For Whom Do You Argue?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Steel man" is an interesting new phrase I encountered at Word Spy, and, as you might expect from a play on the term "straw man", it refers to an approach to debate. Here is the definition:

The strongest version of an opponent's argument, particularly when this version improves upon the opponent's original argument.
The idea isn't a new one, but the quick way to describe it is. The idea has merit, but exploring it pays higher dividends than I initially expected it to. To get an idea of what I mean, consider the following quote from an example citation:
I'm serious. I think steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you're arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even actively dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we're arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.
This author earlier correctly notes that the purpose of debate is to reach the truth, and that showing a deep understanding of an opponent's arguments can be a winning rhetorical strategy. In those ways, steel-manning obviously makes one better, in terms of how well one's understanding conforms to reality: What is my opponent actually saying? What merits might that argument have? What can I learn that I didn't know before, regardless?

I am not sure how clearly this author realizes this, but these are all proper, selfish reasons to thoroughly examine an unfamiliar position that may have merit. I wouldn't call the part of selfishness that encompasses civility and good will "charity", but giving others the benefit of the doubt is a recognition of the fact that one can learn valuable things from other people. This is the exact opposite in all ways from the attempt to con others (and oneself) by using a straw man. A straw man ignores reality and places one's best interests at the mercy of the gullibility or willingness-to-be-fooled of others, be they offering an argument or looking for reasons not to consider one they don't like.

If one cannot argue well for and with himself, he cannot do so for or with others. The real purpose of arguments, our overly politicized culture notwithstanding, is not to get people we regard as idiots to do our bidding, but to teach -- ourselves and others.

-- CAV


John Shepard said...

Very interesting, Gus. I like the idea of "steelmanning." I'd not heard of it before, though I understand it, but it's an excellent idea. Thank you!

Gus Van Horn said...


You're welcome. This is like devil's advocacy, but I find the positive emphasis refreshing.


I'll take the opportunity to note that this idea is quite like Devil's Advocacy , but I find the positive emphasis to be a breath of fresh air. 


Gus Van Horn said...

Sorry for the mangled reply. Trying this on phone and running out of time.