Monday, February 25, 2013

The Principal of Charity and Framing

My recent posts have discussed schisms in the skeptical/atheist movement on arising from discussions of sexism issues. Steven Novella has a great post at his blog Neurologica entitled Moving Forward that discusses a way to move forward past some of these issues. I want to add on to what Dr. Novella has written about and discuss the problem of framingthat each of us views an event from our own reference frame and personal experiences that may cause us to discount the different experiences other people have had leading up to that event.

Dr. Novella argues that we should all use the principal of charity when attacking others arguments stating that:
Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.
This is something I always try to do, though I am of course far from perfect and I often go back to read my writing and find cases where I failed to do this. In order to use the principal of charity Dr. Novella points out that we should also use the principal of understanding:
make every effort to truly understand your opponent’s position before attacking it.
This principal of understanding and how it relates to framing of issues is what I want to discuss in this post.

Framing (as I use the term) is the idea that everyone has their own viewpoint or reference frame that is based on their experiences. If we have different reference frames we will often view events in completely different ways.  Framing is not only affected by our personal history but often rhetoric can completely change our view of events. The words that someone chooses to use when writing about an event can create a framework that biases readers.

Before I get into framing in the skeptical movement I want to use an example of a real life dispute that occurred between two of my friends (with minor detail changes to make the example work better).

The Problem with Framing
I have two friends Dick and Charles (names changed). They both know each other and are friends but they each tend to move in different circles. Recently I was at a wedding with both of them when an extremely unexpected incident occurred. After the ceremony and during the reception we were all out on the dance floor dancing and enjoying ourselves. Dick and Charles were dancing near each other and I happened to look over just in time to see Charles punch Dick in the face, hard. A number of us jumped in to break up the fight and I was totally disgusted with my friend Charles. I had never seen Charles act this way and a number of us were shocked and talked about him behind his back afterwards about how out of line it was for him to punch Dick.

From my frame of reference Charles was completely out of line because he punched Dick for absolutely no reason. But, my frame wasn't a neutral frame because I didn't have all the details.

I later learned from another friend that Dick was one of those guys who messes with people. He gives people titty twisters, hits people in the balls, and does other things like this that many of us consider to be immature. I learned that Dick had a history of hitting Charles in the balls and that Charles had repeatedly told him to stop. But Dick always laughed and kept hitting Charles. It turns out that the wedding was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Dick had turned to Charles as if to say something and when Charles turned toward him Dick flicked him in the balls. Charles, being a little drunk and fed up with Dick's bullying, finally decided to stand up for himself and do something to stop Dick. So Charles punched Dick in the face as hard as he could.

Suddenly, I understood the framing that Charles was using. Charles' actions that I at first considered abusive and out of line made sense. So, I switched my view and thought that Dick was, well, a Dick. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't just stop hitting Charles in the balls when Charles had repeatedly told him not to.

But, as I learned Dick also had his own framed view of the world that explained why he acted how he did. As I mentioned, Dick and Charles each had different circles of friends that they tended to associate with. Recently I spent some time with Dick's groups of friends and I learned something. They all pull little pranks on each other constantly. They hit each other in the balls, they give each other titty twisters, they tie each others shoes together, and then they all laugh about it together. People get mad when it happens to them and tell other people to stop it, but then they laugh about it and everything is fine. This is the world that Dick was coming from. In his reference frame it was normal to mess with people and thus he never realized that Charles really meant it when he asked Dick to stop hitting him.

This event reminded me that every event can be viewed in many different ways depending on the history that lead a person to that event.It took understanding each sides history and personal view to understand why my friends behaved the way that they did. This problem could have been solved if either of them had stopped to think about the reference frame of the other and talk about the issue. Instead, their lack of understanding caused them to end up in a near fight at a wedding.

Our Personal Reference Frames as blog readers
The current skeptical and atheist movements tend to involve a significant amount of conversation through blog posts and comments on blog posts. There is a wide tangled web of information and writing on numerous issues connected by links and themes. None of us have read all of the blog posts, comments, or emails that frame these issues. In fact, even with the things we have read we likely only remember a small portion and have difficulty remembering the location or the exact words that were used. But we remember themes or specific offensive or good ideas that stick out to us.

I personally have noticed that I often read blog posts or comments that I personally disagree with or that I think are stupid or wrong. When reading through the comments I often find myself simply nodding when I agree with people but when I see something that I find offensive or that I disagree with I get mad and I remember. This also means that most of my comments are directed toward combating the worst abuses I see in the comments rather than addressing the more reasonable views or the common themes. My response is then likely to be aggressive in tone. This has the potential to create a cascading effect where people see my response but fail to realize what I am responding to and also get offended and then make their own response which causes other more exaggerated outraged responses.

This problem of limited ability to read everything and limited ability to comment causes each of us to have our own personal reference frame of these divisive events surrounding sexism in the skeptical movement. In our own eyes each of us is right because we are addressing the issues from our personal reference frame and forgetting that others may have reached the same blogpost through a different reading history.

I think that a large part of this debate has been caused by these different histories. There are of course horrible people writing horrible things that derail conversations. But, I think there are also many reasonable people that are arguing with each other merely because their view of the events has been shaped by a different reading history. This is why so many people who call themselves "skeptics" and believe in using rationality and logic to answer questions are arriving at such polarized answers on these issues.

Framing and the Skeptical Movement
Sexism in the skeptical and atheist movement has created a storm that, I believe, exists in a large part due to the different viewpoints people have based on their own personal reading history. I cannot imagine what it is like to receive the horrible abuse that people like Rebecca Watson of Skepchick receive. When I look at Ms. Watson's writings through the framing of the abuse she receives I can understand why she gets angry and lashes out at these transgressions. Like my friend Charles, she has had enough of the abuse and has every right to defend herself. Although I may believe punching someone is wrong I have to stop and ask myself whether I would behave differently. In fact, as humans, sometimes all we can do when subject to these sorts of abuses is to fight back with our fists because we are angry and tired of being abused.

If Ms. Watson wants to punch these Dicks in the face with her words then good for her. If she overreacts and says things that might appear illogical or incorrect we should all remember that from her frame she is defending herself from serious abuse. If we want to respond to her we should try to respond in a way that takes into account her framing and understands the abuse she has received. Ms. Watson was like my friend Charles, she's had too much abuse and is fed up with it. There are cases where I had thought she was acting inappropriately, but, after learning the history I realized I had been wrong because I didn't understand her framing.

Many of us have not received the abuse people Like Watson receive and have not seen the abuse that is poured onto some bloggers. From this reference frame we see wild accusations of sexism, misogyny, and abuse that we think is directed at us. From our reference frame blog posts may appear to be overreactions and exaggerated rhetorical attacks against mild statements (i.e. Shermer's its a guy thing.) We have this view because we are not subject to the same horrible treatment. This is just like my initial view of Charles at the wedding. I couldn't understand his reaction and decision to punch because I hadn't seen the history that lead up to the punch.

I believe this is why many feminists try to discuss issues of male privilege to explain to us why our framing may be preventing us from understanding the issues they face. But, then going back to the other side, the use of the word privilege can alienate men because in some contexts it can appear to be a condescending attack on us based merely on the fact that we are male as I discussed here (warning, I wrote that a while ago and I am still learning about these issues so I would love to have constructive criticism if I get issues of sexism wrong due to my framing of the issues). My point there was that our framing of the issue might cause us to view someone pointing out privilege as an accusatory attack on our credibility. This back and forth of framing  can dig us deeper into our sides and prevent understanding.

I think this idea of framing also allows us to understand the abusers, people like my friend Dick. Some people may simply live in an internet culture where abuse is the norm and nobody takes it seriously. To them, internet abuse is simply the way of the internet and they can deal it out as much as they take it. But, just because we understand why they do what they do does not mean we should put up with it. We all should do our part to tell them to stop and explain that they should treat others with respect. And, when they refuse to listen we should do our best to criticize all acts of internet bullying whether it is merely an annoyance or it is death threats. Just because we understand why they behave how they do doesn't mean we need to accept that behavior or agree with them. On the other hand, we should be careful not to discount the Dicks just because they are Dicks. We should remember that from their framing being a Dick is normal and that their good ideas might be hidden within Dickish behavior.

Likewise, we should also be careful not to assume that those who disagree with us are associated with the Dick's of the internet. When I initially was mad at my friend Charles for punching Dick, it wasn't because I approved of Dick's ball tapping. It was because I disagree with punching people as a rule and I didn't understand the context that made punching necessary in that specific situation. I think this is an easy nuance to miss. Those of us who didn't see abusive behavior may chose to criticize the one who we see throwing the first punch. Again, its not because we agree with the abuse, it's because we saw the punch first.

Responsibility of Top Level Bloggers
Word choice is everything when talking about an issue. If I use loaded language when I describe another person's actions it is likely my readers (if there are any) will interpret those actions through the lens of my accusatory language. If I accuse someone of sexism, say they made a horribly sexist comment, that they intended to disparage women, then I quote that person, it is likely that I will have biased all my readers and framed the issue in an inflammatory way. Likewise, if I say other bloggers are irrational, they made illogical arguments, they straw manned my position and then move on to quoting them it is likely that readers will be biased by my introduction. That is one of the reasons I have tried to start my recent posts with links to the source material prior to my criticisms. I want to avoid biasing the issue. But even so, my choice on who to criticize and on what topics will of course create bias to anyone who reads what I have written. And in turn, my choices on what to criticize have been made because of my personal framing of the issues.

I think this an important idea for prominent bloggers to think about before writing. They are in a special position of power to frame issues to their readership. Their framing doesn't just affect them. It will be spread by their readership out from their blog to "enemy" blogs and vice versa.

Although we all get angry and want to criticize those we disagree with it seems to me that many of these debates could be resolved if top level bloggers did their best to frame debates in neutral non-inflammatory ways. A little time taken at the start to try to understand the other side could prevent issues from exploding in a giant internet fireball. I fully agree with Dr. Novella's principal of debate that we should always frame our opponents argument in the best possible light.

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