A Public Apology to Joshua Foust, and a Note on Collegiality

Joshua Foust feels that I went over the top in my recent debate against him. The purpose of this post is to explain the course of our debate, offer him an apology publicly, and to make a broader point about collegiality in the public sphere.

With respect to our debate, there are two modes that I fall into when having a disagreement with someone whom I like and respect: collegial disagreement, and argument for sport. (There are other modes for people I don’t like or don’t respect, but Foust is someone whom I both like and respect.) Argument for sport is something I did for six years during my time in competitive policy debate in both high school and college, and I was good at it. Foust is also good at the art of argument, something that is evident from C.J. Chivers’s review of Foust’s book, or Foust’s utter demolition of the Afghanistan Study Group’s 2010 report. Foust’s skill at argument and intellectual acumen are why I traditionally enjoy our debates. One thing I tried to make clear in my first post in this debate is that it seemed that Foust and I were self-consciously operating in the realm of arguing with each other for sport. To quote a portion that outlines the course of our Twitter interactions that ultimately produced this debate (note that I shortened this from the original for the sake of brevity):

Over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust – my friend and frequent sparring partner – about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov. Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing…. When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for.

The first post was full of theatrics, written in the style of a pro wrestler sitting at a keyboard and weighing in on national security issues. Though my second entry in this debate featured less bombast, it was — as Foust correctly points out — written in an adversarial tone. That was because, as stated above, to me we were arguing for sport: though this is an awfully lame analogy for two thirty-somethings arguing with each other from behind computer screens, we were gladiators in an arena. But, in fact, it would have been far preferable if I dealt with him in a collegial manner rather than in the adversarial/argument-for-sport mode that I was locked into. The simple fact is that I misread the nature of the interaction. I don’t apologize for the arguments I made, which I stand behind, but this is a determined example of how one’s tone can, to a debating “adversary,” utterly overwhelm the legitimate arguments made. So let me conclude this apology by saying again that I respect Foust’s intellect and domain expertise; and indeed, would not have chosen to enter into this debate with him if I didn’t feel that way.

For me, the overarching lesson is that it’s best to deal with people whom I have a positive opinion of an entirely collegial manner, rather than in the manner of arguing for sport — because it is too easy for “argument for sport” to descend into the appearance of the personal, even if that’s not what I intended. (The one exception moving forward will be chap hop twitterfights.)

I have made it a point to argue in favor of collegiality in the past, such as in this Q&A I did with Andrew Exum back in September that got a bit of attention. Moving beyond the context of this spat with Foust, and the way in which I was arguing for sport when I should have just been dialoguing with him as a colleague, we tend to be a public sphere full of people who argue for sport — or, worse, people who rabidly insult those they disagree with, as though it were a sport. This is not a healthy thing; and I should not have contributed to that dynamic, even if it was not my intention to do so.

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