Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

Suppose you had a discussion like this:

A: Choristers are terrible! They keep singing things all the time, and it gets on my nerves!
B: Have you tried earplugs?
A: Of course! They’re worthless! Uncomfortable, constantly in need of replacement, hardly block the awful singing but do somehow always make me miss important phone calls…
B: Okay, not that then. Have you tried asking them to stop?
A: Only every day for the last eternity. Why won’t they stop? Argh.
B: Maybe try asking them to sing something different, that you’ll like?
A: I don’t want them to sing something else, I want them to stop.
B: Or maybe you could offer to help them find a more soundproof room somewhere?
A: Why should I help them?! They’re torturing me! Why can’t they just stop doing it?
B: Perhaps some kind of rotating schedule, so you can be elsewhere when they sing…
A: Argh! No! They need to just not do it!

We could definitely accuse B of being unsympathetic. But A is also being unsympathetic, and so are the choristers, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point is that B is trying to be pragmatic – find a workable solution that makes A less unhappy. But A doesn’t seem all that interested in the workarounds – their only plan is to hope for the simpler solution of everyone abiding by A’s own preferences.

Let’s briefly consider some real-world examples:

And so on through a hundred other tedious culture-wars-by-proxy, “why can’t people just diet and stick to it,” “why can’t people just have more feminist sexual preferences,” “why can’t people just get jobs,”… All different in their exact causes but all containing a trace of the same error. Now that everyone is at least a little bit angry and considering leaving a comment about how their pet issue is totally different (hey! Just like mine!), we can move on.

Hopefully the idea is now clear. Someone has some extremely precious value like pro-choice, free speech, having guns, etc. That value gets questioned by other people who have different values. The person wishes other people would stop doing that. The problem is that, no matter how important it is (to the requester) that the value be respected, it’s not enough to make people actually do it. And emphasising that importance by repeated injunction does nothing.

Which is to say, there’s a tendency to try to object to a proposed solution by saying “but the real problem is that people are causing a problem. People just need to stop doing that.” Essentially, asking for people to change in an unlikely way as a substitute for discussing the proposed solution on a deeper level and gaining understanding of why it’s not satisfactory that can be used to refine the solution and so on.

I’ve made this mistake over and over again, on issues from environmentalism to electoral reform to foreign policy. It’s ludicrously hard to debate ideas without ever asking for the impossible. It could be seen as a kind of fallacy of perfectionism, but I prefer to think of it as its own thing, a kind of cognitive failure mode based around the fear that one’s values won’t be respected and the tendency to stop looking for a solution once someone else can be blamed.

The objection is obvious: but isn’t asking for less “asking for other people to change in unlikely ways” asking for people to change in an unlikely way? Yes, it kind of is. Therefore, here are some proposed practical workarounds:

  • Express the sentiment as “just to check, we agree that it would be best if … ?” – The aim here is to placate the part of the mind that is worried that the other participants won’t respect your highly regarded value.
  • Emphasize not wanting to be dragged off-topic when mentioning that it would be nice if whatever optimal path could be taken instead of compromising. This seems prone to failure. No amount of “let’s not get off topic, but…” has ever prevented discussions getting off-topic.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to “why can’t X just V?” with disagreement about whether it would be good if X just V. It is sometimes possible to find a way to express the idea that the principle is sound but an unhelpful way of looking at the original question; but if not, you’re usually allowed to just drop the line of discussion.
  • Ignore the discussions themselves. Then, write a long meta-level rant on your blog about it. This solves the problem forever.
Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

4 thoughts on “Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

  1. This is an important issue, but are you being sufficiently sensitive to differences in register and in audience? For example, if you are debating an opponent on issue X to provide inspiring rhetoric to your comrades who are in the audience, watching the debate, then you have one set of priorities; if you are debating an opponent on issue X because you’re hoping to arrive at a compromise on X so that you two can shake hands and cooperate against a common enemy on issue Y, you have a different set; and if you are having an internal debate with people who agree with you about X, with the goal being to refine your ideology and your common strategies, then you have yet a third set of priorities.

    Likewise even when the debate is just you versus your opponents, you might be trying to win a legislative battle, or you might be trying to win a procedural battle over the legislative agenda, or you might be trying to win an electoral battle over a legislative seat… each debate should target a different register. If there is a voice-vote scheduled the day after tomorrow, then arguing that X shouldn’t even be up for debate is empty rhetoric; you need to focus on swaying undecided legislators. But if a committee is going to vote about whether to open up X for general debate, then why not argue that X shouldn’t be up for debate? Make your case, and maybe you’ll get lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is an admirable pragmatism, and I definitely support the spirit of it.

      On reflection, I think the dialogue misframed things a bit. It comes across too much as “A just wants to vent, and B is the typical unhelpful-advice-giver not aware that all their ideas are old news.” Whereas the framing that annoys me is where the discussion of practical solutions is already ongoing and someone weighs in with something highly principled but useless. That is, the question could become simply who has failed to correctly determine what the actual audience and purpose of the discussion is. And then obviously everyone thinks they have the right of it.

      But yes, thankyou. I will try to appreciate that people usually see themselves as restoring the correct framing of the dicussion rather than disrupting it when resisting the annoyance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your rejoinder and your qualification to it are both exactly on point, I think. Ideally you want people to have an object-level discussion, rather than a meta-discussion which aims to frame the debate in a way that will help them “win”. Mostly likely if the topic is X and the two possible frames are X’ and X”, both sides would benefit more from an earnest, honest debate about X’ or X” than a long meta-debate about the merits of the respective frames.

        But! We can’t start our analysis by saying “Assume two frictionless, perfectly spherical debaters” — in practice people always have trade-offs between debating and other fun stuff, and also between different topics for debate, and different parties. Debate is costly. Someone who will always debate any challenger, on any topic, within any frame, is going to get exploited mercilessly.

        To speak loosely, you need a little tit- to go along with your -tat to make sure that people sort themselves into the most profitable debating groups on the most profitable questions. Maneuvering over a suitable frame for the debate is part of the negotiation process whereby people who really want to have the debate accept frames that make it worthwhile to the other party.

        (Btw, while dialogues are quite hard to write, I am very sympathetic to B’s position.)


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