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Embracing the Opposition's Point
What version of the argument do you agree with?
Part of why I like making fun of debate bros is because I used to be one. It’s embarrassing to admit – but here we are. The tension, the adrenalin rush, and the righteous wrath felt invigorating. “Winning” an argument was satisfying. I have worked hard on changing that for the last couple of years. And while I have improved, there is still have a long way to go. So I want to establish a script that can remind me to keep it productive.
There are different approaches to turning disagreements into productive conversations. Double crux, for example, is a method developed by CFAR to foster mutual understanding. Here, I want to delve into something that can be integrated into the double crux, an internal script that helped me to cool off a few times. Its core is the following question – what’s the extent to which I can agree with a statement that I mostly reject?
My first instinct when I hear a statement I even vaguely disagree with is to point out its flaws, question its assumptions and provide counterexamples. That can be useful and should be part of the conversation. However, the way I bring my criticism across can seem aggressive. In the past, it has put even mellow, agreeable people on the defensive. I like to engage with arguments destructively. What am I skipping when I go in with the sledgehammer immediately? Acknowledging the valuable parts of my opponent’s argument.
If you want to disagree productively, you should probably find out to what extent you agree with an idea you don't fully share. Can you point out with what parts and assumptions you agree? Can you state what you find plausible and focus on that for a dedicated period? In other words, can you work out with what version of the argument you agree?
Why might this be helpful? Firstly, the person you disagree with might feel more understood, which can foster an atmosphere of cooperation. Secondly, your adrenalin and aggression levels might decrease. The person in front of you might suddenly seem less like an alien with whom you share no commonalities (how prevailing is that problem? Is it just a me-thing?). Usually, people (especially people with the same cultural background) differ in the degrees to which they hold things true.
Let’s look at an example. The other day, I listened to a conversation between Dr. Gorden Lobsterson and the Freedom Report Man. Some parts I nodded along to, some I was annoyed by, with some I violently disagreed. Applying the agreement extent script to chunks I disagree with strongly would be playing this game in hard mode. And I haven’t practiced enough for that. So let’s start with easy mode. What was a point with which I only somewhat disagreed? That individuals should adhere to societal norms as much as possible.
Here’s a quote by Peterson elaborating on that point:
There are lots of unwanted babies in the world, so why isn’t the ethical thing when you’re a heterosexual couple just to adopt an unwanted baby? Why bring another baby into the world when there’s a baby that could use a home? And the answer is – that isn’t what people do. Then the question might be – well, why? And you can come up with a biological rationale, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a conceptual answer handy.
Why do you want your own kids? The answer to that is something like – well, that’s what everyone has always done since the beginning of time. […] It’s not a well-articulated answer. This is part of why conservatives are set back on their heels so frequently when they’re questioned by radicals. Because the radicals will do something like – justify marriage! And the conservative thinks – well, we all agreed about that like 50000 years ago. So I actually don’t have a fully fleshed-out explicit rationale and defence for the institution of marriage. I thought that was self-evident.
Weirdos do have a place in society, as far as Peterson is concerned, but everyone should try to be as close as possible to the norm:
[Gay parenting] is uncharted territory. You literally are in uncharted territory. And your attitude is something like – well, I’m already deviating a lot from the norm. So maybe I should not deviate any more than I absolutely have to. I would also say that should apply to everyone. Everyone’s got their idiosyncrasies, and thank God for that. We definitely need creative people – and we even need some creative weirdos because God only knows when they’ll come in handy. But the rule of thumb should still be – to the degree that you’re able to uphold the norms and ideals of the collective society, you have a moral obligation to do that.
I have a confession to make. It cost me an enormous amount of mental resources to not delve right away into expressing my disagreement with Peterson’s statements. I already started to type them out, then noticed what I was doing and deleted them. I made it; I took the first hurdle! Now onto the exercise itself – writing up my reasons for thinking that the argument holds up (and to do only that). Let me provide some explicit rationale for conservatives!
Why should people adhere to social norms?
It’s hard to maximize directly for well-being. A stable society contributes to well-being and satisfaction. Therefore maximizing societal cohesion and stability might be a good proxy that’s easier to control. People adhering to social norms help with that.
Shared social norms are a prerequisite for efficiently organizing a large society. When you have millions and millions of people, it’s vital to have a shared framework to enable coordination. By adhering to social norms, we help those around us efficiently navigate through society.
Big questions like "How should I structure my life?" are really hard to answer. One lifetime is most likely not long enough to figure these out. Traditions are almost the only data points for big, general, essential questions. Societal norms give a solid, time-tested template for things that are hard to work out.
Following social conventions will, on average, deliver okay results. Adhering to social norms is probably clearly sub-optimal for only a minority of people.
Why should you (yes, you specifically) adhere to the norm?
You might overestimate your individuality. Maybe a time-tested approach would work out better for you than most alternatives.
People seem to be bad at predicting what makes them happy/fulfilled. Social norms might be a better proxy in some cases.
Straying from norms and conventions can have a social price. People might be less accepting of your lifestyle, which can lead to feelings of rejection and loneliness.
Figuring out how to live outside of social norms is resource intensive. You will have to figure out things yourself, as good role models will probably be hard to find. Going against the grain will be time-consuming as you go through cycles of trial and error.
Especially in matters that aren’t important to you, it can be effective to offset decisions and adhere to social norms. That will save you resources like time and mental energy. You probably don’t have time to question every relevant societal norm if you want to get things done.
Peterson expresses that you must conform “to the degree that you’re able to”. What does that mean? In my interpretation, that phrase carries a lot of complexities intrinsic to this conversation. Ultimately, you have to figure out what it means to adhere to the norm as much as you can. As an individual, you live in a specific (maybe highly unusual) environment. So your optimal behaviour might differ from the general optimum. Conformity is limited by your ability to conform, leaving room for you to negotiate.
What is the place for weirdos?
Peterson acknowledges that weirdos (which I read as unusually flexible, open-minded and creative people) have their place in society. New techological advancements give us undreamt of opportunities. Sometimes that requires an adaptation of our norms. Weirdos can help with that by being pioneers and early adopters of new behaviours.
Weirdos can help find cultural blindspots. Long existing norms arose in a specific cultural context. If that context gradually changes over time, people might carry on traditions – even though they have lost their advantage or have even become contra productive. Weirdos might help uncover that and enable society to move onto novel, more fruitful norms.
Periodically, unexpected and unprecedented situations occur. Societal norms develop slowly. Some changes might occur explosively quickly (pandemics, new kinds of warfare) and need a rapid societal response. In those situations, weirdos can help develop effective scripts more quickly.
After reading through my points, I feel I might have sneaked in some critique. Is that cheating? Or is it just relevant for the version of the argument with which I’d agree? I guess I’ll figure that one out with more practice.