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.

 

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Empaneled again! Critical Thinking in Education

I actually got to be on *two* wonderful panels for FTBCon, quite different from each other! In this one, Matt Lowry, Dan Linford, Jason Thibeault and I just chatted free-form about how we teach critical thinking in our classrooms.

Thoughts:

  • Important: When I say math here, I mean high school math, not logic or model theory.
  • The truth is I am incredibly conflicted about things like this (and really education as a whole). My thoughts go something like this: teaching breaks up into four categories: skills, conceptual understanding, love of math, meta.
    • The first is most important if you think students should need to know those skills and be able to use them or remember them in the future. That goes for everyone when you’re talking about addition and number skills, and engineers or other applied scientists or mathematicians for the advanced stuff. Since I don’t think most of my students need this, I’m ok with saying that dropping a negative is not a big deal and doesn’t necessarily warrant points off. BUT there is of course value in, you know, getting the right answer, and maybe this focus is taking away from actually being able to do the problem, as this Atlantic piece argues.
    • Conceptual understanding is important for mathematicians and anyone hoping to do complex math, but it’s also important for grasping connections and getting a sense of how math describes the world. I think it’s the coolest and most interesting part, and so it’s what I focus on. Being able to perform skills is subordinate to this, largely. If you can’t intersect lines well and smoothly, you won’t get what’s so cool about parametric equations. If you have trouble with mental math, integration is going to be a slog, and not for good reasons. I also tend to think, but maybe this is the Typical Mind Fallacy, that the better you understand something, the easier it is to perform skills, since everything flows and makes sense, rather than being a rote list where you’re racking your brain for what happens next. BUT you can focus on conceptual understanding to the detriment of skill building, which can lower confidence since students don’t even know where to start. Giving them systematic approaches (i.e. rules)
    • Love of math is half selfish, half not. I think math is cool and beautiful, and I want other people to think so. I also think math is so amazingly capable of describing the world around us that it’s valuable for educated people to have an appreciation for it, and a general sense of how it works. (things move in parabolas when thrown, it has to do with earth’s gravity; if you know how many tickets to the interview sold and how much money you made, it is a solved question how many were $6 tickets and how many were $15 tickets). I *also* think that if you have to sit through school-mandated math you might as well enjoy it and have enough understanding and care to find things in it that interest you.
  • I, and many other teachers, can talk all day about all the cool strategies we use and all of our lofty goals, but I certainly don’t know what the outcomes are. I don’t have data. I got a lovely card from a student last summer that said “thanks for teaching me a new way to think” but I also had students fail their final exam, possible because we did so much “sure it works in practice, but how does it work in theory” that they couldn’t actually use equations and formulae. At least, that’s my fear.

I hope to write more in 2015 about education and my teaching experience, but if you want to find some cool gifs and general ramblings, my math tumblr is here. But now I’ll turn it over: what are your thoughts on the panel or about critical thinking in education?

Oh, The Hedgehogs You’ll See!

Maybe I was too mean to hedgehogs when I first talked about hedgehogs and foxes and what types of thinking they represent, and then when I described how I’d been only a pupa as a hedgehog, but blossomed out of the chrysalis into a fox.

(Mixed animal metaphors are the crocoducks of writing)

Anyway, while I stand by what I said in that piece, I do want to give a more nuanced account of the roles of hedgehogish and foxish thinking, and how important they both are to the history of thought and to all of our quests to understand our complex world.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Low level hedgehogs
  2. Low level foxes
  3. High level hedgehogs
  4. High level foxes

1. Low level hedgehogs

Now I’m beating up on the hedgehogs again. But if you’re going to have a Big Governing Principle, it seems like it would be worthwhile to know it well, and to be able to defend it. Any hedgehog who defends their Big Idea badly is a low-level hedgehog. This kind of thinking leads to: totalizing political ideologies which cannot respond effectively to criticism, simplistic religious views which nonetheless encompass someone’s entire worldview, inconsistent ideological approaches which fail to examine their own lack of coherence, and so on and so forth.

A brilliant argument. I’m always thrilled when this gets brought up.

These are the kind of people we tend to call stubborn and closed-minded. While they may provoke some thought in others, it is not the kind of high level inspiration we would hope productive disagreement would create. I am reminded of the sneering, uncharitable, unnuanced Republicans I knew in high school, who I made it my business to prove wrong at every possible turn. I learned a great deal in the process, but I was given none of the understanding of thoughtful and high level conservatism that I gained in college.

2. Low level foxes

These foxes can be thought of analogously to low-level hedgehogs; they attempt to balance many facts and ideologies, and do so clumsily or inconsistently. For one reason or another, they fail to effectively negotiate the complexities of the issues they are engaging with. But in contrast to the low level hedgehogs, they have at least decided that a sole guiding principle is not enough.

Simplistic understandings of progressivism and feminism have always fit in here for me. The focus on choice and everyone being supported in what they want is a valiant attempt to balance the competing desires of moral people (as opposed to the hedgehog, who would generally classify those people more strictly as moral and immoral, based precisely on those desires). When critiqued by hedgehogs, high or low level, they tend to shy away from the attack and claim that their worldview already encompasses the desired elements.

When kink critical feminists criticize liberal feminists on the basis of say, the glorification of violence against women, the low level foxes tend to say only that BDSM is about consent and if everyone is happy, it’s fine. That’s great, and I think it’s true, but it is an ineffective and inadequate response to the critique. Similarly, so-called “choice feminists” tend to ask, “Isn’t feminism about choice?” and expect that their choices always be respected. But as has been pointed out many a time, this is a self-defeating and unhelpful approach.

A beautiful sentiment, but is this really enough of an argument?

Low-level foxes are also frequently overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. Many intelligent people I have known have been like this, and I was as well (and often still am); it results in trying to take into account a great number of things, but never coming out the other side with clearer thinking. For instance, such a fox might look at the fact that buying sweatshop goods ensures that sweatshop labor will continue but that not buying them will harm all of the people who work for sweatshops and be flummoxed. Which is fair, it’s a totally flummoxing thing. But that approach means that more information can lead to indecision and frustration rather than clearer understanding, which is what we’d hope more and better data would do.

3.     High level hedgehogs

Now, high level hedgehogs are where things get interesting, They are brilliant thinkers, far more nuanced than their low-level brethren, but still adhere to a single guiding principle to explain the world. And it’s for that reason that their ideas change the world. Marx changed the world by injecting totally new strains of thought into dominant conceptions of society and economics, and he did it because he was a hedgehog, because he fought on the basis of the unique all-encompassingness of his ideas. I cannot imagine he would have had the same effect if he had said, “Well, I have this new idea, but I’m sure it can be accommodated into the existing capitalist framework.” No, the point was that he was a revolutionary thinker, and not just because he wanted a revolution. His clarion and focused demands forced everyone to think differently, especially the foxes, who depend in large part on hedgehogs to give them the raw material that they combine into their complex and nuanced worldviews. He made everyone update what they thought was true and tinker with their understanding of the world to accommodate him.

He definitely looks like a hedgehog

This is the glory and birthright of the high level hedgehogs, even if, in being hedgehogs, they are almost certainly wrong (at least about something ). Plato, Cornel West, Robert Nozick, Yeshayahu Liebowitz , Robert George – I cannot help but find their worldviews totally compelling, because they seem so sure, and because they force me to think differently. I have had to grapple and engage with their writings, because they left me no way out, no comforting caveats or seductive shortcuts. They said, this is the truth, and you’d better figure out why you don’t agree with it.

4.     High level foxes

Then why do I place high level foxes at the top? They certainly aren’t always right; I imagine Obama’s political ideology to be fairly foxish, but not entirely correct. But based on my previous argument, if someone were to be correct, it would almost certainly be a high level fox. These are the people I trust to amass huge amounts of knowledge and then carefully assess the data, ideas and ideologies they’ve found, take out the best parts of each, and assemble them into a novel, consistent whole. People like Nate Silver, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muelhauser, while perhaps not always exactly right, certainly are right more than they ought to be because they have that capacity. I have a friend who I’ve described as someone who, when asked what his political position on a topic is, will go to Google Scholar and tell you in ten minutes. He has that kind of openness to evidence, that kind of ability to sift through the data to find what’s important, and that kind of clarity of thought.

And a crucial part of doing this intellectual work is examining the thinking of high level hedgehogs, assimilating what is brilliant and true, and discarding what is overreach and folly. If we are not only to seek foxishness, but excellence in foxishness, then we must cultivate a healthy respect for high-level hedgehogs and the novel ideas they have forced us all to reckon with. Dismissing Marx because he was empirically wrong or because Stalin was a mass-murderer might prevent gaining a deeper understanding of honest and incisive critiques of capitalism. Ignoring Robert George because he’s an anti-marriage equality Catholic leaves no opportunity for coming to a clearer opinion on what marriage really is and what it’s for. (And of course, understanding high level thinkers you don’t agree with is an excellent way to have better arguments). Hedgehogish ideas must be among those that foxes should make it their solemn duty to seek out and respond to, so that everyone can learn from these thinkers. If we want to be the best foxes we can be, hedgehogs are too important to ignore.

He’s happy that he’s important

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.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

Worth Talking To

Keith Lowell Jensen, an atheist comedian, has a bit in a talk he gives, where he addresses the question of whether atheists should even bother to engage religious people, or whether it’s not worth it. After all, it never works, right? He responds by asking those in the audience who were once religious to raise their hands. Then he says, “I think we were worth it.”

The same idea, I think, can be applied to the question of engaging with people who don’t understand issues of social justice, of privilege, power, marginalization, rape culture, shaming, oppression and intersectionality. For people who are on the bad end of any of these societal problems and their allies, it can seem like a never-ending and pointless battle to fight with those who don’t get it. The same arguments come up over and over again, the same facts must be rehashed, the same exchanges get repeated. It’s basically like arguing with creationists.

But everyone who agrees with the extensive and intricate understanding of the ways that power is socially organized and allocated that falls under the Social Justice position came to that position somehow. Unlike atheism, it’s not really the kind of thing you can get born into. That means that they all started out not understanding it, possibly not agreeing with it. Most of us, probably started out that way.

So I ask you now: weren’t they worth it? weren’t we worth it?

And so, aren’t many other people? Aren’t they worth talking to?

Now, no one is obligated to engage and educate about social justice (or any other) issues. It’s hard and painful and frustrating and annoying. There are trolls and people arguing in bad faith. Some people are stubborn and ignorant and cruel. But it is worth doing; people are worth talking to.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 
Hopefully, working on making our arguments more effective will make the process of discussion and education a less frustrating endeavor.

Listen to Others as You Would Have Them Listen to You

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?”

So being charitable, I can see how some people would see things this way. But it itself is still an example of being uncharitable

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.

Anger About the Ambiance of Alcohol

So I wrote about drugs before, but if I’m going to be honest, that’s not everything. That’s the intellectual analysis, certainly, but as it pertains to my life, alcohol and drugs (pretty much just pot) manifest themselves in a very specific way, one that I don’t want to have anything to do with.

People drink for all sorts of reasons. Given how many times I’ve had this particular conversation, I think I have a good idea of what the major ones are. As far as I can tell, it is: it tastes good, it’s a social lubricant, it’s what college kids/20-somethings/high school students/whatever broad community someone considers themselves a part of does, to get drunk, to relax, to forget, to not be sad.

And I think these are almost all terrible reasons. Drinking because you like the taste is fine, within moderation. I happen to hate the taste of alcohol, so that’s one reason for me. Doing something because your community expects you too is stupid unless there’s something fun or meaningful or important about it that underlies the social pressure, and to me, that’s all pretty obvious. Getting drunk is dangerous, painful and unhealthy.

Every other reason has something to do with emotion and comfort, with yourself or in a social situation. If you are trying to make something in your life go better, that’s great. Bettering yourself is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. The problem is that none of those problems are caused by lack of alcohol. They’re caused by something entirely different, and if you never bother to find out what those underlying causes are, your betterment will be artificial, short-lived and you’ll be missing out on a chance to understand yourself better. If you’re unhappy or socially awkward, those are things about your life you should acknowledge and do something about in a healthy and positive way. Alcohol seems like a pretty poor choice for that kind of thing. Again, I’m taking a consequentialism tack, here. A drink that calms you down, to extend the analogy, a hit off a bong – probably not awful things. Not something I want to partake in, but fine. But this is a general habit that people have of not understanding the causes of their problems, and that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

Finally, and possibly most relevantly, there’s a culture that alcohol creates. It’s a culture in which anything goes, in which you can be your stupidest, worst self and have a bullet-proof excuse for doing so. It’s a way to do all the things you’re ashamed of, be the person you wish you were (or weren’t) without shame or guilt. I guess to some people, that sounds fantastic, but I’m not ashamed of myself, and the parts of myself I don’t like are not shoved down into the depths of my consciousness only to be lured out by the presence of ethanol. If there’s a way I want or need to become a better person, I will work at it, day in and day out, until I’ve achieved it. Alcohol is an easy way out. People always tell me it lowers inhibitions. And if I happen to like my inhibitions? What then?

That’s just the personal part, too. In general, parties are, how shall I say, gross. Drunk/high people are often clumsy and irritating. They revel in the profundity of a conversation that would feel stupid to have sober. They almost never want to talk about anything important or interesting or novel in a sophisticated, meaningful way. There are certainly enjoyable aspects, but when everyone I know comes back saying how disgusting it was, I really want to know why they go back. The parties I’ve most liked are those in which I got to be…exactly who I always am. I got to talk to interesting people, have fantastic conversations, be loud and personable, dance and frolic, meet and hug. I do those things all the time, and I’m proud of who I am. Other people, on the other hand, do things they don’t appreciate or respect. They do things they wouldn’t normally do. If alcohol pushes you to do things you lose respect for yourself for, you need to change your priorities or your drinking habits. If it makes you have more respect for yourself, why don’t you bring that into the rest of your life?

And then there’s this arrogance. I’ll never know what it’s like and how amazing it is if I don’t try it. I’m uptight. More like, I have enough respect for myself to not want to do things I would disapprove of, and enough respect to cull all the best parts of some experience into the life I lead every day. This is a statement for me, a life-affirming idea that my life can be something I never want to escape from. I stumble home drunk, collapsing with laughter and exhaustion after a well-lived day. I dance on tables, jamming to great music and kinesthetically expressing myself with friends. I stay up too late having great conversations. I look up at the sky wondering what the meaning of life is. I meditate calmly. And I never wake up with a hangover and dozens of pictures to un-tag.

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Also, this is a good read: click