I spend a fair amount of my time on The Standard exploring and explaining how the debate culture here works. In part because I’m a moderator, but also because I love arguing when it is done well so I want debate culture here to be as functional as it can be.
Moderation is often reactive to a negative situation, which is not so much fun, so I’m going to try and write a series of posts about debate, why it matters, and how to do it well, with particular reference to politics and online spaces including The Standard.
Incognito also from time to time writes about how The Standard works, how to debate well and why that matters.
Today’s post is about a concept I’ve come across from three completely different thinkers in recent times: the idea that our arguments and, in my opinion, our politics and thus our society, improve when we can understand our opponent’s perspective in a reasonable and neutral light.
… a best-selling author and philosopher of technology, whose new book, How to Think, explores the habits and practices that are fundamental to clear thinking and effective study.
From the ethics of AI, and tech in deep time, to the philosophy of fake news and what it means to think well, Tom’s work explores how we might improve our experiences and understanding of ourselves, of one another and of technology.
Lots of goodies in the podcast, this is the one that stood out today. Tom Chatfield,
There’s a classic observation which among others the philosopher Daniel Dennet has made. Which is that if you disagree with someone or if you are entering into a debate, one of the best ways to do this with integrity is to first of all try and state someone else’s position in a form that they would agree is reasonable and strong.
And then to outline where you may agree with them and have some kind of common ground. And only then, after you have done that, to explain where and how and why you may disagree with them. Or be uncertain and be seeking a mutual line of investigation. And you don’t do this just because it’s nice, and you don’t want to offend anybody, or you don’t have any opinions, you do this because if you are genuinely interested in trying to work out what’s going on, and understand things, you really do need to try and encounter other people’s ideas, or new ideas, in their strongest possible form.
And you need to put your own strongly held ideas to a meaningful test. It’s no good repeating slogans or kind of beating the drum for an orthodoxy. That may or may not be a righteous thing to do, but it’s unpersuasive. And it doesn’t create any of these kind of I think empathetic or compassionate spaces where hopefully, maybe, sometimes we can learn to understand each other a little better, and understand what’s going on around us a little more rigorously.
Being able to understand someone else’s point of view empathetically, is exactly the social practice we need at this point of increasing polarisation and social break down. We need to remember that we are all human beings. Empathy here doesn’t mean sympathy, and if the idea of having empathy for a political rival’s position grates, consider it good strategy instead.
Because it doesn’t mean agreeing with someone else we disagree with, it means that we make the time to understand what they’re talking about rather than projecting our own ideas onto what they are talking about.
For the left this is especially valuable as our tendency to think ‘we know everything because we’re on the side of good’ is failing to bring along many.
It also matters because social media culture sets us up for cheap wins rather than building a body of argument that will sustain itself over time.
And strong, healthy debate culture based on shared understanding rather than shouting slogans at each other or circling the same argument drain for the zillionth time because we’re not listening to each other, will benefit us. Not only is it more pleasurable and satisfying, but such a culture means our own arguments will be engaged with for what they are rather than the bastard child that comes out of the brain of someone who wants to win or distort rather than understand.
There’s another whole post here about how the social media giants have spent a decade training us to fight each other so they can make money, but I am curious whether the current Standardistas still have enough immunity to be able to cultivate an atmosphere based in respect and good process, and what that might look like here specifically.