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Rules of Deportment

Herewith Ayjay’s Rules of Deportment for Online Discourse:

1. Avoid Bulverism. C. S. Lewis, who invented the term, explains:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

Thus over the years my evident wrongness, on a wide range of issues, has been explained in the following ways: (a) I am young; (b) I am old; (c) I am white; (d) I am a man; (e) I am an American; (f) I am a Christian; and, more often than all the others put together, (g) I am an academic. Bulverism is the irresistible temptation of the person who either has no argument for his or her position or is too lazy to articulate one.

2. Avoid speculation on motives. A problem closely related to Bulverism. Many of us find it difficult to believe that people could disagree with our political or social or religious views without being somehow corrupt or mendacious or cruel. So if someone previously known to be a staunch conservative takes a liberal, or liberal-seeming, stance on a particular issue, many of those who disagree will say, sagely and contemptuously, “Ah, he just wants to be invited to those Georgetown cocktail parties.” And maybe he does; but then, maybe he doesn’t. The point is: You can’t read minds and hearts, so you don’t know.

But if you’re going to speculate on motives, why not consider your own while you’re at it? Maybe you want to think of yourself as the kind of person whose integrity is so great that you’re not even tempted by Georgetown cocktail parties. As Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive,” and that’s true of you and me alike. So let’s skip over the motives and focus on the ideas.

3. Avoid the phrase “In other words.” Again, closely related to the above. Consider the following dialogue:

“I’m inclined to think that we need a national health-system.”

“In other words, you’re a socialist.”


“I don’t think Obamacare is the answer.”

“In other words, you’re happy to see poor Americans die for lack of health care.”

I have read entire books, invariably books intended to discredit someone, built on the in-other-words strategy. The writer offers a quotation and then begins the next sentence, “In other words….” It’s a neat trick. Instead of responding to what someone actually says, you offer what seems to be a paraphrase but is actually a conversion of your opponent’s ideas into a simplistic straw-man you can easily dispose of. (Almost the entire abortion debate in America has, for forty years, consisted of people taking turns in-other-wordsing each other.)

4. Ask rather than infer. If you think someone’s statement implies a deeper and more repulsive meaning, try to get confirmation before accusing. If someone says “I don’t think Obamacare is the answer,” then instead of making an accusation of socialism, ask: “What’s your alternative? Poor Americans are dying every day for lack of health care — Is that a problem for you? If so, how do you suggest we address that problem?”

5. Avoid Announcements. Sometimes I feel that 90% of blog comments consist of this kind of thing. If someone writes — for a big newspaper or magazine, and for any blog that has much of a readership — a post on religion, someone will turn up, and turn up very soon, to Announce that “Religious belief is fundamentally irrational.” (Google that exact phrase if you doubt me.) The relationship between faith and reason has been debated by first-class minds for hundreds and hundreds of years, but some dude whose only qualifications for weighing in are an internet connection and basic typing skills thinks that he can settle the whole matter in a sentence? Or perhaps he doesn’t think that, he’s just doing the propositional equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with his favorite team’s logo on it. In either case, the statement adds zero value to the conversation, and the more such statements appear in a comment thread the dumber the thread gets. It’s an ironclad law.

The conversation will be much better if you avoid making Announcements about Really Big Issues, focusing instead on smaller, more focused topics on which you can summon evidence to support your position. If you think that poor Americans are dying every day for lack of health care, or that human behavior is changing the climate, cite your sources. Link to your authorities. That won’t clinch your argument, but it will move the conversation away from Announcements and towards evidence-based debates. And for that good deed, you will receive stars in your crown.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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