As James Croft says in his post, Responsible Reading, “Effective communication is not entirely the responsibility of an author or speaker: the people reading a work, or in the audience of a talk, also have responsibilities they must meet if the encounter is going to be optimally fruitful.”
Based on that idea, I want to expand on my discussion of steelmanning and talk about all the different habits we can develop so that we become effective readers or listeners when we’re responding to someone else’s arguments. That will be one series of posts, and then I will write several from the point of view of putting forth our own arguments. Let’s begin!
Above all else, a productive interaction requires the receptive party to Be Charitable. Charitability may become my broken record, now. But I don’t mind, because it feels incredibly important. Everyone who argues with others knows that it feels awful to have someone assume the worst of our positions, to not take them seriously, or to misunderstand them entirely.
“You support lowering the minimum wage? Why do you hate poor people?”
“You’re a Catholic? So you don’t mind child abuse.”
“You’re a liberal? Why do you like killing babies?”
“You’re an atheist? Why do you like eating babies?”
While occasionally entertaining, this kind of thing can make the entire work of arguing seem useless. If we want to make public discourse better, we have to get into the habit of not doing the same sort of thing to others. We have to assess all the possibilities for what someone might have meant, and not just assume the worst ones. We have to make sure to deal with what our opponent is actually saying, or might actually mean. When we don’t address someone’s real arguments, our counterarguments entirely miss the mark, since they’re attacking arguments that haven’t been brought up, and we convince neither our conversation partner nor anyone else watching. In such a case, we fail to do our job of defeating incorrect ideas.
The best counterarguments not only address arguments that are actually on the table, but also come from a place of empathetic epistemology. I’ve always described it as “mind-mapping,” that work we do to try to understand why our opponents believe and why. It’s about imagining what it feels like to believe what others believe from the inside. It means having a sense of what it would be like to have another worldview, where all rational connections spring from certain premises you may not share and all evidence is filtered through it. It requires understanding why that worldview is emotionally compelling in the first place, how it claims to “make sense.” And mostly this understanding comes out of taking arguments seriously and doing good research. The people who are really good at it are able to make entire arguments from another point of view. It’s hard work, but without it, we’re likely to miss others’ true beliefs, and thereby miss a chance to truly and properly engage.
If we’re not charitable, discussion tends not to get very far. As so many of us have experienced, when people feel that their true arguments are being ignored, they tend to shut down and get angry. The argument becomes heated and unproductive, and then no one gains anything of value. Even if you are a generally charitable person, it’s worth making an extra effort to make sure that you’re responding conscientiously to an argument you don’t like or don’t agree with, so that everyone can learn from each other. How else will we make sure that we know more about the world today that we knew yesterday?
Example (added later): N.T. Wright, a prominent Christian theologian, has said that, “The guillotine and the gas chamber are two of secular modernism’s most potent and revealing symbols,” the implication being that secularism is somewhat responsible for Hitler and his genocide. I personally find this to be a horrendous and cheap rhetorical point, a clear case of Godwin’s Law in action. Holocaust appropriation is immensely frustrating, and no more so than when Christians, historically not friends of the Jews, appropriate it for the purpose of attacking atheists, another minority religious group. And while that interpretation might end up being right, I was wrong when I accounted for no other possibilities. I was set straight by a dear friend, who pointed out the following: that if historically secularism did indeed lead to moral atrocities, then Wright had a responsibility to say so; that a certain understanding of moral law does preclude secular morality from having any weight; and that such views needed to be allowed in the public discourse. Agree with him or not (and I’m not sure I do), he was right that I hadn’t tried to understand the situation from Wright’s philosophical point of view or even considered alternate interpretations (less awful ones, that is) of what he’d said. In order to demonstrate that my opinion was correct, I had to address other possibilities, and attempt to look at them through the eyes of a different worldview. Only then could I really address what was said with due rigor and intellectual honesty.