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.

4 thoughts on “Reasonable Discussion

  1. Your method of discourse only works when you are directly speaking to the person and trying to change their mind. It’s sound advice that I’m definitely going to try in the future, but it is not applicable here.

    The purpose of refuting the memo in the article you criticize and ones like it is to debunk garbage engineering, garbage use of raw science, and faulty reasoning to the general public, not to the author.

    In addition, the two parts of the memo you’ve highlighted are several logical leaps away from the conclusions that the memo makes. Whether or not conservatives feel closeted in a progressive-dominated workplace has little to do with whether or not diversity training is effective or costly, so debating that point is fairly useless. A far better point would be addressing the assertion that aiming for diversity somehow harms Google end goal.

    • I don’t think this method only works when directly speaking to the person. If you are proclaiming your personal response to their views, as e.g. the article linked above does, I think it very much applies. Anyone who thinks “we should stop trying to make it possible for women to be engineers, it’s just not worth it” is a summary of what James Damore was trying to say really isn’t reading at all carefully, and their response should be given appropriately little weight.

      Of the two points I raise, the first is highly relevant given that he’s been fired, and that this makes it unlikely that a reasonable debate about whether e.g. “diversity training is effective or costly” is going to happen because no-one will want to argue the view that it’s ineffective (or merely, could be improved) for fear of suffering the same fate. The second is relevant because a lack of recognition of that bias is going to make any discussions on these topics very difficult.

      • “Anyone who thinks “we should stop trying to make it possible for women to be engineers, it’s just not worth it” is a summary of what James Damore was trying to say really isn’t reading at all carefully, and their response should be given appropriately little weight.”

        In that case, you should give my arguments little weight because that’s exactly what he’s saying. He spends 9 of the pages talking about women, not about discourse between politically left and right leaning members of Google. He has diagrams and charts that are all about men vs woman. His footnotes are 90% about men and women.

        The fact that you disagree with the generally accepted interpretation of this memo doesn’t make you wrong, but does put the burden of evidence on you. You are making a bold claim.

        ” the first is highly relevant given that he’s been fired”

        Um. No. Did you actually read my point? It is not relevant *to the argument he is making in his memo.* What happens afterward is a separate debate.

        “The second is relevant because a lack of recognition of that bias is going to make any discussions on these topics very difficult.”

        Again, not the point of the memo. In debate, in rhetoric, in persuasive writing, you do not spend 90% of the text on topic A and then claim that your main point is topic B.

        If he wanted to to talk about squelching discussion, he would’ve cited a single study on discourse in the workplace instead of 15 on biological differences between men and women.

        You are biased.

        • “Talking about women” != “we should stop trying to make it possible for women to be engineers, it’s just not worth it”. Yes, he talks a lot about men and women, and diversity, and how he thinks diversity should be done. Of course. But that sentence is still a travesty of a summary of his point. Let’s have an actual quote:

          Below I’ll … suggest ways to … increase women’s representation in tech and without resorting to discrimination.

          How can a document with those words in it possibly be summarised using the summary above? You may think his reasoning is wrong, and/or his science is dodgy, and/or his ideas wouldn’t work – fine. Think that. But that’s no excuse for straw-manning him. There will never be a reasonable debate – on any subject – if one side persists in misrepresenting the other. That’s my point here, and it’s independent of who’s right and who’s wrong, and how wrong they are.

          You are biased.

          Of course. We all are. That’s another point he makes, incidentally.

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