[Epistemic status: something I’ve been thinking about recently. There’s a lot of complication around these issues and this is more to start a discussion than to present any settled solution]
There’s a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye is describing his peaceful little town. He says they never fight – except that one time about a horse some people thought was a mule. Someone interrupts him to say it was really a mule some people thought was a horse, and then everyone in town starts shouting “MULE!” or “HORSE!” at each other until they get drowned out by the chorus.
The town is happy and peaceful as long as nobody brings up the horse/mule thing. As soon as somebody brings it up all of the old rancor instantly resurfaces and everybody’s at each other’s throats. And the argument itself never gets more sophisticated than people yelling “HORSE!” or “MULE!” at each other. Maybe it would be worth it to create a norm around never bringing it up?
The rationalist/EA/etc community has a norm that people must be able to defend their beliefs with evidence, and a further norm that people shouldn’t be confident in their beliefs unless they’ve sounded them off others and sought out potential counterarguments. These are great norms. But their failure mode is a community where dredging up interminable horse/mule style arguments is seen as a virtue, and avoiding them is seen as a cowardly refusal to expose one’s own beliefs to challenge.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of some arguments that keep cropping up on rationalist Tumblr. These have gotten so repetitive and annoying that I made a joke argument calendar to shame us for it; some of the people who replied were less able to see the humor in it and thought we really should be ashamed.
After some thought, I agree. Avoiding interminable arguments is an important social engineering problem we’re really bad at. Part of it is that we need a way to distinguish the baby from the bathwater. What does it mean to seek out productive discussion while avoiding interminable arguments?
A while back I wrote about memetic evolution for controversy. If an idea is outrageous, it’s likely to spread as people condemn it. if something is controversially outrageous, it’s likely to spread even further, as people argue against it and then other people counterargue against the arguments ad infinitum. This gives it visibility far beyond things that are objectively more important. The entire news media freaks out over BernieBros for weeks, and nobody ever hears about desalinization policy in drought-stricken nations.
Interminable arguments are the local version of the same process. For me, the biggest difference between a productive discussion and an interminable argument is simple. I’m participating in the productive discussion because I want to. I’m participating in the interminable argument because I have to.
I mean, obviously nobody’s pointing a gun to my head and forcing me into any arguments. But there are a lot of reasons I might feel obligated to debate something I really don’t have time for.
First, there’s the feeling XKCD describes as “someone is wrong on the Internet”. When somebody makes a deeply flawed argument against a position you hold dear, and everyone else seems to believe them, it creates (at least for me) this weird irresistable urge to correct them.
Second, sometimes people are jerks. Nobody on Tumblr can just say “I don’t think AI is a big problem”. They have to say “I don’t think AI is a big problem, and the only reason some people worry about it is because they’re cultish sci-fi dorks who are too brainwashed to look up what real scientists have to say”. Nobody on Tumblr can just say they think feminism is important; they have to post comics like this. This is hard to just leave be, especially when it’s not just yourself but your friends who are being insulted, and especially when a lot of people are vocally agreeing with them and even some people you think should know better are being convinced. Letting jerks have the last word is really hard.
Third, sometimes there are actually things at stake. I’ve written before on how one of the main reasons I get defensive is because I think some groups actively strategize to push their opponents out of the Overton Window and turn them into despised laughingstocks. When it works, it means I either have to be a despised laughingstock or spend way too much mental energy hiding my true opinions. The alternative to letting these people have the final say is defending one’s self.
When I don’t want to argue but feel forced into it, I’m doing a very different thing than when I’m having a voluntary productive discussion. I’m a lot less likely to change my views or admit subtlety, because that contradicts my whole point in having the argument. And I’m a lot more likely to be hostile, because hostility is about making other people feel bad and disincentivizing their behavior, and in this case I really do believe their behavior needs disincentivizing.
But of course this just starts the cycle where people who disagree with me – both the original people I’m arguing against, and bystanders who just happen to hear – feel forced to write nasty replies of their own. And so on. It only dies down once everybody can tell themselves that they put enough effort into self-defense to acquit themselves well. And as soon as somebody challenges that – like Tevye in the Fiddler song – the whole thing starts up again as bad as ever.
So how does a community prevent this? Blocking jerks – the people who start the whole cycle by deliberately trolling others – is an obvious good start. But some people on the Tumblr discussion have mentioned some more subtle points worth thinking about.
First, the influx of newbies is a big driver of this dynamic. Newbies are less likely to know the relevant arguments, won’t be bored of them yet, won’t want to steer clear of them, and may mistake somebody’s unwillingness to engage for the 9000th time as unwillingness to engage at all. People should be more tolerant of newbies, and newbies should be more tolerant of “look in the archives for the last time we discussed this issue, but seriously, don’t start up about this again”. This is what I think social justice people mean when they talk about “this is not a 101 space”.
Second, be aware that some problems with interminable arguments might be asymmetrical. I’ve heard this most often in social justice contexts. For example, cis people might never have discussed trans issues much before and might find them really interesting and not particularly defensiveness-inducing. But consider what happens if there are a hundred times more cis people than trans people, plus trans people have spent a hundred times longer thinking about it, plus trans people have a lot less tolerance before they get annoyed. A cis person might innocently ask “Hey, isn’t using chromosomal sex as a proxy for gender a pretty elegant system which is much easier than all of this stuff about different identities?” because they really want to know and their local trans person seems like a good person to debate with. Meanwhile, the trans person might have had this exact debate two thousand times, find it personally insulting, but not know how to disengage politely without giving the impression that they’re too much of an intellectual lightweight to answer the simplest of questions about something very important to them.
(This isn’t limited to social justice or identity politics. I feel this same way sometimes on relatively transhumanist-free parts of the Internet. Someone will make a well-intentioned attempt to start a discussion, like “But what you people don’t get is that the AI will be smart enough to realize that paper clips are silly and compassion towards all living things is the best goal,” and I’ll want to say something like “Look, I promise that in fifty years of thinking about machine ethics somebody else has raised that point before, I think you’re so confused about things that correcting you wouldn’t be a very good use of my time, but if you google anything at all in this general area you’ll probably find an answer to your question.” But that would just be the “it’s not my job to educate you” or “read the Sequences” answer which so many people find annoying.)
But third, as I said before, make it absolutely super-duper crystal clear that there is not a community norm that everybody has to defend their positions every time they are asked, do not say anything like “I’ve never heard you response to Point X so now I’m going to assume that you have no argument against it and are just a brainwashed cultist taking your position on faith” and emphasize that although everybody who wants to be accurate should discuss and challenge their beliefs, nobody should have to do it to anyone else’s schedule.
The exact way this works is something I’m still working on. More and more I’m abandoning the idea of debating on social media/comments/forums entirely, and switching either to email or longer forms. Email is private and removes the performative factor; I can’t say how many times a previously terrible discussion has become manageable and productive as soon as it gets outside the public eye. And by longer forms, I mean things like books and (really good long form) blog posts. I would much rather read the best book by someone I disagree with, and hear all their best arguments laid out by a leading intellectual with a good editor, rather than have to listen to somebody taunt me on Tumblr. And if I don’t understand something about the book, or I still have questions, then I can pick one or two people I know and debate it with them privately.
Part of me thinks this is another point in favor of niceness. A community made mostly of nice people can probably hold more productive debates and have fewer interminable arguments than one that’s not as good at civility. On the other hand, I see these problems even among nice people. I think that the skill of structuring a point such that nobody feels attacked by it is complicated in ways beyond regular niceness, and that otherwise nice communities can sometimes make the right choice in deciding to avoid the whole issue.