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Arguing from compassion (2021)

Arguing from compassion (2021) 

Anyone who has spent time arguing on social media has heard of the straw man fallacy. It’s a flaw in argumentation in which a caricature of a point is substituted for the real thing, making it easier to refute. If someone posits, for example, that universal basic income (UBI) could ameliorate the loss of jobs due to automation, a straw man would be, “So you want people to sit at home all day and collect free money?” Recently, the term has become a cudgel in the culture wars, with both ends of the horseshoe cynically wielding it for their own purposes. This is unfortunate, because the value of the straw man is that it highlights a communication error and offers us an opportunity to correct it.

To avoid straw-manning we’re encouraged instead to steel-man, or intentionally respond to the strongest version of the opposition’s argument—in this case, something akin to, “You want to decouple work from basic economic security, so the changing landscape of labor doesn’t lead to destitution.” Steel-manning ensures our own understanding of the argument and also signals to our interlocutor that we’re acting in good faith. Unfortunately, this sage advice is rarely heeded. We’re far more likely to not only straw-man, but also to vilify and mischaracterize our opponents themselves, fomenting enmity and rendering dialogue impossible. A new prescription to correct this more consequential error has been long-needed, and in the nascent hours of 2021, something dawned on me.

There’s a starman waiting in the sky

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds…

Inspired by Bowie’s lyrics, I’ve adopted the term star man to describe a rhetorical step above the steel man—a kind of platinum rule to improve upon the golden one. To star-man is to not only engage with the most charitable version of your opponent’s argument, but also with the most charitable version of your opponent, by acknowledging their good intentions and your shared desires despite your disagreements. In our UBI example, star-manning would be to amend the steel man with something like, “…and you’re in favor of this because you think it will help people lead safer, freer, and more fulfilled lives—which we both want.” If used properly, star-manning can serve as an inoculant against our venomous discourse and a method for planting disputes on common ground rather than a fault line.

No doubt some cynics will bristle at the seeming naïveté of calling for civility towards monsters. I understand their skepticism. Many of our beliefs feel more like identities, and to disagree with those is to negate our very existence. The thought of extending charity to those looking to erase us seems masochistic, even suicidal. But this perception of existential threat is an illusion. Yes, there are monsters in the world, but they’re so few in number that you’re unlikely to actually encounter one. More often, you will run into ordinary people under the influence of bad ideas—ideas that lead them to think and act in misguided, even monstrous ways. And of course, they’ll be thinking the same thing about you. Our error is in assuming these people are lost to us.

The fact is that the vast majority of us want the same things; our disagreement is always in the details. To star-man is to use this bedrock of commonality as a place from which to build good faith. It’s an exercise in compassion, an understanding that we are all products of our circumstances. Different people have different upbringings, educations, beliefs, values, and temperaments—all of which inform their opinions and behaviors. We will often have conflicting ideas about how to move forward in the world, but most of us will agree that we want to move forward. If you doubt this, ask around. I wager you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t want a safer, fairer, more just world for everyone if they could get it.

In practice, star-manning is about holding this compassionate perspective in mind. We want to frame our approach in our understanding that we’re all acting in service of our shared goals. The why and how of people’s perspectives are illuminating, and with this newfound guiding light we can engage them with more nuance and humility. We can now argue in truly good faith because we recognize not only our opponent’s arguments, but their humanity.

You may be wondering, what about the monsters then? What about Nazis and white supremacists? Many of us are loathe to admit it, but even those people aren’t very different from you or me. They have a worldview just like we do, and they believe it just as fervently. If you asked them, they’d be able to explain precisely why they think their conception of things will lead to a better world. They’re totally wrong, of course, but why they’re wrong and how they arrived at their point of view is just as important to understand. It’s also the way into changing their minds—just ask Daryl Davis, a black musician who collects the robes of KKK members he’s deradicalized through conversation. Davis is proof that even the most hideous among us carry a sliver of humanity within them, and within that is the same foundational goal that we all share. Yes, Nazis and white supremacists represent a particularly deranged set of ideas, but with compassion it is possible to tease the humanity out of even them. If Daryl Davis can convert Klansmen, surely you can find common ground with someone on the other end of the political spectrum.

The key to star-manning is the recognition that, while there’s no shortage of terrible ideas, most of us are not as opposed to one another as we think. Our discourse is rife with belligerence and bile, and our platforms are designed to stoke polarization. Ideological capture is difficult to overcome, but it is possible if we consciously dial the temperature down. We should argue. We should fight for what we believe in. We should stand up for ourselves and others—but we should also be careful not to make monsters of mere men and women of different minds.

If you’re still unconvinced—if you’re reflexively rejecting this notion outright, you have to ask yourself: Why? Why wouldn’t you want to acknowledge your interlocutor’s humanity, your mutual quest for safety, security, and satisfaction? How would compassion for your opponent affect your pursuits? I worry about the answers to those questions, and so should you.

Of course, just because you’re acting honorably doesn’t mean anyone else will, but someone has to be first on the dance floor. Besides, you never know who might respond in kind until you try. If we’re to make any progress, we need to actively foster a culture of good faith and honesty, based on the knowledge that we all have the same fundamental desires. It begins with each of us making the choice to see the other as human—flawed, perhaps ignorant, maybe even dangerous, but also human—no matter what they think. It continues by encouraging these exchanges in others, and praising star-manning when we see it.

Many may still think this idea naïve, but they’re wrong. Idealism isn’t naïveté—it’s ambition. It’s a refusal to concede the future to the present. It’s knowing how you want the world to be, orienting your behavior in that direction, and trying to inspire others to do the same. It’s also an acknowledgment that our fates are intertwined. Whether we ultimately agree or not, whether we try to communicate or not, whether we choose to be compassionate or not, we have to accept that we’re all on the same boat. We will sink or sail together, and we ignore this fact at our own peril.

Let’s not.

There’s a starman waiting in the sky

He’s told us not to blow it

‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile

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