Would you be available for discussion with a mugger who openly threatens to assault you?
I don't want to misrepresent myself. I have an ideal about availability that I strive to live up to, but of course I often fail and always will. If I was being mugged, I would almost definitely be too terrified to even put words together, so I literally wouldn't be available to talk. But at least in theory, I would be (or I would like to be), as silly as I'm sure that sounds to many people.
Interesting story that, coincidentally, started on Metafilter: there was a member there who offended pretty much everybody (including me at times).
Metafilter has a sister site called Ask Metafilter. It's a site where you can post questions and community members with the appropriate expertise can attempt to answer them. Lots of questions about computer issues, relationships problems, where to stay when visiting New York, etc. But this one guy -- I'll call him Bill -- kept asking these naive questions like "Do guys become gynecologists just because they're perverts? Aren't they embarrassed about their jobs? Why don't they do something more respectable?" He asked these sorts of questions about once a week, and 90% of the members were sure he was trolling.
I was undecided about that. I certainly thought it was possible he was trolling. But I also knew that some people have lived sheltered lives. Many of his questions (including the one about gynecologists) were questions that I had once. I was probably about twelve when I wondered about stuff like that. Luckily for me, I was a voracious reader with access to lots of books, and very quickly learned how to find answers to most of my questions.
But my policy towards Bill was that if there's a CHANCE he's not a troll, I owe him an answer if I can give it. And I am serious about "owe," even though most people I've talked to about that disagree that it's a requirement.
When I was a kid, what upset me the most was when grownups refused to answer my questions. When I got older, I spent twenty years as a teacher. Maybe because I've never really quit being a teacher (in my mind), I feel that answers are a basic sort of respect that one human owes another. And, yes, I feel that I even owe that respect to people who are not respecting me. I can't control their behavior, but I can control mine. As I said, above, there are limits to what I can take. I'm NOT going to keep talk to someone who is hurling endless abuse at me. But I'll give people a couple of chances.
I know that Stef and others here advise against arguing with assholes and trolls, and I'm not going to say that's bad advice. Most of the time, such arguments go nowhere. But not ALL the time. Here's an illuminating experience I've had multiple times in my life: someone will come at me with both a question and an insult: "You asshole! Why do keep insisting that public schools suck?" What I've found is that if I respond to the "you asshole" part -- if I even acknowledge it -- the conversation is over before it started. SOMETIMES, if I totally ignore that and say, "I think public schools suck, because..." the "you asshole" stuff goes away.
Sometimes it takes two or three rounds. "I knew you were going to say that, you fuckhead! Don't you see that education is a GOOD thing." To which, if I'm able to avoid being defensive, I say, "I agree that education is a good things, but..." As I said, above, SOMETIMES, after a couple of rounds like this, the conversation becomes civil and meaningful. I am not tell YOU that you should put up with "you asshole" and "you fuckhead." I am explaining how I feel I need to live -- or to try to live.
As many have pointed out here, there's no sense in talking to a brick wall. If someone has made it obvious that they're incapable or unwilling to listen to you, then there's no point in talking to them. So please don't take this as me berating anyone here for not going over to Metafilter. I think people's reasons for not doing that make sense.
When I said I was sad about it, I meant that literally. To me, the saddest thing in life is two people ignoring each other. It's a fact of life; it's going to happen; sometimes it has to happen; but it's always going to make me sad. All my life -- all my career choices (teaching, writing, theatre directing) -- are about building bridges. That's who I am. As much as many on this site are passionate about Libertarianism or Atheism, that -- more than those things -- is my passion.
As for Bill, since no one was really answering his questions, I sent him an email that said, "I have my suspicions that you're a troll, but I'm willing to take the risk that you're not. Please feel free to ask me any question you have. If I can possibly answer it, I will." And he did. He started sending me questions almost every day.
Eventually, he "went too far" and got kicked off on Metafilter. I agree with that decision. He said something really personally offensive (and creepy) to another member, and, for that, it made sense to ostracize him. I was quite frank with him about my feelings, but still I continued to answer his questions. I can't tell you how many friends have said I'm nuts to keep corresponding with him. "What do you get out of it?" "Why do you waste your time?" Etc. This also really saddens me, though, again, I understand why people feel that way.
What do I get out of it? Well, Bill's questions are so naive that they often force me to confront core assumptions in my thinking. And I've also noticed that, though it sometimes takes immense patience and repeated efforts on my part, Bill DOES often understand (and even agree) with my points after a while. Which is part of the reason I "waste my time." But mostly I do it because it's part of my core ethics. You are a person with a question; I am a person with an answer; I owe you that answer just as much as I'd owe you food if I have some and you were starving.