Two fallacies I really like: judging by company and tone

The more conversations I take part in with strangers on the Internet, the more sure I am of two things – I’d rather agree with the people who are nice and balanced, humble and winsome in their responses to criticism than with those who fire up, and I’m more convinced by a gentle and loving word than a robust and spiteful word – even if I naturally sit with the positions advocated by the angry mob.

It’s a bit of a fallacy to judge the strength of an argument on the basis of its supporters – it’s a modified argument from popularity, or authority – so I could say I prefer the people who are relaxed about owning a “too cool for school” iPhone than the people who have chips on their shoulders about their Android phones that don’t quite work. The gloating of an Android user whenever Apple stuffs something up is enough to reinforce my views about both Apple and Android.

There are other more serious issues where this is true – I tend to find most liberal (not Liberal) politics pretty despair inducing, but I’d rather talk to people who hold such positions than to people who angrily argue against them. Much of the backlash against the “new atheists,” who are pushing a pretty serious philosophical position in an important debate – perhaps the most important debate – has been on these issues – the tone of debate, and who the New Atheists look to to champion their cause. This is why Peter Jensen won Q&A – according to both impartial judges, and even according to many atheists who were disappointed with the tone Catherine Deveny employed. There’s also a push-back, somewhat rightly, on this sort of decision making because caring about a speaker or their tone is essentially a fallacy. The problem is – people aren’t running around looking for fallacies, or judging every argument on merit – these things create biases, or colour people’s judgment.

It’s particularly true when it comes to theological issues – the first group to make a non-crucial issue into a salvation issue in a debate almost immediately loses my vocal support. I’d rather hang out with the group who are being charitable to the people who disagree, than the people who think that disagreement is apostasy. But that would put me in cahoots with a lot of heretics – because judging sides based on the niceness of the people who take them is logically, and theologically, flawed. It’s also why most forms of fanboyism, when they come at the expense of some other category of product, person, or group, is pretty dumb. Unless, like in the case of Apple, the product is clearly superior.

The cringeworthy response Guy Sebastian and his fans have displayed in the hubbub about the coverage of his move away from Christianity, and the gracious response (see Guy’s interactions with another open letter writer here), are enough to bias me towards those who are asking Guy to reconsider his words and position (admittedly a position I already hold).

It’s a fallacy though – that people you like hold a position doesn’t make it true, it’s possible to be lovely and well-intentioned, and gentle, and wrong.

This means I have to read carefully when people who don’t seem all that nice criticise something I agree with, or worse, have written myself. Because I’m automatically biased against them (plus, I’m not great at taking criticism, so I’m already on the defensive).

It has implications for how one writes, and who one promotes or supports, because making yourself, or the people you agree with, an obstacle is doing your argument a disservice. We need to be careful about the company we keep, or are seen to keep. I don’t think it’s enough to say that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Christians are far too guilty of this. We hear someone trumpeting a position we like – and jump on board with them, or worse, give them a platform, straight away. And that’s dangerous. Bad company corrupts (1 Cor 15:33), especially when it’s within the church (1 Cor 6)…

The company you keep is important. It’s why it’s important to speak against extremists from your own camp, rather than letting them create collateral damage by lobbing rhetorical grenades at your opponents (seeĀ the Alan Jones fiasco).

The second, and related, fallacy, is a matter of tone. I find it hard to read arguments that are nasty, personal, and malicious. I want to dismiss them straight away. I find it easier to stomach something that is written with grace, charity, and a bit of epistemic humility. But this is equally fallacious.

Sometimes this nastiness itself can be fallacious – it can caricature your opponent’s views, or their motivations, or it can raise questions about the nature of their argument on the basis of who they are, or who you paint them to be. But again – these arguments can be true.

The same principles that applied to the company we keep also apply with tone.

Interestingly – both these factors come together when it comes to arguments or conversations on Facebook – a statement with a disagreeable tone gives a pretty quick opportunity for assessing the company one keeps – based on the number of likes it gets. Have a look, for example, at the vitriol that gets launched at anybody who dares to disagree with Guy Sebastian’s approach to Christianity on his wall post, by his fans, and the likes the harshest criticisms of minority voices accumulate. The company side of things kicks in when you start censoring out those minority voices, or calling for them to be silenced simply because they disagree with you. Interestingly, a couple of posts I made on that thread, one containing a link to my open letter, and another explaining that I believed it was important to contact people I write about, because that has integrity, have been deleted. The first sat between the first two comments in this picture.

Screen Shot 2012 10 23 at 9.57.01 PM



I’m not necessarily suggesting Guy was censoring disagreement – he probably has someone else moderate this page, and my post did contain a link – so there are good reasons it may have happened, but not deleting the comments about that comment seems an odd decision. Especially when I would like to think that comments with the more gracious tone have been replaced with comments that label people (in this case, me) as “rude””so-called Christians” writing “judgmental garbage.”

Anyway. This didn’t actually start out as a continuation of the Guy Sebastian conversation, it was an observation of disagreements I’ve been part of, or read, online – and that was one. And all this seems rather obvious – but it helps me if I can articulate why I’m struggling to agree with people I agree with, and disagree with people I don’t, and it makes me want to work harder at being agreeable in my tone, and clear when the people who agree with me are agreeing with me in a harmful way.


Mark says:

Nathan, I find your constant going on and on and on about this matter cringeworthy. All the attacks and lectures Guy received from supposedly Christian people was not only embarrassing and cringeworthy, but some of it was actually disgusting. It did no favours in promoting the faith you and they follow. And you are downright lying in this post (not a very Christian thing to do) suggesting the nastiness was coming from people supporting Guy. Did you even read all the 1,600+ comments on Guy’s facebook. I did, and some of the things said by supposedly Christian souls was sickening to say the least. Guy’s fans and supporters were angry, and had every right to respond to some of the disgusting attacks being thrown at him from certain people in the Christian community. And most of those responses from his supporters were far more polite than the comments they were responding to.

Get over yourself and start respecting other people’s views, instead of trying to force your views down their throats. Guy’s religious beliefs have nothing to do with you, or anyone else. Give up on it for goodness sakes. You are like a dog with a bone. Bury it please. And I don’t care two hoots if an intolerant up himself tool like you finds my comment cringeworthy. As I find all the claptrap you have posted on Guy’s facebook, your open letter to him, your comments on other sites and this post itself cringeworthy.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Mark,

This is a joke right? I honestly can’t tell. It’s a very nice demonstration of the point of the post, in any case.