On Having Productive Arguments

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As a programmer, a large part of my job is to translate what a client wants to happen into data and algorithms that allow a computer (which has no idea what the client wants) to reliably produce the desired results. I use translate deliberately, because often the technical folks and the business folks are essentially speaking different languages, even if they are using the same terms. To not recognize this is to risk frustration and ultimately project failure, so whole categories of careers have come into being to facilitate this translation process, or put more bluntly, protect the technical and business folks from each other.

I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas earlier this week. There have been a lot of different suggestions from across the political spectrum for law and policy changes. Since so much is still mere speculation there, and so many are still dealing with the immediate aftermath of a family tragedy, I don’t want to get into specifics yet. I have a strong opinion on the issues, but I have a stronger opinion on the process that I’d like to see as we address the issues, which is what I wanted to focus on here. I’d like to think if we all kept the following in mind, we could have a productive and respectful discussion, and even if we end up not liking the result, we’d grant having been a contributor to the process.

Everything I say here presupposes that the goal is policy based on truth, consistent with the principles described in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. If that tips my political hand a bit, so be it.

First, stop assuming those who disagree with you on policy don’t care or don’t think. This is easy to fall into, especially when emotions are high and some are using bad data or false arguments. But it’s critical if you want to understand positions with which you disagree, and that, in my opinion, is a necessary part to having a fruitful debate on anything substantive.

This means taking care with the language you use. Understanding the definitions and shades of meaning that words may have for your opponents. And sometimes, it means letting go of pithy, but loaded, terms like “common-sense” in your rhetoric.

In my experience, even when people disagree with me, if we dig deeply enough we share many of the same goals. Consistency and integrity means not losing sight of that and slipping into vilifying the “other.”

There is a difference between goal and intent as I use them here; goal is much deeper. Imagine a law banning chocolate in the US.  I may agree with its goal of increasing the healthiness of the average citizen while disagreeing that the intent of the law will make acceptable progress toward that goal.

Second, stop assuming those who agree with you on policy share your reasons. Assuming the best about your allies (or just assuming your allies) can be even more disruptive than assuming the worst about your opponents. It can lead to schism and feelings of betrayal. Just as it’s helpful to truly understand the opposing position, it’s crucial to understand your own, and have examined it carefully as if it were that of your opponent. Otherwise, you have little hope of clearly articulating it or defending it consistently.

Third, understand that a law or policy must be sufficiently specific, if it is to have a chance of accomplishing the intent for which it was written. This is the technical vs. business divide I mentioned above. Our legislatures sometimes (often?) write laws that are overly generic, giving too much power to the executive branch to determine what it actually means in practice and how it should be enforced. This is one major source of unintended consequences in law.

Fourth, understand that the merit of a policy cannot be measured by the emotion of the environment in which it is enacted. In fact, I’d argue emotion tends to drive a “we have to do something” attitude that almost inevitably produces bad policies. Inertia in policy and precedent in law are hard to counteract; relying on them to advance your agenda may work, but  it’s an admission of the weakness of your position.

So for those who are suggesting new regulations, I encourage you to think through the following:

  1. Is what you are suggesting already in law or policy, but not being properly enforced? If so, how will your suggestion address that problem?
  2. Is what you are suggesting specific enough to address your intent without easily going beyond it? (If you have to resort to “well, you know what I meant” then the answer is “no.”)
  3. What costs will be incurred by the law-abiding in order to obey your suggested change? Which of their rights or privileges will be reduced?

For those of you opposing any new regulations, think about this:

  1. Do your criticisms apply to your own position as well?
  2. If your opposition is based on a “slippery slope” argument, is the slope you describe realistic?
  3. Do you have positive suggestions, acceptable to you, that would accomplish the same goals, even if they don’t express the same intent?

Again, my sympathies are with those suffering, especially in Las Vegas, and I encourage you to help your hurting neighbor in whatever way you are able.

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