Thursday, August 26, 2010

marcus's rules of order (for himself)

I, Marcus, swear to abide by the following rules to the best of my ability. It is my belief the they lead to civil, intelligent discussion in which the goal is to seek truth, rather than to win points, mock, humiliate or dominate -- all of which I consider ignoble wastes of time or worse.

I invite you to call me on my own hypocrisy. If I violate any of the following rules, drop me a line saying, "You just violated rule 03!"

I also invite you to follow these rules. I believe they will pay off great dividends for you and for this the world in general.

Finally, I invite you to suggest changes and amendments to these rules.

01. I will never engage in ad hominem attacks. An ad hominem attack is an attack on the arguer as opposed to his argument.

It's pretty easy to understand that "You're an asshole!" doesn't add anything to the argument except bile, but most ad hominem attacks are subtler than that. They piggyback on legitimate points.


"Don't be an idiot! In a democracy, everyone gets a right to vote!"

"What you obviously don't understand is that History is not a science!"

"For the fifteenth time, not all forms of punishment are equally bad!" (It's a little hard to spot the personal attack in this example. "For the fifteenth time" implies "You are so stupid that you can't understand something, even if I say it over and over again!")

These combo statements are bad because they send a mixed message. Refuting someone's point with logic says "I want to have a rational discussion with you." Adding in some form of "You idiot" says "I want to humiliate you." And the stealth (slipping the insult in with the valid point) makes the play for dominance all the more horrible. If the person on the other end only responds to the logic, he's letting himself be insulted; if he only responds to the insult, he's ignoring the logic. If he tries to do both, he waters down the discussion.

02. I will never give as good as I get.

This is the hardest rule for most people to follow, and many people disagree that it even should be a rule. But if I care about promoting real discussion and ridding the world (as much as possible) of chest-beating shouting matches, I'll swallow my pride and take the high road. If someone calls me an asshole, they are violating rule 01. Sorry, but if I call them an asshole back, I am also violating rule 01. As Mom said, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

I have two honorable options: (1) ignore the insult and just respond to the debate points -- if there are any debate points. Or (2) opt to leave the debate. If I make this choice, I may explain why, without insulting the insulter. I can say, "I am sorry, but I have a personal policy against participating in debates that include personal attacks. So I'm going to leave now."

After I leave, the insulter will almost always claim victory. I need to live with that. He's claiming victory because he believes that's the whole point of the debate -- for someone to win and for someone else to lose. I need to remember that my point was to seek truth. He and I are not playing the same game. Let him win his game. It's not my game. Whatever I do, I should never play his game. If I do, he wins by default.

Bonus points: give one warning but don't leave. It's fine if I leave after the first insult. But sometimes it's worth staying long enough to say that I will only stick around if there are no more insults. People are imperfect; they get defensive despite their best intentions not to. (It happesn to me!) Sometimes an insult will slip out. If I feel I am up to it, I should give people a chance to apologize and I should accept their apology with grace.

If, after that, they insult me a second time, I should opt out.

03. I will never say, "You can take anything to extremes," because that's never a meaningful answer.

If someone says, "If we take your logic to extremes, we wind up with Nazi Germany," there are three meaningful responses:

1) "You're wrong. If you take my logic to extremes, you actually wind up with X," X being something other than Nazi Germany. You then need to explain why you wind up with X instead of Nazi Germany.

2) "You're right. You've made me realize that I need to qualify my claim. I don't dismiss it. It's still a valid claim under many circumstances, but I can see how it's problematic when..."

3) "You're right. I never fully considered the ramifications."

04. If I concede a point, I must always fully and opening concede it. And I am never allowed to mix conceding a point with changing the subject:

Example of the wrong way to do it:

Me: The problem with our educational system, is that it forces kids to do things they don't want, and forcing people is wrong.

You: So you think it's wrong to stop kids from playing in traffic?

Me: Okay, not that, but my point is...

WHOA! "But the point is" is changing the subject. What I should have said is...

Me: You know, you're right. I said you should never force kids to do anything, but now that you bring up the dangers of playing in traffic, I realize that I don't really think things through. You're right about that. (Pause.) Okay, let me try to rephrase what I believe. I do think you have a point, but I don't think MY point was completely wrong. I just need to refine it. You see...

05. I will either stay in the discussion or bow out gracefully. It's never someone else's fault that I'm leaving. I will never leave by saying something like, "Since you can't discuss this rationally, I'm outahere!"

It's okay to say, "I have a personal policy against taking part in flame wars, but it's also hard for me to resist insulting you the way you're insulting me. So rather than violating my principals, I'm going to leave." It's also perfectly fine to say, "You know. I'm tired, and I just don't feel like discussing any more." I will separate my leave-taking remark from my argumentation. It's never okay to use a good-bye to get "one last dig in."

06. I will never assume intent or mindset.

I will never say, "You obviously think you're always right" unless someone has said "I am always right." I will never begins a sentence with "people like you always say..." It's fine, acceptable and good to ask questions about mindset. "You say you're a Republican? The Republicans I know want low taxes. Do you want low taxes?"

07. I will never use sarcasm as a weapon.

"You're quite right. NO ONE should EVER have to go to SCHOOL! If no one went to SCHOOL, we'd be living in a PARADISE!"

If my message is "you're really stupid," then I'm engaging in an ad hominem attack. (See point 01.) If my point is "School is a good thing," then I need to make that point and explain why.

08. I am not allowed to fall back on bad behavior when all else has failed.

"You know what? I tried reasoning with you. I explained things to you really clearly. In fact, I explain things FOUR TIMES. You never listen. You know what? At this point ... fuck you!" I need to either stay in the discussion and keep trying or opt out gracefully. (See point 05.)

09. I will never say, "You're missing my point," "You're still not hearing me," or any variation of those phrases.

No matter how clear I think I'm being, if the other person isn't responding as if he heard me, there are two possibilities: either he's not thinking clearly or I'm not speaking clearly.

I am not the one to judge whether I'm speaking clearly or not. No one is objective enough to do that. Which is why writers need editors. In any case, "you're missing the point" is gratuitous information. If I'm debating Creationism, debate THAT. I shouldn't waste time discussing whether or not someone is missing my point.

If I feel that someone is missing my point, I should explain it again, switch to a different point, ask questions to see if I can figure out the cause of the confusion or opt out. (See point 05.)

Bonus points if, in stead of saying, "You're missing my point," I say, "Maybe I wasn't being clear. How about we look at it this way..." A little humility goes a long way.

10. If I feel frustrated and need to vent, I will either leave the discussion and vent elsewhere or I will stay and discuss my feelings without blaming anyone else for them.

If I blame someone else (even if it is "their fault") my goal has changed from truth-seeking to something else -- maybe to righting a wrong or criticizing. Sometimes that's inevitable. But at least I should be fair to the people I'm talking to by making the new game clear: "You know, I need to stop for a minute. I can't go on discussing the Middle East situation right now, because I'm hurt by what you said..."

It's also okay to say, "I am really frustrated right now." What's not okay is to engage in any of the bad behavior (ad hominem attacks, sarcasm...) outlined in these points.

11. I will never nitpick at minor points that have nothing to do with the main thrust of someone's argument.

If someone says, "You think that technology is perfect? That's what people said about the Titanic in the 1920s," it adds nothing to the discussion to retort with, "The Titanic sank in 1912!" The person was making a point about the hubris of claiming a technology is perfect. My goal should be to agree with him about THAT or to disagree and explain my reasoning -- not to win points.

(It's okay, at a time when it won't derail the conversation, to say, "Oh. Just a note. The Titanic sank in 1912." Conversational ninjas can even say this immediately, as long as they phrase it like this, "Well, the Titanic sank in 1912, but I take your point that...")

12. When (not if) I violate any of these rules, I will apologize.

It's hard to argue fairly. Even if I start with the honest goal of seeking the truth, people will push my buttons (and I'll push my own buttons), and sometimes without even knowing it, I'll bark at people. Unwittingly, my goal will switch from truth-seeking to winning. This is natural. It happens to everyone. I must have the humility to accept the fact that it will happen to me. The honorable thing is to admit it and fix the problem.

If I find you can't do this -- if apologizing is deeply painful or irritating, so much so that I can't bring myself to do it -- then I should at least note I've you've completely quit seeking the truth. My argument is now totally about ego. Again, that's not a horrible sin. It means I'm human. Sometimes humans have to withdraw and lick their wounds. It's honorable to take a break, even a permanent one if I must.

If I choose to continue, I should say "You know, I just realized I made a personal attack" (or whatever you did.) "I'm sorry. That was wrong of me." I should pause after doing that, making sure to never combine an apology with a change of subject, or it will sound like I'm fleeing from the apology. I should never say, "I'm sorry I attacked you, but my point is..." Instead, I should take a deep breath, find some humility, look the other person in the eye and say, "I was wrong." Full Stop. Then let him speak. After my mistake has been dealt with, I am free to continue making my argument.


Camil said...


I'm also interested in argumentation, Wittgenstein, etc. What do you think is left of argumentation if all these rules are applied and respected? :) It might look silly, but even great philosophers commited sophisms. I don't mean to say that...ok, so we are not to respect the rules, there were so many great names to break them. I mean it's impossible to follow them as such.
(my blog:

Marcus said...

I think, if all those rules are applied and respected, what's left is the actual argument. Simple example:

"Capital punishment is murder, motherfucker!"

If you remove "motherfucker," you are left with "Capital punishment is murder." (Which isn't strictly speaking an argument -- it's a claim. But it could be the foundation of an argument or the conclusion of one.)

Now that claim is still there, even if you include the "motherfucker!" but it's much harder to hear -- at least for me. And including "motherfucker" sends a message of "I am not open to discussion." (But possible "I AM open to a chest-beating contest.)

My rules mostly apply to discussions, not essays. I'm not crazy about essays that mix argumentation with name-calling, but they're not as bad, because they're not conversations.

In a conversation, you are always communicating two things: your literal points and your openness to discussion and dissent.