13 Precepts for a Better Public Discourse

What To Look For, What To Avoid, and When To Walk Away.

As the public square has shifted to online spaces over the past fifteen years, all the wrong incentives and dynamics have conspired to turn discourse into something of a cesspool. The conversation has been hijacked by tribalism, bad faith, hate, and dishonesty, now put on steroids with addictive technology and brain-hacking algorithms. The following are precepts for more constructive individual interactions, and an overall healthier public discourse. These precepts are ideals — easier to profess than to follow, as I can attest — but in striving toward them, we cannot help but improve.

1. Always Err on the Side of Walking Away

Public discourse largely consists of throngs of discordant voices screeching past one another in over-simplified talking points. Most debates are pointless wastes of time. Deciding to move on from an interaction or not to engage with some public debate is always a smart move. You can’t go wrong walking away. Life is short, and there are more important things to do — like reorganizing your sock drawer, reading the terms and conditions of online user agreements, or sharpening your toenail clippers. Changing public discourse for the better is possible, but it’s a long and difficult road. An alternative strategy that can achieve most of the same results is simply to shrink its influence by starving it of the fuel it runs on: attention. Unless you have a huge following, the single most impactful thing that you, as an individual, can do to improve public discourse is probably to spend less time in it.

2. Don’t Publicly Engage Any Issue Where You Haven’t Given Both Sides a Fair Hearing

Making a genuine attempt to understand other perspectives will offer insight into people’s thought processes and values. A more accurate picture of differing views will also lessen the likelihood that you’ll misunderstand or misrepresent them. Most importantly, you may, in the process of researching and considering the arguments/evidence in favor of other positions, learn something new or come to think differently about the issue. Your views will be more refined and nuanced for it.

3. Be Mindful of Your Biases, and Open to the Possibility that You May Be Wrong About Something

No one is right about everything. Don’t succumb to pride or dogma. If you encounter a valid point that’s inconvenient for your position, concede it. If an argument you found persuasive is demonstrated to be flawed or bogus, own it. There is no shame in this. The failure to admit when you’re wrong about something is shameful; admitting it is praiseworthy. And yes, on occasion, you may just be flat out wrong, sometimes even your entire side of the argument. Be aware of and challenge your own biases.

4. The Point Isn’t to “Win”

If you approach public discourse as though it were a team blood sport with the goal of “destroying” or scoring points on the “other” side, you will 1) contribute to the toxic polarization and partisanship plaguing public discourse, 2) hinder your ability to persuade, and 3) close off any possibility of learning something yourself. Do not confuse this for the admonition that one should never be harsh or use invective. Tamping down on the toxicity of discourse doesn’t mean making it bland and boring. For example, if you’re trying to persuade a particular audience away from a position most are likely to hold along partisan lines, colorfully shredding some faction hated by this audience can help establish trust, and make them more likely to hear you out. The point is — the object, ultimately, should be to change minds and expand your own. Not everyone can be persuaded, and there is little to be learned from some people beyond “do the opposite”, but this precept is a useful default.

5. Identifying People Who Are “Playing to Win” 

This, sadly, seems to describe a majority of the more vocal participants in public discourse. You can usually spot people like this from a mile off. Avoid interactions with them. If you do engage, their snarkily aggressive vitriol should be met with radical coolness. The more feverishly they try to “own” you, the more Zen you should become. That contrast truly does wonders in the minds of observers. A debater looking to embarrass their opponent is usually quite vulnerable to that fate themselves. If you stymie them at every turn, and do so with perfect class and civility, there’s a good chance they’ll end up “owning” themselves. You need not throw a punch, just dodge theirs with grace, and let the momentum of their wild swings carry their fist into the wall.

6. Understanding Who Is and Isn’t Open to Change

Very few people are open to, or indeed capable of an on-the-spot change of mind on an issue where they have a strong opinion. You’ll rarely be the driver that delivers someone to a new destination, but you can sometimes reprogram their GPS, setting them on a different course. Many people, however, are not open to change. Sometimes, you can tell immediately. In other cases, if becomes clear after an exchange. If you choose to proceed in an interaction of this sort, shift your focus to influencing the audience instead of your interlocutor. Remember, if you want to proceed. Mostly, it’s a waste of time.

7. Keep Your Words of Reasonable Length

Whether it’s an interaction online or in-person, or whether you’re writing, podcasting, or making videos, long-windedness is generally counterproductive. Some things require more time and space than others to address, of course — there is nothing wrong with long form content — but attention should always be given to not being wasteful. Save everyone the time by communicating as succinctly as a proper handling of the subject will allow.

8. Consider Your Responses as Though You Were the Other Person

Take reasonable steps to ensure that your words will not be misunderstood, misconstrued, or strike an unintended chord. A sound point counts for nothing if it will not be perceived as such by your target audience. For in-person conversations, this entails choosing your words with care, and in written exchanges, carefully rereading your responses before sending and making necessary changes. Hear/read your own words as recipients might, and this will allow you to preempt some of the turbulence that often derails discourse.

9. “Steel-Manning” 

A “straw man” argument is when someone uncharitably caricatures the weakest version of an opposing argument. Straw-manning is a cheap and dishonest way to engage with people. The opposite of a straw man is a “steel man”: when you sum up and address the strongest version of opposing arguments. This is a show of good faith, and a way to facilitate it from others. The misrepresentation of people’s views is one of the problems most poisoning public discourse.

10. Being Right Isn’t Enough

Constructing evidence-based, logically consistent arguments is no guarantee that you will get through to people. In many cases, it hardly seems to matter at all. You have to contend with all sorts of preconceived notions, biases, emotions, and in some cases basic ignorance. Your best tools to slice through these barriers are caveats. Don’t miss an opportunity to add a modifier which acknowledges an area of agreement, establishes common ground, concedes a fair opposing point, or clarifies your position to make it seem less threatening. To a degree, you have to hold people’s hands. Some people can be smashed in the face with the cudgel of truth, get up, and be a changed person — but they aren’t the norm.

11. Contending With Emotional Bias and Personal Experience

Engaging certain issues will bring you in contact with people who are emotionally biased due to personal experience. When discussing, for example, the problems of an industry to someone who’s paycheck depends on it, or bringing up the ethical concerns over an enterprise someone’s emotionally dependent on — these debates are often hamstrung from the start. When one is too close to something, too invested, they are often unable to pull back from their own experience to see a wider picture or consider other perspectives. Such people are often among the most close-minded you will ever encounter. Perhaps you’re looking to have a relatively objective conversation about something, evaluating and weighing its merits or flaws. To you, it’s intellectual. To your interlocutor, it’s personal. They are interpreting every differing point you make not as a critique of ideas, but as a personal attack, an assault on their character or identity, and an attempt to delegitimize their experience.

This type of person views their personal experience as an unassailable credential that no one could ever trump with stupid shit like “logic” or “data.” This isn’t to say that personal experience is worthless, far from it, but it doesn’t make someone right automatically. It doesn’t negate the necessity for sound arguments, valid points, or evidence. Personal experience sometimes instills in one a sense of superiority, shifting the tone of a discussion from a debate among peers to “time to teach this asshole a lesson and put them in their place.” This attitude poisons discourse from the get-go.

These are insurmountable obstacles in person-to-person interactions, especially in today’s political climate, which venerates “lived experience” above all else. It’s not the right medium to address such people. Your best bet is to post or publish content that hits the points you want to make, with the nuance and care that taking one’s time affords, but done in a way that addresses a general audience, rather than in one-on-one conversations. Most people of differing views with personal experiential biases will still dismiss it out of hand, or get upset in response. There is no perfect solution here, but this method is at least a way for you to put your best foot forward and do some damage control.

12. The Failure to See an Opponent as an Equal

One necessary ground rule for productive discourse is a modicum of mutual respect. You may disagree with the other person, you may find their beliefs or ideas to be absurd or even immoral, but you must regard them as a peer. If you truly consider the other person an inferior, or they of you, no real conversation can be had. The failure to see one another as equals almost always translates to some level of disrespect, close-mindedness to change, and the prioritization of point-scoring and “winning.” Of course, this has to be a two-way street, and it only takes the lack of respect from one party to impede a meaningful exchange. You must do your part, and if it becomes clear that your opponent cannot do the same, just move on.

13. See Rule 1

Perhaps you’ve said your piece, they’ve said theirs, and after a few back-and-forth’s you’re locked in a cycle of tedious reiteration. Or maybe things are getting too heated and nasty. Perhaps your interlocutor reveals themselves to be a troll, an ideologue, or someone simply too unserious or immature to have meaningful dialogue with. Or maybe you’ve been having a terrible day and are in a foul mood. In all of these cases, cut your losses. Take a step back, take a deep breath, and recognize that someone being wrong on the internet really just isn’t that big a deal.

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