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Written and Unwritten Rules In Discussions

If you don’t have a debate policy, you have an unwritten, biased, inconsistent debate policy. Just like if you don’t have a philosophy, you still do, it just hasn’t been given much study or conscious consideration.

Public intellectuals use unwritten rules for who they talk to (gatekeeping, filtering) and how they talk during a discussion (how they think rational, productive discussion works).

Unwritten rules are confusing to others. They’re not predictable. If an intellectual had written gatekeeping rules, I could know “If I do X, Y and Z, I’ll get a discussion.” With unwritten rules, it’s unclear what’s even relevant (what helps at all), let alone what’s adequate, what’s enough.

Unwritten rules are usually applied inconsistently. They let people be biased and prevent accountability. They let people easily lie about the reasons for decisions (like not discussing with a critic).

Bias and dishonesty are hard problems. Instead of being confident we’re great at them, we should make it easier on ourselves. Written rules help keep us honest and prevent bias from affecting our discussions. We should be happy to find ways to combat bias and dishonesty rather than being so arrogant as to think that’s unnecessary. (Some people seem to think that doing anything about bias is like an admission of weakness, and admission that maybe they aren’t fully rational, so they’d rather take no anti-bias actions in order to deny they have any problem with bias.)

During discussions, people have unwritten rules for what they think should be replied to, what questions should be asked and answered, how much effort to use, whether links should be read or ignored, how conclusions are reached about sub-issues, in what circumstances the overall discussion should end. People who try to have discussions usually disagree about some of these things. Because neither side writes down or explains how they think this stuff works, it’s an ongoing source of conflict and misunderstanding. And then at some point someone gets frustrated and ends the discussion. Or they just end it because they’d rather do something else and that’s that – and then they also claim they’re really open to discussion and interested in ideas (just not that time, apparently, though they often make excuses like saying the other guy’s messages were low quality without providing conclusive specifics).

Going from unwritten, ad hoc, “I know it when I see it” type rules/behavior, to written, documented, policies procedures, methods and rules is a huge upgrade. It’s similar to going from “whatever the dictator says goes” (unwritten rules) to a system of law and order. The way intellectuals behave is really primitive compared even to governments (and I have a lot of criticisms of governments).

This is the unexamined life. People don’t know why they do things. They don’t know how they choose which discussions to have, what to do in the discussions, or when to end them. They don’t understand themselves. Writing down their discussion methods and policies is how they could both discuss better (figure out what their goals are, what they think is good discussion, share the idea with others, and try to do it) and also better examine their life, understand themselves, learn what they actually do (take some of their intuitions and whims and turn them into considered, written statements).

Elliot Temple on November 3, 2019


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