Other Criteria for Good Discussions

“Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk”
“Feet of Clay” by Terry Pratchett

I have already written about online discussions in this posting. Here the focus is a bit broader.

I think to have a good discussion, the following criteria are important:

  1. The freedom to discuss any topic, even outrages and bigoted ones,
  2. via well-reasoned arguments and disagreement (also: agreement),
  3. on a level playing field, and
  4. with Open Outcomes.

I focus here on the level playing field and open outcomes, given that I have addressed the first two points already.

3. A Level Playing Field

A level playing field includes, among others:

  • Time/Space: At the very basic the same time (or online: space) for each participant.
  • Fair moderation: A no-brainer in a face-to-face discussion. Online, editing/moderating messages by site administrators should be — if they are used at all — applied equally.
  • Amount of People: I had a couple of conversations where suddenly other people chimed in. Other people can improve the discussion if they contribute high-level arguments, but more frequently it was emotional support for my opponent. It reminds me a bit about Huxley who fought valiantly for Darwin’s theory of evolution and was called “Darwin’s bulldog”. But the online quality is more on the level of a Chihuahua. And personally, I would not want to have this kind of support in a discussion. Even when it goes beyond emotional support. A discussion should go subject by subject, not jump around — something likely to happen when more than one person argues on the same side. Unless they use a principal discussant whom they support behind the scenes. And when it’s cheap emotional support it devalues the person who has to rely on it. It often come off as intimidation. Even worse, once the other side has learned to deal with this kind of attempt at intimidation, it backfires. It’s like fighting — two against one can turn out very well against an inexperienced opponent. But against someone who is trained, the two have the disadvantage. They have to coordinate and must be careful not to hit each other. Online discussions are a bit more difficult, and who wins is not always clear, but the hassle is the same.
  • Equal Rules: I love the quote in the beginning of this posting. One of my biggest criticisms about sexism is that the discussions about it are often incredibly sexist. No, I don’t mean sexist slurs or perceived threats. What I mean is that the people on the side ostensibly suffering from (negative) sexism are acting incredibly sexist themselves. Claiming, for example, that “men cannot understand x, because they are men”. Ad hominem arguments are insulting, carry no weight for the discussion, and frequently distract from the actual issue. The irony is that is often is way, way more sexist than any example they are fighting against. I mean, sorry? Wasn’t the whole point here that sexism is wrong? But strangely, these “arguments” are frequently accepted. One nice example where it backfired was, surprisingly, at Huffington Post (albeit confounded with race, which sometimes seems to operate in a similar way). A discussion should have equal rules, everything else is just hypocritical. A person cannot argue against sexism by using sexist “arguments” her-/himself.

4. Open Outcomes

A good discussion must not have a predetermined outcome. Nothing is worse than “having a discussion” where you can think critically — as long as you come to the “right” conclusions. I distinctly remember a visit by amnesty international to my school where the discussion was about capital punishment. The person they send was shocked to find many of us arguing in favor of capital punishment (this was in Germany, we don’t have capital punishment). Unfortunately, she was not a good discussant. At the end, there was a strong pressure from the teachers to agree with her. I doubt it convinced anyone “about the evils of” capital punishment, on the contrary. If the arguments are not strong enough, proponents should get better arguments. That’s what research and critical thinking is for. But using pressure — social, legal, or otherwise — is counterproductive.


Looking at the four criteria — that are really difficult requirements. Given my vocational background (so far), I am used to scientific discussions. They can be backstabbing and emotional — below the surface — but they usually at least try to conform to these standards. Note that I am talking about scientific discussions in psychology. Should apply to any other natural science.

But achieving these standards online — hmmm, difficult. Sometimes people just want to vent. Some people do not see the difference between their emotional outrage and a discussion based on arguments and evidence. It’s “I want my pony” all over again. But I wonder whether it is possible to somehow introduce a way to have discussions online that are somewhere between scientific discussions and emotional outrage.

Perhaps technology can assist here. There are some interesting ideas floating around on how to assist people in having a discussion.

But that is something for the next posting.

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