i've been involved in a lot of online discussions, debates and arguments over the years. As a result, for my own mental health, i've developed a set of criteria which i use to determine the extent to which someone is likely to be debating me "in good faith":

  • Does this person refer to the documentation i have provided in support of my position? They don't need to necessarily do so in detail; merely saying, for example, "I have read that document, and I still disagree" would suffice.

  • Does this person respond to the questions i ask of them, or do they ignore them? This is particularly important when i'm asking clarification questions, e.g. "Can you explain what the word 'queer' means to you personally?"

  • Does this person also suggest documents which support their own position, or do they just expect me to take their personal explanations as gospel? The documentation need not be e.g. experimental data; it might simply be a line of reasoning.

Note that "agreeing with me" is not listed above. Of course i am genuinely trying to convince people of my position; i only rarely debate for debate's sake1, and instead debate because i actually personally care about the issue under discussion.

So i am invested in the outcome. But the outcome i'm looking for is arriving at the position which is "most correct" (for some definition of 'correct', depending on context). There is, of course, a chance that my position entering a debate is either "less correct" or "completely wrong" (or perhaps "not even wrong"2) in comparison to the position of the person i'm debating. In that sense, i actively want to be shown to be wrong.

However, when i feel strongly about an issue, i've usually done a lot of reading about it and given it much thought. So i've probably already considered initial arguments against my position on the issue and found them wanting. Consequently, i seek what i consider to be strong arguments why i'm wrong - 'arguments' of the strength of "Genesis talks about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!!1!" will not suffice.

i can really enjoy grappling with the complexities of an issue, and being challenged to think about it differently. But through experience, i've learnt that's most likely to happen in the context of the above provisos.

So if it seems to me that a person is failing to meet the criteria i've described, i do one or more of the following:

  • Repeat my point or question, in case they've inadvertently missed it.

  • Ask them to please respond to the questions i've asked, to help me gain a better understanding of where they're coming from, so that the discussion can move forward productively.

  • Note that i am feeling they are not debating "in good faith" in terms of my criteria for this, and that without counterevidence to the contrary, i am unlikely to want to continue the discussion further.

How they respond will help me determine whether to bother engaging with them further, and hopefully sort the debate wheat from the chaff. :-)

1. And when i do so, i try to be explicit about that fact.

2. A phrase popularly attributed to physicist Wolfgang Pauli.


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