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Why we debate

Written By: - Date published: 11:55 am, July 18th, 2021 - 18 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, The Standard - Tags: , , ,

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.

I’ve been listening to this episode of The Hive Podcast where Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, author Natalie Nahai interviews Dr Tom Chatfield. Chatfield is,

… 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.


18 comments on “Why we debate ”

  1. Dennis Frank 1

    I guess political culture is enriched by debate when there's a ferment of thought generated, new insights, a sense of emerging progress rather than stasis. However, that could just be my subjective slant on it. Judith's billboards are interesting in that they demand a debate. Supply & demand economic theory then kicks in & everyone wonders who will supply it. She seems to expect the govt to do so – but I doubt it & feel she's just being disingenuous. A charade.

    You're right to encourage the real thing. Trouble is, a multidimensional mess tends to erupt due to biodiversity. That makes framing essential, to herd participants into a collective focus on key dimensions. Complex systems seem like a random walk but there's order in with the chaos. Intelligent design implemented via nudge theory can steer a bunch of debaters. One could liken a political debating group to an ecosystem, but also to a crowd of passengers on a ship. Steering then becomes relative to the destination, eh?

    As regards group psychodynamics, they get driven by perceptions of common ground vs differential tendencies. Those who tacitly seek to differentiate from others fall into the partisan trap. So we must transcend our innate individualism by mental discipline, to focus on what we share. Then common interests clarify. I agree re empathy, I'm just pointing out that more steering seems required – which can emerge from the group as often as from a leader or moderator.

    • weka 1.1

      I was chuffed when looking for a front page image for the post to find one that said 'create the debate'. Counterpoint to Collins' macho politics.

      TS culture is hardwired for argument and oppositional debate. I agree that steering can come from the group as well as leaders (authors) and mods. Encouragement and demonstration of useful debate alongside targeted moderation as needed seems the key to me. The encouragement and demonstration is on all of us. Moderation has failed this at times by taking out key players who have good debate skills. There's a kind of entrophy there and I'm not sure how to change that. I've seen it in other online debate culture groups I've been in as well. Maybe the destination you mention is the key? Do we have a lack of purpose?

    • Robert Guyton 1.2

      Dennis: "So we must transcend our innate individualism by mental discipline, to focus on what we share." Indeed, indeed, indeed! We "what-ever-it-is-that-we-ares" (Lefties etc.) refine our views more and more finely as time goes by: we love dissection, finesse and believing that we hold "special" knowledge and views, we can't seem to help excluding or alienating our own; this is a fatal flaw that I hope will be covered in more detail here, by weka and those who join the debate.

      • Dennis Frank 1.2.1

        I suspect you see that due to your experience of practical politics, Robert. Mine certainly transformed my idiosyncratic attitudes substantially. I still get the subjective reflexes, which may trigger anger etc, but have mellowed sufficiently that I usually engage topics with more of a dispassionate style than is natural to me! wink

  2. SPC 2

    A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.


    Once you learn about this mental habit – called confirmation bias – you start seeing it everywhere.


  3. Robert Guyton 3

    Weka, you wrote: "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" but where you've used, "whether", shouldn't that read, "why it is that"?

    In truth, I find most-if-not-all on-line forums for debate interesting; even Kiwiblog et cetera, as there are bright folk everywhere, arguing for their beliefs. I no longer spend any more than the most fleeting of moments on those sites, as they are over-populated with shallow thinkers amongst whom the smarter, or at least, funnier, ones roam, for reasons known only to themselves, but don't dismiss them out of hand.

    There are some built-in impediments to on-line debating, mis-interpreting being but one of them, but tonal matters too. I've puttered about on-line forums for many years now and believe I've benefitted greatly from reading the views of others who's views are different from my own and have found that as a result, I've become a lot quieter in debates out in the real world 🙂 The most fun I get from debates here, is tossing-in little rubber monkey-wrenches, aimed at any unprotected funny-bones; that's not to say I ever hit one bar my own 🙂

    I like that you've broached the topic though; it's the basics we would do well to attend-to, as the saucepan heats up.

    • weka 3.1

      "shouldn't that read, "why it is that"?"

      Good point Robert. Indeed and I would point to Lynn's long holding of the robust debate kaupapa as being a big part of it, as well as the insistence that people actually debate. Choosing not to put like/dislike buttons on comments (or posts! lol) being a smaller but important thing. The regular commenters who value the difference between opinion and fact and will argue that out.

      The question for me then is how much do we want to curate this further?

  4. Dennis Frank 4

    Do we have a lack of purpose?

    Good question! smiley The commentariat is only here to make comments, so the site provides adequately for that common purpose. Scan the about page, you don't see a heading Purpose, so the minimalist design must be tacit.

    As regards any leftist agenda providing common purpose, I'm agnostic. Due to not being a leftist in terms of identity politics. I have, in recent years, been obliged to concede considerable common ground with leftists in terms of values & political aspirations. I'm definitely happy to acknowledge that rightist political culture has become so toxic that the prospect of constructive collaboration has largely evaporated. James did well to get some despite that trend, to his credit.

    I think the zeitgeist factor ought to be considered too. I've pointed out once or twice that the societal pendulum is swinging back toward collectivism (which I grew up in). Rebels like me jumped into individualism in the 1960s to escape the oppression of conformity to a braindead majority rule, but the pendulum swung to an excess decades later and regeneration of community is now where people ought to head. Social science research is documenting the current zeitgeist.

    "In the Axios/Momentive poll, 41% said they had a positive reaction to the word socialism and 52% had a negative one. Fifty-one percent of the youngest age groups (ages 18–34) had a positive view." https://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2021/07/01/socialism-capitalism-and-candidates-updating-attitudes/

    "According to a Gallup Poll this past year, nearly 50% of millennial and Gen Z respondents held a positive view of socialism." https://www.seattletimes.com/business/this-eras-capitalism-is-driving-many-among-the-young-to-socialism/

    Yet TS is only ever likely to resonate with this trend in an ad hoc way by design, eh? I'm not suggesting a change, just addressing the topic (purpose). Advancing the common cause of leftism could be a good thing. I have no problem with the notion. My natural tendency would be to evaluate any such endeavour on the basis of design, method, process, etc…

  5. mac1 5

    Good thoughts, Weka. I've just returned from the national Grey Power AGM where sometime reasoned debate did prevail and I learned at a personal level that two remits, that seemed to differ with each other and with GP policy, could actually complement each other. That was achieved by talking to the parties involved and seeking common ground.

    You wrote "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." That is very true for the criticism from the right of progressive policy often descends to the counter calls of 'nanny state', (with its subtext of "don't tell me what to do" that was very evident in the recent groundswell protest), 'political correctness', 'wokeism' and 'virtue signalling'.

    How do we counter that kind of stereotyping in order to advance debate?

    I have found with recent debates and issues that fear and other feelings often drive what is argued rather than fact-based, intellectual grounds.

    Being able to summarise the opposition's POV just might help us to understand the feelings from which they might be operating, as well as find the common ground, as I did with those GP remits.

  6. Sacha 6

    Not everything needs to be 'debated'.

    • Shanreagh 6.1

      I cannot summarise your view as you have not given me enough information to do so.

      What sort of topics do you see fitting in this category? Are you meaning here on TS there are things that need no debate or are not capable of debate? Or in the private sphere? I know in times of danger we do not want a big debate while a parent or a boat skipper when we are telling/asking people to do something to keep us out of danger.

      I cannot think of anything that does not have a potential for debate in the topics we discuss here.

      Statements of fact? So we have yours, mine and ours facts? Perhaps we could agree not to debate an agreed set of facts? But why would we do this…we are not a legal agency where agreed sets of facts are the aim and a way to cut to the chase.

      Debating is the life blood of communities that want to go forward.

  7. RedLogix 7

    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.

    I read your OP with very mixed feelings. On the one hand I emphatically agree with it's intellectual sentiments, they're well expressed and important.

    On the other you might want to consider how I read them from a personal historic perspective.

  8. RobbieWgtn 8

    I'm currently reading "Good thinking" by David Robert Grimes (also known as "The Irrational Ape"). An excellent & readable history & explanation of Critical Thinking theory and practice.

    Recommended for all on both sides of the debate, especially those that wonder where we'd be without free speech.

  9. Jae 9

    The issue with this for me is that sometimes, people are not genuine in their rationale for their position. They have an ulterior motive, discernable by looking at their actions, and that needs to be called out.

    Additionally, the purpose of public discourse isn't and can't always be to inform and convince. Sometimes it is about building solidarity and letting people who have it tough know they are not alone. This purpose is, to me, often more important than trying to convince people I have fundamental disagreements with. I see it as more important because it has a greater and more real impact: people I disagree with are often in a place of comfort and want for little, and I have little chance of convincing them. The people I hope to show solidarity with however often feel alone, and seeing support makes a material difference in their lives.

    • Jae 9.1

      Having said that, the format and technique mentioned of trying to state the other person's position in a logical way, is something I do use interpersonally and see the merits of. It's just in discourse where I think we need to consider the point

      • Shanreagh 9.1.1

        It is hard to do the summarising, which is a very good technique, when people just make bald statements such as in 6 above, sort of 'hit and run' style. I have seen that technique close down a conversation in real life very quickly and everyone stands around saying or thinking 'whaaat' ……

        To have a conversation or discourse you need input from both sides. To me it is scary when the face is turned away from putting a few points in what, in this case, is an extraordinary statement. 'Do as I say' thinkers are close to dictatorship and undemocratic if they come anywhere near the levers of power.

  10. Gosman 10

    I think to do this requires a degree of understanding of where the other side is coming from and the left generally don't understand the right very well at all. There are many on the right that also don't understand the left (then ones who call Jacinda a Maxist or Communist)but these tend to be in the minority whereas I don't think many left wingers grasp how any rational person could support right wing ideals.

    I admit I enjoy knocking down left wing ideas and arguments and am guilty of a confrontation approach at times however often times I am trying to get the proponents of left wing ideas to think through the consequences of them or to highlight flaws in their attacks on right wing policies rather than these people just making assumptions on the validity of their own position. Ultimately most views on a topic are just as valid as others and it is how you determine success of a policy that determines whether it should be adopted.

  11. Tiger Mountain 11

    Debating in online forums is up there with all sorts of other risk taking, and some might think rather pointless behaviour really given the existential bind every last one of us humans is in.

    Whether you are into stoicism, marxism, post modernism, social democracy, the Chicago Boys, or just enjoy seeing your brilliant intellect presented in pixels on a site some one else maintains and pays for…many remain attracted to contributing.

    To paraphrase retired (from touring) Michigan rocker Bob Seger…

    “Youth and beauty are gone one day
    No matter what you dream or feel or say
    It ends in dust and disarray

    Like wind on the plains, sand through the glass
    Waves rolling in with the tide
    Dreams die hard and we watch them erode
    But we cannot be denied
    The fire inside”

    I mean who does not want to see the nasty Natz slaughtered again in 2023…

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