Debating the implications (not the facts)

I spent last weekend mentoring at a CFAR workshop. One interesting pattern that I and another mentor identified was that sometimes less enthused participants would confront one of us about CFAR’s flaws. These conversations often seemed to have a thing in common:

Participant: “So it seems that CFAR has flaw X, and also flaw Y.”
Me: “Oh yeah, totally. Those are definitely issues that are keeping CFAR from really being as great as it could be.”
Participants: “So like, ugh, CFAR?”
Me: “But like… CFAR!”

Which is to say that the participant was taking flaws X and Y as implying that CFAR was doomed or something, whereas I was thinking that CFAR was pretty great, and would be even better once X and Y were fixed. And hey, great, now that we’ve identified that X and Y are the main flaws, that’s substantial progress towards fixing them.

Neither position is necessarily right. The implications are more connotational than denotational, which is to say that the disagreement is essentially over whether to assign positive or negative affect to the subject at hand (in this case, to CFAR).

It seems that this kind of thing shows up pretty much anywhere that two people are discussing something, and they have different allegiances. It doesn’t even have to be opposing allegiances—as in this case, one party can be neutral. But because I was in a sense “on Team CFAR”, I was going to be predisposed to not consider those flaws to be fatal, whereas the other party may be more neutral or predisposed in the other direction. Not that I should necessarily naïvely assume that this participant is right—I do also know much more about CFAR then them, and they may be missing something important.

I suspect that the main way to mitigate this is to come up with a better bottom line to debate, rather than just the positive or negative affect associated with a particular group. For example, other questions about CFAR could be:

  • should I tell my friend/partner/coworkers to come to this workshop?
  • is it worth it for me/you to volunteer at CFAR?
  • is CFAR a good place to donate my money?

This will encourage us to actually round up more of the evidence, rather than considering these “flaws” somewhat in isolation, and trying to figure out how important they are.

What to do?

I had a similar conversation with a friend the other day, where after he and I had talked with a third person about his organization, my friend and I found ourselves rehashing some of the points he felt the organization was missing.

“Can we back up?” I suggested, “It seems we’re abstractly debating the importance of something, and whether or not this organization sees its true importance. Instead, can we figure out what the implications are, and for whom? Like do you and [other guy] disagree about what he should be doing with his time? What, specifically, should he be doing more/less of?”

This refocusing on the implications instead of just the abstract importance helped our conversation get back on track to being useful.

Other contexts… one is politics, where in the same breath as someone concedes their party’s missteps, they point out that, you know, all things considered, their party is still pretty good. Or someone writes an article about how Einstein was mean to his wives… and it’s sort of unclear what the implication is supposed to be. “Boo Einstein!”? I mean I guess it’s helpful for combating the halo effect, which makes you generally assume that people who have some traits you like will have others. But given that nobody’s really thinking about Einstein’s personal life anyway, it’s not like we have a bunch of important beliefs that need correcting.

Wrong on the internet

So this implication thing totally shows up in situations where people are trying to figure out what to think of a person. Public shaming has been around for awhile, but has become much more intense with the advent of the internet. This article highlights both a positive use and also another situation blown out of proportion. In most of these situations, there are probably a bunch of people crying for justice, and another group who wishes they wouldn’t (this second group doesn’t necessarily endorse the original action—they may just think that shame brigades aren’t the solution).

For the most part, the facts aren’t up for dispute. The person probably did make the ill-considered joke that they’re now being publicly lambasted for. But what of it? Unfortunately for these people, the debate tends to quickly become unwinnable. You can’t in good faith argue they didn’t do the thing, but the main other position becomes something like, “this thing they did was okay/reasonable” which is often just going to cause the defenders to be accused of their own sexism/racism/bigotry/etc. But because nobody’s actually talking about the implications, it just turns into a big hate spiral, because of course nobody wants to be on the side of the bad thing.

And then people get fired, even though probably often only a small minority of the mob would have said “having performed this action should mean that this person loses their job (and in many cases, can’t find a new one)”.

A somewhat related situation is when there’s a person who you appreciate in one context, but then you find yourself unsure what to make of their other perspectives. This article touches on that, and concludes with something to the effect of “I feel like I’m supposed to condemn this, but also, I think their other book/music/essay is pretty good.”

You can do both. People are large; they contain multitudes.

One issue doesn’t have to imply that you have to side with or against someone on everything else. Figure out what the implications are, and debate those directly.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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