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In a previous piece, Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, I wrote about the way my weariness with the technical debating language of “straw men” and “no true Scotsman” was clarified by a Rowan Williams’ notion of integrity in discourse.  I’d like to extend that, and use Williams’ ideas to explore some of the typical moments when discussion breaks down online, specifically around accusations of “bad faith” and attempts at “playing devil’s advocate”.  Like the last piece, this is based very much on my personal experience, and the kind of blogs and websites I hang around, but I think his writing offers a compelling way to think about online discussion.

Firstly it’s worth recapping what Williams said.  He identified “integrity” in speech with the basic quality of speaking about what it claimed to be speaking about, without concealing its topic or intentions:

Why is it so important that speech should not conceal its purposes?  Discourse that conceals is discourse that (consciously or not) sets out to foreclose the possibility of a genuine response.  By operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not, it presents to the hearer a set of positions and arguments other than those that are finally determinative of its working.  Thus the repudiation or refutation of the surface position leaves the body of the discourse untouched, since it will not engage the essential agenda

This concealment is not simply a technique within a closed system of discourse, however, but a question of power in the world outside, since in Williams’ account

such a lack of integrity is manifestly a political matter.  To make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for the retention of power.

Both these quotations speak very strongly to the two most common impasses in Internet debates that I’ve come across in the last couple of years: “bad faith” and “devil’s advocate”.  The former has become a positive cliché at some sites, and I’ve seen it used to mean roughly “speaking with intentions other than the stated ones”, but also “interpreting an honest mistake as proof of disguised bad intentions”.  “Bad faith” has become part of the lexicon of a particular flavour of Internet debate. So much so that the FAQs and Required Reading Before Commenting at Shakesville employ it as part of the site’s policy architecture.  Melissa McEwan’s guidelines at the site refer to her being “repeatedly accused of acting in bad faith when I make a mistake” and class these instances as “overt accusations or veiled implications—deliberate or otherwise—of bad faith, deliberate cruelty, hidden agendas, indifference” and “jumping to unfounded conclusions about allegedly reprehensible motives”.

This does not mean, however, that imputations of bad faith are entirely ruled out, since the strictures on people commenting also note that whilst debate is acceptable “bad faith masked as disagreement or criticism is not allowed”.  One of the central principles upon which the authors and moderators of Shakesville allow discussion of their work is that commenters accept “We are here in good faith, and that is not an opinion and it is not up for debate”, following that up with “Those who make accusations to the contrary are fundamentally undermining the safe space for me and the other contributors.”  This policy can be seen in action in a lot of the verbal scraps which break out in the comments, with “bad faith” a regular accusation.

This concern with the “faith” of online discussion seems to rest upon assumptions which become explicit in the passage I quoted from Williams.  It highlights the anxiety of Internet discussion sites, which offer an astonishing opportunity for people with diverse experiences to share their ideas, but do so in a medium which removes all the non-verbal elements which we might usually rely to make a judgement about the reliability of the person speaking.  Of course, for sites like Shakesville, Feministe and others, the absence of those non-verbal elements is not an unfortunate side effect of the medium but part of the appeal, since it removes a few of the elements which might prevent privileged members of the community from taking other people’s speech seriously.  The anxiety over “faith” is thus part of the workings of the comment section, a risk which comes packaged with the promise it offers.  Particularly given the emphasis (in blogs concerned with social justice issues) on personal authenticity and the value of attending to other people’s experiences, the fear that speech is “operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not” haunts discussion.

The paradox of declaring that “we are here in good faith, and that is not an opinion and it is not up for debate”, whilst retaining “bad faith” as a means of invalidating certain kinds of criticism, surely stems in large part from this emphasis on experience and the vulnerability which that builds into the process of discussion.  The very difficulty of access to other people’s experience both makes the attempt to achieve that access and understanding imperative, and introduces the element of doubt, since by definition that experience cannot be entirely checked against one’s own knowledge.  Acknowledging that other people’s experiences may be incommensurate to our own, that in Joanna Russ’ words, men and women can live in parallel worlds which look entirely the same but operate on different rules, highlights the difficulties of establishing everyone’s bonafides (pun intended) for the conversation to take place.

But it also means that the terms in which that conversation is carried out will leave some people much more vulnerable than others, since it exposes them to having their inner lives devalued and doubted.  This is the vulnerability which prompts Shakesville’s construction as a “safe space”, and leads the site’s moderators to declare that they will make windows into men’s (and let’s face it, most often…) souls.  Once the question of “faith” has itself become the subject of debate, the conversation collapses because (pace the references to “incontrovertible evidence” in Shakesville’s guidelines) faith cannot be proved one way or the other.  The integrity of the discourse is a matter of shared faith, which can break down in startling and damaging ways.

This question of vulnerability leads on to the second trope I see a lot: “devil’s advocate”.  “Playing devil’s advocate” – adopting a position which one does not actually believe in, which no-one could seriously accept, or which is even morally repugnant, for the purposes of an abstract argument – is unofficially outlawed at a number of blogs I hang around.  In its own terms, the technique exists to test ideas by submitting them to logical and rational analysis in the absence of previously determined opinions.  Like a court of law, it recognises no previous convictions.  The advantages are obvious: it tests an argument to destruction, ignoring the likelihood or morality of counter-arguments in order to probe possible weak spots or logical flaws.  The reason it is generally frowned upon (to put it mildly) in many blogs is that it disregards the nature of the discourse taking place.  Such discussions are often not purely hypothetical arguments, but the sharing of experiences or articulations of personal convictions.

More specifically, in certain online spaces, they are articulations of feelings and ideas which are often silenced in broader society.  “Devil’s advocate” gambits such as “but what if we supposed what women mostly did lie about rape…” or “but what it was more economically efficient to deny immigrants human rights…” re-enact the marginalisation which these blogs are struggling against.  They assume a rational liberal public sphere in which everyone has an equal voice (and has always had it), everyone is valued and respected, and every opinion is to be determined in the moment of its utterance and debate.  This is simply not the world in which anyone lives, and there is something staggeringly disingenuous to posit “suppose we thought women lied about rape” when a vast number of women have absolutely no need to “imagine” that state of affairs.

The refusal to engage in devil’s advocate scenarios is often criticized as proof that people are not interested in real discussion, and are not willing to have their ideas tested.  In Williams’ terms, however, it is the devil’s advocate who is breaking the conversational structure.  There may not be a hidden agenda behind a devil’s advocate gambit, but the trope advertises exactly what Williams would call its lack of integrity.  It does not conceal this, but openly declares that it is operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not” and “present[ing] to the hearer a set of positions and arguments other than those that are finally determinative of its working”.  Merely admitting this does not stop it being the case, and the gambit seeks to disarm in advance any “repudiation or refutation of the surface position”, stating openly that this will “[leave] the body of the discourse untouched, since it will not engage the essential agenda”.

In other words, the speaker has disengaged before the speech even starts, claiming the right to use a shared discourse to scrutinise and critique another person’s position whilst rendering their own invisible and untouchable. It casts them as subject and their interlocutor as object, seeking to erase the constructedness and contingency of whatever lies behind their own position.  It obscures the experiences and opinions which led them to speak by rendering them as the impartial and impassive voice of neutral reason.  Other people’s thoughts and lives are the topic for debate, which can be won without the devil’s advocate exposing their own.  “A manifestly political matter”, as Williams says.  Certainly a “strategy for the retention of power”, and usually (in my experience) employed by those who are used to finding their own lives and opinions validated as “unmarked”, the norm from which other lives deviate and to which those deviations must explain themselves.  The theologian’s words don’t explain why this is wrong, but they do elucidate the processes by which it operates – and usefully reframe the situation.  They make clear that it is the “devil’s advocate” who has refused the risks and possibilities of debate, not the people turning down their apparent offer.