"Your If is the Only Peacemaker"
April 28, 2021 8:55 AM   Subscribe

How To Have Better Arguments Online. Low context vs high context cultures. One-down parties. What we can learn from hostage negotiators. The truth about social media users and "echo chambers". Identity stakes. The overdog error. What we can learn from de-escalators. Ocasio-Cortez on "golden gates".

Ocasio-Cortez: "'I have this mentor. And one of the best pieces of advice that he gave me is ‘always give someone the golden gate of retreat’, which is: give someone enough compassion, enough opportunity in a conversation for them to look good changing their mind. And it’s a really important thing to be able to do, because if you’re just like, ‘Oh you said this thing! You’re racist!’, you’re forcing that person to say, ‘No I’m not’. Et cetera. There’s no golden gate of retreat there. The only retreat there is to just barrel right through the opposing opinion.'"

"Wender writes: 'Officers can de-escalate a potential fight by … affirming his dignity, especially in public.' It is in a cop’s interest to make the person they have arrested feel good, or at least less bad, about themselves. This is common sense – or at least it ought to be. It is amazing how often people commit what you might call the overdog’s mistake: when, having achieved a dominant position, they brutally ram their advantage home, wounding the other party’s sense of self. By doing so, they might gain some fleeting satisfaction, but they also create the adversary they do not want. Wounded people are dangerous. In Memphis, when I visited a Polis training session, I watched as the instructor told the class that when he was a cop, he had seen officers hit suspects after they had been cuffed, sometimes in front of the suspect’s friends or family. Not only was that wrong, he said, it was dumb: the act of humiliating someone in an arrest “can kill your colleagues”. There was a grave murmur of assent in the room. Suspects who have been humiliated do not forget it, and some extract terrible revenge on a cop – any cop – years down the line. "

"When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after (the writer Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along. It’s amazing quite how often people in polarised debates do this; it hardly makes it more tempting to switch sides. Instead, we should remember that they have achieved something we have not: a change of mind."

Usual caveats apply here regarding self-care in toxic or potentially toxic interactions.
posted by storybored (26 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
What's overdog?
posted by box at 8:59 AM on April 28 [13 favorites]


Attacking an underdog. Do actual dogs overdog unless trained into it?
posted by clew at 9:01 AM on April 28


What's overdog?

Policing. Let's abolish it.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:01 AM on April 28 [15 favorites]


"Wender writes: 'Officers can de-escalate a potential fight by … affirming his dignity, especially in public.' It is in a cop’s interest to make the person they have arrested feel good, or at least less bad, about themselves.
Yes. Ma'Khia Bryant was shot not because she was carrying a knife. Plenty of people in other civilized countries brandish or even attack police with knives and don't get shot. Why? Because any sort of retreat, any sort of behavior that doesn't let the cop rigidly control the encounter scares the living shit out of them. There's all this mix of pride, toxic masculinity, desperate emotional need to be in control of the situation which just short circuits their brains to fire weapon.

If someone advances on a US cop with anything remotely resembling a weapon their attitude isn't "well I'm also going to take a step back along with them coming forward" or "I'm going to move to cover". It goes straight to "shoot to kill". That stupid 21 feet drill. JFC. Sure someone 21 feet away can probably overwhelm a stationary cop but cops have legs. Cops make no effort to retreat or move strategically and they don't really feel the need to because in almost all cases the state will defend them to the god damned death, only sacrificing a cop when the opponents need to be quelled only to maintain this system of violence first, ask questions later.

Not only was that wrong, he said, it was dumb: the act of humiliating someone in an arrest “can kill your colleagues”. There was a grave murmur of assent in the room. Suspects who have been humiliated do not forget it, and some extract terrible revenge on a cop – any cop – years down the line.

The problem is that due to toxic masculinity the response is "they send one of ours to the hospital we send on of theirs to the morgue". Pragmatism sadly has no place among these people. They've been trained so well to unperson the people they serve. It's so fucked up.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:09 AM on April 28 [32 favorites]


I'm partway through this article and already am glad to have learned about "face-work". And:
we will have to overcome a widespread discomfort with disagreement
I've just read Sarah Schulman's Conflict is Not Abuse which touches on this -- it's reverberating with me.
posted by brainwane at 9:10 AM on April 28 [9 favorites]


The online milieu offers us so many opportunities to have pointless arguments with strangers. Apart from a few weak moments, I swore off these arguments a long time ago, but it's only recently that I've been able to articulate for myself why: getting into an argument is a sign of respect. If I'm going to spend the time marshaling facts and organizing my thoughts, it's because I respect you.

If you say something inflammatory and profoundly stupid, I do not regard it as my job to set you right (if that's possible at all). Furthermore, you've preemptively lost my respect, and my willingness to argue with you.

That said, a friend recently provoked some rando into making an inflammatory and stupid comment on a Facebook post. I didn't argue with them, but I did tweak them in a way that resulted in a comical hissy fit, and I didn't feel bad about that at all.
posted by adamrice at 9:17 AM on April 28 [11 favorites]


storybored, thank you for posting this! The points from William Donohue and Elisa Sobo, and the reflections from the meetings started by Laura Chasin, are really worth digesting -- I think I have too often ignored what's happening with the other person's face, and made it harder for the other person to productively negotiate -- especially when it's in public and on the web.
posted by brainwane at 9:17 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


Not much, what's over you?
(I'm sorry, I know this is serious but I couldn't leave them hanging)
posted by bleep at 9:23 AM on April 28 [26 favorites]


I feared for a moment the distinction between high and low context communication to support the article in the way "they talk like *this*, we talk like /that/" supports the despairing comedian, but it turned out a captivating read and quite lucid. Thanks for posting!
posted by dmh at 9:28 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


> The online milieu offers us so many opportunities to have pointless arguments with strangers.

There's value to the concept of "echo chambers" and why you might want to venture outside of them, but on the other hand I've been on this site for 17 years and I'm pretty sure I've only had one discussion that could be termed an "argument" and I still regret it to this day. I know people who claim to *enjoy* getting in fights with strangers on the internet (in one case, it's a guy who gets in fights on message boards with fellow fans of the *same baseball team*), but personally I cannot think of a more futile (nobody ever changes their mind in the wake of an online argument) and less enjoyable way to spend our brief time on this Earth. And the thing is, you can argue with someone face to face and have at least some evidence or reassurance that the person actually holds the beliefs they claim to have, but online there's not even any guarantee that you aren't wasting your time and energy on someone who's just doin it for TEH LULZ or is a paid troll or whatever. The only winning move, as always, is not to play.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:12 AM on April 28 [8 favorites]


^ sports is such a weird one. I fall into irrational vitriol when it comes to certain hockey teams and players. I am so far from a rabid hockey fan, but this year with the season divided into weird little bubbles, and the extra screen time, I'm as invested as ever watching the extended series between 'Canadian' teams, and my chats with my brother during games are truly awful. The mocking of the Hated Team, the verbal jousting. Such fun.
posted by elkevelvet at 10:18 AM on April 28


This is so interesting!

I'm only about halfway through a first skim and I find myself disagreeing with so many things it says ("Everywhere you look, there are interactions in which all parties have or demand an equal voice." Well, no, because people get shouted down, or feel unwelcome and leave. "Studies have shown that content that outrages is more likely to be shared." Not by me, and I actually use plugins to hide "Trending Stories" sidebars.) - but I feel like my disagreements are ... irrelevant? It has so much good information that I'm skipping past my disagreement with some of the introductory ideas to get to the good stuff.

(And, of course, much of that introductory stuff IS true for many people; it seeming not true for me may not mean much.)

This seems like one of the most important points:
The best way to lower the identity stakes is to create a workplace culture in which people do not feel much need to protect their face; a culture in which different opinions are explicitly encouraged, mistakes are expected, rules of conduct are understood, and everyone trusts that everyone else cares about the collective goal.
This is where there are so many opportunities for things to fall apart - because in the wider world, in disagreements between two people, very often there is no collective goal. It's hard to reach agreement if you don't have the same goal - reversing climate change, opposing authoritarian governments around the world; and very often there is a power imbalance, and one person's liberty or even existence is directly threatened - by police violence, by environmental injustice, by homophobic or transphobic or xenophobic laws.

I think Stacey Abrams has a lot of valuable things to say about this - she's talked about the importance of bipartisanship when you're the minority party. How do we cultivate mutual respect and common goals? On one hand it seems impossible; on the other hand, I think there ARE a lot of common goals, and repeatedly shifting the focus to those might be one way to build both a history of crafted agreement and some mutual respect.

And this is one reason I so appreciate Biden's insistence on at least trying for bipartisanship. He has the literal tiniest majority possible, but for some things (non-filibusterable things) his party does control the White House, the Senate, and the House - but he's doing an amazing job, I think, of resisting the urge to say "we don't need you, Republicans, you're irrelevant" and instead saying "we want to do this in a bipartisan way, because we all matter" while ALSO saying " ... but it has to get done, and pure obstructionism isn't going to cut it."

I think I'm going to want to follow up on a lot of the people mentioned in this article, learn more about the ideas of Donohue and Wender. And the table of contents of Ian Leslie's book suggests a lot of concrete suggestions for finding common ground.

I'm really glad to know about this article. Thank you so much for sharing it, storyboard!
posted by kristi at 11:17 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


It seems important that most hostage negotiations involve constant lying and the looming threat of violence enacted by people with overwhelming power. Calling it a negotiation, rather than a trick, seems generous.

This is quite interesting. It does seem to assume you have no respect for your opponents. Maybe that's a fine assumption.
Laura Chasin reached out to six abortion activists, three of them pro-life, three pro-choice, and asked them to meet in secret to see if they could build some kind of understanding. . . But over time, as they got to know each other, they felt able to think, communicate and negotiate in more unconstrained, less simplistic ways.
And the result was a change in behavior? A quick glance at Chasin et al. 1996 suggests they don't address that question.
posted by eotvos at 11:53 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


Cops make no effort to retreat or move strategically and they don't really feel the need to because in almost all cases the state will defend them to the god damned death, only sacrificing a cop when the opponents need to be quelled only to maintain this system of violence first, ask questions later.

A recent story from the SF Bay Area: Graphic video shows moment deputy killed Tyrell Wilson in Danville
In the footage, Hall is seen calling out to Wilson in the middle of an intersection at Sycamore Valley Road and Camino Ramon after matching him with a description from reports of someone throwing rocks onto a highway.

"Hey buddy, come here, come here, come here, you're jaywalking now," Hall called out. "Get over here."

Wilson walks away as the officer approaches him. Armed with a knife, Wilson continues to back away and says, “Touch me and see what's up."

Hall took out his gun and demanded that Wilson "drop the knife" three times. Wilson took a step forward and Hall then shot him.
He was backing away and the cop still shot him.
posted by Lexica at 12:07 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


If I'm going to spend the time marshaling facts and organizing my thoughts, it's because I respect you.

I see little evidence that many people take these steps before engaging in online argument.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:14 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]


The real problem here is that agreeing to disagree about significant things means, basically, assuming it's ok for us to all die, or for some people to be opprssed.

I think part of the problem is the author is focusing on short term, hostage taking, type situations and the lessons from those don't seem applicable to longer term situations that aren't like hostage negotiation. And a general cajole everyone in an office to get along type dynamic. Tey conflate both situations because often vaguely similar tricks will work in both, but they never address the problem of disagreement on substantial or essential issues.

The fundamental reason there isn't bipartisan work on most things of importance is because there is fundamental disagreement on most things of importance.

You can't both raise and lower the estate tax. You can't make abortion both legal and illegal. You can't both permit immigration and deny immigration. You can't both ban and legalize marijuana.

Disagreement over trivial things, which flavor of ice cream is best or which sports team is best or which superhero can beat another, sure being comfortable with disagreement is an essential skill otherwise you'll be a miserable hermit.

But on matters of significance I'm not sure friendly disagreement is even desirable.

Maybe that's my sense of self at risk, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

If you were someone who claimed to believe abortion was murder, how could you possibly even want to be friends with someone like me who thinks it should be legal?

I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who was campaigning to legalize murder, I'd view such a person as dangerous.

I can certainly see what they mean by discussion shutting down, giving people avenues to retreat, and all that, but at the end of the day there are issues that can't be resolved by deescalation. We have such vehement disagreement because we differ substantially on issues that we view as life vs death, or subjugation vs freedom.

On issues where there is no real middle ground how can there be peace? And who would want it?

"Why yes, Bob believes we should establish America as a white Christian ethnostate by rounding up all the people who aren't cis het white Christians and executing them, but we've agreed to disagree and anyway he has a lovely wife and kids and we both think BBQ and football are pretty awesome so we just don't talk about the whole murdering everyone who isn't white part because we have so much else in common, also he thinks weed should be legal and so do I so we work together on that!"

No one will ever say that. No one would ever want to say that.

The Civil War didn't start because white slaveowners were worried about losing face, nor because white northern Republicans weren't good enough at negotiation. The Civil War started because the white slaveowners saw their own economic dominance being threatened by a growing abolition movement and they recognized that there was no middle ground on the issue of slavery. Either it's abolished or it isn't.

If I'm going to spend the time marshaling facts and organizing my thoughts, it's because I respect you.

Eh. Not really.

I'll be honest, I know perfectly well that it has been proven facts don't change people's minds. To a large extent when I marshall facts and organize them I'm doing it to make sure my own position is valid and clear. It's quite selfish actually.
posted by sotonohito at 1:25 PM on April 28 [8 favorites]


The real problem here is that agreeing to disagree about significant things means, basically, assuming it's ok for us to all die, or for some people to be opprssed.

In my experience, when a conservatarian says "let's agree to disagree," it means "I can't refute your argument but don't want to admit you're right." In other words, it means they aren't arguing in good faith at all.
posted by Gelatin at 1:44 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]


A lot of Internet arguments aren't about persuading the person you're arguing with, though - it's often for the benefit of everyone else who might read the exchange. In that context, refuting assertions with facts might well further entrench the position the person making the initial assertions has, but it makes it much less likely that a third party will come along and be convinced by the baseless assertion if there are well-referenced facts or a sound logical argument refuting that position immediately below.

A lot of in person arguments or debates are about convincing the other party in the debate/argument. Most internet arguments are more like a hustings or presidential debate - Biden wasn't trying to change Trump's mind, he was arguing with him, refuting his arguments and assertions, for the benefit of the audience, to convince them.
posted by Dysk at 1:53 PM on April 28 [10 favorites]


You can't both raise and lower the estate tax. You can't make abortion both legal and illegal. You can't both permit immigration and deny immigration. You can't both ban and legalize marijuana.

I understand what you mean— the right-wing positions are abhorrent to me too. But not only is compromise possible on all these issues, that is exactly what we have. Taxes are set at some level that's too high for the right, too low for the left. In many states marijuana is, right now, banned federally and allowed by the state. Immigration and abortion are highly regulated— "trying to both permit it and deny it" is a pretty good summary of the results.

Of course I'd prefer it if the left-wing position won on all these issues. But I prefer the current muddle, absurd as it is, to civil war.
posted by zompist at 2:10 PM on April 28 [9 favorites]


This is an excellent article, a lot of the discussion of face-work and status is very relevant to today's world and matches with most empirical research. In my opinion the status discussion also goes a long way towards explaining WHY people get so nasty in arguments like this. Everyone likes the feeling you get when your social status goes up (due to accomplishment or whatever). One of the easiest ways for (some) humans to perceive they have acquired a status boost is to lower the status of someone else by insulting them. This probably doesn't actually raise our social status in our community or social group, but it feels good for a lot of people.

The real problem here is that agreeing to disagree about significant things means, basically, assuming it's ok for us to all die

For me, agreeing to disagree is about the specific context that an argument is taking place in. Two sides can fail to resolve an argument because they are living in incompatible mental worlds with different things treated as absolute "facts" that are not up for debate or discussion. Neither could ever convince the other because within their current world/context (coherent with reality or not) both people are absolutely, 100% correct. When I identify an argument is headed this way, I bail out of it, although usually using different language because that specific phrase is pretty cliche and associated with arrogance
posted by JZig at 3:34 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


When I identify an argument is headed this way, I bail out of it, although usually using different language because that specific phrase is pretty cliche and associated with arrogance

I can agree to disagree with someone on whether the Pats are still a good team without Brady (they aren't).
I can agree to disagree with someone that pineapple is allowed on a pizza.

I can't agree to disagree with someone on trans men and women being men and women.
I can't agree to disagree with someone on whether people of different races or sexuality are people or not deserving of rights and protection.
I can't agree to disagree with someone that actually caring about other people is a requirement of a functional society.

I'm not going to meet a fucking sociopath half way.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 6:28 PM on April 28 [10 favorites]


Like if I say "In exchange for stopping the crusade against gay marriage we'll take gay adoption off the table. No gay person can adopt a child." That's a reach to compromise but how the hell do I look my friends in the eye ever again?
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 6:34 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Good advice and great points, but missing the most relevant one right now, that of the near ubiquity of professional weapons grade propaganda. Even though the article is basically correct, my reaction is remove the propaganda, then teach me about negotiating and the pyschology of arguments.
posted by blue shadows at 12:18 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine mentioned this Bernice Johnson Reagon speech from 1981, "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century" which has some really interesting thoughts about the work of making coalitions, and about the difficulty of conversations among people on the left who come from different backgrounds and perspectives.
You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive.....
And there's a bit on page 8 about respecting people by letting them be in charge of their own identity labels -- even when Johnson Reagon thought they were wrong.

I recognize that, when we talk about online disagreements, a big category that comes to mind is the big clashes between sides that have a giant chasm separating them. But so many of the arguments and heated discussions I'm in or I read, especially online, are not disagreements between people with massively different values. They're about how we implement those values, and different approaches -- like, whether such-and-such a nonprofit institution has failed so much that it ought to simply be abandoned, or whether we should try to rehabilitate it. Or what specific language in a Code of Conduct is effective and enforceable. Or whether a particular opportunity for government or corporate funding of a worthwhile initiative is something we'd be savvy to grab so we can make crucial progress, or whether it would make us too complicit in things we hate. Or whether a particular instance of marginalized people's representation in a fictional work is tokenism or welcome "we get to be regular people too" representation. And I think it's worth it to remember the principles this author collates so that I can be a more helpful participant in those negotiations, and thus help build a stronger group that has more people and more energy.
posted by brainwane at 2:14 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


Interesting article and discussion.

I appreciate eotvos' comment: It seems important that most hostage negotiations involve constant lying and the looming threat of violence enacted by people with overwhelming power.

And also this quote from the article: “Officers can de-escalate a potential fight by … affirming his dignity, especially in public.” It is in a cop’s interest to make the person they have arrested feel good, or at least less bad, about themselves.

Like, this discussion about 'face' is really interesting, but what are we getting at here exactly: a strategy for a powerful state actor to manipulate and control a person whose only avenue for agency is violence? Or a conversation between two relative equals, or at least two people who have intent to treat each other as equals? These are different things. Is the point of the argument to win over more people to your side? Or to trick them into complying with your will?
posted by latkes at 2:42 PM on April 29


latkes: at least for me, I am seeing that there are commonalities in all of these situations, and I am interested in learning from strategies that work within them, keeping in mind their different attributes.

And I think sometimes there are multiple reasons to engage in explicit disagreement with someone, even simultaneously -- listening to them and eliciting more from them to check whether I might be wrong, winning bystanders over to my side, persuading my interlocutor, marking my position to at least make a gesture in solidarity with people who can't speak as easily, and probably more purposes too. Have you ever had that experience, of arguing with someone for a few reasons at once? I'm pretty sure I have.
posted by brainwane at 2:56 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


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