May 3, 2013

Genuine Misunderstanding vs. Axe-Grinding

Communication (Photo credit: krossbow)
One of the problems faced by anyone who writes something others read is that one's words may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is a frustrating experience but also an inevitable one. After all, people vary in intellect, reading comprehension, personality, and all sorts of other variables that may have something to do with their likelihood of misconstruing what someone else has written. And of course, we also vary in our ability to communicate clearly in writing. It can be helpful to remember that most cases of misunderstanding can be cleared up quite easily (e.g., "That is not at all what I said. You are reading something into my words that simply isn't there.").

Of course, there is at least one case where no amount of clarification or correction will fix the sort of misinterpretation I am referring to: intentional twisting of one's words to further some axe-grinding. When the misunderstanding is not a misunderstanding at all but a dishonest attempt to make it look like someone said something different from what they actually said, clarification is likely to be a waste of time.

The dilemma for the blogger - or any other sort of writer - is that is can be almost impossible to tell whether what appears to be a misunderstanding is a case of genuine misunderstanding or something a bit more sinister. As you can imagine, assuming one when it is the other is something we'd all like to avoid.

I know I am being way too abstract here, and you are wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Time for a specific example. I wrote a post not terribly long ago about Secular Woman's new About Theocracy campaign. In the post, I reviewed some of the criticism I had heard from other atheist bloggers about the campaign, said that I kind of liked it myself, and noted that I would not be supporting Secular Woman even though I liked this campaign because I did not care for how they decided that feminism is "a given, and not a topic for debate." I said:
Far too often, I have observed how this sentiment closes down healthy, rational discussions about gender and feminism. I do not believe this is how the atheist/freethought/secular community is supposed to operate, and I find that it actually does more harm than good to feminism.
What did I mean here? I meant that the position that a particular subject could not be debated often seems to shut down rational discussion. After a commenter, Doug, seemed to misunderstand my point and decided that I was somehow suggesting that the equality of women was open for debate, I attempted to clarify what I was saying. I referred to asking questions and having open discussions; he kept referring to debates. It was clear that there was a communication breakdown taking place, so I wrote a follow-up post in which I spelled out that my broader belief that we should question everything, accept no dogma, and honor no sacred cows.

Now I see that Doug has written an entire blog post that continues the same line of apparent misunderstanding. He has chosen to equate my statements that we should question everything and that no subject should be considered off limits to free inquiry with that of a creationist arguing that we should teach that nonsense along with evolution in schools. He does not seem interested in distinguishing between critical inquiry (which I am advocating) and arguing that all claims are equally valid (which I am most certainly not advocating).
I’m fairly certain that Vjack wouldn’t want Evolution to be debated alongside creationism like that in the public schools.
Glad to hear it. This suggests that we may have a genuine case of misunderstanding rather than something more malicious.
So I guess he does accept restrictions on what can and cannot be discussed or questioned as long it doesn’t affect him? Those Christians who want to teach Creationism just want a debate and for kids to ask questions. What is wrong with that?
Again, Doug is confusing the process of critical inquiry and an odd form of debate that seems to assume that all arguments are equally valid. I do NOT accept any restrictions on what can and cannot be discussed or questioned. I most certainly DO accept the notion that some questions have answers and that some evidence is better than others.

We should all be free to question every aspect of science, including evolution. As someone who does scientific research for a living, you better believe I engage in critical inquiry and rational discussion! How could science exist without us being encouraged to ask questions and discuss our world?

I support asking questions and engaging in rational discussion about feminism and other social issues just as I do about science. Moreover, I believe that refusing to think critically about feminism undermines the goal of equality much like refusing to think critically about science undermines the scientific enterprise. I'm not sure why this is so difficult to grasp or how I can be any clearer.

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