Against The Strawmen

Longtime readers know that this a big pet peeve of mine, and I should have mentioned it in the rules post from last week. I'm obviously very much in love with my commenters here. I spend quite a bit of time crafting my thoughts and arguments, but it's my job to do that. More impressive is the fact that most of the regulars seem to spend at least as much time doing the same thing. I think I speak for more than myself when I say that nothing is more irritating than entering a debate with someone who mostly wants to argue about something you haven't actually said.

There are two variants of this behavior. The first is done in bad faith by people looking to score points. This is relatively easy to spot, and thus easy to ban. The second is the result of haste and passion--sometimes we're a little too eager to hit "submit." I rarely see the former, and would like to see a lot less of the latter. I'm sympathetic to how our emotions push us in these debates. But the fact is that asking people to contend with arguments that aren't actually their's is, no matter the motive, disrespectful.

Here some practical advice: If you find yourself doing more paraphrasing then actual quoting, you're running the risk of strawmanning. I urge people to use quotes liberally (the html is <blockquote> blahblahblah </blockquote>)  Beyond that, I really urge people to do their best to understand the context, and the spirit of those they're debating, mostly because, without that, there really isn't much point. If you violate either of these rules by mistake, it's worth saying "My bad, I missed that." It won't kill you. On the contrary it's how you earn some credibility.

Talking past each other--intentional or not--is a giant time-suck. Do the community a favor and give your neighbors the respect that they're due. After that, feel free to take them apart.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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