The United States in 2020

The political situation in the United States right now is tense, to say the least. President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 general election. Meanwhile the bullshitter continues to make baseless claims of massive mail-in voter fraud to discredit the election results. No doubt the tens of millions of Americans duped into his personality cult will fall for his lies, with some taking political action as we near inauguration day. The rest of Americans are bewildered by how the troll even got elected in the first place. So there is a heavy emotional and ideological divide in America today and I think any American half paying attention senses it.

Therefore I feel it my duty as a citizen to do what I can to bring people together in these divided times. I don’t think it’s good to create consensus for the sake of it by suggesting everyone take the middle ground. No, the goal is to collectively arrive at truth, which may or may not lie somewhere in the middle. So in this post I’m going to suggest a technique I think will drastically improve the public discourse which, I feel, is one of America’s biggest problems right now.

The Steel Man Technique

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett described a method for arguing with a person that holds opposing views. If you’ve ever heard of the straw man fallacy, it’s just the opposite of that. With the straw man, you misrepresent your opponent’s argument to make it easier to take down. With the steel man, you face the most charitable interpretation of your oppenent’s argument. There are 4 steps to steelmanning as explained by Dennett:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Step 1

The first 3 steps comprise the steel man tactic. What I like about the first step is it forces you to understand your target’s position. If you restate your target’s position and they don’t agree with your summary, then allow them to correct you. Expressing your target’s position in your own words in a way they agree with shows that you actually understand their argument. You can’t argue against a position you don’t understand. If you don’t understand it, how can you know that you disagree?

Step 2

Step 2 is the most important step. It gives you credibility. It shows you’re interested in arriving at the truth, not just winning the argument. You don’t see it in politics because most of the time it’s just about winning the argument. Politicians think that if they give their opponent an inch, then they’re conceding the entire debate. But by refusing to concede on any points, or at least refusing to validate the reasons behind those points, they lose all credibility. They show themselves uninterested in understanding the other side’s point of view.

I’m not saying you should take the middle ground. I absolutely disagree with that. In some cases, your target is just going to be wrong on every point. In those cases, agreeing with your target is inappropriate. What I recommend instead is trying to relate in any other way to what your target is saying. It’s important that you never assume your target’s motivation for making an argument. Otherwise, you risk creating a straw man, patronizing them and turning them off to what you’re about to say. If you do make an assumption about your target’s reasons for making an argument, always phrase it as a question leaving open the chance for them to interject. Whatever you do, don’t skip step 2. Without step 2, it’s not steelmanning.

Step 3

The third step allows your target to feel good about themselves before you engage them. It shows them that they added value to your life by teaching you something new. For example it could be what makes the argument appeal to them. The point may have already been refuted 1,000 times, but maybe there’s something novel that appeals to the person you’re talking to about that argument that you never considered. You’re not always going to learn something from your target. My advice for this step is to be genuine. If you do learn something, tell the target. If not, don’t act like you did. That’s disingenuous and could damage your credibility.

Step 4

The step you’ve all been waiting for! In step 4 you get to tear down your target’s argument. Remember you are tearing down the argument, not the person. Never tear down the person unless their character is directly relevant to the subject of debate. If I’m debating with someone about health care in the United States, that person’s character is totally irrelevant to the conversation. If I’m running for public office, then my character is directly relevant to my campaign. It’s not just about the issues. It’s about who I am because you can’t know that I’ll faithfully execute my duties unless you know I’m credible. In that case it does make sense to criticize the person.

Why Steelmanning Works

Evolution hasn’t caught up with modern society. It’s a slow process that takes millions of years. Meanwhile society has advanced rapidly, especially since the scientific revolution. A vestige of our caveman past is the fight-or-flight response in our reptile brains. Back when our species was hunter-gatherer, threats were constant and danger was all around us. Nowadays, especially in civilized societies, we don’t have to worry about that as much. But when our core beliefs are challenged, it can still trigger the ancient fight-or-flight response. Once that happens, we aren’t going to be really listening to our debate opponent. We also subconsciously identify with our beliefs. When those beliefs are challenged, our very identity is called into question.

The reason steelmanning is effective is it lowers a person’s psychological barriers to criticism. By making your target feel heard, validating their points, and showing them you’re interested in the truth even if you’re wrong, you lower their guard so they’ll be more willing to hear your opinion. Steelmanning is completely independent of your political affiliation. Anyone with any set of beliefs can practice steelmanning. If more people did this, it could vastly improve public discourse.

Tact

You are going to hear good criticisms of your beliefs from people that have poor tact. It’s important not to throw out criticism just because it comes from someone that doesn’t use steelmanning. I value diversity in argument techniques. We don’t need everyone steelmanning all the time. Christopher Hitchens was a world renowned debater and he definitely wasn’t known for politeness, yet he was far from ineffective. Here’s a quote by him:

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

Hitchens was a legend no doubt. He managed to be effective in debates and win an audience even though he enjoyed being rude to people. He had tact. Most of us can’t do that. It takes a very witty person to pull it off the way he did. I’m grateful that there’s a large variety of ways people debate. There isn’t one right way to debate because different tactics appeal to different audiences. But there was only one Hitchens. Therefore, our public discourse in the United States would be best served by moving in a more “Dennett” direction instead of a more “Hitchens” direction.

With the steel man technique, we stand a better chance at bridging the political divide and having more fruitful conversations with those we disagree with. Every American half paying attention realizes how important it’s going to be that we can have those conversations as we near inauguration day.