I had an interesting exchange with Paul Franks this morning, but alas it eventually ended up going off the rails. I’ve summarized the exchange below by reproducing the text of our tweets following my initial tweet. I’ll then conclude by offering my own diagnosis of how and why it went off the rails. The hope is that there are lessons here for folks discussing contentious topics more generally.
James Dobson says media is not 'truthful' in reporting on migrant detention centers. Conservative Christian family values on display… https://t.co/qrVF0xjkTa
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) July 1, 2019
Paul Franks: I don’t follow. What in the article calls you to question his conservative Christianity?
Randal Rauser: I’m questioning his family values. Dobson is silent on Trump’s policy of child separation and delaying of refugee claimants and incredibly suggests the government should “just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin?”
That’s a violation of the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. It’s also a violation of basic humanity and compassion, not to mention the ethic of Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46). Dobson is a propagandist for an administration engaging in unChristian actions.
Paul: I’m not defending Dobson (he’s said some callous things), I just don’t see how his saying the media isn’t being objective in identifying the cause of the problem runs contrary to either conservatism or Christianity.
Randal: As I said, he is showing the deep problems with his conception of family values for the reasons I provided. True family values would denounce the policy instituted by Jeff Sessions to separate children and demoralize parents. Shutting the border to refugees? Unbelievable.
Paul: Okay, you’re just making a different point than your initial post. That’s what caused my confusion. Initially it seemed you were calling into question his conservative Christianity because of his comments about the media.
Different question, are you an open borders guy?
Randal: I wrote “Conservative family values on display…” which is an ironic statement that many of those who most profess family values violate that profession when it involves outsiders. That was my point.
Open borders? Not sure what you mean. Refugee claimants have a right to have their claims heard, and to have them heard in a timely manner. And separating parents from children is a gross violation of the UN rights of the family.
Paul: Is it a gross violation of “UN rights of the family” when parents are separated from their children after being convicted for breaking the law? (Especially in places where facilities aren’t adequate to house parents and children together.)
Randal: Yes, it’s a gross violation. Read the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 9.1. Do you *support* Jeff Sessions’ policy of separating parents from their children rather than keeping families together in detention centers pending the review of their cases?
Art. 9.1: “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.”
Paul: So if a couple robs a bank, gets caught, convicted, and is sentenced to jail, it’s a gross violation to separate the children from the parents?
Randal: You think that’s a proper analogy to a family that is fleeing violence in El Salvador and is hoping to apply for refugee status? I’m stunned.
Paul: I’m stunned you think so little of me. You seemed to be making an argument that child separation itself is wrong. I was simply testing the limits of that claim. But given your apparent assessment of me, I now see an exchange with you on this subject is not likely to be fruitful.
Summarizing the problem
Okay, so we started off with a seemingly productive conversation and ended up with the two participants mutually stunned: I was stunned that Paul seemed to take a particular position, and Paul was stunned that I thought he was taking that position.
What went wrong?
To begin with, if you read through the conversation, you can see an asymmetry emerging. I am taking a strong ethical stance against Trump’s twin deterrent policies against refugee claimants (i.e. punitive child separation and the delay of refugee claims) as well as Dobson’s suggestion that the US close its border to refugees.
Paul does not take an explicit stance for Trump’s two deterrent policies and Dobson’s proposal to close the border. He does say “I’m not defending Dobson” and he notes that Dobson has said “callous things”. But he doesn’t state his view on Dobson’s call to close the border to refugees. Furthermore, while I asked explicitly whether Paul agrees with the child separation policy, he did not answer.
So we now turn to Paul asking whether I agree, “if a couple robs a bank, gets caught, convicted, and is sentenced to jail, it’s a gross violation to separate the children from the parents?”
In retrospect, I should have said, “No, why?” Instead, I assumed that Paul believed this is “a proper analogy to a family that is fleeing violence in El Salvador and is hoping to apply for refugee status”. Why did I do this?
Implicature refers to the presence of implied meaning beyond the literal sense of a speech act. Given our exchange thus far, I took Paul to be offering what he believed to be a relevant analogy to refugee claimants. By contrast, Paul insists he was simply interested in testing the conceptual limits of the principle that it is wrong to separate children from parents.
And that left us mutually stunned.
What can we learn here?
So there are some lessons here for each of us here. To begin with, I should have recognized that Paul was avoiding taking an explicit stance on particular issues under discussion in favor of Socratic questioning. In addition, Paul should have recognized that his Socratic questioning is liable to interpretation given the topic under debate: sometimes, providing no answer is itself an answer.
With that in mind, I should have asked Paul to clarify his question rather than assuming implicature that he insists was not present. Meanwhile, Paul should have clarified his question in recognition of the fact that such implicature could reasonably be interpreted to accompany the question.
Hopefully, there are some general lessons for all of us here to heed context and clarify the presence or absence of implicature by way of preemptive clarifications and probing questions.
To answer Paul’s question, convicted bank robbers may legitimately be separated from their children, though of course courts do, where proper, take mitigating stances on punitive judgments for the criminal acts of parents when those can be balanced in favor of the child’s welfare.
Finally, I would still be interested to hear what Paul’s view is on Trump’s twin deterrent policies and Dobson’s suggestion that the US bar the border to refugees.