The Highest Form of Disagreement

The best way to argue is to take on your opponents’ strongest arguments, not their weakest ones.

Alfred Cheng Jin / Reuters

For Joshua Johnson, the host of 1A, an NPR talk show inspired by the First Amendment, Americans can better thrive despite their differences and disagreements by taking inspiration from the courageous lead character in a modern classic.

“In Westside story, our Romeo, Tony, intervenes in a fight between two gangs who are literally ready to rumble with an all out, knock down, drag out, winner-takes-all fight,” he recounted. “Tony convinces them to replace the rumble with a fair fight: the best two brawlers from each gang would duke it out.” He sees himself in an analogous role.

“My job as the host of 1A is basically what Tony did in Westside story,” he explained. “To convince people to stop rumbling and just fight fair. If we don't do that, our democracy is in trouble.” He understands the contrary temptations and risks. “A good rumble feels good,” he acknowledged. “It feels good to see somebody take down those SOBs who you blame for all the problems in this country.”

And Tony’s plan was ruined “when the gang leaders fell back on their old ways, pulled out their knives, and killed themselves.” Still, he persisted in his exhortation:

Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises. Even the winners. And the kind of bickering we see today is not only unproductive.

It's cowardly.

If you don't have the guts to focus on ideas and stop tearing down individuals, you belong in the stands, not on the field. I want more leaders who are brave enough to focus on ideas and not ad hominem attacks. I want more leaders who are willing to say, “I hate everything she stands for, but I do not hate her. And neither should you."

And I want more Americans who demand these kinds of debates for the sake of our democracy. Just ideas against ideas, let them fight it out, and if you lose, come back with better ideas.

Tony was right. A rumble can be clenched by a fair fight if you've got the guts to risk that. Are millions of Americans ready to start fighting fair for the sake of our democracy? For the sake of solving common problems we all face?

Listening to those remarks Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, I shared the speaker’s frustration with attacks on people rather than ideas, which pervade so much of today’s political discourse.

And yet, I would add something to his analysis: ad hominem is a problem, but if you watch cable news, or follow Twitter, or reflect on the way that Donald Trump engages with Democrats, or Democrats with other Republicans, you notice a style of argument every bit as pernicious. It consists of constantly elevating the very worst of the other side, attacking only the weakest rather than the strongest part or version of the ideas held by the other political party or ideological tribe or cultural identity group. As Scott Alexander puts it, “The straw man is a terrible argument nobody really holds, which was only invented so your side had something easy to defeat. The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat.”

Tucker Carlson is a master of the weak man––as was Jon Stewart.

And America would benefit if our culture of argument elevated the opposite approach, steel-manning, “the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.” Here’s Chana Messinger extolling it in one of those great old-school blog posts that I am honored just to honor:

We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling … use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement. If you know of a better counter to your own argument, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right... Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with.

In short, she says, “Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.” And bear these fruits:

First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments…

Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs.

Coming full circle to our NPR host’s project, Messinger argues that “steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you’re arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.”

It’s only just out of reach.