An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.03 The Steel Man

Today let’s skip my usual essay and talk about what you wrote. Let’s start with a response from the first essay, “Being Wrong”, from Linux Walt:

Being wrong. That’s a tough one to answer. I’ve believed for many years that if you are not making at least one mistake per day, you are not doing anything productive. But unless you’re willing to accept and acknowledge that a mistake is indeed a mistake, you could live for many years being wrong and never knowing it.

Maybe it comes down to how much you desire to grow. Sometimes, you’re in a position (at work) where you know climbing the ladder is not possible. Do you stop seeking to improve your skills? Do you stop seeking to broaden your skills? Do you seek growth elsewhere (changing employers or perhaps doing some type of volunteer work during your off hours)?

Are you trying to improve and grow for yourself, or for your job?

No answers. Only more questions.

Walt brings up some great ideas that I want to discuss in the future: excellence and mediocrity. There may be no satisfying answers, but I think the questions are worth discussing. So keep that one on the back burner and we’ll come to it again.

• • •

This comment from Matt seems like a good starting point for our discussion this week:

I took a philosphical ethics class last semester and I’m taking intro to philosophy this semester. My ethics professor was very religious and shared the best philosophical arguments for God I had heard up to that point. Writing an essay refuting those points was what actually solidified my deconversion, because I felt I had overcome the best arguments the other side had to offer.

Last week I learned a term for this: “steelmanning”. It’s the opposite of “strawmanning”. Instead of arguing against the weakest formulation of your opponent’s arguments—or worse, arguing against a parody of their arguments—you argue against the best possible formulation of their arguments. You describe their own side in such a way that they would say, “I wish I had thought to say it like that.” This is also called the principle of charity.

This semester I’ve really seen this come to life. I found that there are even more arguments than what my ethics professor proposed. We’ve been practicing what my current professor calls a type of “mental kung-fu”, where we consider an argument, then consider the objections, then consider the objections to those objections, etc., until we feel like we’ve heard all possible ideas involved in that particular theory. It’s really eye-opening when you start anticipating your opponent’s anticipation of your objection to their argument.

I love this idea of “steelmanning”. It embodies intense empathy and a commitment to listening. It requires a clear mind and excellent skill in articulation. Where strawmanning seeks to exploit the defects in another person’s argument, steelmanning seeks first to strengthen or eradicate those defects. Only after the two parties feel that they truly understand one another is the argument pursued. The ground is fair and the tone is more collaborative and less antagonistic.

Robin Sloan wrote an excellent piece on Medium about steelmanning in the context of gamergate:

There’s a recipe available here, for anyone brave enough to use it: strong arguments presented in good faith not to our allies but to our actual opponents. I use the word “brave” very consciously, because I believe this is just about the most dangerous kind of writing and thinking you can do.

This kind of writing is dangerous because it goes beyond (mere) argumentation; it becomes immersion, method acting, dual-booting. To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry.

Chana Messinger also has a great explanation of steelmanning and its benefits on her blog, The Merely Real. Approaching disagreements this way would make us all better people.

• • •

I’m going to try using steelmanning in my conversations this week and see how it goes. In the mean time, I’d like to hear from you. What strategies have you found useful for humane conversation? Why do you think they work?

—Steve