Post by Marcus Geduld:
I, Marcus Geduld, swear to abide by the following rules to the best of my ability, because I believe they lead to civil, intelligent discussion in which the goal is to seek truth rather than to win points, mock, humiliate, or dominate—all of which I consider to be ignoble wastes of time. Please watch me for hypocrisy. If you catch me violating a rule, tell me. E.g. “You just violated rule number three!”
I will violate these rules at times—maybe often, maybe every day. They are ideals. I must read through them at least once a month, to make sure I keep them in mind.
1. I must never engage in ad hominem attacks.
Ad hominems attacks attack a person instead of his claims.
It’s pretty easy to understand that “You’re an asshole!” doesn’t add anything to an argument except bile, but most ad hominem attacks are subtler than that. They piggyback on legitimate points.
“Don’t be an idiot! In a democracy, everyone gets the right to vote!”
“What you obviously don’t understand is that History is not a science!”
“For the fifteenth time, not all forms of punishment are equally bad!” (It’s a little hard to spot the personal attack in this example. “For the fifteenth time” implies “You are too stupid to understand me, even though I’ve made my point repeatedly!”)
These combo statements are bad because they send a mixed message. By refuting logic alone, you are saying, “I want to have a rational discussion with you.” When you add some form of “You idiot” you’re saying, “I want to humiliate you.” Stealth (slipping the insult in with the valid point) strengthens your play for dominance. If your target only responds to the logic, he’s allowing you to insult him; if he only responds to the insult, he’s derailed from a rational discussion. If he responds to both at once, he muddies his reply.
Note that insulting someone’s content generally has the same effect as insulting him. “That’s a really stupid remark” may not literally mean “a remark made by a stupid person,” since smart people can say stupid things, but it’s generally received that way, so it risks drowning a serious conversation in a sea of defensiveness. The key to success (if your goals is to to rigorously critique ideas without making personal remarks) is to only point out flaw in logic, facts, and argumentation. “That’s stupid” isn’t a flaw; it’s a value judgement. It adds nothing except tone.
When I’ve discussed this topic with friends, they’ve often rejected my idea that “That’s a stupid idea” is an insult, but if I allow myself to make such remarks, I give myself an insult loophole. I can imply that anyone is any insulting thing by simply dissing his output rather than his person:
“You’re a racist.” –> “You just made a racist remark.” “You’re a dimwit.” –> “That was a dimwitted thing to day.” “You’re obviously a troll.” –> “You’re behaving like a troll.”
If, for instance, someone claims that black people are less intelligent than white people, I must respond by disagreeing with his claim and explaining why I disagree. I can cite evidence to the contrary, demand he prove his claim, and zero in on flaws in his argument. I can do all of that as rigorously as I want, without holding back. What I can’t do is say, “You’re a racist,” “That’s racist,” or “You’re behaving like a racist right now.”
2. I must never give as good as I get.
This is the hardest rule for most people to follow, and many disagree that it even should be a rule. But if I care about promoting real discussion and ridding the world (as much as possible) of chest-beating shouting matches, I’ll swallow my pride and take the high road. If someone calls me an asshole, he is violating rule 1. And if I call him an asshole back, I am violating it, too. As Mom said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
When insulted, I have two honorable options: (1) ignore the insult and just respond to the debate points—if there are any. Or (2) opt to leave the debate. When choosing the latter option, I’m allowed explain why without insulting the insulter. I can say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t participate in debates that include personal attacks.”
After I leave, the insulter will almost always claim victory. I need to live with that. To him, the whole point of debate is for one person to win and the other to lose. I must remember that my goals are to seek truth, to explain my position, and to learn. We’re not playing the same game. It’s okay for him win his game; it’s not my game.
Optional: I can issue a warning without leaving. It’s fine to leave after the first insult, but sometimes I find it worth haning in there a little longer, making it clear that I’ll leave if the insults continue. People are imperfect; they get defensive despite their best intentions to keep calm. (It happens to me!) Sometimes an insult will slip out. If I feel I am up to it, I can give the insulter a chance to apologize, and I can accept his apologies with grace. If, after that, he insult me a second time, I should opt out.
I’ve found that some people simply lock into a framework in which their default is to insult, especially on the web, where they’ve so often been insulted. Sometimes a gentle reminder shifts them out of that mode.
3. I must never dismiss a claim with “You can take anything to extremes…” and I must never refused to discuss hypothetical situations.
When someone says, “If we take your logic to extremes, we wind up with Nazi Germany,” there are three meaningful responses:
i. “You’re wrong. If you take my logic to extremes, you actually wind up with X,” X being something other than Nazi Germany. If I respond this way, I should follow up by explaining why we’d wind up with X instead of Nazi Germany.
ii. “You’re right. You’ve made me realize that I need to qualify my argument. I don’t dismiss it. It’s still a valid claim undermany circumstances, but I can see now that it’s problematic when…”
iii. “You’re right. I didn’t fully considered the ramifications of my argument.”
I will try my hardest to play along with proposed hypotheticals, rathern than simply dismissing them because they’re not real. If they seem flawed, I will try to help correct them.
Example of what not to do:
SOMEONE: What if you had to sacrifice one of your children? What then? ME: I don’t have any children, so it doesn’t apply.
Example of what to do:
SOMEONE: What if you had to sacrifice one of your children? What then?
ME: I don’t have any children, but if I did …
Another example of what to do:
SOMEONE: What if you had to sacrifice one of your children? What then.
ME: I don’t have any children, and I can’t imagine having them. But I have two dogs that I dearly love. I think we can explore your point by imagining I had to sacrifice one of them…
4. When conceding a point, I must always do so fully and openly.
I am forbidden from mixing concessions with changing the subject.
Example of the wrong way to do it:
ME: The problem with our educational system, is that it forces kids to do things they hate, and forcing people is wrong.
SOMEONE: So you think it’s wrong to stop kids from playing in traffic?
ME: Okay, not that, but my point is…
Whoa! “But the point is” is changing the subject. What I should have said is…
ME: You know, you’re right. I said you should never force kids to do anything, but now that you bring up the dangers of playing in traffic, I realize that I didn’t really think things through. You’re right about that. (Pause.) Okay, let me try to rephrase what I believe. You have a point, but I don’t think my argument is completely wrong. I just need to refine it. You see…
I am also forbidden to simply switch, without comment, to a second argumnet when my opponent has toppled the first.
What I can’t do:
ME (arguing that kids shouldn’t be given homework): No one ever learned anything from homework.
SOMEONE: That’s not true. I learned Algebra almost entirely from homework. I never paid attention in class, and no one helped me. But I worked through every assignment, and was able to pass the test.
ME: The thing is, schools hold kids captive all day. It’s unfair for them to also make demands on the nighttime.
Instead of just plowing on, I should have responded to SOMEONE’s objection. Before continuing, I should have either conceided his point or explained why it was wrong.
This boils done to not entering a discussion with the goal of winning no matter what. I must, at all times, be open to being wrong in part or whole. I should not simply keep vollying with arguments until one of them hits the target, ignoring all that fail.
5. I must either stay in a discussion or bow out gracefully.
It’s never someone else’s fault that I’m leaving. I will never leave by saying something like, “Since you can’t discuss this rationally, I’m done!” No parting digs.
It’s okay to say, “I have a policy against taking part in flame wars, but it’s also hard for me to resist insulting you the way you’re insulting me. So rather than violating my principles, I’m going to leave.” It’s also perfectly fine to say, “You know. I’m tired, and I just don’t feel like discussing this any more.”
I must separate my leave-taking remark from my argumentation. It’s never okay to use a good-bye to get in one last dig, e.g. “I don’t have all day to hang out here and argue with you.” (Which implies that you are petty, while I am a busy, important person with real responsibilities. It’s an underhanded way of saying, “Get a life!”)
6. I must never assume intent or mindset.
I may not say say, “You clearly think you’re always right” unless the person I’m talking to has said, “I am always right.”
I will never begins a sentence with “People like you always say…” It’s fine, acceptable, and good to ask questions about mindset. “You say you’re a Republican? The republicans I know want lower taxes. Do you want lower taxes?”
I will never use an indvidual person as a proxy for some group. I may not assume a self-proclaimed republican is anti gay marriage unless he has said he’s anti gay marraige. (Of course, I can ask him if he is!) There’s no such thing for me as “You people” or “people like you.”
Each time I’m tempted to say, “You think…,” “You’ve claimed…,” or “You clearly believe…,” I will pause, take a deep breath, and ask myself, “Did he actually make that claim or implication? When?” When in doubt, I’m best of asking a question: “Do you believe…?”
7. I must never use sarcasm as a weapon.
“You’re quite right. No one should ever have to go to school! If no one went to school, we’d be living in a paradise!”
If my (passive-aggressive) point is “you’re really stupid,” then I’m engaging in an ad hominem attack. (See Rule 1.) If my point is “School is a good thing,” then I need to make that claim and support it.
8. I must never resort to bad behavior when all else has failed.
“You know what? I tried reasoning with you. I explained myself to you really clearly. In fact, I explain myself four TIMES. You refuse to listen. You know what? At this point … fuck you!”
I must either stay in the discussion and keep explaining myself clearly or opt out gracefully. (See Rule 5.)
9. I must never say, “You’re missing my point…”
Or “You misunderstood me,” “You’re still not hearing me,” “You don’t get it,” or any variation of those phrases.
No matter how clear I think I’m being, if the other person isn’t responding as if he understands, there are two possibilities: either he’s not thinking clearly or I’m not speaking clearly. (It could also be a combination of the two.)
I am never the best judge of whether or not I’m speaking clearly. No one is objective enough to judge his own speech that way, which is why writers need editors.
“You’re missing the point” is gratuitous information. If I’m debating Creationism, I should debate that. I shouldn’t waste time discussing whether or not someone is missing my point. That’s off-topic from my subject.
If it seems as if the person I’m talking to is missing my point, I should explain it again, switch to a different point, ask questions to see if I can figure out the cause of the confusion, or opt out. (See Rule 5.)
I get bonus points if instead of saying “You’re missing my point,” I say, “Sorry. I was unclear. How about we look at it this way…?” A little humility goes a long way. And even if I’m wrong, and it’s the other guy’s “fault,” I stand to learn more by taking responsibility than by fobbing it off on him.
10. If I’m frustrated and need to vent, I must do so without accusations.
I can vent elsewhere, or I can stay and discuss my feelings without blaming anyone for them (even if it’s “his fault”). When I start placing blame, my goal has changed from truth-seeking to something else—maybe to “righting a wrong” or criticizing. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But then I should be fair and make my game-change clear: “You know, I need to stop for a minute. I can’t go on discussing the Middle East crisis right now, because I’m hurt by what you said…”
I’m allowed to say, “I’m really frustrated right now.” I’m not allowed to engage in any of the bad behavior (ad hominem attacks, sarcasm…) outlined in these rules.
11. I will never nitpick at someone’s minor points.
If someone says, “You think the Internet is perfect? That’s what people said in the 1920s about the Titanic,” it derails the discussion for me to respond, “The Titanic sank in 1912!” His point was about hubris, and the minor didn’t affect his argument. My goal is to understand his key claims—and maybe to agree or disagree with them—not to win gotcha points.
(Later, when it won’t derail the conversation, it’s okay for me to say, “Oh. Just a note. The Titanic sank in 1912.” Conversational ninjas can even say this immediately, as long as they phrase it like similarly to this, “Well, the Titanic sank in 1912, but I take your point that…” I’m just a mortal, so I should probably stick to “later.”)
12. When (not if) I violate any of these rules, I must apologize.
It’s hard to argue fairly. Even if I start with the honest goal of seeking truth, someone will inevitably push my buttons (or I’ll push my own buttons), and I’ll explode. Unwittingly, my goal will switch from truth-seeking to winning. This is natural. It happens to everyone. I must have the humility to accept the fact that it will happen to me. When it happens, I must apologize.
If apologizing is deeply painful or irritating—so much so that I can’t bring myself to do it—then I must at least admit that I’ve quit seeking the truth: that I’ve changed the game and am now playing by new rules. My points are now about my ego. That’s not a horrible sin. It means I’m human.
Sometimes humans have to withdraw and lick their wounds. It’s honorable to take a break—even a permanent one—if I must.
If I choose to continue, I must say “You know, I just realized I insulted you …” (or whatever I did.) ” … I’m sorry. That was wrong of me.” I must pause after doing that, making sure to never combine an apology with a change of subject, or it will sound like I’m fleeing from the apology. I should never say, “I’m sorry I attacked you, but my point is…” Instead, I should take a deep breath, find some humility, look the other person in the eye, and say, “I was wrong.” Full Stop. Then let him speak. After he’s had a turn to respond, I am free to continue making my argument.
13. When asked a question, I must respond in one of three ways.
i. If I don’t know the answer, I must say, “I don’t know.”
ii. If I know the answer, I must give it.
iii. Unless answering makes me uncomfortable or puts me in peril (e.g. I’d lose my job if I answered), in which case I may politely opt out by saying, “Sorry, but I’d prefer not to answer.”
Asking questions (seeking knowledge) and providing answers (teaching) are two of the noblest and most important human activities. Though there are cases where I can opt out of answering, in general I should respond to questions with the best answers I can give.
By choosing to participate in a conversation, I signal my willingness to answer. If I’m not willing to answer questions any more, I need to leave. Staying but refusing to answer is never an option.
14. I must never hedge my bets, predicting the listener won’t agree or pay attention to me.
“There’s probably no point in me saying this, but…”
If I know in advance that he’ll refuse to agree or listen, there’s no point in me joining the discussion, so I should simply refuse to participate. If I do so anyway, even though I’m sure he won’t take me seriously, my motives are suspect. Maybe I’m trying to humiliate him by showing bystanders that he’s stubborn. (And by stacking the deck with “I know you’re not going to agree with this, but…”) If my aim is to prove he’s is foolish, then I must make that goal clear.
An example of what I mustn’t do: “Here’s a link to a scientific paper about the subject, which I’m sure you won’t bother to read.”
That may be a passive-aggressive attempt to shame my target into reading the article. It is, at heart, an ad hominem remark. “You won’t read it” is about the person, not the subject we’re discussing. I’m not allowed to be passive-aggressive.
In the end, all I can honorably do is present evidence. Others have the right to ignore it, whether I like that or not. I can always leave the discussion.
15. If it’s the case, I must admit that my “evidence” is “just a hunch.”
If it’s “an educated guess,” “just the way it is,” or “come on! Everyone knows it’s true,” I will not pretend it’s an objective, provable fact.
I don’t have to prefix all my opinions with “This is just my opinion,” especially if that’s clear from context, but I should be overt about it when there’s a risk of confusion, and, if questioned, I should certainly admit that I have no evidence aside from “being sure.”
Everyone has values or axioms, and I am allowed to have mine. I just need to make them explicit and never pretend they are supported by facts.
I am never allowed to masquerade my values with phrases like, “Surely, all people are good,” or “As we all know, education is important.”
16. I must not annotate.
I must avoid replying to (generally) written arguments (e.g. web-forum posts) that are riddled with errors by creating an annotated response, in which I quote from the text, explain an error, quote some more, explain an error in that bit, quote some more, explain another error, and so on.
Here’s an example of what I shouldn’t do:
“Blah blah blah blah blah.”
— The problem with blah is that blah and blah, and so blah blah, and blah. And you’re also wrong when you say blah, because blah, blah and blah.
“Foo foo foo foo foo foo.”
— Here, I don’t know what you mean by foo, because you haven’t defined foo-foo, and so foo can’t mean what you think it means.
“Fah fah fah fah fah.”
— I can’t believe you’re even bringing up fah, especially since, above, you said, “blah blah blah blah blah…”
The problem with annotated responses is that they almost never work (to promote truth-seeking discussions). They contain too much information and probably come across as an avalanche of nit-picking. Their narrow focus tends to draw attention away from the target’s main points. Annotated Responses are usually a way of proving to onlookers that the target is stupid. “Look how many mistakes he’s made!” Even if that’s not the intent, the target will probably assume it is.
He may respond by annotating my annotations, and before long our exchange will become a tangled, threaded nightmare. Inevitably, this conversational structure gets too heavy and topples over, ending with someone saying, “I don’t have all day to argue with you.” Neither party is any wiser, and both are exhausted.
The trick is to stop trying to fight all battles at once. If the target has made 30 errors, I should either focus on one or two that interest me or try to uncover some common theme—some lower-level foundation or higher-level abstraction—that allows me to respond in a gestalt-ish way, rather than in a point-by-point exegesis.
17. I must never employ left-handed or manipulative compliments.
“Surely someone as smart as you…”
Here are some more versions of it:
“You are obviously very smart, so I’m sure you’ll agree that …” (The implication is that if you don’t agree, then you must not be so smart, after all.)
“Since you’re such a perceptive guy, I’m sure you already know that…”
“I’m positive you’re joking, because someone as clever as you couldn’t possibly believe…”
“With all your experience, I’m know you’ll agree with me that…”
18. I must never be a Sneaky Politician.
When discussing a topic, I must either feel secure that I have no agenda—that I am genuinely ready to be swayed by the other person’s logic—or, if I have a bias, I must admit that upfront (or as soon as I become aware of it). I must not hide my bias.
The Sneaky Politician (or evangelist) wants to promote some point of view. Which would be fine if he disclosed it. The truth is, there are a various levels of bias. Fred might be unsure about his feelings towards “Star Trek”; Mary might have a distaste for it, but feel open to being convinced it’s actually a good show; Bill might hate it and want to prove to everyone that it’s terrible. Those are all acceptable stances, as long as they’re made clear.
Conversational problems arise when Bill pretends to be open minded but isn’t: when he hides his politicking. Thankfully, there’s almost always a giveaway.
Bill: “Star Trek” had the most absurd plots of any show in the history of television!
Kelly: Really, you think it had sillier plots than “Lost in Space”?
Bill: They are both silly shows. Anyway, the acting on “Star Trek” was terrible!
When Kelly objects in a way that thwarts Bill, he doesn’t say, “That’s a good point. I’ll have to think about it.” Instead, he just pushes her point aside and gives another reason why “Star Trek” sucks.
This is a sign that he’s not interested in an exchange of ideas. He’s only interested in promoting his view. Which, again, is okay, as long as he’s upfront about it. Unfortunately, Bill is unwilling to say, “I have come here to convince people ‘Star Trek’ is a bad show. I have a bunch of evidence, and my goal here is to present it. I am not really interested in counter arguments, though I’ll be happy to topple any that I can. If I can’t topple one, I’ll ignore it.”
I must never act like Bill.
See Rule 4. If I concede a point, I must always fully and openly concede it. I am never allowed to mix conceding a point with changing the subject.
Miscellanious Notes and Tips
Sarcastic and Biting Phrases I’m Forbidden from Using:
“Ever wonder why …?” (As in “Ever wonder why every one of your posts ends in an argument?”)
“Hate to break it to you, but…”
“Had you given two seconds of thought to what you just wrote, you’d have realized…”
“I wasn’t the one who brought up…”
“Sorry, guys, but I’m done with this one.”
“Oh, come on!”
“Um ….” (When used to imply that the target has just said something stupid or weird, as in “Um … cats are felines, not canines.”)
Unless the discussion is about definitions (and everyone agrees that’s what it’s about), it’s underhanded (or, at best, confused) to dwell on them.
Bill: I’m a Catholic, but I don’t accept the Pope’s as my spiritual leader.
Mike: Then you’re not Catholic.
Bill: I’m not a traditional Catholic, but I take most of Catholic doctrine seriously, and …
Mike: No, you’re not a Catholic.
Bill: Okay. You can call me whatever you want. My point is that I’m a person who goes to mass, confession, and …
Mike: That’s not enough. You’re not a Catholic unless …
See Disputing Definitions.