There's a lot of bad things to say about this article. Instead of talking about them, today we're going to focus on when to name-call your opponents instead of arguing with them.
It opens with that timeless formula: Find a dumb example from the side you disagree with; set tone of your piece by establishing a "side with dumb people" you're arguing against. Okay, fine. There are lots of pro-net neutrality idiots out there. I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked.
(This guy actually coined the term net neutrality, so he's not some random idiot -- just an academic who contributes to the New York Times).
There is a lot of FUD out there about Comcast, ISPs, and other players in the network industry. I'll admit that. And FUD is usually a bad thing. For those just tuning in, "FUD" means "fear, uncertainty, and doubt". It's a charge levied against arguments that abandon the dialectical form to make ad-hominem-style attacks, appeal to emotions like fear, or generally call into question the premise of rational debate between dissimilar classes of actors with dissimilar interests.
When should you abandon the rational dialectic of argument?
Here's an interesting idea. Should we always settle conflicts between opposing ideas with rational, measured debate? Let's say you get into a debate with someone with whom you have personal experience with as a liar, cheater, maker of bad deals, etc. Further, you recognize that they're better at arguing than you. You're debating in a public place, there is an audience watching your arguments (of whom some are unaware of your opponent's unsavoriness). What do you do?
There are at least two clearly bad options. One is to begin debate by calling out your opponent's unsavoryness. This is extremely poor form under Western argumentation norms; this is called an ad hominem attack, and you quickly lose the dialectic high ground if you use one without strong proof of relevance. Audiences want psuedolegal processes to determine if someone is Bad, and making that case when you've already accepted the frame of rational debate is almost always a self-defeating maneuver.
The other bad option is to actually debate him. The problem with this is he's better at debate than you! He will beat you at the debate! It's really weird how this works in the human psyche, but getting publicly owned in an agreed-upon battleground activates the deep routine in our monkey brains which causes us to throw shame, tomatoes, and poop (if available) at the loser. You accepted the frame of the conversation, you agreed on the terms of conflict, and you lost. Some of your audience will feel icky continuing to listen to you, and you've lost social capital.
The third option, the correct route, is to repeat this time-tested canticle:
Fuck you, you slimy piece of shit, I refuse to share the stage with you, you have fucked me over too many times; if you are listening to this and choose to continue humoring this cognitive terrorist, then you are now harboring contagious bad ideas yourself, and I refuse to associate with the whole damn lot of you.
It's that simple. Try it in your next debate!
There's a pernicious set of bad actors that are chronically better at arguing than you. They are called "lobbyists". Well, back up for a second, let's make this all formal-like:
Any organization that makes X additional yearly profit by spending Y time training to argue with you, where X > Y, is hereby referred to as a "crony debater"
Let's pause for a second. I'm not an anti-capitalist, and I don't want to write another boring screed about regulatory capture and money controlling our government (it totally does tho lol). I want to talk about when you, an onlooking citizen with limited information, should engage a powerful actor in rational debate, or just stick a big fat label on your opponent's forehead that says Bad, cut them out of your life, and fight them in the voting booth.
Not all crony debater are bad -- in fact, most arguments where one side has a clear stake are worth listening to. This is actually endemic to debate: Most opinions are corn pone, and anyone with enough energy and time to spend debating is usually reaping some "advantage" from it, if not only in social or institutional capital.
When should you refuse to listen to a crony debater? One example is when they have directly, consciously, avoidably harmed you. Another example is when they have clearly, consciously, avoidably harmed others. A third instance is when you have strong evidence they consciously commit harms diffused through externalities (that one quickly gets you into pickles, though it remains in theory a correct metric). For the purposes of this article, the first example will suffice. The point is: When you recognize you are in a situation that meets these criteria, choosing to engage with your opponent on rational grounds is voluntarily jumping into a pit of rhetorical quicksand, and you are guaranteed to come out the worse for it.
You'll notice this isn't exactly a principled way to achieve maximum truth on a topic. It's a heuristic you use, as someone on the tail end of asymmetric information disparities, to avoid getting screwed over by powers many times larger than you. This is actually pretty close to a practical case for why democracy works, if it works at all. Individual voters in a democracy, I am sad to say, do not have perfect information, and are often unable to fully conceive of complex dynamic systems they don't have time to become experts in. What they do have is
- the ability to detect bullshit, and
- the ability to know when they have been personally screwed over.
Combine those two, and you have casus belli to not only take this issue directly to your congressmen, but to identify the specious argumentors and "well actually" debate types and cut them from your life, as I recommend people do with Stratechery after having publishing this post in extrapolated ill faith.
So then, back to the net neutrality debate. To actually resolve this, you need to answer one final question: Is Comcast a shitty company?
I'll leave this as an exercise to the reader.