Steel-Manning vs. Straw-Manning
SCIENCE OF SUCCESS
STEEL-MANNING VS. STRAW-MANNING
“Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”. -Steven Covey
When you watch the Republicans shouting at the Democrats, Facebook friends bickering over whether the dress is Gold or Black, atheists debating theists, or Lady Gaga fans trying to convince the rest of us that she matters, do you ever ask yourself,
“What is the ACTUAL objective of people disagreeing publicly?”
Whenever a debate occurs, most of the audience or onlookers believe the goal of the interlocutors (debaters) is to demolish the position of their opponent while putting forth a beautifully, solid and airtight argument which will stand alone at the end of the discussion declaring one or the other as a clear logical, moral, or ethical champion.
Everyone believes the goal is that a person walks away as the winner rather than the ideas themselves being shored up and solidified, and now everyone participating is a loser because the goal was not the focus as much as winning or “not losing.”
The actual objective in a debate should be both interlocutors and their audience walk away far better thinkers with better ideas than when the discussion began. Unfortunately, many debaters commit logical atrocities or moral indiscretions which derail the virtuous goal of obtaining better ideas through conversation and dialogue.
Many dishonest debaters double-down on bad ideas, intentionally or unintentionally misunderstand the position of their opponent (straw-manning,) or blatantly assert that their position CAN NOT be incorrect without a logical demonstration of that assertion; name-calling and appealing to emotion rather than arguing honestly and acknowledging when their position is demonstrably flawed is the most common form of argument that we see most often.
The primary reason both debaters are supposed to bring their best, honest argument(s,) passionate rebuttals, & emotional appeals is in an attempt to ensure EVERYONE walks away with a better argument regarding the topic than when they began, but if you have had to endure any of the Presidential Debates in my lifetime, then you are aware that this is NOT the way candidates conduct themselves or their ideas. The goal for most people is to win at all costs and the cost is typically the fee of not getting to hear really well-formed ideas. Good ideas are typically a compromise of two opposing ideals, but people tend to inherently like generalizations, tribalism, stereotypes, and WINning, NOT compromising.
If you see a discussion, argument, or debate in progress, you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary and wasted time if you recognize the dishonest practice of Straw-manning, likewise you may decide to dedicate a little more time to a conversation wherein the interlocutors are Steel-manning the position of their opponent.
Steel-Manning vs. Straw-Manning
The philosopher Daniel Dennett outlines an effective process for Steel-manning someone’s opposing view(s):
- (1) Attempt to re-express the other person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say,
- “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- (2) List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- (3) Mention & address anything you have learned from their position.
- (4) Only, after your opponent agrees that you understand their position, are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
The first step of Dennett’s approach has been called steelmanning. It’s the opposite of strawmanning, in which you misrepresent the other person’s position or argument so you can easily defeat it.
In contrast to a strawman, a steelman is an improved form of the other person’s views – one that’s harder to defeat.
By doing this, you are allowing both sides to argue their positions honestly. This practice can often lead to actual understanding on both sides and an acceptance of the best ideas presented by both sides.
Although there are many tools available for developing logical and rational beliefs such as Occam’s Razor, The Null Hypothesis, or the Logical Absolutes, most disagreements and disputes can be resolved by JUST adopting the habit of Steel-Manning the position of anyone you find yourself disagreeing with regardless of the topic, and ignoring any arguers who seem to be intentionally avoiding this practice.
Honest philosophers are happy to be proven wrong. If they discover they are wrong about reality or the best way to do a thing, they want to know it so they can abandon that belief and be less wrong. When an idea has been shown to be flawed logically, morally, or ethically, the honest debater will accept this discovery, abandon their position, and adopt a better way of thinking concerning the subject at hand.
Dishonest debaters just want to win. Regardless of the platform, these “Chaucer-ian” frauds don’t care about the facts; they are often convinced that their position is best and therefore they don’t care so much about arguing honestly as much as they become masters of manipulating emotions and encourage tribalism. You can spot them by their ability to play into group cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and feedback loops. Also, they will NEVER be caught STEEL-MANNING their opponent, but they will STRAW-MAN their opponent in every possible way imaginable if it seems to diminish the reputation or the position of their opponent.
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