From Straw to Steel

commusings Aug 22, 2020

I am facing the daunting task of setting up three daughters for successful distance learning. I keep reminding myself that there is no playbook for parenting during a pandemic. This helps assuage the guilt I feel for engaging in petty acts of bribery. We have resorted to cajoling our kids into engaging with Zoom lessons for interminable hours by adopting a range of lovable furry animals. This inducement elicited a fierce backseat debate between my two youngest.

 “Lolli, what do you want, a cat or a dog?” asked Micah.

 “I think cats are cuddlier, so I’d say a cat,” replied Lolli.

“You’re such a dog hater!” retorted Micah.

From the driver’s seat, I couldn’t help but interject and point out to Micah that she had just used a straw man argument against Lolli. Neither saw the relevance of The Wizard of Oz in their dispute.

Straw man arguments riddle the invective of social media. Here’s one I just picked off Facebook.

Poster 1: I believe that building a wall on the border will stem the tide of illegal immigration.

Poster 2: Only a racist would post that.

In this example, regardless of what one may think about the efficacy or ethics of a border wall, Poster 2 “stood up a straw man.”

A straw man is a form of argument that creates the impression of refuting an opinion. However, the real underlying idea of the opinion under discussion is not addressed or properly negated. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be "attacking a straw man” because it’s distinctly unchallenging to knock down a man of such flimsy substance.

The typical straw man argument creates the illusion of having completely defeated an opponent's proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition and the subsequent refutation of that false argument ("to knock down a straw man") instead of the opponent's true and original proposition.

There has been a population explosion of straw men on social media. The modern iteration of the public square is the perfect breeding ground for emotional and reductionist debates about highly charged and nuanced subjects. Crouched behind the safe anonymity of their screens, people circumvent substantial debate about ideas and condemn the people who hold them. This is referred to as an ad hominem attack (as exemplified above) and fuels our hyper-polarized and balkanized society.

I want to propose an alternative approach for public debate: Steelmanning

No, it’s not a series of high-intensity workout videos. It’s actually a debate technique I have adopted that has emerged directly out of penning this weekly missive.

As a general note, I make my absolute best efforts to tackle thorny topics respectfully, thoughtfully, and with research that conforms to a journalistic code of ethics. My goal is to stimulate complex, long-wave conversations that transcend the parameters of social media’s tight goal posts. However, I freely admit to making plenty of mistakes and that there are people who not only possess opposing viewpoints, but also have profound expertise on particular topics I do not. I hear from them. And I have become very grateful for their thorough and scrupulous criticism because that is how I learn and grow.

Steelmanning could be considered the opposite of strawmanning. Here is how it works:

  • Identify an opinion you have on a particular issue.
  • Find someone who disagrees with your position.
  • Humbly listen to her opinion, while discarding your own pre-existing bias (to the degree that it is possible).
  • Fully ingest and process her argument.
  • Attempt to re-express her position clearly, vividly, and fairly out loud to her.
  • Enumerate any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

Some additional texture. Before jumping into this exercise, commit to a thorough, thoughtful inventory that girds your original position. Gather facts and data from reliable, ethical sources to support your opinion. Ideally, find a partner who is thoughtful and shares the spirit of this joint exercise. When listening, do so without facially expressing dismay or disgust. Note what information triggers you and note where you are most intrigued. In the re-expression of her position, focus on the best and most compelling parts of her argument.

And if winning an argument is really what drives you, steelmanning is perhaps the sharpest of weapons, since you hone your own argument by thoroughly understanding the most convincing elements of the opposing view.

This technique also works in reverse where your partner will steelman you. This exercise is done preferably in person or on Zoom as visual interaction is usually less dehumanizing. You may choose to record it so that you can re-experience it and also model it for others. If you can’t find a willing opponent, you can practice with someone by simply assuming the opposing roles.

This drill yields myriad results. It produces more fortified opinions. It creates the possibility for common ground by humanizing your rival. Through the free exchange of ideas, novel and more evolved positions may cream to the top. It rounds the edges of our codified and binary ideological boxes. This debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson provides an excellent example of this technique.

Steelmanning, however, is more than a nifty debate technique. It is a potent personal development tool. 

It develops humility and tolerance by forcing you to assume that the people with whom you disagree, as much as you might dislike them and their ideas, still have something to teach you. It fosters empathy and compassion, counteracting our impulse to quickly dismiss or declare victory. It broadens our minds by pushing the limits of what we might consider possible. It develops humility and our ability to listen. It roots us in logic and rationality by underscoring the notion that we are debating ideas, not debasing people. The enemy is the idea, not the person. And we should focus on eradicating flawed ideas, not dehumanizing those who hold them.

 A healthy liberal democracy requires public discourse and, by extension, a proper forum to have it. The theory of the “marketplace of ideas,” stemming from the writings of John Stuart Mill and John Milton, posits that the free dissemination of ideas creates a social process in which truth competes and eventually wins out over falsehood. Of course, these great minds were philosophizing before social media, which I have exhaustively prosecuted as an abysmal sandbox for thoughtful debate. While Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are likely permanent fixtures in our public house, I highly encourage people check their trigger fingers and, when possible, migrate their arguments off of these platforms and challenge folks to engage in more humanizing environs.  

I look forward to employing the steel man technique in the upcoming Commune town halls, a series of online events we are planning with the goal of fostering thoughtful, respectful conversations around salient societal issues. Please stay subscribed to this email for more information in the future. 

Feel free to share with me any experiences you have utilizing this technique. Email me at [email protected]. In return, I will send you a photo of our new cat who is missing his tail. I call him Steelman. 

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