Reasonable Discussion

When I went to Bible college, I learned two things about engaging in debate which struck me as very wise, and have stuck with me since. While I learned them in the context of theology, I’d argue that they apply universally.

The first is that you become properly qualified to critique someone’s position only when you can summarize it in a way which would have that person, were they looking over your shoulder as you write, saying “yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say”. Ideally, you need to understand their position and rationale for holding it as well as, or even better, than they do themselves. Being able to summarize it well before interacting with it is proof that you have done the work to do this. It will not only make your arguments better, but it will make it much more likely that those who disagree with you might consider and even accept them. Anyone can attack a straw man; however, doing so may lead to cheers from your own side, but is unlikely to win any converts. Attacking straw men is always much easier than interacting with people’s actual nuanced positions and therefore might be said to be a form of virtue signalling.

The second is that you should always engage with a person’s strongest arguments and points, not their weakest ones. If someone writes a piece where 50% of the arguments are, in your view, so weak that they barely require refutation, then you can either refute them anyway, or you can engage with their better arguments and points. We were strongly encouraged to do the latter, for much the same reasons. Refuting bad arguments is much easier than refuting better arguments, but is far less likely to convince anyone who holds the opposing view.

In the context of recent Internet debates, this Medium post was recommended to me as “excellent”. However, it is hard to agree with this assessment given that the first paragraph spectacularly fails the first of the two above tests. (I’d argue much of the rest of the post does as well, but the first paragraph is the clearest example.) And I’d say most of the Internet has joined in that failure, including, shamefully, many reporters who should be able to do better. A rather insightful Twitter commenter (yes, I know, wow) noted that the debate around this document had mostly been a complete waste of time as it involved a version of it which existed only in the imagination of the debaters. I’ve certainly seen many instances where people have claimed the document says things it either does not say, or even explicitly denies.

As for the second test, the difficulty is that the Internet hate machine’s lack of nuance means that if you pull out one or two points and say “these are worthy of further discussion”, it is assumed that you are therefore a wholehearted supporter of everything written, and are treated accordingly. This is not how debate works in a sane society. Still, in ever-present hope that this won’t happen, I think the following two parts of the memo deserve careful consideration:

Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity and political orientation is one of the most fundamental and significant ways in which people view things differently. In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility. We should empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves. Alienating conservatives is … non-inclusive.

Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people.

Note for the hard of thinking: this post in no way endorses any bits of the memo I did not quote, and the bits I did quote I endorse only so far as to say that they deserve careful consideration.