Are You Even Listening?

There’s something I’ve been wanting to say for a while now, if only to have it archived for future reference. It’s not a religious matter, but I’m going to use is from a religious conversation. Hopefully, any readers who are put off by that sort of thing will still find value in what I’m about to say.

Some time ago, I watched a video exchange between two Bible apologists – one Catholic, one Protestant – in which they each responded to what they considered a misrepresentation of their own Scriptural teachings. I’m a Protestant, so I was naturally sympathetic to the second point of view; but my bias (and his potential correctness) doesn’t necessarily mean he made the better argument.

Unfortunately, people are easily swayed by good speakers – especially if their opponent struggles – regardless of the argument. Quick wit and ready answers are seen as signs of correctness, which is far from guaranteed. The point of a debate is for one or both parties to prove their argument, but what really ends up mattering is presentation. If one guy has a bad night, many naïve listeners will take the opposite view.

Even worse, a biased crowd might influence the speaker. If they only applaud his opponent, he might lack confidence and essentially lose the debate. If they only applaud him, he might get cocky and come across as a jerk. This is too bad, because good behavior should be rewarded and recognized, even in debate – but it doesn’t make either side correct. Many a decent man has besmirched himself by resorting to bad behavior while his wrongful opponent remained calm.

Nevertheless, an enthusiastic audience has a psychological effect on us, especially if we’re undecided. When a debater tries to “one-up” his opponent, we largely judge his success by whether or not people laugh or cheer. But a biased crowd often reacts according to preference, not the merit of an argument or quality of a joke. As a result, we may feel silly for laughing or believing something in a crowd of naysayers. (If you don’t believe this, try watching a classic sitcom without the laugh track.) We can actually feel begrudging admiration for the other side – or even embarrassment for our own.

Most modern debates rely on skill and preparation over substance and reason. The advantage of planned responses (like this YouTube exchange) is that both sides have time to organize their thoughts and anticipate rebuttals without the distraction of spontaneous emotion or the pressure of crowd reactions. But this doesn’t negate the tendency of a biased crowd to form judgments based on who’s speaking. I found this abundantly confirmed by skimming the dreaded comments section.

It all started with a series of videos from Protestant apologist Mike Winger (whom I highly recommend, as I have before) on why he disagrees with Catholic doctrine. In response, Catholic apologist Trent Horn proceeded to make a whole series of videos in which he purports to debunk Winger. These rebuttals got a lot of traction, so Winger decided to make one response video dealing with perceived fallacies in Horn’s. It’s probably been a year now since I watched this back-and-forth, so I confess I don’t remember the discussion. But it’s irrelevant, as I’m only concerned with the response.

I’m not willing to side with Winger (or anyone else) on a particular point just because I agree with him in general. But he offered what seemed like a fair criticism not only of Catholic counterpoints, but of Horn’s mischaracterizations of what he had said. To do this, Winger replayed his own original video in context, then Horn’s response, and pointed out the inconsistencies between what he said and Horn’s paraphrase.

To read some of the comments, however, one might have thought it was Winger who made a poor showing. Unsurprisingly, these remarks came from Horn’s followers. (This isn’t because Winger has a small or predominantly hostile following. On the contrary, it’s several times larger than Horn’s, at least as of this writing. But Horn’s following is significant enough to influence the comments on someone else’s video.) In fact, these people seemed to think Winger was out of his league.

Why? Because Horn is an experienced apologist and an actual Catholic. Therefore, any logical point made by Winger was dismissed because he can’t possibly be correct or know enough to debunk Horn.

It should go without saying, this is both hypocritical and silly. By that logic, Horn can’t debunk Protestantism either. But it’s also pathetic. If the only reason for believing Horn is that he says what you want to hear, you should reconsider what you believe.

This was even more obvious when it came to the actual misrepresentation of Winger’s own words. To be fair, Trent Horn is only human and could’ve misunderstood. But it happened more than once. If it wasn’t intentional, it doesn’t speak well of his philosophical abilities. If it was, he’s being dishonest. But even when Winger replayed his original statements in full, there were still commenters who insisted that Horn had simply paraphrased what Winger said.

And this brings me to my main point: people are shamefully, embarrassingly, infuriatingly, and, dare I say, often intentionally incapable of restating or comprehending views with which disagree in a fair and accurate manner.

In philosophy, this is called the “straw man” argument: misrepresenting someone’s views to sound weak so that they can be more easily debunked. (The idea is, it’s easier to fight a scarecrow than our actual opponent.) We should instead make a “steel man” arguments, which are exactly the opposite: presenting our opponent’s views as strongly as possible, so that we can show the strength of our own argument in victory.

To quote a famous man, we should be precise in our speech. This is a skill now sorely lacking (and largely unappreciated) which goes a long way to avoid misunderstandings. But I’m afraid the confusion is often the point. People want to make others sound as bad as possible. They may not think they’re being dishonest; maybe that’s really what they think of the other person’s views. But it’s misleading at best and slanderous at worst.

I listen to a fair bit of political commentary, and it’s easy to trust people you agree with when they report on what someone else said. But even those on “my” side are prone to a mischaracterize at times. That’s why I appreciate when words are quoted verbatim or played back in context. I may not like hearing from our current president, but I would prefer to know exactly what he said (and how he said it) before taking something out of context. There are plenty of quotes to mock and ridicule without misrepresenting him.

Oftentimes, the host of a radio show or podcast will play a video clip and then offer their own paraphrase to sum it up or clarify. But I often reject the paraphrase itself, as too reliant on preconceived notions or opinions and not fair to the actual quote. Their paraphrase might be true of the speaker in general, but if it’s not true of the quote being paraphrased, it’s a misrepresentation. And since I see nothing but misrepresentation coming from the other side of the political aisle, I’m quite sensitive to recognize it on mine.

Many of us have witnessed conversations that were then retold in such a way as to cast blame on someone else. The speaker might put words in the other person’s mouth or at least inject a rude or sarcastic tone where it didn’t exist. (They naturally do the opposite for themselves. Just imagine trying to explain the words “I don’t care” to an authority figure, and you’ll get some idea of how easily a phrase can be manipulated.)

What bothers me most is that people seem not to recognize this error in themselves or others. If we favor the speaker or sympathize with his view, we’re prone to treat his paraphrase as correct. John may twist Jane’s words to accuse her of something she didn’t say, but if we like John more, we’re likely to agree with his assessment because that’s what Jane probably meant.

This is common in our current culture. Christians say, “I believe what the Bible says about sexuality and marriage,” only to be characterized as hating gay people. You might disagree with the Christian; but if this is how you reframe what they said, you’re either unintelligent or dishonest. Disapproving of someone’s behavior does not equal hatred, and there’s no excuse for thinking so. Good parents will disapprove of their children when they misbehave or commit crimes. But that doesn’t mean they hate them.

And this goes both ways. If someone says, “I think Christians are wrong about sex,” it would be unfair and incorrect to reframe their words as declaring hatred for Christians. None of this makes either side correct in their views. Being misrepresented (or even mistreated) doesn’t mean you’re right. There’s no need to play the martyr. It simply means we should be more careful to recognize a mischaracterization when we see it – even of our enemies. Otherwise, we diminish our credibility and promote confusion.

Just to clarify: misrepresenting someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong about them. It’s certainly possible to disapprove of someone and hate them. But that’s irrelevant. I can disapprove of you, whether I hate you or not. For that matter, I could hate you without disapproving. Tyrants do this all the time: they hate the people they oppress, but they can’t really find fault with them.

Now let’s try something else.

If a politician says, “I support gender-affirming surgery for minors,” then I might restate it as “you support genital mutilation of children.” I would surely be accused of misrepresenting them… but am I?

So-called “gender-affirming” surgeries are performed on the genitals. Mutilation, by definition, is to cut something off – namely, a body part. And “minors” is just a legally accepted term for children. So my paraphrase is factually correct. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s just a matter of your disliking my words because they are more direct and therefore sound cruel. There’s no intelligent, honest explanation for how my statement is a misrepresentation of your view. Even if someone adds caveats to insist they only support some “gender-affirming surgery” for some minors – that’s still the genital mutilation of children.

Notice I’m able to logically explain why one of these paraphrases is correct and the other is not. Yet I would be treated as insensitive and perhaps arrogant in both cases for having a logical argument and refusing to back down.

So what would be an honest and intelligent rebuttal?

In the first case: “You are hateful for thinking homosexuality is wrong because…” what? Because if I don’t agree with your sexual habits, I hate you? That’s not true, and everyone knows it. The only rebuttal anyone can offer is emotional manipulative, not fact-based. It’s not hateful to disapprove of someone’s actions and beliefs. You may think I’m wrong about that… but that doesn’t mean you hate me. Right?

In the second case, there’s no way to rebut the idea that “gender-affirming surgery for minors” is the genital mutilation of children. So let’s come at it from the other direction and ask how someone might argue that genital mutilation is “gender-affirming” care. Their only defense is Mad Hatter nonsense. It relies on the fact that our biology does not define our “gender” (which is just a made-up word for sex), but it also says that changing our biology affirms our gender/sex. So which is it? To affirm is to literally make a firm statement. How do we make a firm statement about someone’s gender by operating on them? Does the fact that I’m a man rely on my biology or not? If it does, we’re not affirming anything; we’re attempting to change it. If it doesn’t… why change anything at all?

Nobody can give an intelligent and honest answer – just more nonsense and emotion to appeal to those who can’t think clearly. Yet there’s a high probability that people will accept their ridiculous arguments, because they believe what they want to – even if it’s wrong.

Since I’m on the subject, let me also say this: it’s easy to misrepresent someone as sympathetic to a cause they don’t agree with simply for pointing out that someone else is being misrepresented.

Imagine if John said that Churchill was worse than Hitler and Jane accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer. It would be perfectly fair to correct Jane’s statement as a misrepresentation (assuming John said nothing else like “Hitler was a cool guy”). Perhaps John has a wacky notion that Churchill was secretly murdering millions. That might make him incorrect, but it doesn’t make him a Nazi sympathizer, and Jane should recognize that.

Yet very often, we hear things that someone doesn’t say, even from those we’re closest to. In this case, we’re not in danger of misleading people; we’re just making life harder on ourselves.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine two married couples having an argument.

One man says to his wife, “If you want to leave, go. And don’t come back. I don’t care what happens to you anyway, and I’ll probably be happier when you’re gone.”

The other man tells his wife, “I just want some time to myself now and then. We’re always together, and it’s suffocating me.”

In both cases, the wife responds, “Oh! So you’re saying you don’t love me anymore!”

In the first case, I would argue that’s a fair representation. True, she’s not quoting his exact words, but she is giving a reasonable paraphrase (even if he’s dumb enough to insist otherwise). He can’t love her if he doesn’t care what happens to her. And even if he didn’t mean it, her paraphrase is correctly summing up what he said – not what he thinks or feels. She’s not claiming to have read his mind; she’s pointing out what his own words mean, sincere or not.

The second case is not a fair representation. What he said may not have been nice (or smart), and he may in fact not love her at all. But she can’t fairly deduce that from his actual words. It’s a classic example of which men and women are often guilty in emotional arguments. Someone says something that hurts our feelings or angers us – maybe something we just don’t like – and we react by accusing them of meaning something else. There are plenty of reasons (right or wrong) why a man or woman might feel the way this second man does. But even if he’s a jerk and the wife is correct, she’s misrepresenting what he said. (And if he responds in anger by confirming her opinion, it doesn’t really vindicate what she did. It just serves to make her feel better about it.)

The difference should be clear, but online commenters seem to have no grasp of this. I came away from Mike Winger’s video exchange not more convinced of the Protestant position – I didn’t need much convincing there – but that people are hopelessly blind to anything they don’t want to hear. Let’s be sure we can separate our biases and feelings (even if we’re arguing with our spouse) at least well enough to recognize when someone is being misrepresented. And let’s not be confused by eloquence or confidence. Even the best debaters are often wrong.

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