The Firestorm of Debate

Science fiction writer David Gerrold wrote the following on Facebook, and I thought it too good to just scroll off people’s timelines to be forgotten. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

It pertains to some common themes – should we debate, should we engage, should we even bother to express our opinions. It argues in favor of engaging, not because any individual voice can have a great influence, but because it is through the argument that the zeitgeist emerges, that a rough popular consensus that is in line with reason and ethics emerges.

David retains copyright.


Let me add this to the discussion of censorship and political correctness.

The way that we advance — as individuals as well as a culture — is by participating in the fFirestorm - burning treerestorm of debate. The discussions are often irrational, even irresponsible, but when the flames die down a bit, we can poke the ashes and see where the logic of the situation remains.

Twenty-five years ago, there used to be an online place called Compuserve. It had excellent discussion forums — part of the reason for the excellence was that the company had active management. Discussions were monitored and managed. Trolls were “elfed.” (Given an L-flag, locked out.) Name-calling was discouraged. Sysops were empowered to give gentle warnings.

The result was that most Compuserve forums were hotbeds of serious and useful information and insights.

Even the politics and issues and religion forums were useful because stripped of the opportunity to bully each other, people had to frame their arguments in the most grownup manner they could.

At that time, the prevailing conversation about LGBT people was either “snicker-snicker, the perverts want special rights for their perversion” or “you’re a sinner, damned to Hell.”

A small group of very courageous men and women were able to convince a forum-owner to set aside a section for Gay/Lesbian issues. This was supposed to be a safe place for gay men and lesbians to discussion their own concerns. But it often became a target for divebombers (seagulls who shit-and-run), drive-by shouters, the unayappers of the world, and the occasional proselytute as well.

One of the things that happened was that most of the members of the group, feeling that their space had been invaded, began to answer back. Over a period of two-three years, a library of information began to grow. People did research and posted links. People learned from each other. And after a while, it became obvious that there was an honest and appropriate rebuttal for every half-assed argument.

Example: “…blah blah blah, homosexuality and bestiality and pedophilia are all the same, blah blah blah….” “If you can’t tell the difference between sex with a consenting adult and the rape of an animal, perhaps veterinary medicine is not a good career choice for you.” Or “If you can’t tell the difference…stay the hell away from my son.”

What was truly important about the process is that in that microcosm, LGBT people not only trained themselves to fight back, they trained themselves to win the arguments with logic and compassion. When someone would patiently explain why gay people should not be allowed around children, let alone adopt, a certain high-verbal, single gay adoptive dad with a special needs son, would post his own story, coupled with reliable statistics about adoption in America, and how there weren’t enough qualified heterosexual couples willing to take on the challenge of special needs adoptions.

Anyway, because of this continuing process, by the mid-nineties, in certain forums, it became clear that expressions of homophobia were no longer socially acceptable. And then one day, a phobe dropped in, dropped his turds in the punch bowl, and had his arguments politely and meticulously deconstructed — by all of the straight people in the forum. By the time the LGBT people noticed the thread, all of their carefully researched arguments had already been stated.

And my point is that this is how social progress occurs. Not by indignation junkies, not by the outrage committee, not by mobs with torches and pitchforks chasing the monster up to the top of the mill and lighting it on fire — but by talking the thing to death until everybody is so exhausted that the appearance of understanding and consensus is vaguely achieved. But somewhere in that muddle, the people who have accepted certain cultural aggressions as normal have begun to see that those same cultural aggressions are not really acceptable, they’re hurtful, and need to be left behind. This is how progress occurs. One step at a time. One person at a time.

I knew a woman in a different online discussion environment — please note the past tense — who had (probably still has) an impeccable moral rudder about some of the most touchy political issues of the day. She was learned, lucid, and passionate. Too passionate — when someone showed up in one of her domains who might have been educable, she’d scream and leap. She ripped heads off. She flamed. She roared. She invented curses so marvelous that I’m still jealous.

But what she did by that behavior was taint the discussion. More than once, there were people who were polite and rational (even if I disagreed with what they were saying) and who, I felt, would have benefited from being exposed to rational rebuttals with facts and research and links. (The same way we had done it on Compuserve.) But with the harangutan onboard, that wasn’t possible. She’d go nuclear and chase away anyone who wasn’t living up to her definition of “sufficiently evolved” before the grownups could even warm up their keyboards — and in so doing, she tainted everyone else in that forum with the perception that they too were trolls and hate-mongers. Eventually, there were people coming to that forum just to poke the bear and see how crazy they could make her. Her behavior — as moral as she believed she was — was not only self-destructive, it destroyed the venues in which she was participating. (Ultimately, she was banned from half a dozen forums, but by then it was too late. While she wasn’t the sole author of discord, she was notorious across that entire system for her behavior.) The point is, instead of forwarding her issues, she tainted them.

I know that there are overt aggressions, covert aggressions, and micro-aggressions in our culture. I’m not aware of the ones I’m not aware of — not until someone who feels hurt speaks up. When a transgender person says, “I don’t like the word ‘tranny,'” I make a mental note to drop that word from my vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how I experience the word — what matters is that trans-people are sensitive to it as a micro-aggression, and when I make a serious effort to look at it from their side, I can begin to get some sense of why it would feel that way. Along the way, I also begin to get some sense of how cis-gendered people have still failed to understand what it is like to feel you were born with a body at odds with your gender-identity. (There’s a whole genre of gender fiction that still has not been written.)

Likewise, there are other micro-aggressions in our culture. Blacks, Jews, gays, lesbians, Muslims, the disabled, the overweight, autistic people, you name it — we’re all targets of each other’s ignorance. Most of us, myself included, are downright sloppy in the way we treat others.

(For those who still have not understood why I can say this in one post and then ridicule a particularly stupid comment by a political leader in another comment … it’s this simple. When you are in a position of power, a position where you are leading people, a position where you have the potential to cause harm — when you say something ridiculous, that remark deserves to be ridiculed. And if you are persistently ridiculous in your political assertions about minorities, you waive your right to demand respect in return. People of good will deserve good will in return. People who profit from pain-mongering? Well, what you sow is what you reap.)

I have no problem with anyone in a public venue expressing their beliefs — no matter how stupid, insane, or embarrassing their assertions might prove to be.

Once upon a time, the idea that two men might marry was considered a stupid and ridiculous assertion. Once upon a time, the idea that women should vote was considered stupid and ridiculous. Once upon a time the idea that the slaves should be freed was so abhorrent that the nation ripped itself apart in a civil war over the question.

But it was the honest and open discussion of issues that created the environment for progress. Yes, there’s heat, but there’s also light. And if sometimes the inertia of the past must be confronted, it can be confronted with compassion as well as courage. When it’s necessary to hit the streets to create change, there will be people to hit the streets — but the real change occurs not through violence and not through violent language, but through reaching out to the hearts of others.

So when I see a lie, I see it as an invitation to tell the truth. When I see a misrepresentation, it’s an invitation to post the facts. A discussion is not an invitation for opinion as much as it is an obligation for rationality and compassion. As I’ve said elsewhere, the best answer to hate speech is more speech — accurate speech, rational speech, compassionate speech, truthful speech, thoughtful speech, careful speech.

I learned a long time ago, just how much power you have when you LOWER your voice.

I don’t have a problem with dangerous ideas, whether they’re outmoded relics of the past or impatient demands from the future. I do have a problem with people who are unwilling to allow the rest of us to hold those assertions up to the light and examine them for secret messages.

My two cents.


  1. Obviously shilling for the rationality providers' cartel ...

    "... when I see a lie, I see it as an invitation to tell the truth."

    Hear, hear. The Debunker's Handbook reminds us, also, that we don't have to repeat the lie so our audience will know who we're hitting.

  2. A calm and rational voice is important. But lots of calm and rational voices are essential.

    Too many people opt out of the debate because they can't stomach the lack of humanity on display. More people need to be encouraged to engage until the balance tips towards sane discussion again. They don't have to say much that's profound or original to make a meaningful difference.

  3. Often overlooked and (IMO) a very powerful force for good, is the public support of those who say or do the Right Things - by which of course we refer here to reason, calm, logic and fact (could be many other things, including compassion and respect). By 'liking' a good or reasonable comment, we encourage both the writer and other readers to follow suit. This new thing in the computerland we inhabit is potentially a weapon for good, if we but use it. I know how gratifying it is to have 50+ people 'like' a comment I make at the Guardian, for example.

    Another important suggestion when dealing with the blogosphere: read with care, wait, respond with respect (except when 'calling out', which can be done politely, is essential), support when you approve...

  4. "I know that there are overt aggressions, covert aggressions, and micro-aggressions in our culture. I’m not aware of the ones I’m not aware of — not until someone who feels hurt speaks up. When a transgender person says, “I don’t like the word ‘tranny,’” I make a mental note to drop that word from my vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how I experience the word — what matters is that trans-people are sensitive to it as a micro-aggression, and when I make a serious effort to look at it from their side, I can begin to get some sense of why it would feel that way."


  5. Methinks the LGBT debate is in a sense a very bad example: It is a totally anthropocentric issue. Climate science is about things happening outside the human mind/culture. It is about objective facts and laws of nature.

    So, besides the "calm and rational voice" methinks some laughter, ridicule and shaming are necessary. Nothing will change as long as any "serious person" can tell total BS (like, the Sun circling Earth) without any shame and ridicule.

  6. But 'denier' is intended as an insult, for want of a better word. Not to cause offense as such - the offense is obviously manufactured by those who want to be offended - but to highlight an undesirable trait or action in the person being called a denier.

  7. Doesn't that come under overt counter-aggression at least?

    Tom has a point.

    I go back and forth on this. I found "CO2 deniers" to be too convenient to pass up in a recent tweet. What is the Twitter-worthy description of the people who simply can't believe that the scientific community is functioning correctly?

    Now I don't mean to be too harsh on them. I for one do not believe the economics community is functioning correctly, at least insofar as climate policy is concerned, and I would hate to be called an economics-denier.

    But we need a word, because there is a well-defined movement against mainstream climate science; so far, alas, there is not a comparable movement against the sort of economics that is deployed in discussing long range policy.

  8. I'm not defending the use of 'denier' so much as challenging the false arguments against its use. The comparison with 'tranny' is not correct. There is an intention behind the use of denier which is not in the example given for tranny.

    I prefer 'sceptic', with quotes, and consider it to be more insulting than denier when I use it. I express an element of contempt when using it and it's convenient that it doesn't necessarily get heard that way so everyone is happy.

  9. My preferred term is fake skeptic (simplified from "pseudo" and lightened from "phony" skeptic). I sometimes accompany this with the explanation that true skeptics question all, not just the part they don't want to hear, accept, or know about. Almost all scientists are true skeptics and in general unskeptical scientists (Lindzen seems to be one) have agendas.

    The Guardian published an article seemed to me to describe the problem.

    Do climate change sceptics give scepticism a bad name?
    There is a crucial difference between scepticism and non-belief in the face of overwhelming evidence

    As for complaining about "denier" having Nazi connotations, that seems to me to be special pleading with the purpose of creating prejudice. I would suggest the dictionary definition is adequate and places denial in a proper context. I've noticed complaints about the term are largely promoted by those who use it as a trick to create "sides" or play victim. I've removed some punctuation here and used one of the first readily available search definitions (Merriam Webster)

    refusal to satisfy a request or desire
    refusal to admit the truth or reality (as of a statement or charge)
    assertion that an allegation is false
    refusal to acknowledge a person or a thing : disavowal
    a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality

  10. With regards to calling people climate change "deniers", and whether there are Nazi connontation. I know of some who don't accept the evidence for climate change who will scream and shout about being equated with Nazis purely to divert attention away from how lacking their arguments are.

    Dr Simon Singh as argues that rather than using "denier" and giving them the opportunity to take offense and divert the conversation, an appropriate term to use is "Numpty" - suggesting instead that there is something rather silly about their position.

    I've started using it. I'd advocate others doing the same.

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