheism without non-spirituality? What about pantheism which engages with many different spiritualities and beliefs? What about omnism which believes all beliefs earnestly? There are so many potentials outside of the closed debate between “atheism and religion” which, let’s face it, pretends to be more all-encompassing than it really is. The so-called debate between “atheism and religion” is actually between “anti-Christianity and Christianity” specifically, since most of the time it is engaged between Christians and individuals who think that the only religion in the world is Christianity, knowing nothing of world religions, let alone indigenous, minority and ‘pagan’ ones that are exceptionally diverse and to which the arguments for and against religion in this debate don’t even apply. Such a debate, when viewed from the Open, seem ludicrously narrow-minded.

In an Open view, we recognize that there are infinitely many possible views outside of how we have framed reality or the discussion/disagreement. Thus we are seeking to understand more than how we have framed things. We are more interested in expressions outside of how we have framed things than we are those things that are inside of our closed framework.

This last point is particularly important with interfaith dialogue, between spiritual viewpoints and even between spiritual and nonspiritual/atheistic viewpoints. Both the atheist and the spiritualist (or two of different faiths) cannot presuppose the falsity of the Other’s worldviews or else they cannot even properly learn and share enough to know what those are. If they are Closed, then they never even properly encounter each other’s perspectives. They are too busy reducing each other’s perspectives to their own.

When we fail to be Open, we assimilate, suppress and/or degrade the Other’s voice. It is no longer about mutual growth and learning, but violence against the Other and their differences.

This last bit I think others are more likely to disagree with because they are not themselves engaged in being Open. We all think we are right, and opinions are like assholes.

Conclusion: discovery instead of debate, discussion as a vehicle of mutual learning and not “being right”.

I have often found that “being right” in debates in the end does very little when it comes to beliefs. And it doesn’t really matter with respect to lived philosophy, since we cannot possibly account for the incomprehensible complexities of the personal reasons why a person believes as they do. Moreover, it is not our business to constantly go around telling people how to live, and how they should believe (with some exceptions, such as when those beliefs lead to direct harm of others). (Readers familiar with my other writings would be quick to note that I am very much against anthropocentrism, the treatment of “humanity” as the center of meaning and value, because I consider it a very closed and destructive philosophical standpoint.) We all believe and apply our beliefs as needed by our own lives. We live in a world in which any one person’s ideas and beliefs are microscopic compared to the sea of differences and alternatives. We’re all going to be wrong. And all our views are incomplete. We’re probably all fools.

Someone who is of one spirituality is in no ways going to give up their beliefs for a petty argument nor even a civil one. (I mean, they might, but that is exceedingly rare, and generally happens when the individual has already considered this for a long time. The change then is an illusion. The debate might only be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak.) That spirituality is far too meaningful to them, and the unfurling complexities of just how it is meaningful and understood by them cannot even be fully disclosed in words, no more than you can be asked to write an autobiography of yourself that accounts for every single reason why you think or believe something. (Such evidence is, itself, unreasonable to expect, and that can, of course, be a fourth principle of civil discussion. I leave it up to the reader to explore it.) A single debate means nothing compared to decades of lived experiences. And this is equally true for individuals who are nonspiritual. When individuals shift their beliefs and perspectives, this occurs over an extremely long period of time and is motivated by a continuous intake of different information. By the time the transformation of perspective has occurred, the individual is a different person altogether. If that is the case, then debating who is right or wrong, unless there are some kind of direct ethical stakes for treatment—I should say debating who is right or wrong with the intent to actually change the other’s views—is actually quite futile because it seems founded upon a fundamental misunderstanding how views actually change over time. (I make an exception here, of course, for those who think another individual’s desert of basic decency and dignity in treatment is a “matter of opinion.” Context is important and the context I am discussing this is assumes that both individuals are decent but merely fundamentally in disagreement, not that one or both of the individuals is a bigot.)

Likewise, someone who isn’t spiritual isn’t going to spontaneously become spiritual because of a petty argument nor a civil one. With this idea in mind, perhaps there is something else going on to discussion of views that is entirely different from the “goal-oriented proving or disproving of beliefs”. What if proof isn’t the point? We are supposed to provide evidence if we wish to discuss effectively, but what if the act of proving a viewpoint is not the point of discussing ideas in the first place? Perhaps, it is only to open up a space for mutual consideration of perspectives and potential exploration of ideas we have not considered? Sometimes, perhaps, it is to maintain the tension of ideas, such that our disagreement and irresolution is actually productive, to keep the playing field level such that an idea cannot win out through mere force of numbers or the absence of being questioned. (Most readers would agree, I think, that an idea or belief achieving dominance because no one bothers to question it or all those who do have been silenced is a very poor state of affairs. It would seem that, no matter what those ideas and beliefs are, how reasonable they might be, if they are the only authoritarian viewpoint in existence, there is something of a tremendous loss of autonomous thought and the ability to significantly diverge in one’s way of being and thinking. Diversity of thought and being is valuable in and of itself, and lack of disagreement erodes that diversity.)

The main goal of civil discussion, I think, shouldn’t be to violate the core being of the Other, nor to dig one’s claws into them and transform them into an image of oneself, not to prove them wrong, nor an idiot, nor to embarrass them. Really it shouldn’t be a debate about who is right but rather a discussion of what the hell people actually believe and why. It shouldn’t even be a “debate.” What is it that individuals have even experienced and thought? What is it that actually draws them to these conclusions? What even are those conclusions? Are they conclusions or are they just a kind of open agnosticism that leans in certain directions? What sorts of varieties of discussions are ongoing in another individual’s beliefs? What sorts of positive values do other perspectives offer that can’t be had by a different perspective from theirs? What does each view contribute? To even get close to understanding how another feels and thinks takes up more than any conversation could possibly provide, so it must take the place of righteousness and judgement. And once we do that, we actually don’t even have any time life for disproving or invalidating a particular belief or idea.

Actually, when a form of discussion is done well (in my view, which the reader may agree or disagree with, of course), we never even get to the point at which we can start to argue over who is right or wrong because the whole time has been spent discovering what it is that we actually even think and experience, and how we are different and/or similar. Sometimes we even discover we actually don’t even disagree, only have misunderstood. And sometimes we discover that the disagreement of views is so interesting in its own right that it leaves individuals contemplating much after the actual discussion. This kind of perspective of “debate” is radically transformative to how we engage with others. It is no longer about “debate” but rather discovery. And we learn so much more and take away so much more that we may chew on in our own lives and on our own clocks. It turns the onus of changing one’s mind towards ourselves inwardly and introspectively and not towards others outwardly. That is, we are responsible for our own beliefs, growth and perspectives. We are not responsible for those of others (again, except for bigotry). If the time spent in discussion with others is a fistfight over who is right or wrong, then we have actually neither grown nor expanded our conceptions and viewpoint at all. We have acquired nothing new, nothing of value. We haven’t even properly encountered something different nor allowed the others to explain themselves enough for us to understand in order to expand our awareness of what is possible and what kinds of beliefs, ideas and experiences exist.

Most of the time people don’t even know what the hell the other person actually believes, has experienced, and why, and they are already ready to disprove everything that individual says based upon the most cursory assumptions about who they are.

For me, I am always deeply fascinated by what others believe, what they experience, their viewpoints and philosophies, their spiritualities and ideas. All of that is more interesting to me. I actually have little interest in disproving anything unless I see a lot of harm being done. I suppose that is why I am an artist. I would rather express and share difference than be caught in the ceaseless hatred in which people impotently “prove each other wrong” and more often only succeed in proving that they are closed-minded.

For me, it is a pursuit of knowledge, to know how others feel and believe from a deep desire to understand in and of itself. Judgement is worthless if one cannot cultivate the openness to learn anything from anyone who is different in the first place. There is nothing then even to disprove, no Other, only an echo chamber of an angry and hateful individual screaming out again and again in protest of anything not like them. We only really learn and grow from difference.