Why and How to Debate Charitably

Chris Capel has written a short essay about “why and how to debate charitably,” and I’m struggling to find anything significant to disagree with him about.*  You should really read the whole thing, but I’ll provide his list of rules with short explanations below:

1. The golden rule – “treat the person’s position as if it were your own.”

2.  You cannot read minds – when someone appears inconsistent, consider that you could simply misunderstand their argument.

3.  People are not evil – “You should be extremely suspicious about your judgment of a person’s position when you think that position has implications that you find distasteful (or worse).”

4. Debates are not for winning – “Never make a person defend words that they’ve abandoned.”

5.  You make mistakes – “many more than you realize…   Look for your mistakes, and admit to them.”

6.  Not everyone cares as much as you – “be willing to tolerate people who apparently hold distasteful positions.”

7.  Engaging is hard work.

8.  Differences can be subtle.

9.  Give up quietly – “If you don’t want to engage someone using all these rules, don’t engage them at all.”

I hope that this forum, Permutations, will host productive discussions and debates.  You need not involve yourself in them, but I hope that you do, and I hope that if you do, you debate charitably.

*Admittedly, I would water this list down a little bit.  Instead of rules, I would call these guidelines.  For example, I don’t believe people should be required to ignore every argument they can’t engage at the highest and most charitable level.  If Chris and I ever get the chance to discuss this point, I have a feeling that we’ll be able to come to agreement.  Perhaps you have stronger disagreements?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


6 Responses to Why and How to Debate Charitably

  1. Cross-posted at the site with the original essay:

    Hi there. Thank you for writing this. I think it’s generally well-done and I agree that it would be awesome if everyone tried to be very charitable debaters. I even agree that it is common in sex /
    gender circles for people NOT to be charitable debaters, and this has frustrated me in the past, too. I may link to this in the future.

    I will say, though, that I think part of the divide you are tangentially articulating — the one between rationalist sites (largely populated by, let’s face it, white upper-middle-class men) vs. feminist & non-normatively sexed/gendered ones — is a matter of
    slight culture clash between the two blogospheres.

    I think it is very, very common for the privileged classes (I am using the phrase generally and loosely) to be huffy, defensive and/or unwilling to accept/examine their privilege even when they are
    confronted with it gently, e.g. by asking questions. I think this is part of why oppressed groups (I am using the phrase generally and loosely) tend to develop more in-your-face tactics. Given the
    emotional space to ignore an argument that makes a given person feel like a “bad person”, s/he will very frequently choose to ignore it.
    Being overtly aggressive and passionate is an approach that, I think, evolved to counteract this effect. It is useful and, now, the norm for the feminist culture to be aggressive and overtly emotional. In contrast, rationalists haven’t really needed to evolve this approach, because — to put it bluntly — you guys are usually in a position of power and suffer no actual consequences if your opponents decide not to bother with your arguments, even if they are uncomfortable to
    contemplate, which they frequently aren’t.

    Now maybe all this is obvious to you. But I am pointing it out because, while you appear perfectly happy to critique our community, you do not seem inclined to give us credit for the fact that our
    particular tendencies are endemic to our subculture or (more importantly) to consider why that cultural perspective is useful for us. I would argue that in the rationalist blogs I’ve seen, there is a
    marked unwillingness to address or examine a huge array of cultural assumptions — usually the ones based on privilege. When one person points out a given privilege-based assumption behind a given post, the answer is more likely to be “Well, I didn’t mean to say that! Of course I don’t think that!” or “Fine, I’ll edit the language so that it doesn’t seem like I’m saying that,” rather than “Wow! You are so
    correct, that assumption is problematic and I am glad to realize that I had such a gross privileged bias lurking in my brainmeat.” I think that the coolness of your language and the willingness to give people
    space to shift their apparent opinions — while, in some ways, laudable and reasonable — contributes to this effect.

    As a “case study”: I replied to a post a while back over on Less Wrong that was titled, “Is Masochism Necessary?” I’m not sure whether this comment field will accept the A tag, so I’ll just paste the raw link:
    [ http://lesswrong.com/lw/ac/is_masochism_necessary/ ]

    The original post contained some pretty gross anti-BDSM biases. I called them out in the comments. There was a spat in which the original poster said that I had “jump[ed] in … with moral accusations, and threaten[ed] people with social rejection unless they discuss it the way you want them to”. I assert that if the same exchange had occurred in the feminist blogosphere, I would not have been accused of moral accusations or told that I was threatening
    social rejection. I also assert that the original poster, if more accustomed to the feminist subculture, would have been more willing to honestly examine his obvious biases, rather than saying: “I changed
    it. I think it’s weaker and less interesting this way, but it’s not in my advantage to repell people who have the expertise necessary for this conversation.”

    (As a side note, the original post has been thoroughly edited without noting the edits. If that’s common behavior in the rationalist blogosphere, then I think it backs up my argument: it allows people to gloss over and conveniently “forget” any biases they may have exhibited, while apparently conforming to rationalist values about how clear/accessible writing should be.)

    There was even one commenter, JulianMorrison, who noted that the reason our interchange blew up so much might be more cultural than we thought: “I think people here are used to being more “clinically
    detached” than you’re used to. It’s a bit of a clash of styles.”

    To wind up this comment: I am not saying that either culture is better; just trying to make some observations about the advantages of “mine”. And again, thanks for writing this post. It’s generally
    great, even if your obvious anti-feminist-culture axe is kind of annoying.

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    Clarisse, thanks for commenting. I apologize that I won’t be able to address every point. You acknowledge that debating charitably, as defined by Chris’s essay, has at least some advantages, at least in some contexts but you seem to be claiming:

    1. That a more in-your-face emotional style is a reaction to the fact that people often ignore the substantive content which threatens their worldview.
    2. That this style succeeds in engaging or convincing people who would not be engaged or convinced by a more detached style.

    The first claim is interesting, and worth discussing, but I’m going to skip to the second, because while it may be true in some cases, my intuition is that more often than not it is false.

    What are the goals we are trying to achieve in settling on guidelines for debates?
    I would nominate enjoyment of the debate, willingness to enter and continue the debate, and honest agreement. (Am I missing anything?)

    How could we study the effect of debate guidelines on these outcomes? I think it would be hard to trust observational data, because the people that select into these debates are probably very different. But it wouldn’t be that hard to do genuine experiments.

    In brief, we would randomly assign people to groups and the groups would be given different instructions. Some would be taught how to debate “charitably,” some, how to use an in-your-face style, and some given no instructions (alternatively, subjects could be primed with examples rather than given any instruction). Then the groups would be given a topic to debate. Surveys given out before and after the debate would allow us to measure changes in beliefs, opinions of other debaters, enjoyment of the debate, and anything else we might be interested in.

    Other experimental conditions we might vary include face-to-face vs. blog, number of debaters, and debate topics. This experiment wouldn’t answer all our questions about guidelines for debates, but I think they would do a tremendous amount to inform the discussion.

  3. To clarify, I think that a more “in-your-face” emotional style is sometimes more effective, but I also think that subcultures evolve styles that then influence the members even when the reasons for the evolution do not apply. So, while the “in-your-face” style may not always work, I think that people who are accustomed to it will use it at least as much because they are accustomed to it as because they find it effective with everyone.

    I think that different arguing approaches are going to have very different effects in different contexts and with different targets. I think I am at least as likely, if not more likely to make an impression if I (eloquently) flip out in much of the feminist / alt sex blogosphere, as if I pose a very calm argument. I also think that I may be more likely to make an impression on my friends by being emotional (within limits). And I do, honestly, think that I myself am more likely to internalize an argument if made by a friend who is clearly upset (within limits).

    Side note: the original post has now had a lot of anti-feminist-subculture language edited out.

  4. Michael Bishop says:

    Your observations accord with my experience. If a friend, or members of a community I belong to, debate with an “in-your-face” style, I probably feel an even stronger need to engage them than if they use a more detached style, because if I don’t engage them about something they clearly feel very strongly about, then I feel alienated from them.

    But to me, an “in-your-face” style signals that a person is probably less willing/able to see a different point of view (i.e., mine), so I will be on guard. And if the person I disagree with is not my friend, or if I hold a minority opinion in a community, and I know that a potential debate will involve an “in-your-face” style, then I’m likely to avoid the debate altogether.

    Moreover, even though I acknowledge occasional advantages of an aggressive debating style, I think that the world would benefit from more people attempting a more detached, less accusatory, debating style. Experiments, like the one I proposed above could provide some evidence on this claim, but they would hardly provide a clean answer.

  5. […] It is understandable, and unavoidable, that people will frame issues to make their views sound appealing, but hopefully social scientists can enforce a norm of using more mutually acceptable language.  It is a part of debating charitably. […]

  6. […] I link to these threads because I think they are really interesting, that there is much to learn from the comments and perhaps also from some “meta-analysis” of the comments.  Very few blog posts on sociology blogs, or anywhere, support as much high quality debate as occurred there.  I feel a little bad that I’m linking to something which Tina and Jeremy regret, but obviously not that bad because I’m linking to it.  It would have been nice if people followed the guidelines for charitable debating I mention here. […]

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