Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem Maud wrote:
Ah yet, we cannot be kind to each other here for an hour;
We whisper, and hint, and chuckle, and grin at a brother’s shame;
However we brave it out, we men are a little breed.
Most of us, upon reading that, would probably smile ruefully and agree. If we’re honest with ourselves, we might even reflect on times when that has been us, and hope we can do better in the future. And yet, on the internet or behind the wheel of a car, somehow we so often show Tennyson got it right.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett has some suggestions for those of us who discuss and sometimes argue on the internet.
Anatol Rapoport via Dennett
In his book Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (2013), Dennett discusses how our eagerness to refute an opponent can lead us into uncharitable interpretations that make us feel smart but which are irrelevant to the real issues. As an antidote to this temptation, he quotes “social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport” on how to be critical but fair:
- 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.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Dennett acknowledges he finds it “a struggle” to follow these rules. He tries to adhere to them for opponents who deserve “respectful attention”, but enjoys being merciless to those he doesn’t respect, which kind of negates the whole point of Rapaport’s rules I think. But I’m glad he brought the rules to our attention.
Why bother to be kind?
In his Hand-book of Etiquette (1866), Arthur Martine offers many general rules of conversation, including:
In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.
This is even harder advice. It is so easy to want to win an argument and appear clever, rather than be involved in a mutual seeking of truth, even if this requires a change of our viewpoint.
Our behaviour will show our motives.
The hardest thing?
For most of us, the biggest difficulty will probably be when discussing with someone who responds to our courtesy with insults. They’ll likely regard our courtesy as weakness, and will quite possibly insult us for being polite.
I can only think we must either continue to follow Rapaport’s rules, or else discontinue the conversation.
A line in the sand?
I’m going to try to follow these rules. I don’t generally find it difficult to remain polite even under insult, but I don’t often take the steps he suggests. It isn’t easy in short blog or Facebook comments, but I reckon I can make some sort of attempt.
Watch this space!
And don’t expect miracles (at least not from me!). But know I’ll be trying, and feel free to remind me if I forget.