There have been a lot more dust-ups than usual among the transhumanists and that is an exciting thing for me. J. Hughes’ series and my AI post (btw Hughes just delivered a hay-maker) have drawn heavy fire. A few of the comments have often wondered why I and others get snarky, acerbic, and borderline harsh with our comments. I have a few things to say on that, but Andrew Sullivan beat me somewhat to the punch. Here he is on blogging, friendship and debate:

But I’m not in this game to make friends. I have my friends and their friendship is not about politics or argument, but about life and love and present laughter. In my personal life, I always try to be civil. On the blog, I write more like a British parliamentary debater – and anyone who has watched Prime Minister’s Question Time can see how brutal the rhetoric can become. That’s how I was trained. It’s how I love to fight.

But I also try to ensure that the arguments of those I attack are also represented on this blog; I post real dissents; I admit errors when necessary; I engage in more introspection than some online; and I link to a wider variety of other writers from different perspectives – known and unknown – than many other bloggers.

Sullivan is my model for blogging and thinking. He’s got a few degrees and two decades of experience on me, so forgive me for not living up to him quite yet. It’s a work in progress. But let me say a small bit more on the nature of debate.

In high school the activity I loved was debate. I was a policy debater, which meant I hauled around four rubbermaid tubs coated in offensive bumper stickers and crammed to the brim with evidence: on everything from how close Iran was to getting a WMD, to how to disassemble a Foucauldian critique, to distillations of pure rhetorical theory. In debate you learn quickly that if your argument is a claim sans warrant, you will be destroyed. You learn that little rhetorical tricks you think are clever are, in fact, not, and you will be destroyed. Not just destroyed, but laughed at. Debate is a game, a battle even, and you don’t walk onto the field wearing your helmet backwards and wearing penny loafers.

But rhetoric and debate training are not standard issue. If I hadn’t learned from experience what a brink and a brightline were – if I hadn’t had it beaten into me by the salvos of insults and the accompanied shame of stumbling out of a tournament with a 1-6 record, I never would have learned. Debate is the martial arts of the mind – a trained practitioner can disarm and disable you no matter what piles of evidence and which Ph.Ds you have backing your claims. And just as in martial arts, when you make a mistake, you get beat up. I, frankly, could give a shit who you are and who you have backing you up. If your argument is incoherent, fallacious, erroneous, or self-contradictory, I will point it out.

And then, I will probably mock you. Just a little, but enough to make the loss sting. In martial arts, what sticks in your memory is not only landing on your back on the mat, but the punch that put you there. In debate, it’s just not the winning argument, but the insulting tone that helps you remember. Debaters – real, good, talented debaters – respect and often admire their opponents. Debaters are the only people I really love to argue with, because the only way to tear your argument apart is to really listen to it and understand it. If your argument can be beaten not because of some microscopic error or minor miscalculation or previously unknown fact, but because of a glaring mistake or common fallacy, then beating your argument gives the winner no pleasure, no satisfaction. You were an unworthy opponent and deserve scorn.

On the other hand, if you’re trained to dismantle and undermine and ruin arguments all day long, and suddenly you come across one from a person you respect that you have a lot of trouble taking apart, it’s like a big red blinking sign telling your brain, “HEY MAYBE THIS IS RIGHT.” That’s how I first came to transhumanism. The more things I threw at it, the more robust it looked, the more deftly it handled my critiques. I’m a transhumanist because I spent my first semester at NYU trying to dismantle it with the best tools bioconservatism had to offer and, when those turned out to be inert or self-defeating, ended up becoming a convert. Now that I defend it, the panoply of intellectual weaponry I can utilize, the sheer vastness and magnitude of assaults I’ve parried, only builds my confidence that this is a good and worthy philosophy.

Snark, scorn, anger, and playful banter is a sign of passion. Carefully reiterating your position when it was articulated correctly the first time is a sign that you care. Debate, within any community, is a sign of health. Within the transhumanist community, debate is a sign of what our community needs most: growth and maturation.

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