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(This is part observation, part suggestion/question and is triggered by a response to my own question here.)

Because a "religious" topic like Buddhism lends itself both to questions looking for (more or less) factual information and questions looking for advice on personal practice, I wonder if it's worth flagging somewhere that when answering a question, the responder should take care to respect the difference. On other Buddhist forums I've seen problems arise fairly often when the two things get mixed up. Guidelines could look something like this:

  1. The best answers deal directly and solely with the question(s) specifically asked in the first place. Take care when "reading into" a question and answering some "deeper" question (that perhaps you think the questioner should have asked). Sometimes such pre-emption (i.e. avoiding first asking "Did you really mean ...?" and having the person reply "Ah, yes! That's a better way of putting it. So what's the answer?") is perfectly acceptable, but care is needed.
  2. Avoid inadvertently invalidating the question, e.g. with answers of the form "That's the wrong question...". Use comments (and down-voting or flagging, where appropriate) to reflect a concern over a question's quality.
  3. Take care when allowing assumptions about the personal intent of the questioner to influence your answer. Internet-based text correspondence is notoriously bad at conveying intent and emotion, so if you think you know, based solely on the text, why someone asked a question -- other than simply wanting to know the answer -- you're probably wrong.
  4. In general, unless you actually are the questioner's teacher, don't assume a teacher's mantle.

Updated

See also Sectarian shout downs should be dealt with

  • Can you add examples of the problems that arise from offering advice vs answering a question. – user70 Jun 24 '14 at 0:14
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    1. If the advice invalidates or undermines the question itself, it can be off-putting, especially to newbies -- in that respect it can act like a mild form of "RTFM". 2. It can cause thread hijacking wherein the OP's question gets ignored in favor of the topic of the advice 3. In a subject area with both an intellectual and practice aspect, unsolicited advice from strangers may simply dilute the quality of an answer. For example, if I was now to advise you that you had made a grammatical error in your request, and that perhaps you should read Strunk & White, it would be inappropriate. – tkp Jun 24 '14 at 0:55
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    If you guys are looking for examples of this discussion one of my own answers generated comments and discussion about this very topic. buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1315/… – Sāmaṇera Jayantha Jun 24 '14 at 23:18
  • @Jayantha, Yeah, I know ;-) – tkp Jun 24 '14 at 23:23
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I agree. I do think Buddhist discussions online have a tendency to attract "there is no spoon"* answers. For example, a better way to say "that is the wrong question" could be "before I answer your question, I must correct this or that premise" or something in this spirit. Some people may like answers in a style of the former ("that is the wrong question") because it creates a sense of "mystery", but personally I find it arrogant, disingenuous, and not encouraging to the person who asked (I'm speaking generally, not about any particular user).

*A reference to the movie "The Matrix", current popular usage can sometimes refer to an "answer" that is an intellectually dishonest "non-answer".

  • What are "there is no spoon" answers? – yuttadhammo Jul 1 '14 at 2:37
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    @yuttadhammo A question of yours I can answer! It is from the move "The Matrix". It has a loose Buddhist undertone. Scene. Sophie is most likely using it to refer to enigmatic answers. – user70 Jul 1 '14 at 7:24
  • @user70 - Thank you, that's exactly what I meant. I have edited my post for clarity. – Sophie C Jul 1 '14 at 13:35
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In general, unless you actually are the questioner's teacher, don't assume a teacher's mantle. - I think that was a great line.

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Your example questions have the same theme: the askers asks about applying perspective A onto perspective B (e.g. 'Comparative religion' questions). They try to understand B from the point of view A. This is good, but it can be seen as comparing apples with oranges.

So by being off-topic (and perhaps highly upvoted), the answers convey an important message: that the askers need to learn more about B by its own view in its own words. Ideally the answerers should know both A and B, but those who only know about B may also give valuable information, and thus should be allowed to present it. (And by definition, the only answers they can provide are about B, which, by definition, is off-topic.)

As the off-topic answers can be seen as reminders the askers to respect B, I think the best approach should be asking the answerers to put a disclaimer in their answers. The mods may want to educate the users about this, so that both the askers and the answerers don't feel that the other side missing and passing their points.

Although the askers want to understand B from perspective A, it is much better if they ask about A from perspective B.


See also: Moderating answers which don't answer the question?

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