Unjustified, presumptuous and downright irritating

In a post I wish I’d written, Robin Hanson lists a series of unjustified presumptions readers of political opinion pieces (especially blog posts) often make.  In my fairly long experience of attempting to discuss issues in the blogosphere and trying to make my meaning as clear and unambiguous as possible, unjustified presumptions are recurrent sources of misunderstanding which frequently derail debate and render calm, rational discourse all but impossible.

In the hope that it might somehow have a positive effect, I thought I’d post Hanson’s list of unjustified presumptions here:

  • If you say anything about correlates of race you must hate a race.
  • If you say anything about genetic correlates of success you are a social Darwinist.
  • Any general claim about human behavior is presumed an absolute law without exception unless you add qualifiers like “tends” or “often.”
  • If you quote someone you agree with everything they’ve said.
  • If you say you prefer option A to option B, you also prefer A to any option C.
  • If you say anything nice (or critical) about anything associated with a group or person you are presumed to support (or oppose) them overall.
  • If you say anything nice (or critical) about anything associated with an idea or claim you are presumed to support (or oppose) it and related ideas overall.
  • If you worry that more A will cost too much of B, you don’t care about B at all.
  • If you dislike a proposed solution to a certain problem, you don’t care about that problem.

Sound familiar?  The only aspect of Hanson’s post with which I take issue is this bit:

Most who say such things do not intend these further claims, and their conversation could be much easier if they did not need to constantly disclaim them. But they are stuck in a signaling game; since most who say such things do add the required disclaimers, observers can infer something unusual about the few who do not.

But do most bloggers or op-ed authors really habitually pre-emptively disclaim such presumptions?  I can’t say I’ve noticed it, nor do I think it would be desirable or even possible in most cases.  Blog posts would be incredibly turgid if authors had to foresee and disclaim misunderstandings by readers who wrongly assume something we neither said nor meant and which does not follow logically from our words. 

However, given that misunderstandings of this sort are so common and destructive of useful debate, is there any other way to avoid them?

Feel free to add to the comment box any other common erroneous presumptions of which you’ve been the victim.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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46 Responses to Unjustified, presumptuous and downright irritating

  1. Nabakov says:

    Apropos of that, there’s also this, this or this.

    Let’s face it, there’s a reason why cat blogs totally outnumber dog blogs. Those feline heat-seeking missiles are a blogger’s true anima/familar. When was the last time you had a coherent argument with a cat that ended with a clear cut and logical conclusion for either party?

  2. Nabakov says:

    Well I fucked up the second link didn’t I?

    It should have been this

    Where ever Arty is now, I bet he’s musing seriously on the Upanishads and shedding.

  3. Niall says:

    Clearly, as human beings we’re all biased in one form or another. There’s nothing unusual in that. Just shows that we’re not as flawless in our opinions as we’d like to believe.

  4. Ken Lovell says:

    For me two annoying unjustified presumptions are:

    (1) that if you take a position on an individual issue opposed to that of the Liberal Party you are presumed to be a rabid supporter of the ALP and have a poster of Kevin Rudd on your bedroom wall;

    (2) that if you take a position on an individual issue opposed to that of the Bush Administration or any other conservative institution (or, somewhat bizarrely, if you are concerned about global warming) you are presumed to be part of the ‘collective left’ and your views about any other issue can therefore be inferred without further inquiry or the necessity to actually read anything you write.

  5. Helen says:

    There’s a very common idea on internet forums such as News.com.au or MSN that if you’re a “lefty”, you’re also a Labor voter! As one who is constantly banging my head over the rightwinginess of some of the Labor politicians and hacks both state and federal, I always find this hilarious. In the blogosphere people tend to have a bit more of a clue about this.

  6. dr faustus says:

    Here’s one I’ve had: If you’re critical of indefinite sentences for sex offenders or argue that treatment should be part of the response, you’re pro-paedophilia. Nice.

    It has elements of 5, 7 and 9 from the OP, but has the added element that it’s a particularly emotive issue that very few people actually know any real facts about.

    There’s nothing like posting about responses to sexual offending (or gun control) to get the nutters to come out of the woodwork. Great entertainment if you’re bored, but very annoying if you’re actually trying to make a point.

  7. Marks says:

    I can think of one:

    If you don’t quite credit the claims that the world is warming because of human activity you are a {Insert Appropriate Abuse}.

  8. Kymbos says:

    This post tends to be racist and often social Darwinist. Why is it that you really don’t care about B at all, Ken?

  9. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Here’s one I’ve been made to suffer from recently: if you’re one of the many bloggers who write about both private and public life and make a deliberate point of mixing them up because that’s how you see both life and blogging, at least one idiot will assume that because you’ve posted a picture of your kid/cat/car or a tale of how you to went to the footy/the opera/the dogs/the wall, then it must mean you don’t know or care about China, Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Holocaust, the Crusades or the icky way the Pharoahs treated their slaves. And will tell you so by means of vicious and, needless to say, anonymous personal insult.

    Thanks for this, Ken — it’s an entertaining cautionary tale, and I would never have found it by myself.

  10. Tony T. says:

    If you quote someone you agree with everything theyve said.

    No I don’t.

  11. Gummo Trotsky says:

    Comment #9 is exactly the sort of unthinking, conditioned response I’d expect from someone who uses the pseudonym ‘Pavlov’s Cat’.

  12. James Farrell says:

    …recurrent sources of misunderstanding which frequently derail debate…

    This contains its own presumption, namely, that people who derail debates ‘misunderstand’. Derailers do not necessarily misunderstand, and if they don’t understand, it’s usually not so much that they misunderstand as that understanding was never part of their intention in the first place. Derailers are often, if not mostly, people of bad faith, whose intention is first and foremost to derail, and who will seize on any pretext to do so. Disclaimers are just an invitation for such people to depart the rails before the debate has even started.

    By the way, I suspect that the second last one should read: ‘If you worry that more A will cost too much of B, you dont care about A at all.’

  13. Liam says:

    I want to argue you your point with you vigorously ≠ I dislike you and do not respect you
    Derailed debate ≠ unproductive direction for a discussion
    “Welcoming Space” ≠ somewhere where everyone has to agree with everyone else all the time

  14. derrida derider says:

    While these unjustified presumptions certainly have their downside, they also provide a powerful incentive for people to write clearly – that is, mean exactly what they say and say exactly what they mean.

    It’s true you can’t do much about those with bad faith but not all derailers fit that category. Some just fill any holes of ambiguity left by the writer with their prejudices. And as Liam points out, some just think the new track is a more interesting one.

  15. Pavlov's Cat says:

    DD, with a name like that you’ll also be aware that many people are just bad readers, skimming the post, assuming a detailed accurate reading from a mere glance, not reading the comments thread, and just barging straight into arguing without having taken in much at all.

    I blame ‘whole language’.

    *Runs away*

  16. Helen says:

    Heh, crossed with Ken Lovell at #4. Snap!

    (Of course, both posting at RTS, we are a hivemind!)

  17. Ken Parish says:

    I agree with Liam that sometimes commenters don’t so much misunderstand as just go off at a tangent that they find more interesting. I nearly always let those tangents wander off where they may, unless they become too abusive.

    However, it isn’t too difficult to distinguish between contributors who just find a different angle more intresting and those who simply misunderstand what you’re saying because they continually and unwittingly make the sorts of presumptions Hanson discusses.

    Nor do I think all such contributors are attention-seeking trolls, as James suggests. Obviously some are (Bird and Greenfield being prime examples), but equally I think it’s clear that quite a few commenters in perfectly good faith find it difficult to read and understand a piece of political prose without projecting their own assumptions onto it in a way that makes productive dialogue almost impossible. Sometimes too the misunderstandings may be a result of poor or ambiguous writing (as DD suggests) but often they’re not.

    Finally, Liam’s point that “Welcoming Space somewhere where everyone has to agree with everyone else all the time” is worth exploring briefly. IMO conducting productive blog discussions involves treading a fine dynamic line between letting conversation flow through channels that will often involve heated disagreement and occasional borderline ad hominem abuse in order to promote stimulating debate, and calling a halt when the unpleasantness becomes so pervasive that it threatens to alienate readers who prefer civil discussion to testosterone-charged pissing contests. Given that his own blog is called “stoushnet” and his evident penchant for gleeful slagfests with people like Joe Cambria, Liam’s tastes are obviously a little more towards the pissing contest end of the spectrum than mine. Where does the optimum balance lie between Pymble Pony Club and dog-fighting ring? I don’t really know, but I’m happy enough with the general tone of Club Troppo at present (although I’d still like to recruit a couple of talented female bloggers to leaven the nerdy blokiness).

  18. I had to look up “whole language” on Wiki. The first part of the overview is a beauty:

    Whole language is a phenomenon that has been difficult to describe,

  19. Liam says:

    Well-considered comment at #17 Ken.

    Given that his own blog is called stoushnet and his evident penchant for gleeful slagfests with people like Joe Cambria

    Guilty as charged, Ken. But it does take two to tango.

  20. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Tony T, I provided a link for ‘whole language’ specially! All part of my one-woman anti-Wiki campaign.

  21. I read that, P, but I couldn’t understand it, so I went to Wiki for the explanation-lite version. Plus your link has a girly background.

  22. David says:

    You’re right about “whole language”, Dr Cat. If the youth of today had had phonics thrashed into them like we did, there’d be far fewer misunderstandings. (Hobbles back into corner, muttering “Get off my damn’ lawn!”)

  23. Fyodor says:

    First Rule of Pymble Pony Club: don’t use bullfinches in a bounce situation you do NOT talk about Pymble Pony Club

    Second Rule of Pymble Pony Club: dressage is a privilege, not a right OK, you can tell your bestie about Pymble Pony Club, but nobody else. Particularly not that bitch Cassie.

  24. 1. If a person does not write or comment on a particular issue then they don’t care.

    2. If they do write or comment on a particular issue then they are obsessed with that issue.

    3. A person’s online persona is an indication of their offline persona (or moral fibre or looks or abilities)

  25. Robin Hanson says:

    Wow, lots of good comments here. :)

  26. Ken Lovell says:

    Following FXH at #24 (1): Obama didn’t use a graduation day speech to urge kids to sign up for the military, ergo Obama doesn’t support the troops.

  27. Stewart says:

    Though I write a blog, I’m reluctant to comment on other blogs precisely because, as Ken writes at the end of his post, the issues are so complicated that you need to disclaim and qualify so much, and if you say you’re not sure, or express yourself tentatively – say on a complex issue like climate change – you’re shouted down as an ignoramus. There’s generally too much abuse and also too much in-talk. Much of the blokosphere shorthand I just don’t get – maybe I spend too much time reading old-fashioned books.

  28. Pavlov's Cat says:

    ‘Blokosphere’, I love it.

    On nuance and polarisation, a further thought — I constantly see in the blogosphere a high-speed, simplified version of something I observed on a major public scale twice when living in Melbourne: once when Geoffrey Blainey made his fatal remarks about Asian immigration and again during l’affaire First Stone, when, in defending what they had originally said, both Blainey and Garner gradually moved towards a (rhetorically, at least) simplified and more entrenched position as more and more people aggressively piled on, accusing them of things they hadn’t done and forcing them to defend positions they didn’t actually hold. In both cases their original positions were far milder and more nuanced than some of the things they ended up saying later in self-defence. Most people know from experience that it’s very hard in an argument, and sometimes doesn’t even occur to you, to say ‘Hold it right there, I don’t accept the terms of your question.’

    In the blogosphere this means that fights get more and more intellectually boring and more and more viciously personal as they move inexorably closer to violating Godwin’s Law. Two examples: abortion and Bill Henson. These topics have resulted in practically the entire femisphere finding ourselves being accused of actively going about looking for teenagers to sexually assault and babies to murder.

  29. FDB says:

    “practically the entire femisphere finding ourselves being accused of actively going about looking for teenagers to sexually assault and babies to murder”

    The Lady doth protest too much, methinks.

  30. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Sorry, FDB, not with you; do you just mean that you think I’m exaggerating? (Though that line about protesting ladies has a different meaning from that.) The bit you quote was merely an illustration of the way the polarising thing works. While it was obviously meant to be hyperbolic, I can assure you there are conservative bloggers out there who really do think (and say) that women who are pro-choice must be enthusiastic about abortion, and other bloggers who really do think (and say) that anyone who supports Henson’s right to artistic freedom must be pro-pedophile.

  31. FDB says:

    No, I was implying that guilt – over your natural feminist baby-munching predatory tendencies – has you protesting things of which you’ve not yet been accused.

    A bad joke, in other words.

  32. Laura says:

    Tis rather bad – it’s impossible to know exactly what people have been accused of, I think, via email and deleted comments.

    Ken, and Robin if you’re reading, do you think that the specific presumptions you’ve listed – and the broader problem of people not listening to or reading [or not confining themselves to] what has actually been said or written – is notably worse in the blogosphere?

    Maybe it’s just more visible here, because of comments and trackbacks, and maybe slightly exacerbated by the combination of unseemly haste and what I think of as Lady Catherine De Bourghism – “I MUST have my share of the conversation!”

    But I suspect people are probably just as bad at listening and reading in other media. It’s only aggrieving where there’s a lot of commenting going on.

  33. Tim Quilty says:

    I was going to rile up at #6 Dr Faustus and suggest that another case in point would be that being pro-guns makes you automatically a nut, despite the best non-faked evidence both sides can come up with suggests gun control has at best minimal value in reducing violent crime, but by the time I got to the end of the thread I didn’t really want to say that at all.

    Or, obviously I did, but with only as an aside. I actually just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading a CT thread like this, when you have some knowledge of the posters, nobody is arguing a particular ideological position, it gets a little whimsical… I like these blogs, it’s a taste of an intellectual life that is otherwise mostly absent from my life in rural Australia. Anyway, I just felt I should say, on the off chance that anyone cares, that I reckon Club Troppo is really a great community. Or something like that.

    It should be obvious by this point that I’m avoiding studying for uni exams by any means possible. Blokosphere. I really liked that, even if it was a typo. And femisphere too.

  34. Laura says:

    Hey Tim, I’m avoiding essay marking. Sigh.

  35. FDB says:

    I’m marking honours work. The one I’m stuck on is a godawful jumble of shite, just barely disguised as a thesis. [i.e. it’s got ‘thesis’ written on the front]

  36. melaleuca says:

    Pavlov’s Cat says:

    “These topics have resulted in practically the entire femisphere finding ourselves being accused of actively going about looking for teenagers to sexually assault and babies to murder.”

    Oh really? Us in the blokpsphere had to cop shit like this: http://larvatusprodeo.net/2008/05/30/do-the-right-thing-mainstream-media-disguise-the-faces-of-the-minors-in-your-reproductions-of-the-henson-images-now/#comment-473391

  37. Laura says:

    Steve, the man in the link I posted in that comment you’ve linked to assaulted me when I was 16, and oh did you happen see the date he’s getting out of jail? It’s not all about you you know

  38. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Besides, Mel, your logic is bad. To say that the femisphere cops it is not to claim that the blokosphere doesn’t. See the original post up the top there, where this very point is being made.

    FDB, having ‘thesis’ written on the front is all very well but the real question is this: did it have a dead duck stapled to it?

  39. boynton says:

    Early sighting of the word blokosphere

    Maybe nardo and nabs can claim joint coinage?

  40. melaleuca says:

    “Steve, the man in the link I posted in that comment youve linked to assaulted me when I was 16, and oh did you happen see the date hes getting out of jail? Its not all about you you know”

    You made it about me when you associated me with his name. You should apologize.

  41. As Author of books and postings I cop it time and again as to be bias, even so the article seeks to specifically clarify no bias is intended but for purpose of explanation an example is used.
    With my books, I include the disclaimer shown below, albeit not one to use in every posting on the internet.
    Basically, if someone desires to criticise then that person will and take matters out of context no matter what.
    As a writer my concern is that I view having attempted to present my article in the most appropriate manner and if someone still takes offence to something then tough luck for them.
    Enjoy reading the disclaimer
    The Author/publisher does not endorse all material contained within this book, but merely has included items as to give a comprehensive overview, regardless that the Author/publisher may not support or have contradictive views regarding the statements contained in certain material.
    All content is provided in accordance with the inalienable right to freedom of speech, and is intended for information, education, entertainment and positive social change purposes only. The information is provided as is, without any guarantee of suitability for any purpose. The Author does not support any of the content of material provided by others unless so expressly stated by the Author to the extend the Author believes it to be truthful and/or accurate irrespective if it might be truthful and/or accurate. It is the truth as the author sees it. That does not necessarily mean it is the truth and/or accurate. He could be totally and absolutely wrong on all points. Decide for yourself. You are entirely responsible for your use, or misuse, of this information. Before using any information, you are advised to consult a competent professional (If you can find one! Good luck, as you have more luck in trying to find a needle in a haystack, if you get the message!) who can advise you according to your specific circumstances, which will vary from person to person. The Author of this work and the information provided within it does not and neither intends to challenge and/or threaten the lawful and competent exercise of authority of any lawful government or agents thereof. The fundamental purpose of this work and the intent of the Author is to help create a just society (To my perception what is just!) that respect and conduct itself within the constitutional provisions as existing at the time of federation and amended by subsequent successful referendums.

  42. Laura says:

    I should apologise? Because you hate me? Get a grip.

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