A Few Considerations About The Arena Of Discourse

It is January the first month of a new calendar year and one often finds blog posts with reflections on the months past or looking at the coming months with a mixture of hope, resolution, anticipation, concern or discomfort where the exact ratios of these and other factors depend on the author in question.  I had been considering one or two blogs doing some reflecting on the past year and a quick look at trends and expectations.  However another matter began competing for my attention recently and thus this blog post will not be a looking back or looking ahead post.

The topic of this post is about the arena of discourse or what some call the marketplace of ideas or the public dialogue.  Specifically I want to make a plea for us all to be good stewards of the arena of discourse and to note some practices which hinder and some which help this stewardship.  This is very similar to but different from personal epistemological hygiene and it can be argued that having ones own epistemological house in order is likely a prerequisite for dealing with the broader arena of pubic discourse

Today with the internet it is relatively easier than in the past for individuals to publish their ideas where they can be considered by many others. At least potentially considered since the internet does not guarantee an audience. Prior to the internet those without a major media outlet could reach a potentially smaller audience by the use of relatively cheap duplication technology such as photocopier and before that mimeograph   And for those with the time and money there was the possibility of setting up a small hand operated press.  Of course as Moses Harmon and others found out the problem of having ones publication seized in the mails could not be ignored.  In the 1950s and 1960s the postal censorship situation improved.

The phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" is commonly attributed to Voltaire.  There are several reasons why we all should undertake this shared responsibility to keep the arena of public discourse is as good a condition as possible.  One of these is that each of us will have our own pet ideas evaluated in that arena and I expect that we will want our ideas evaluated by persons who already have the skills and habits of making accurate and fair evaluations.  So what are a few tips for improving our shared arena of discourse.

One of the first is to avoid logical fallacies.  There are many resources that explain logical fallacies and it is a good idea to find a couple and keep the URLs handy for example:

But it is more than just avoiding logical fallacies.  Just like one does not throw candy wrappers on the ground when walking in a park we should be similarly considerate of our discourse in the garden park of ideas.  If I can use this park metaphor for just a bit more we should be vigilant to not plant or perpetuate falsehoods for these are the weeds in the park.  We should nourish honesty and integrity.  Plus we should be aware that there will often be disagreements.  People no matter how honest and well intended can disagree so the goal should be to keep things civil and work on determining the cause of the disagreement.  And remember that one failure does not forever mark person as outside the realm of civilized discourse.  I expect that each of us including me has slipped up and written or spoken something which is not in accordance with one of these principles.  The point is to identify the problem and try to do better.

If you reference a document please provide a link so people know what you taking about. Newspapers are part of the discourse and in their online editions one would expect links to primary sources so that a person can find the original and make up their own mind.  Not like the recent experience I had where a major newspaper located in the DC area had an article about a report published by a government agency.  What I could not find was a link to the original article; there were plenty of links in the article but everyone of them linked back to lists of other articles in the newspaper site; by doing a Google search I was able to find the original document   Even if it disappears from the original site just having the URL will help with trying to find it on archive.org the Internet Archive

Also be careful of how one characterizes others in the dialogue. For example consider someone in the political sphere who identifies as a Green and who is also what is commonly called a 9/11 Truther which slightly over simplified means they think that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and the World Trade Center towers were brought down by planted explosives not as a result of being hit by the airplanes.  The distinction we need to keep in mind is if the 9/11 Truther stuff derives from the Green philosophy or if it just the ideas of some people who just happen to identify as Green.

When engaging in a dialogue remember it is a dialogue not a monologue. You may think the other person is wrong but the key is to find that person's strongest argument and address that argument.  This will hopefully encourage the other person in the dialogue to do the same relative to your arguments.

One of the easiest activities to fall into is going after the weakest argument in a group and then acting as if one has vanquished them all. We should avoid letting a philosophy or movement or social group be defined by their least credible or sympathetic advocate or member.

This is all to easy when attempting to create or perpetuate a stereotype.  For example a reporter who goes to a Science Fiction convention and focuses on the person who lives in his mother's basement collecting action figures.  And to make the main lead of their story the reporter  walks past the elementary school teacher who could talk about how to inspire children and the scholar in intellectual history who can talk about the impact of post WWII Science Fiction in France or the corporate lawyer for a major technology company who can knowledgeably discuss legal issues in technology or the physicist who can discuss technology as it is portrayed in novels.  It is the issue of a representative sample versus a selective sample.  And we know that reporter works for a media company that wants capture attention and sell advertisements.  Yes the reporter should behave better but will they; I am not sure.  Perhaps the best thing to do is show a good example.  It might begin by not doing the usual stereotyping of some political or religious group.  If we start a meme about fair representation and issues related to not only to politics and religion but also gender, race and similar factors perhaps the situation will improve.

Another part of the process is to try to develop common clear crisp definitions and to clearly determine the topic of conversation.  This goes a long way toward avoiding endless looping.  For example if two people agree that they want a just society yet are disagreeing about how to get there it is a good idea to make sure they have the same concept of justice.  There is a concept of justice based on the rules of social interaction and the related processes.  This is a also a concept of justice based on the distribution of outcomes.  There are other definitions and variants.  The point is for there to be a common understanding of where the difference is occurring.  Thus it is valuable for each participant in the discussion to have a clear conceptual map of their own views as well as the views of the other participants.  I said it is valuable; I did not say it is common.

There is a difference between directing humor and ridicule at an argument and directly them at a person making the argument.  It is a thin boundary and easy to cross inadvertently so humor and ridicule need to be used with care.  In some circumstances humor can break the tension and get everyone to relax.   In other circumstances in can cause a breech in the flow of ideas.  One of the problems here is that so many people identify with their ideas and ideologies.  Often much of a persons social context is in groups with many commonly held ideas and thus for a person to abandon an idea might feel like either leaving or being expelled from the group.  One way of addressing this is to propagate the meme of always questioning and doubting and always making every hypothesis subject to falsification.  This stems from the work of Karl Popper in the philosophy of science.  The critical rationalism approach was extended by W.W. Bartley who felt that if could be useful in analyzing issues related to the long standing clash between science and religion.  The approach he developed called Pan-Critical Rationalism is useful in looking at that clash but is also useful in understanding issues related to other issues.

Now let me comment on strawman arguments.  In my experience strawman arguments can arise in three different ways. First when a person understands a position perfectly well and deliberately  misrepresents that position.  Second is when a person mistakenly thinks they understand a position and misrepresent it.  Third is when a person is aware that they do not understand a position but make a representation as if they did.  The person whose argument is being subjected to this strawman treatment will often not know which of the three situations is occurring.  That is why it is important to firmly but politely object to the strawman with specifics.  And if someone claims you are doing a strawman on their argument ask for specific details.

Selective quoting is one of those behaviors that is easier to catch now with so many works available online. An example: if I was asked about which of the baseball players of the pre-WWI era I admired and I wrote "Leaving his racism aside, I admire Ty Cobb."  If someone else then wrote that I admired a known racist in an attempt to disparage my character that would be inappropriate.  Actually I am not a big baseball fan and not a Ty Cobb fan, I  had to look up Ty Cobb to make sure that the example worked.  My point is that we need verify quotes and ask for citations and make sure that context is supplied.  In particular do this for quotes or anecdotes that are the "silver bullet" in some argument.  I expect most of us have heard the quotation or anecdote that clearly supports our view and discredits and contradicts a view we do not hold and thus we really want it email it and tweet it and blog it and Facebook it and GooglePlus it all at once to the whole world however that is the moment to instead stop and make sure the quote or anecdote is accurate, in context and really represents the situation.  And remember to check snopes.com please.  I have seen my friends get embarrassed because someone emailed them something and because it was from a friend they just put it out themselves without checking only to find the item they propagated was not accurate.

I recommend reading for understanding not to find a gotcha.  One example of this is when a writer makes a small error which is not consequential to the issue under discussion.  For example if a person mistakenly attributes a Richard Feynman quote to Carl Sagan that would only invalidate an argument if the author of the quote was a central aspect of the discussion.  Otherwise it is worth a minor correction just to keep confusion from arising but not to derail the discussion. Similar to the above is when there is an obvious mistake in typing.  Thus if a major anti-censorship figure types "I am in favor of censorship" where obviously the word "not" was missing and the intended phrase should be "I am not in favor of censorship".

Another item to avoid is the derailment.  This is taking a discussion off topic.  Some people do this because the discussion is not going their way and they want to get the topic shifted before the last bit of their argument is publicly shredded.  Others do it because they have a particular hobby horse and they feel this great urge to shift the discussion to their favorite topic or at least one in which they feel they are expert.  For example no matter what the topic of discussion they might steer the discussion to the role of the British Monarchy in being part of some secret conspiracy behind the assassination of  both Kennedy brothers.

Avoid the Gish Gallop.  This is the name given by Eugenie Scott to a debate technique of the creationist Duane Gish.  The technique is to spew out an incredibly large number of falsehoods, half-truths, misleading comments, strawmen arguments and canards in such a fashion that a person on the other side of a debate can not answer them.  What is the count needed for someone to be engaging in a Gish Gallop?  That is open to discussion; one number I have seen is 50.  The point is not the exact number but the intention.  This is particularly tempting to do to someone who is not as linguistically skilled as you are.  Please don't do it.

Don t be afraid to say "I don't know" when you do not know.  Deliberately blustering through an argument with false or incomplete or misleading statements might lead to a short term advantage but for the long term it is usually not worth it.

It is important to be able to identify what you do not know. Failure to do so can be like going around a corner at high speed and no visibility; it can often lead to a negative experience.  If the ignorance is due to someone not realizing the state of ignorance it is worthwhile to politely point the person to the appropriate information resources.  If a person stays in a state of ignorance willful by not asking or by not seeking information or by not accessing information when it is provided

These few comments do not come close to covering all of what needs to be covered.  However I hope it is a starting point.