September 17, 2013

A Skeptic is Charitable

The Kindness of Strangers (Heroes)
The Kindness of Strangers (Heroes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is another post in the ongoing series on skepticism. I know it has been awhile since the last one, but my commitment to this topic has not wavered. The post that introduced the series can be found here.

A Skeptic is Charitable in Making Inferences About Others' Intent

I am using "charitable" here to refer to how one interprets the intent of others with whom one is unfamiliar. A rational skeptic recognizes that first impressions may be inaccurate and seeks to avoid making overly negative inferences about the intent of others without sufficient evidence to support such inferences. When a skeptic encounters someone unfamiliar, the skeptic gives him or her a chance and reserves judgment. The skeptic recognizes that there are many ways in which one can misinterpret the statements of others, and so the skeptic is cautious about prematurely dismissing someone or inferring malevolent intent when it may not be present.

Seeking to be charitable in this way follows from what I wrote previously about how a skeptic is open minded and how a skeptic embraces the inevitability of being wrong. One can think of being charitable as what open mindedness looks like in a social context. The skeptic wants to have data on which to base his or her decisions about others and recognizes that making hasty decisions to label someone negatively or end one's interaction with another may deprive one of such data.

We do not have to look to far to find a specific example of what I am talking about here because such examples abound on Twitter. We do not know most of the people with whom we interact on Twitter in real life, and it is often tempting to make hasty decisions about others based on no more than 140 characters of text. Here is how Conservative Skeptic framed the skeptic's stance when it comes to Twitter:
There are folks out there in the Twittersphere that are concerned about a great many issues within the atheist/skeptic world and even though I might not always agree with what one or another is saying, I always find it interesting reading. Thought provoking. Just because I happen to disagree with someone’s comment does not necessarily mean I dismiss it out of hand. I attempt to take a careful reading of that person’s comments, make sure I understand the context of the comments, and try to place the most charitable interpretation I can on the comment(s).
Why would he do that? I mean, many users of Twitter seem to fire insults at anyone with whom they disagree, and some even go out of their way to prevent themselves from encountering disagreement before it happens. Why would Conservative Skeptic actually make an effort to read material with which he might disagree, try to understand it, and interpret the intent of the author charitably? I suspect that skepticism is the answer.

When I encounter someone on Twitter saying something with which I disagree, I try to view it as an opportunity to learn something. Perhaps I am wrong and my opinion was based on incomplete information. This person may know something that I don't. At least, they may have had experiences quite different from mine that could help me to expand my frame of reference a bit. If I can resist my impulse to dismiss what they are saying for a bit, I might end up benefiting from the interaction. I may still end up disagreeing with them, but at least I'll know why and that I have a reasonable basis for doing so.

As a final note for those reading this who are determined to misinterpret my intent, let me be as clear as I can on one point: nothing I have said here should be construed as recommending that anyone subject themselves to abuse on Twitter. If the person with whom you are interacting on Twitter begins calling you names or threatening you, end the interaction immediately and consider blocking the person. At this point, you have data to support a negative interpretation of his or her intent, and continuing is unlikely to be worth your time. Just remember that disagreement and criticism of one's opinions is not abuse.

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution. If you are not reading this via email or RSS feed from Atheist Revolution, it may have been stolen.

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