Edited excerpt from points I made in a discussion about the Iran debate:
One of the things we learned from building Seeking Alpha’s successful comment community was which behaviors hindered productive debate and caused animosity. One of the most common is: Ascribing negative motives to someone you disagree with.
When you ascribe negative motives to your opponent, what you mean is: “You’re only saying this because you’re biased, not because you really believe it. So if I can reveal your motives to everyone engaged in this debate, I don’t need to address any of the substantive points you made.”
That, of course, is wrong: even if someone is biased, their reasoning might be right. Ascribing motives is therefore a cowardly way to avoid having to address the points your opponent made.
The ascription of motives to an opponent is also, in most cases, highly questionable, because it’s usually impossible to verify someone’s motives unless they state them explicitly. Once people start ascribing motives to their opponents, the debate becomes an unwinnable mud-slinging match, where each side throws allegations about motives at the other side which can’t be proved or disproved. That’s a sure recipe for acrimony and polarization. Even more troll-like is to ascribe motives to someone which contradict what they themselves have explicitly stated are their motives.
Ascribing motives to people in a debate is therefore a polarizing distraction from the real issues. So if you care about an issue, and you’re discussing it with other people, you should avoid ascribing motives to people you disagree with, or responding to comments by other people who ascribe motives to those they disagree with.
(1) Question for moderators of comment communities: Is ascribing motives to other people sufficiently troll-like to warrant blocking those who do it consistently?
(2) Cf. Should websites shut down comments?