kaigou: this is what I do, darling (4 raise questions)
[personal profile] kaigou
[note: this is related to fandom, but only on a meta level per the way fandom firestorms based on differences of opinion, as does any group at some point.]

In the recent debate over derailment, I think linkspam is largely to blame for a lot of the confusion, something that in and of itself also reflects a confusion about the larger issue of argumentation dynamics. I don't mean the mods of linkspam (in re their tagging of posts) but linkspam itself. But since it's hard to see the impact of additional factors when you don't grasp the fundamentals... this post is me at it again, wrestling with the simpler lower-levels as preface to tackling the complex upper layers where Linkspam and its kin have had the greatest impact.

All posts, it seems to me, fall into one of two categories: certainty and uncertainty.

Rants, observations, analysis-with-conclusion are usually certainty posts: the author is pretty damn certain about his/her stance on the topic at hand. Whether the conclusion be that some people are idiots, that privilege needs to be checked, that a position or event is utter fail, or a position or event is utter win, the poster is near-rhetorical in the firmness of his/her opinion. (Public posts with comments closed are an example of the near-rhetorical becoming fully rhetorical, literally.) Sometimes, intelligent or persuasive replies may prompt the OP to shift a certainty-position into one of uncertainty. And sometimes, not.

Open-ended questions are most often uncertainty posts, as are rambling stream-of-consciousness. Some posts that may appear to be certainty posts -- milder rants, observations, commentary -- may in fact be uncertainty posts; look for personal qualifiers ("it seems to me"), double-checking ("does anyone else see it this way"), and considering the opposite ("but on the other hand"). (At the same time, extreme snark or sarcasm usually indicates certainty, even with the inclusion of uncertain modifers.)

Basically, an uncertainty post is when someone isn't sure how to approach, handle, deal with, or consider a topic, or when the OP has an approach but wants feedback on whether this is really the best approach.

In other (more colloquial and slightly hyperbolic) words, a certainty post is for sounding off, while an uncertainty post seeks a sounding board.

It's true one can manipulate these styles (if with the risk of appearing intellectually dishonest). That's what's going on when you get what appears to be an uncertainty post but in fact the OP's replies reveal their actual position is pretty damn certain. Enough time on the internet, and eventually you do learn to recognize (consciously or not) when you're dealing with someone who's using those tools to subtly persuade the audience towards an opinion without coming right out and announcing it flatly. This can be an effective means of argument, in some cases, but it can just as easily be misleading, not to mention frustrating for those putting time/effort into answering questions seriously only to discover the OP has no inclination to really listen.

(For now, let's set aside those posts that are subtle persuasion cloaked as uncertainty, simply because the waters are muddy enough without side-stepping into the dogpile exceptions of "certainty intentionally dissembling as uncertainty".)

Another complication occurs when a respondent doesn't intuit the post's true intent (certainty or uncertainty). That's when you get into question-replies being dismissed (leaving the respondent baffled), all the way up to being treated as though the question were an attack in disguise. That's because a certainty post is a type of rhetorical statement, a firm position that requires neither agreement nor disagreement. It's the OP stating his/her position, observation, opinion, things that are (at heart, or if honest) inarguable points. It's not open-ended per the uncertainty post.

A certainty post can work exegetically -- from the facts outward to analysis-based opinion/conclusion -- or eisegetically -- where the opinion is formed and then facts are sought that back this up. Either way, the final analysis may be a factual conclusion, but when presented as a certainty post, it carries the same weight as opinion.

For instance: I post that x is 8, and y is 6, and thus that subtracting y from x gets me z, which is 3. When this value of z has a personal component -- that is, I have accorded it a personal value (even if unwittingly), then that z is going to be treated as though it's an iron in my fire. Pointing out that z is, in fact, not equal to 3 but instead equal to 2 is a refutation. In an uncertainty post, this refutation is easily taken as correction; amendment is made. You'll only discover the underlying value judgment if, in the face of a solid explanation, I refuse to consider that there might be a correct answer that is not 3 -- and thus you know you're dealing with a certainty post.

You know that old joke of "my mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts"? That's posting certainty, and just because the steps to mind-made-up consist of objective facts does not necessarily mean that adding new/corrected facts will prompt revision of the final position. Mind-made-up is part of the conversion from impersonal conclusion to personal opinion.

It's not just we think, therefore we are, but the flip side: we are what we think. That's why a perceived attack on a personal opinion (even when masquerading as reasoned objective conclusion) is frequently seen as an attack on the person. It's also why the response of "that's just your opinion" carries affront, because the dismissal of a person's thoughts can be tantamount to a dismissal of the person.

I'm putting it this way so you get my logic when I say that yes, one actually can have an 'incorrect' or 'wrong' opinion; the value of an opinion is not purely subjective/relative, as though it exists outside right/wrong. An opinion is, however, valid or invalid for that person: the former truly holds that position, while the latter is dissembling.

I belabor that point is so we all end up on the same page as regards our personal positions towards any specific topic: by hook or by crook, the result is an opinion. It may be certainty, or we may be still analyzing/processing and therefore in uncertainty. The upshot is that if I argue A, and another argues B, regardless of our path to each conclusion, our current end-points are, effectively opinions. These opinions may be open to revision, but are opinions all the same.

Next step requires an example, so I'll pick something suitably silly to keep us from tangenting into actual irons in our fires. Let's say we have a basic set of facts on the ground: if you take any two chess-players, one of them will hate to go bowling. Of all chess-players who hate to go bowling, three-quarters of them have ten or more speeding tickets.

I consider this data and conclude (form an opinion) that clearly the situation needs addressing. We should strongly encourage bowling-hating chess-players to take the bus, so long as the bowling-hating chessplayer isn't the one driving the bus. You also consider this data and conclude that the chess-players who hate bowling who do not get tickets are, in fact, an under-appreciated minority who should be recognized for their excellent self-control in light of the agony they experience daily as haters of bowling.

What we have is a difference of opinion.

There are two outcomes when you have a difference of opinion: it's either resolved, or settled. The two are not the same. To settle a difference of opinion requires either that we use an impartial system (ie, all people agreeing with me vote yes, while all people agreeing with you vote no), or that we are interrupted/overruled by a third party (ie, a judge ruling that bowling-hating chessplayers have their licenses revoked, or perhaps a third person telling us that we're both idiots and to shut up already about chessplayers). Settling the difference means selecting one position (or neither), but this does not resolve the difference of opinion.

Resolution requires debate, not intervention. Either I consolidate my position in light of the failure of your arguments, or your arguments are persuasive enough that I am convinced to retract my position and come around to your way of thinking. Thing is, a resolution doesn't automatically settle the difference, because new facts on the ground, or new entries into the debate, may reignite the looping process of synthesizing my thesis and your antithesis.

Understanding a difference of opinion (informed or misinformed) in this light, it makes sense to me where a frequent maneuver originates: a debate starts up, opinions differ, argument grows, and a third party attempts to intervene. Yes, this is also a function of privilege, but let's call that equal for the moment, and see this in light of the expectations of how to operate given a difference of opinion. Those arguing are attempting to resolve the difference, while the intervening person is trying to settle the difference.

To add privilege back in (since it really is always there), that is where I see what may sometimes be a genuine confusion when one is told to check that privilege. It's because the motion to 'settle' assumes being an authority with the ability to make that deciding yes-or-no vote -- that one will be listened to, and that the parties will abide. Of those who don't intuit this settle/resolve tension, it's fairly likely they'll also conflate 'ending' with 'resolving', and 'suggest a compromise' (in other words, to introduce a 'settlement'). If unsuccessful, they'll be burned alive for their presumptuousness; if successful, they may bottle the firestorm but it'll rage on, even when stoppered tightly.

Either way, if the intervening party is blind to the dynamics, they'll be shocked when the fire turns on them, or they'll be baffled as to why people continue to argue when 'obviously' the issue has been 'settled'. It's not necessarily that the intervening person was purposefully malicious or anti-chessplaying; it could easily be the person is just plain clueless about where the real value is found in the process.

Skipping to the end only stops things, but a difference of opinion can only be resolved via debate. To bypass discussion, however well-intentioned, is to quash any chance of resolution.

Obviously, a lot of this depends on just how much we each give a damn about these chessplayers who hate to go bowling. If we don't really care all that much, then there's a greater chance of end and resolution at the same time, albeit a resolution that's less due to being convinced of the other side's position, and more due to just not caring enough to bother any longer. I guess you could call that winning the argument by virtue of arguing longest: you get accorded the victory for the expense of your energy overwhelming the lack of energy on the other party's part.

The problem with that -- what's really just resolution by default -- is that you haven't actually agreed with the other party. You've merely shrugged your shoulders and dropped out of the argument. Nothing is really resolved. On a superficial level it may seem to be that the pro-chessplayer group has won the day, but in fact the group is likely doubly frustrated now (compounding emotions for the opinion with an additional sense of rejection). The issue still matters to the second party, yet the first party's absence leaves their opponents debating with empty air. In a way, it's being silenced indirectly: not by being stoppered, but because the audience has turned away or left. No one is listening.

Or, if we care to some degree but have not formed an attachment to our opinion in and of itself, we may be more easily swayed, and we may be more open to a third party's suggested compromise (or even the other side's suggested settlement-point). If we're debating chessplayers who hate to go bowling, and while we're all chessplayers, we're also ambivalent about bowling, we're more likely to be open to someone suggesting a reasonable settlement. In that case, one could say that what's really happening is that we took our 'uncertain' positions and formed them into a collective 'certain' position. The upshot is that we'll be less prone towards uncertainty in the future, because our agreement in that settlement created a comfort-zone which is then adopted as a personal position, made stronger by the group's reinforcement.

Or, if we don't care all that much, really, but we've gotten thoroughly entrenched in an opinion, well... it's gonna be awhile. We're not going to put in the energy to convince the other side, nor do we have any interest in listening to the other side's attempt to convince us. Arguing at bored cross-purposes, as it were.

To illustrate: if you don't actually care about chessplayers, and aren't one yourself, but hate bowling purely on principle, then you'll probably dismiss any pro-chessplaying pro-bowling arguments on their face, merits be damned. You get the same result if you only care because a trusted (family, school, religion, government, etc) authority has told you which opinion is 'right'. Resolution of a difference in opinion, remember, requires that either you retract your position in light of the other party's arguments, or that you convince them of the value of yours; when the value of your opinion is based solely on "Mom said so," you can see how this won't be too convincing to anyone who doesn't have the same level of trust in the named authority. And it also means that retracting your opinion to accept the other position carries the added undercurrent of demonstrating your original trust was misplaced (and therefore calling into question any other opinions handed down by the authority).

All discussions begin with an opening salvo, either uncertain or certain.

An opening via a certainty post is pretty straightforward: the person sets out a position, presents an opinion. An opening via an uncertainty post may in fact be the duplicitous kind (ie a troll, concern or otherwise), but for simplicity, let's take the uncertainty post at face value: a person raises an issue, and the response to the OP's questions become the opening salvo to a debate.

For instance, let's say one makes a post asking why so many chessplayers hate to go bowling. If meant sincerely, it's possible the OP genuinely has no idea, and is seeking information before making any conclusions. This is the usual purpose of an uncertainty post, after all: to gather information, to double-check, to get input from outside.

However, let's say a chessplayer who hates bowling replies to the first person with a certainty post. That post is really the opening point of the discussion, as it becomes one of the two opinions upon which the discussion is based. Still, there's not quite a difference of opinion yet, because if a true uncertainty post, the first party actually has no firm opinion on the matter. Only once the first party has solidified any uncertainty into a firm personal opinion can we really say there's a difference of opinion; in fact, it's possible everything will end there, if the first person then agrees with the second person's position.

That opening point is also where things can go really wrong, and get it all off on the wrong foot (even if on an emotional level the so-called wrongness is entirely justified): if the first person's question is an honest uncertainty, and the second person's response is to deride the asking of the question in and of itself. "There's nothing so idiotic as someone who doesn't get why chessplayers hate to go bowling," or, "people who don't get chess need to shut up about what bothers chessplayers". Whether or not these are legitimate complaints, it's still the presentation of a personal position.

Furthermore, it's also only half the argument. If any resolution of differences is based on convincing the other person to retract their position and agree with yours, then in this case a position is being set forth against a non-position (question). There can't be movement forward to agree with the stated position when the OP of the uncertain post didn't really have a position, per se, in the first place: there's nothing to retract, other than perhaps the question itself, which may (or may not) result in ending the discussion but not necessarily result in a resolution.

You could think of it as a respondent who pivots from answer into attack against an uncertainty post is throwing apples at oranges, because the uncertainty post is, by definition, not positing a definitive personal answer. All the apple-throwing does, potentially, is shut things down ahead of time. If it were an attack against a personal opinion, that's one thing, but this is an instance of an attack against a question. Attack at this point heads the OP off at the pass, and in real-life situations is most likely not to result in resolution, but complete withdrawal, and probably with questions unanswered, at that.

An alternate (and more resolution-potential) move is to ignore the question altogether. That is, the respondent (second person) makes no mention, or only passing mention, of the questions that triggered the respondent's certainty post. "This," the post says, "is where I stand on this issue." If the uncertainty OP is convinced, resolution is achieved; if the uncertainty OP remains as such, questions will continue until opinion is formed; if the uncertainty OP is not convinced of the second person's arguments but does come to a conclusion nonetheless, then a difference of opinion may be developing.

So let's pretend the opening volley was a simple statement of one person's opinion. A judge has decided that since so many chessplayers who hate bowling are also terminally bad drivers, all chessplayers will have their licenses revoked. The opening salvo is one chessplayer's complaint that since the bad drivers are little over a third of all chessplayers, this ruling discriminates against chessplayers and unfairly penalizes the majority (62%) for the actions of a minority (38%). Let's say a second person counters, saying that chessplayers who say they don't hate bowling are just denying their inner Mario Andretti, and it's only a matter of time before the world's pedestrians are wiped out by the hordes of crazed chessplayers.

For those of us watching during these opening statements, we have three choices: Yes, No, or Maybe. Yes, we agree that chessplayers are the victim of cruel discrimination. No, we do not agree with the discrimination charge, which may be the same thing (or is by default equal to) saying, yes, we agree that the world's sidewalks must be kept clear of bowling-hating chessplayers on vehicular rampages. And then there's Maybe, which is really just slotting ourselves in with any uncertainty post that triggered one of the two certainty posts.

If we have no chess pieces in the hating-bowling fire, our support to the Yes or the No may be rote, or ambivalent, or off-hand, or maybe even dismissive. For instance, "we shouldn't discriminate against chessplayers, but that's just because discrimination in general is bad" borders on dismissive, because it's not the specifics that garner the Yes (chessplayers) but the general principle (discrimination is bad). It's a lukewarm point of view that lends no real strength to the Yes certainty, because by its dismissive quality, it's unconvincing, thus it won't assist the Yes certainty in getting the No certainty to retract and/or be persuaded.

If we have not only have no pieces in the fire, but we've never been bowling, or have but don't know why people love it or hate it, or we suck at chess, or prefer checkers, or any of a number of other exceptions to the original certainty post, what we're really saying is that we can't agree (or disagree) because we don't have enough information yet to form an opinion. Another reading of the same is that we don't have enough experience to form an opinion, ie by having never known any chessplayers first-hand. I should note that these examples are not necessarily all derailment methods, but they are all a kind of non-statement. That is, they don't make a statement of Yes, nor of No, only of a combined not-Yes and not-No.

It's also a sign we're now in a group with the greatest likelihood of trying to resolve by settlement, instead of through the debate-to-resolution process. We haven't taken up a Yes-or-No position from which we then will argue forwards or retract backwards as the debate carries on; and thus we're outside it, with at best only an uncertain position.

There's another reason being a Maybe leads to pushing settlement over participation in debate. It's because a debate is an exchange of certainties, with each side critiquing, presenting, persuading, and arguing but doing so entirely within the framework of certainty. (After all, it's damn hard to convince another of something that you yourself only half-heartedly believe.) In this debate, however, there's room for convincing and persuasion to counter, but there isn't room for the uncertainty of questions.

It's not that either are bad, or can't co-exist, only that uncertainty (questions) can't co-exist within the same debate framework as certainty (statements). By definition, the two are antithetical: one pushes information outward, while the other draws it inward. Unless the questions/uncertainty precisely fits the statements made and supported, the uncertainty post is really just a distraction to the groups arguing Yes and No.

Me, I think that's because when we're in convincing mode in a debate, in general we're focused on bringing over the hard cases, that is, those on the other side. A handful of Maybes requires a different approach (and one very different, IME, from the approach used in a debate) -- not to mention that if one is currently tied up in a high-stakes high-emotional debate with strong opposites, there's nothing more annoying than those on the sidelines looking confused.

The TL;DR version? Unlike Yes and No, a Maybe isn't actually invested in the positions (yet). For a person in persuasion-mode mid-debate, the drive is to convince/persuade the opponent, who already cares. The opponent is getting the focus, and the person is probably less interested in using attention-time to convince the Maybe to care in the first place.

It's late now, so I'll stop here & pick back up tomorrow, with the issue of being a Maybe and one's role (or non-role) in a discussion.

Date: 11 Feb 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
phoebe_zeitgeist: (eden)
From: [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist
Perhaps this is covered in your category of uncertainty posts, but I'm not at all sure of it, and so here I am, jumping in immediately to propose a third category: what we might call the proposition post (and associated argument set). This would be the one where someone says, "Bowling-hating chess players appear to share x characteristics with __-rated go players, and also with designers of certain derivative financial instruments. Those groups don't drive as much as the general population, but overall are charged more for auto insurance, which suggests that they're probably worse drivers than average. You can see where these shared characteristics might lead to bad driving if you look at {this logic chain}, and if this hypothesis makes sense it might lead us to think about the problem differently. Unless there's a flaw in my reasoning, or fuller data doesn't bear this out; what do you all think?"

This poster may well argue for her hypothesis as vigorously as your certainty poster, but that doesn't mean she's not genuinely engaged with whatever flaws or oversights are pointed out to her. It's because arguing as strongly as the hypothesis permits is one useful way of testing it, and of testing the objections. And it's likely that her opening post will take the form you identify as characteristic of a certainty post as well, because the data-analysis-conclusion pattern is better adapted to pointing out a pattern latent in the data than is a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Only what this means, it seems to me, is that this kind of post will be, at least on its face, identical to the dishonest certainty post. It's using the same style, and its author may be just as combative in comments as your dishonest certainty poster. (The emotional tone may be different, but even that isn't certain.) But it isn't a certainty post at all, and treating it as one is only going to lead to yet another round of misunderstandings.

-- Unless, you know, I've gotten this entirely wrong. Which is possible, because uncertainty poster with theories, c'est moi.

Date: 12 Feb 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
For instance: I post that x is 8, and y is 6, and thus that subtracting y from x gets me z, which is 3. When this value of z has a personal component -- that is, I have accorded it a personal value (even if unwittingly), then that z is going to be treated as though it's an iron in my fire. Pointing out that z is, in fact, not equal to 3 but instead equal to 2 is a refutation. In an uncertainty post, this refutation is easily taken as correction; amendment is made. You'll only discover the underlying value judgment if, in the face of a solid explanation, I refuse to consider that there might be a correct answer that is not 3 -- and thus you know you're dealing with a certainty post.

I started laughing at this section because I have fond memories of my husband trying to persuade someone online that repeating decimal numbers do exist in our number system (in particular that 1/3 really did equal 0.333333.....). Needless to say he didn't succeed.

Trying to explain to my curious daughter that I wasn't laughing at this post but at the memories of my husband's inability to give up easily was also fun.


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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