TCS Daily

The Zen of Feedback

By Arnold Kling - September 19, 2003 12:00 AM

"Accuse the other party of your worst faults. Insist that you are an avatar of the Truth and that the other person is Falsehood incarnate"
--Joel GAzis-SAx,
Rules for Flame Wars


I like receiving feedback on my TCS essays, and I like making comments and giving feedback on other web logs and essays. To me, this is one of the best features of the Internet -- it provides a much more open forum than broadcast media.


I must admit, however, that the noise to signal ratio can be quite high in the "comments" or "feedback" sections of web sites. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when you contribute your comments to a site.


I May be Wrong, But...


I once suggested that the software for posting feedback should automatically post a preface to each comment consisting of, "I may be wrong, but ___." I think that in a discussion or debate it is important to allow for the possibility that the other person may have a point. I change my mind sometimes, which tells me that I am right less than 100 percent of the time.


Try to imagine what you would say if you were to begin your comment with, "I may be wrong, but ___." My guess is that if you think in those terms, you will pay more attention to sharpening the substance of your argument and be less tempted to reply on purely rhetorical devices.


The Golden Rule


If I were to posit a Golden Rule for feedback, it would be this:


Make the type of arguments that others would make with you if they were making a sincere effort to change your mind.


When you're in an echo chamber of people holding similar beliefs, then strong personal put-downs that question the sincerity and moral worth of your opponents work really well. However, in an open environment, those tactics fail.


For example, if I support school vouchers and you disagree, it does not really help your case to accuse me of advancing the agenda of the Religious Right. I have written a number of essays making a case for vouchers, and in none of them have I promoted a religious viewpoint for education. If you want, you can say that I am mistaken, and that I underestimate the consequences that vouchers would have for leading to increased religious separatism and bigotry. That is a substantive argument. What is not helpful is to make a personal attack on my motives that has no basis in the content of what I have written.


Another way of putting the Golden Rule is to say that you should address the idea, not the person or your theory of the person's motives. If you treat the person with respect while rebutting the idea, then you are giving feedback that is consistent with the Golden Rule.


But What About the Other Guy?


You are bound to find other people whose comments serve to only to demonize opponents, not to raise useful points. Leave them alone. My sense is that reacting in kind only encourages them.


Of course, if you are looking for negative role models, they are easy to find. A lot of well-known pundits are popular in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- their tendency to dismiss those who disagree with them as evil or idiots or liars.


I believe that name-calling of that sort should be viewed as a sign of weakness. If a position is wrong, then you should not have to call the person who takes that position a name. You should be able to explain what is wrong with the position, and let that refutation speak for itself.


Nobody's Perfect


I'm sure that I've written things that go against the principles that I've outlined here. Nobody's perfect. Where there is feedback, there will always be flame wars. But you do not have to be the one bringing the matches and gasoline.


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