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.

10 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.

          • Hi Gerv,
            I confess the first time I read your comment I was inclined to agree with you. I read the Medium article, and then the “10 page screed” as it was called, and was surprised to find it remarkably reasonable, dispassionate and “balanced”. I disagreed with Damore’s conclusions, but was inclined to be sympathetic, especially as he so eloquently puts it, “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. “. And conservatives have been banging the drum against “positive discrimination” or affirmative action for a long time now – including Black American conservatives. So much so that it feels like a “core” Conservative belief. So I was initially inclined to say “Well, I respect his opinion, even while I disagree with it. Not sure what the fuss is about”.

            However, Jordan Lee makes a valuable critique of your point “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”. Jordan is right that it doesn’t apply in all circumstances – for example, if somebody is using “motivated reasoning”, or you have reason to suspect bad faith. Since you learned this point in Bible school, let’s give a biblical example:
            Suppose King Saul writes in the Israelite Times, criticising David and appealing for the people not to follow him. “I mean David no harm,” he writes, “but the people must stop following him! His adventures in Gath are counter-productive and he should return to serve in my army!”. Would there be much point in one of David’s supporters writing careful rebuttals of each point? No, Saul intends to kill David! But declaring the truth would result only in an angry denial – Saul is probably in denial even to himself about his intentions.
            Similarly, having re-read Damore’s text in the light of various critiques, I have to say he intends to kill Google’s diversity programs (particularly in the light of the fact that Google isn’t some egalitarian utopia, with a strict 50% male, 50% female split – more like a 70-30 split). He argues that men should be allowed to join the all-female diversity programs, which would ruin them in the same way that women’s tennis would be ruined if men joined. I think this Economist op-ed is pretty good https://www.economist.com/news/international/21726276-last-week-newspaper-said-alphabets-boss-should-write-detailed-ringing-rebuttal (while, yes, Gerv it does break your rule again, and sorry if you get blocked by their paywall!). This one by a female coder goes a long way to explaining why people got so angry about Damore’s writings: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/8/11/16130452/google-memo-women-tech-biology-sexism
            This was eye-opening to me – it helped me see how actually in the first reading I got carried along by Damore and gave him far too much benefit of the doubt.
            Hopefully these 2 articles will aid your understanding further, Gerv?
            As for me, I need to recognise my weakness in empathising with women sometimes! If I had a better grasp of how women perceive the world (not due to biological, but social differences!) then I would have understood on first reading why Damore’s memo was considered so offensive to so many.

            A final note – people get riled up when somebody gets ostracized or fired for “ideological” reasons. Yet, as an employee, Damore couldn’t go against corporate policy so strongly and not experience negative consequences. While there is freedom of discussion on some subjects, in practise discussion is limited in a corporate environment – this isn’t “authoritarian” or “extremist” as he claims, but simply enforcing rules that everyone has to follow in order to work effectively in a team. If somebody wants full freedom of expression, they need to quit their corporation and go work for some activist group or something… this feels to me like just a general squeamishness about somebody getting punished (although it’s not helped by the fact many corporations claim to be “open to free discussion”). But the same punishment would be dished out if he disclosed a trade secret, the contents of a private meeting at Google, or slandered a colleague. When you join a corporation like Google, you must abide by their policies even when you disagree with them, otherwise they will show you the door.

            • OK, so this is interesting. It seems perhaps Damone wasn’t as culpable as it first seems. *IF* as he claims his memo was originally written in response to an irritating diversity training class he attended, and was intended only for use in private discussions. Frankly though, in this day and age, anything slightly controversial could go viral. If he wanted to avoid upset and be a “model” employee, he should have kept his memo private and encrypted, and only shared in public conversation. I suspect however he was always too much of a “free spirit” to do that! Also, that Economist article nailed it with the big “BUT” problem – but rather ironically 2 memo responses to Damone’s memo also fall foul of the negating “BUT”:

              “questioning our assumptions and sharing different perspectives,” is an important part of Google’s culture, *but* stereotypes and harmful assumptions are not. (Balogh’s memo – emphasis added)

              “we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, … *However*, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line” (Pichai’s memo, emphasis added)
              See http://heavy.com/tech/2017/08/james-damore-google-diversity-memo/

              The bottom line is, had Damone’s memo not gone viral, none of this conversation would be taking place and it wouldn’t matter. But as it went viral, managers and HR executives were bombarded by correspondence and had to take action. At that point, Damone became more of a liability than an asset to Google, and regardless of the morality or ethics of the situation, he had to go. Big tip: if you want to be a long-lasting employee, don’t ever go viral for the wrong reasons

              • Your final paragraph sums up pretty well what happened, and I would simply say that the outcome was not just. “Regardless of the morality or ethics of the situation” is not a way anyone should operate. It’s not his fault someone leaked his memo, and Google was cowardly in collaborating with mob justice.

                • Hi Gerv, just to quickly point out – corporations can’t exhibit virtue or vice as they lack personal agency. I’m sure what you meant to say was that Damone’s reports and HR managers were “cowardly”, as Google itself can’t be good/evil/cowardly. However, I would argue they were just doing their jobs – controversy about Damone doesn’t serve Google’s bottom line. agenda or corporate culture well.

                  However, I want to make a more interesting point – you would probably argue I’ve been “skewered”! Because I just read about Bergdof, fired from l’Oreal for a very similar offense: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lor%C3%A9al-fires-its-first-trans-model-after-she-called-out-white-americas-racism_us_59a98190e4b0354e4409ec60 . I would argue in this case Bergdoff should keep her job, and executives at l’Oreal should have more courage. So why should Damone lose his job, while Bergdoff should keep hers? Fairly straightforward: l’Oreal, like Google, has proclaimed diversity and anti-racism/anti-sexism etc as a key corporate value. Bergoff’s rant, while offensive (she certainly didn’t maintain Damone’s polite tone!), did not contradict l’Oreal’s values. And to give in to cries of ant-white “racism” against her is to give way to white supremacists and racists. I think it’s a tough distinction for people to understand though, so arguably more consistent is either ethical position (1) businesses should be free to fire anyone for any fair reason, such as making statements which unintentionally generate controversy (fire both Damone and Bergoff) or (2) businesses should allow employees to court controversy (“go viral”), provided they never use insulting or demeaning language against others, even when it harms their bottom line (hold on to both Damone and Bergoff, despite the PR nightmare such people become). Which ethical position would you prefer, Gerv?

                  • I think there’s a moral problem if you think you can switch “white” for “black” in an offensive statement and it suddenly become acceptable. If the rightness of someone’s statements, or their victim status, or the acceptability of being rude about them depends on their colour and not on the circumstances, then that’s the very definition of racism.

                    I also think there’s a difference between statements intended to be public (on Twitter) and statements intended to be private (made on an internal company message board). I also think tone is important – I don’t think Damone’s statements were insulting or demeaning. We may, of course, disagree on that.

                    So I don’t think the two situations are comparable in the way your question assumes.

  2. Pingback: Accepting Inconsistency | Hacking for Christ