Brief Thoughts on Purpose of Writing, Arguing

Posted on June 20, 2016 by Richard Goulter

There’re two kinds of argument-posts: preaching to the choir, or convincing the doubtful.

I came across this remark on a blogpost, & it’s kindof interesting, because does the second kind actually exist?
(The above remark was followed by “so don’t use these words when describing your opponent”; essentially, a call for civility, which is an interesting topic in itself).

I mean. Is it common for people to come across an article, and say “you know what, I was wrong”? I feel Haidt persuasively argues in his “Righteous Mind” book that humans are driven foremost by intuition, and reason post-hoc tries to make the reason look good.

– I do believe people can evaluate whether arguments make sense or not; at least in the case where it’s about something they’re not tribal about. (Implicitly, though, if an argument on your side is bad, it’ll disappear).
There’s value in two people arguing publicly, even in absense of persuasion, though: while, yes, the truth each believes is made stronger/richer by contact with the opposition; globally, the audience gets to pick/choose the merits of each side. (The world is complicated, and having a nuanced understanding of things is more likely to fit better than a simplified ideological viewpoint).

And yet. I don’t think persuasion (of a disinterested audience) happens via the rational arguments, as such.
– For an argumentative post to be reasonable is a high cost, though: It’s easy to preach to the choir by merely saying “our opponents are stupid, the world would be better without them”. It’s much harder to construct sound reasons which support this. (The easiest way to do this is to showcase the worst of your opponent. “Look, they’re bad”. But this is necessarily met with a showcase of the worst of ‘your side’, so). – Rather, if rationality has much to do with persuading the elephant, then the ‘side’ which is able to keep the strongest guise of rationality (for the longest) is more likely the ‘right’ side.
(That all pre-supposes this is about arguments between tribes. I’d guess most people in whichever community are largely non-tribal; and if they pay attention to the argument at all, somewhat serve as the disinterested audience).

Yeah, there’s a danger ‘danger’ in attention-rewarding metrics like Twitter’s Retweets/Favourites, Facebook’s Shares, etc. is that it incentivises content to seek-attention; if ‘attention to post’ isn’t related to ‘quality of post’, this disincentivises writing quality posts. – Rather, writing posts for the sake of writing posts is in defiance of the incentives of the social media.

There’s also a danger in ‘everything is an argument’, in a tribalistic viewpoint, where everything must be about politics all the time.. the goal becomes less about ‘finding truth’, having good discussion and asking questions, but instead asking “how do I win? how does our side win?”.
– In that sense, it’s okay that some posts are written which don’t appeal to those outside the author’s in-group. (An echo-chamber, though, where the author & audience never engage/read other viewpoints.. there’s also good cause to be concerned about that).

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