This is one of my core values.

It’s a phrase taken from Football [^1] and means “debate the idea, not the person.”

On one level, this is a reminder not to fall down to ad hominem attacks, but it goes beyond that too. When we look at bad behaviour, we should consider the system that created the issue as well as calling out the behaviour, not the person.

This is one of the things we try as parents.

We don’t say “you’re being mean” or “you’re silly”, but “it’s not nice to…”. Of course, the other person might not notice the difference, particularly over topics their identities are tied to. But at least this option allows people to change.

When we play the ball, we have the option to discuss the issue, not ourselves.

Exceptions: abusers and repeat perpetrators

Of course, sometimes the behaviour needs to be specifically called out.

When someone abuses someone else, commits a crime or a great injustice, they need to be called out. Even in these situations, it’s still good to focus on the actions and showing how they are wrong rather than the person who perpetrated them. After all, some people can rush to defend an obvious corrupt government official just because he happens to be in their party affiliation.

Individuals as emblems of a system

A while back there was a professor who made a joke to point out the obvious discrimination against women in the sciences. It was clear satire to most of the attendees of the conference. One attendee, a journalist then denounced the professor on Twitter leading to his eventual dismissal. When the transcripts came out that showed his was joking and pointing to the ironies in his own life, many still attacked him.

He was an emblem of the problem.

That’s a dangerous stance. When we start to attack someone rather than the actions, we can infuse their actions with all sort of other beliefs. “They might not have said X, but this is exactly the kind of thing that leads to X.” So we’d had just better assume they believe or do X anyway.


It’s okay to point out the slippery slope or common beliefs but that’s why we need to attack the broader issues (radicalisation, sexisim in science) rather than creating scapegoats to sacrifice.

While it might clean us of our sins, it doesn’t actually address the real problems.

[1]: sorry, Americans. “Soccer”. And yes, I know it was originally Associate football and widely called soccer in the UK till the early 90s. You know who doesn’t care, the rest of the world now.)