Unwarranted Assumptions Redux: Assumptions About Other Commenters

There is something that happens in certain kinds of conversations that I’ve noticed, and I’ve thus far resisted the urge to call it out, and for that I’m glad, since now that I bring it up in its own topic, no one is going to feel singled out for criticism–which is good because a lot of people do this: Make assumptions about other commenters that might require the commenter to reveal information that they would rather not.

The BBS does not have a real names or real faces policy. For that, I am glad. I get to show this forum exactly what I want about myself, and retain as much anonymity as I want. Nobody has to know my race, political views, gender, what medications I’m on, ethnicity, past, age, location, or birthday unless I whimsically choose to divulge that information. I’m pretty discursive, but that’s up to me. The benefits of choosing not to divulge information to numerous individuals are obvious. It’s harder to be the subject of certain forms of prejudicial dismissal if you never state certain things about yourself. I for one, will never trust anyone wearing a toupee, which is why it’s probably for the best that people who wear toupees don’t post pictures of themselves.

Where it becomes unpleasant is when that paradigm is leveraged in the service of the cheap shot,

“Well, you would never know anything about X, because you’re Y.”

Here’s the problem. Maybe I know all about X, maybe I’m not Y but Z. Maybe I don’t want to explain myself in terms of my Zness and maybe I don’t want to rehash or relive my very specific experience with X in this discussion. This is especially so if it’s looking like you’re going to want to dissect my experience with X just to invalidate it. Where this becomes particularly egregious is in discussions of things like sexual assault. Not everyone who has been a victim of sexual assault wants to wear that on their sleeves, and those people are easily silenced by cheap shots–and maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe the reason they’re more hesitant to be open about their experience is that they are more–not less–likely to be marginalized.

This brings me to a more sound basis for discussion: A real understanding of the ad hominem fallacy. Not the ad-hominem attack, but the fallacy–these are related, but different. The fallacy is to state that you cannot be right about something because of who you are. But as we all know, the range of the human experience is vast, and different individuals bring different things to the table. Even people with zero knowledge of an issue might accidentally trip and fall into a valuable perspective; and as unlikely as it is–it does occur. Let’s take people as they choose to come to us and look at what they have to say instead of who we immediately think they are.

None of this is to say that you can’t bring your own experiences into play, or that you shouldn’t talk about them. That would be foolish, and it would deprive the community of your valuable perspective. However, the line between drawing on your own experience and summary dismissal of another person’s sight-unseen? That’s not a fine line. It’s actually really big and broad and easy to avoid.

Incidentally, this would be easier if there was more adherence to a current BBS community guideline, and the most often ignored one: Assume good faith. You know? The one that renders 90% of /s tags obsolete?

Yeah sure, there are shitheads. But the simple existence of shitheads is not a reason to run a community like everyone is a shithead. That’s the philosophy that breeds an overriding fear of the “welfare cheat” and which drug tests people on food stamps. That people will cheat the system is a fact to be contended with, not a central basis for the system’s operation. Sometimes there’s an automatic hostility to people who have differences of opinion, honestly held, and honestly presented that is so ferocious that I can’t help but assume it’s a kneejerk response. And I’m not talking about Nazis or sycophants for the monsters of our world. Not everyone who raises concern is a concern troll, and not everyone who is wrong or disagrees is a monster. And again, bad actors will act badly, but making the community more generally and quickly hostile in response, is a bad response. This part may seem like an aside, but when we treat discussion like a contact sport, it really does breed the kind of cheap shots that create the problem of unwarranted assumption in the first place.

In any case, the call is for less unwarranted assumptions all around, and for more adherence to the spirit of the good faith rule, if not the letter.


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