Saving the Steelman


Steelmanning is addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented, but Ozy points out that in practice, it doesn’t work as well as intended. Perhaps Alice doesn’t understand Bob’s argument as well as she thinks she does, and ends up with a steelman that is, in fact, Bob’s original argument (I haven’t seen this myself). Or, and I have seen this, Bob comes up with the version of Alice’s argument that makes most sense to him, based on his premises and worldviews. But that’s still pretty valuable! It’s the skill of translating an argument from one basis to another, one worldview to another. Of course, not everything will translate, but it’s great if people push themselves to see if their premises allow them to accept an argument instead of just rejecting any argument built on different assumptions.

From Ozy’s comment section:

People don’t have to be stupid to be wrong, nor (and this is the heart of steelmanning) do they have to start with the same premises to come up with a worthwhile argument, even if it’s not great as presented.

While that’s a good personal habit, though, it might not be particularly useful in conversation, and neither is saying “I hear your argument. Here’s a better one.” All of that has some significant probability of conveying condescension.

Perhaps “real steelmanning is being able to put other people’s viewpoints in words they themselves find more compelling than their own arguments”, and that certainly sounds great. It’s a restatement of Rapoport’s first rule:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

As Ozy says, that’s hard and rare in conversation. And where Luke Muelhauser is seeing it is in papers written not from one thinker to another, but written by each to a general audience. So I think we’re eliding a set of important differences.

As always, things depend on context and on your goals.

  • Are you interested primarily in truth-seeking or a compassionate and full understanding of your interlocutor’s position?
  • Do you want to improve your model of the world or have access to new ones?
  • Do you want to improve your hedgehog skills or your fox skills?
  •  Are you in a conversation with the person you’re steelmanning or thinking about something you’ve read or heard or explaining something you’ve read or heard to a third party?
  • Are you interested in the best argument for a position from *your* perspective or *their* perspective?

There’s a flowchart waiting to be made.

IF you want to understand what an argument feels like from the inside, and appreciate the beauty and special-ness of someone’s position, and want to be able to engage really compassionately – whether in active conversation or in explaining a view to someone else – the Ideological Turing Test is for you. Do you really know what it’s like to believe that fetuses are morally equivalent to people? To believe that AI Risk is existentially important? To want to vote for Donald Trump? To really like Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and not be voting for her as a lesser evil?

I agree with Jonathan Nathan that anyone explaining a philosophical or religious position to someone for the first time, or who is in a position of the teacher, ought to present those positions as genuinely compelling, and the ITT can help. (Though it’s worth noting that in conveying that a position is actually plausible, affect and pathos may be as or more important than content) .(Also, you can absolutely convey the wonder of a belief from the outside, with lots of appreciative language – “The ritual observances of Orthodox Judaism have a beauty stemming from their long history”, but that may not make it sound plausible).

For your own thinking, ITT gives the chance to expand your thinking, have access to more models and generate new hypotheses, but it’s probably more important for your compassion, and the way it gives you a sense of what it’s like to think like someone else. It is a very good thing to understand where others are coming from, but it is also a good thing to not assume that the most understanding view is the correct one. ITT is less truth-seeking, more understanding-seeking. It’s about the value of other people’s beliefs and thought patterns, even if they’re not correct or true.

IF you hear an argument you think is wrong, but you don’t want to discount the possibility of the position being true, or there being value somewhere in the argumentation, steelmanning is your choice.

From Eliezer Yudkowsky’s facebook:

“Let me try to imagine a smarter version of this stupid position” is when you’ve been exposed to the Deepak Chopra version of quantum mechanics, and you don’t know if it’s the real version, or what a smart person might really think of the issue. It’s what you do when you don’t want to be that easily manipulated sucker who can be pushed into believing X by the manipulator making up a flawed argument for not-X that they can congratulate themselves on skeptically being smarter than. It’s not what you do in a respectful conversation.

From Ozy’s comment section:

tl;dr: IMHO, “steelmanning” is not great if you’re interested in why a particular person believes something. However, it is actually pretty great to test one’s own preconceptions, and to collect strong arguments when you’re interested in the underlying question.

Worth noting that in this case, you can work on creating or constructing better arguments yourself, either from your own position or from someone else’s (so closer to ITT), OR you can simply be charitable (I’ve often wondered how charity and steelmanning intersect) and assume better arguments exist, and then go find them. As Ozy says, “You don’t have to make up what your opponents believe! As it happens, you have many smart opponents!” Both are valuable. The former pushes you to think in new ways, to understand different hypotheses and think critically about the causal and logical consequences of premises. If you are very good at this, you might come up with an argument you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. The latter inculcates more respect for the people who disagree with you and the body of knowledge and thought they’ve already created, and is likely to lead to a more developed understanding of that corpus, which will probably include arguments you would never have thought of. Both protect you from the inoculation effect.

More importantly, both push you to be a better and deeper thinker. Charity gives you an understanding of others’ thoughts and a respect and appreciation for them, but the bulk of the value is for yourself, and your own truth-seeking as you sort through countless arguments and ideas. If you start with different premises, you might make other people’s arguments better, but mostly this is about what makes the most sense to you, and discovering the most truthful and valuable insights in the midst of noise.

IF you thought, as I claimed originally, that this was all a way to have better conversations and you’re wondering where it’s all gone wrong, perhaps you are seeking collaborative conversations. If you’re finding that your conversations are mostly arguments rather than discussions, all the charity and steelmanning and ITT-ing in the world might not help you (though I’ve found that being really nice and reasonable sometimes seriously de-escalates a situation). It depends also on how willing your interlocutor is to do the same kind of things, and if the two (or more) of you are searching for truth and understanding together, many magical things can happen. You can explain your best understanding of their position from both your and their perspective, and they can update or correct you. They can supply evidence that you didn’t know that helps your argument. You can “double-crux” , a thing I just learned about at EA Global that CFAR is teaching. You can be honest about what you’re not sure about, and trust that no one will take it as an opportunity to gloat for points. You can point out places you agree and together figure out the most productive avenues of discourse. You can ask what people know and why they think they know it. This is probably the best way to get yourself to a point where you can steelman even within conversations. It’s both truth-seeking and understanding-seeking, fox-ish and hedgehog-ish, and if I’m making it sound like the best thing ever, that’s because I think it is.

There are many reasons to have less fun and less compassionate and less productive and less truth-finding conversations than these, because we live in an imperfect world. But if you can surround yourself with people who will do this with you, hold on tight.


Rational Relationships: Video and Thoughts

I was very lucky to be an invited panelist for FTBCon 3’s panel: “How Does Our Skepticism Influence our Romantic or Non-Romantic Relationships?” with Wesley Fenza, Miri Mogilevsky and Franklin Veaux.

Wesley did a great job moderating, framing the discussion as a jaunt through several cognitive biases and how they affect our relationships and relationship choices. Enjoy!

Additional thoughts:

  • We talked a lot about how cognitive bias affects our choices to get in or stay in relationships at the beginning, and towards the second half talked more about cognitive bias *in* relationships, but I think you can apply all of them to both. For instance, if you’re trying something new with a partner, especially if it’s an attempt to improve the relationship, it’s easy to be subject to the sunk cost fallacy, where you’ve already tried this thing for so long you might as well keep going. I also like the idea of a partner as someone you can bail out with, where it’s safe to say “this isn’t working, let’s quit”
  • As has been said before (and Miri said in the panel), many of these biases are or can be adaptive in interesting ways.
    • Just as we are happier when we have a slightly inflated sense of our worth or value, I’d imagine we are happier when we let the halo effect work its magic, letting us overlook unimportant flaws in our partners and keeping the relationship on happy ground.
    • If you’ve invested time and effort into a relationship, it’s true that that cost has already been spent, no matter what happens now, but it means that you also have a relationship “for free”, as it were, since you’ve already paid the cost, and that really can be better than investing all of that again. It’s a framing I find helpful – for instance, if you paid 20,000 for the first year of college and you’re deciding where to go, it’s true that that money is gone, but now your choice is between a free year of college or doing something else, which matters.
    • I brought up the idea that the scarcity model vs the abundance model of love might just be an empirical question for some people. Nonconventionally attractive people with unusual kinks or very specific attractions might genuinely have a lot of trouble finding people. But I do want to emphasize that while as a thought experiment that’s true, it’s probably true for a vanishingly small proportion of the population, and Franklin was probably right that a more optimistic approach will, in and of itself lead to better outcomes.
    • I really like thinking of things like this – what are other ways cognitive biases can be adaptive in relationships?

For me the most important takeaways were:

  • The idea of a game-changing relationship that raises the bar for all future ones is both nerdy/rationalist and really heart-warming
  • Not a new idea, but one worth repeating – if you think it would be the worst thing in the world to not be with your current partner, you are probably wrong. You would probably be ok, and everything would probably work out.

Your thoughts? What would you have said if you were on the panel?

Huzzah Better Arguing!

The atheist community has seen its share of controversy and Big Issues and Deep Rifts. Every week, it seems, some event, from the smallest comment on a facebook thread to a public address at a major conference, sparks an internet conflagration, spawning tweets, blog posts and facebooks statuses galore, and further entrenching the “sides” we keep seeing over and over again. As Cliff says (though about something else), “It’s bizarre and disturbing the way an issue becomes a Designated Controversy,” and I agree. It’s sad to me to see the same blowups and the same arguments, when I want so much for us to move forward and to engage more productively with each other.

But sometimes, things don’t go wrong. Sometimes, people react and respond reasonably and thoughtfully to each other. Sometimes, people argue and the internet doesn’t explode. And since the internet is a volatile substance and charitable argumentation can be incredibly difficult, I think we all ought to be honoring and praising the people involved when Things Go Well.

So, Richard Dawkins and Miri Mogilevsky: really, really well done.

It all started when Richard Dawkins went to twitter to discuss the British public shooting and in the ensuing conversation, got called an “insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers.”

The conversation then turned to what racism and sexism are, whether they can be said to happen to white people and men and how important definitions are. Obviously, this is a topic that incites a lot of anger and strong opinions, and all of these were easily findable in the twitter discussion that emerged. (Though I must say, from what I can tell, the tweets that flew back and forth where rather more restrained than they might have been, and all those responsible for that deserve praise.)

Miri observed this minor brouhaha, and as a blogger, decided to blog about it, resulting in the great post On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism. This post went over what had happened and then gave an analysis which, while richly and thoroughly critical of Dawkins, was compassionate and thoughtful. Here are some of the things I think she did well:

“Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light.”

  • She engaged with Dawkins’ understanding of the word racism and instead of dismissing it, explains why she thinks it’s not useful (and by the way, arguing that certain definitions are more useful than others rather than more right than others is infinitely more productive).

“It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people…But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power.”

“As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals…Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.”

These tactics and writing approaches are wonderful. They are thoughtful, productive and charitable, and yet they remove none of the critical bite that makes up the backbone of this piece. I think I can say that even someone who started out being fairly sympathetic to Dawkins could have read the piece and taken the criticism to heart, without immediately feeling defensive or attacked. In fact, I happen to know someone did. Who was this mysterious person sympathetic to Dawkins’ position?

Richard Dawkins himself.

That’s right. Richard Dawkins commented a blog disagreeing with the author and everything didn’t go wrong! (Those of you familiar with some atheist movement history will likely be quite surprised) In fact, he was pretty damn reasonable. You can see the full text of what he said here, but again, I’d like to point out some of the important aspects of his comment.

(6). Where annoyance spilled over into outright pain was the implication that, because I felt strongly about (1), (2), (3) etc, this must make ME a racist. That pissed me off royally and actually hurt. Indeed I find it all but unforgivable.

People tend to become angry when called racists, which I’ve talked about before. I don’t think it’s a very good strategy. Again, pretty understandable, and again, it gives us important information.

  • He explained why he was bothered by others refusing to engage with his definitions and usage of language, and clarified his position on dictionary definitions.

(3). Because, for brevity, I quoted a dictionary, simply to show that the sociological technical term was not universally agreed, I was annoyed that people gave vent to a sort of anti-dictionary prejudice, even calling dictionaries a tool of white, male oppression (reminiscent of a famous feminist who called Newton’s Principia a “rape manual”)! Actually my feeling is that whether or not we use the DICTIONARY definition of a word is less important than making sure we use the SAME definition as each other…But I was accused of a kind of naive dictionary worship, which was grossly unfair.

Now, no one has to agree with Dawkins here, or even be more sympathetic to his position. I think the comment after his gives very good rebuttals to most of his points. But I do think, no matter our opinions on the content, that we have to admit that Dawkins was being restrained and reasonable, and given how much he was being attacked (even rightfully!), it was extremely commendable of him to do so. As a result, there hasn’t been a blowup! I imagine Miri’s comment thread is a little ridiculous, but I haven’t heard anything about loafergate, or Mirigate, or elevatorgate II. And that is thanks to Dawkins being reasonable here.

But why was he able to be reasonable? I am pretty sure that he would not have been nearly so restrained (even given that he was likely doing damage control) if Miri’s post hadn’t been so wonderfully thoughtful.

What we see here is a story of success. We see people who disagree about the values and facts of a case, who are criticizing and rebutting each other, who nonetheless made thoughtful, reasonable points, engaged in good faith and a result were able to turn what could have been a Big Fat Controversy into an everyday disagreement. That’s a testament to civility, and it’s also a testament to Miri and Professor Dawkins, who kept their cool and made the internet, and the atheist movement, a nicer place to be.

The Privilege of Charity, Part II

Having ventured into the question of privilege and how it relates to the approach I’ve been putting forward (I really need a pithy name for it; any suggestions?) from one direction, I need to tackle it from the other, more interesting one: Is charity too much to ask?

Is it akin to this comic, where we ask everyone to do the same thing, to practice due diligence in argumentation, but the request is still ludicrously unfair because of the differential abilities of the people involved? Is it true that marginalized people cannot be expected to be charitable to people who intentionally or accidentally use harmful words or convey harmful ideas?

A commenter in an atheism plus thread about this excellent piece on how privileged folks respond to the world being changed around them expressed it in this way,

“For lack of better wording, the parts of me that are oppressed just sighed a bit. It’s a piece that touches on tone, even if it’s not 100% about it. There are days when I can handle my tone, and days when that just is not going to happen. There are days when I can hand out some sympathy and understanding for a person who is clearly just trying to grasp it all. And there are days when I just want to be surrounded by people who already get it, and aren’t asking anything of me.”

This commenter is expressing a sentiment about ability; they simply cannot always be charitable, and so it is ridiculous to expect it of them. I am entirely sympathetic to this. It is hard to talk to people who are long inferential distances away from you, or who are ignorant or apathetic to issues important to you, or who are perhaps being intentionally cruel. It is incredibly tempting to “smack down” the offenders with the wittiest, snarkiest, most “burn” inducing response you can think of, or perhaps tell them exactly how bigoted and awful they are, or any number of other approachesI’ve been arguing against. I understand and agree. I experience that desire myself on a regular basis.

In such instances, charity is indeed, like so many other things, easier for the privileged. People who are privileged have an easier time being emotionally distant enough to not feel overwhelmed by anger, sadness or frustration. People who are privileged don’t have to be triggered, or fear for their life or safety as a result of certain conversations. People who are privileged are less personally invested in the outcome of arguments.

But if you believe the claims Dan Fincke and I have been making, then charity and diligence are both of ethical and strategic importance, whether or not they are privileged pursuits. Being wealthy is a privilege, too, for instance, and that doesn’t change the fact that money is helpful in achieving certain goals, including social justice ones. Wealth being a privilege doesn’t mean that SJ-oriented groups shouldn’t try to raise money. In the same way, even if charity is, in this sense, a privilege, we have to do it anyway. If we are going to argue, we must do it properly. So my answer is no, charity is not too much to ask.

But that is an abstract answer. What about specifics? How do individuals make decisions about how to engage?

Offshoot Discussion 1: There are only two kinds of spaces: safe spaces and educational spaces.  

I firmly believe that charity and diligence are possible for most people in most circumstances. But I freely grant that they are not for all or in all cases. I have certainly felt the inability to respond productively to someone who was really pushing my buttons. When any of us find ourselves in this situation, we should remove ourselves from the conversation. If we need to talk about the issue or the incident, we should find ourselves a safe space. That’s what they are for, and they are great.

But there are only two kinds of spaces as relates to social justice discourse: safe spaces and educational spaces. And educational spaces, where there are those who must be convinced to agree with our causes, can be won or lost on the strength of persuasiveness and argument. Educational spaces are where we must work to be as effectively convincing as possible so as to win support and allies. Educational spaces are where we don’t want unproductive arguments and uncharitable approaches to get in the way of our missions.

To be absolutely clear, I do not in any sense desire that marginalized people be left out of the discussion. Their input is absolutely crucial to making the world better. Without, their ideas, stories and perspective, it is impossible to fix the problems faced by those society mistreats and renders invisible. Anyone, including the (often rightfully) angry, frustrated, offended, can and should participate in public conversations. It is merely the case that we must all hold ourselves to the same general standards, and refrain from engaging if we cannot.

Offshoot Discussion #2: Allies, use your privilege right!

Because charity is, as I’ve admitted, easier for the privileged, it’s my opinion that the privileged should engage in it as much as possible. Natalie Reed, in this fantastic piece, says,

“l context it occurs within (such as a feminist reading and discussion group, or an abuse-survivor’s support group, or a feminist subreddit), it becomes a means by which the importance of a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced and non-oppressive approach to trans issues can be normalized and affirmed as an aspect of that social context…And so long as you benefit from cis privilege, and you acknowledge such social inequities as a bad thing, it IS kinda your responsibility to take whatever opportunities you have for helping make things a bit better. And that includes educating each other. And being nice about it, if that’s what the situation demands.” [Emphasis mine]

And the atheism plus commenter, in the same comment from above, says,

“After all, my privileged half (of course) is saying, “I can do that.” As in, I can see myself nearly 100% keeping my tone calm when I’m in the ally position. I can see myself in “education mode“. I can see myself handing out sympathy while still guiding someone by the hand, when I know they so badly just want to understand what’s going on, and they don’t want to end up the “bad guy”. I have the privilege that their questions don’t hit a nerve with me. I can use that, and should use that.” [Emphasis mine]

It is the role of allies in general to consider how best use their own privilege to the advantage of the marginalized they seek to support. Any ally who feels that charity is overly privileged should consider using their own privilege to do the hard work of charity and due diligence. They, and any marginalized person who feels able to engage in this way, can push conversations forward, moving past mere calling-out to more thoughtful, nuanced discussion about how to improve our communities and societies.

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Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

Research2BeDone has put his finger on what I agree is the most fundamental problem facing those trying to discuss social justice issues with people who aren’t familiar with the concepts involved: large inferential distances. Inferential distances are those gaps between our knowledge and the knowledge of others that make it hard to convey ideas. The example given over at Less Wrong is:

Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn’t already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam’s razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation.

Similarly, one SJ-oriented friend might be able to convey to another SJ-oriented friend why complaining about the term “cisgender” on the basis that the term is stolen from chemistry is problematic with a single step. They don’t have to explain about the way labels can empower or how words can do harm or how derailing works or what cisprivilege is, let alone privilege in general. They can just allude to all of that shared knowledge and assume it’s understood and believed. For the mathematically minded, all the lemmas have already been shown, and from there the theorem is a one step proof.

But without being able to assume all of the information, ideas and analysis that go into the Social Justice™ system, it’s much, much harder to explain what’s going on. In fact, you can’t do it directly at all. To properly make the argument, some patient and charitable soul would have to start from the beginning, the core axioms, work through all the basic approaches and forms of analysis, arguing all the way that they are legitimate and worthwhile, then showing how they apply to the situation in question, and hoping desperately that they’re still paying attention by the end. And that’s in the best case scenario, where it doesn’t disintegrate into slurs, derailing or unproductive mud-slinging before the explanation is over. Just like in math.

It seems unfair, of course, that in order just to convince someone to stop believing harmful and incorrect things, that much work has to be done. The answer seems obvious, if you already have all of the knowledge, information and assumptions. But from the other side, it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s not rational to find it obvious. Without an explanation that starts with assumptions that are in fact shared, someone who doesn’t currently agree with our fictional Social Justice Warrior doesn’t have reason to believe what they’re being told. Just as so many creationists disbelieve science because it rests on the concept of the scientific method (which they do not accept), and mathematicians dismiss proofs that require unproven assumptions (except the unproven assumptions they like), this non-SJ-er must reject the notion that “cisgender” should be a required part of hir vocabulary. (Much like hir). Note that mathematics and creationism have somewhat different truth values. It doesn’t matter; this is still how it feels from the inside to believe some things and not others.

How do we change that belief? More specifically, “How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other?”

By bridging the gap! Get rid of it entirely, by meeting the person you’re talking to where they are.
The following steps provide a guideline (much of which is laid out originally here):

  1. If you require a baseline of civility or respect for the conversation to continue, make it clear from the outset. In the spirit of “you don’t have to get it to respect it,” you can demand that arguments must be in good faith and that certain words that you feel are harmful and cruel not be used for the duration of the conversation.
  2. Find out how far back the disagreement goes by finding the most basic assumptions you agree on. Best way to do this is just to ask: “Do you agree with this? How about this?” until you figure it out.
  3. Start from there and make your case. Try not to use jargon or specialized language that the non-SJ-er doesn’t use without definition. Step by step, get them from their column to yours. If you find you can’t prove your point from that far back, it’s time to ask yourself again why you believe what you believe.


  1. Obviously, use all the techniques I’ve been talking about. Anticipate counterarguments as you walk them through your case. Argue the best version of their position. Be willing to change your own mind. Don’t insult them, even if they deserve it. Don’t assume their intentions are bad.
  2. Since you’re taking them through a long series of steps, be willing to accept compromise. Be happy if you took them through some of the steps, even if you had to stop there. It’s all a journey.
  3. Similarly, since going through this many steps is hard, see if there are any places to make it easier. Skip nonvital steps. Condense and simplify if you get the opportunity. This will both help your argument and teach you what parts of your argument are required for the rest to stand and what parts are not.
  4. If, in order to agree with you, one or more of their identities might be in jeopardy, be careful. Allow the entire thing to be a thought experiment. Try to fit it in with a more deeply-held identity. Try to help build up a belief structure that will replace the one they’re abandoning. Remember that it may not be “just an argument” to them either.
  5. Being able to construct your own argument from first principles is great. Being able to construct the other side’s is even better. It allows for so much insight into why they don’t agree with you in the first place, which makes you more charitable and more effective when you’re looking to win them over.

The tips might look intimidating, but the important part has only three steps. It’s really that simple. It’s hard to be perfectly persuasive all throughout the argument, it’s hard to make an argument that extensive, and it’s frustrating to do it over and over again. But it is simple. For those willing to do it, arguing with people who have entirely different assumptions is just the task of laying out a path, slowly but surely, from one set of beliefs to another.

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

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Don’t Make it About Identity

The day I started calling myself an atheist, I was reading The God Delusion during Rosh Hashanah services (sorry Rabbi Goldberg!) when I was about 14 years old. At the time I was calling myself a pantheist, but when Dawkins dismissed the notion as “sexed-up atheism”, I felt I could no longer bother with it either. But there was a final hurdle. I shuffled through the seats over to my father, sitting in a different row, and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up, I whispered fearfully, “Babbo, am I allowed to be Jewish if I’m an atheist?” With a smile he said something like, “Well, my reconstructionist synagogue never cared.” (Point of reference: He’d never told me he was an atheist before this).

What a relief! I could breathe easy again, knowing that a crucial identity was salvageable even as another crumbled. It was this which allowed me to immediately start identifying as an atheist. It would have been much harder, and perhaps harder even just to allow myself not to believe in God, had I been told otherwise.

Identity is very hard and uncomfortable to change, so we avoid that change whenever possible, even if it means maintaining a position that another part of us might know is wrong. This is where we get phenomena like cognitive dissonance and denial and confirmation bias; we’ll do seemingly anything to not have to totally reconfigure ourselves. Arguments about identity, then, become very unproductive very quickly. So if we want someone to change their mind,  we shouldn’t make the argument about identity at all, if we don’t have to. If you’re arguing about tax rates, don’t make it about Democrat vs. Republican. If you’re arguing about the Affordable Care Act’s exemptions for churches, don’t frame it as religious vs. nonreligious. All you’re asking for is their brain’s Identity Protection Racket to kick into high gear and end the conversation.

This goes double when you’re “on the same side”, both vying for the title of True Type, like True Christian or True Rationalist. When that happens, the conversation has stopped being about the issue at hand and started to be about the ability of the people involved to protect their emotional investment and their sense of self. That’s terribly unproductive and also overly harsh, for everyone. Stick to the argument at hand, and don’t let it become  the Battle of the Identities.

(And by the way, this all goes triple when the title you’re fighting for is Good Person. That’s the kind of identity we’ll protect at all costs. Threatening that (by trying to get someone to admit that they’re racist or sexist, for instance) usually gets you a lot of trouble. Whenever possible, stick to the facts and the specific argument.)

In fact, what this very cool study suggests is that, far from challenging an identity, we should affirm the relevant identity of the person we’re arguing with. In a sense, try to see them as they see themselves. Make sure they know you see them as what they identify with, and make sure that they know that the debate is not about whether they have a right to that identity. How?

  • You could emphasize the importance of their identity to the debate: “As a Christian, don’t you think you should support helping to universalize healthcare?”
  • You could separate the issue in question from their identity: “Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you can’t like the fiscal cliff deal.”
  • You could even bring in salient figures that match their identity that agreed with you on a position: “Freidrich Hayek, a libertarian (classical liberal) thinker, supported a minimum wage for everyone, possibly paid for by the government.”

He also supported cool mustaches and hair gel, apparently.

These approaches make the argument not about whether or not their identity is correct, but only about whether their position is correct. That’s not only important to the productiveness of the argument, but also to how we’re treating our opponent. After all, our identities are very important to us. Challenging them makes a discussion personal and tense in a way they often don’t need to be. Asking people to think of themselves differently is a tall and difficult order, and it should be treated as such. It isn’t the kind of thing to do thoughtlessly, in the context of a debate that’s about something else.

When we remove the debate from the identity question, we get a much easier and less emotionally fraught issue, which is much more likely to result in a changed mind. That’s what my father accidentally did for me by assuring me that I could remain a Jew. He made me feel like my core was remaining strong and the god issue was just tinkering, which made it easier to change my mind on that question. And even if no minds are changed, the discussion is much more likely to be a productive one, since no one is forced to feel like they have to defend their own identities.

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“Charity” Is Totally Badass Activism

I started out by thinking of my approach to persuasion and argument as charitable. It’s a nice way to think about and respond to other people. It’s going the extra mile in really making sure you’re addressing what they’re saying and doing the best job of defending your position.

But then I thought that it wasn’t a good idea to think of this approach as just the nice thing to do. That makes it seem like something good, but not in any way obligatory or incumbent on us. It also made it seem like I thought we should always be nice and gentle and sweet to people who are wrong in really harmful ways, and I don’t think that.

So then I thought the issue could be reframed as one of due diligence. That in a specific set of contexts, in which we’re discussing with people (even if it’s the whole internet) whose minds we’re trying to change and whose minds we think we can change, we have a set of responsibilities, even duties, that constitute proper and productive discussion.

But people still think that I’m in favor of not calling out badness and harm properly, of censoring ourselves so that we can fit in, be nice, be accepted, not cause too many problems. None of that is true. So here’s another way to think about the things I’ve been talking about.

“Charity” doesn’t have to be “accomodationist,” moderate, forgiving, tolerant of intolerance. “Charity” can be the most intense, powerful, evangelistic form of activism.


This gets used again because I like it so much. Although, it should say “Don’t just raise your voice.” Because speaking out is important too.

Being charitable means your arguments hit exactly where they need to, since you understand the position of the other side. It means you can address the strongest part of someone else’s argument, because you know what makes it compelling to them.

Being diligent means you care about doing argumentation right, and that you make stronger, more compelling arguments as a result. It means you fight fair, and thereby demand respect from those you’re trying to win over.

Steelmanning means you can take down an especially strong argument, leaving the one you’re actually addressing in pieces beneath it. It means no one can run away from the argument with the excuse that you didn’t take them seriously or address them properly.

Using words carefully calls people to task in a way they understand. It forces people to examine their beliefs because they’re being spoken in a way that makes sense to them. It doesn’t allow people to ignore new ideas because they don’t know how to think of themselves as a bad person. It doesn’t give anyone an easy excuse to tune out truth that’s hard to hear.

Acknowledging counterarguments makes sure that no one can assume you don’t have an answer. It shows that your side can respond to whatever is thrown at it. It shows that you know exactly what your opponents are up to, and that if it was good you’d reconsider, but it’s not, so you won’t. It makes you far more able to claim your position strongly and without excuse. (That’s what skepticism is, after all: knowing what would convince you otherwise and knowing it’s not out there.)

It goes on and on. To change the world, we’ve got to change some minds. The most effective way to change minds, then, is going to be one of the most effective forms of activism. That’s why judicious and thoughtful and good argumentation is so important and powerful.

I do not think this approach is always the right one. I think it is right for a set of contexts, and not others. I think it has its limitations, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post. But I do think that this approach has an unfair reputation for “being too nice” and all that goes along with it, which I want to correct simply as follows:

It is not weak to think carefully about how to do activism effectively; it is not self-censorship to be concerned with arguing more convincingly. It is exactly the kind of unrelenting, agitating, subversive practice that gets us what we want. 


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