Author Robin Sloan described attending debates sponsored by the Long Now Foundation. He was struck by the debate format, writing, “The first time I saw one of these debates, it blew my mind.”
Why were these debates so revolutionary? Sloan gives some context:
“Our democratic culture has, I believe, basically given up on debate as a tool for changing minds or achieving consensus. Instead, we use it as a stage for performance, for political point-scoring. When we debate — and this is true whether it’s a big televised event or a little online roundtable — we direct our arguments not at our opponents but rather at our allies. We rile the base. We face the choir. We preach!”
He’s right. In debaterland, the judge’s ballot is prized above all else. In the midst of a debate, especially a heated one, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you are right, especially when you’ve already spent hours researching why your arguments are right and the the opposing ones are wrong. Even with good intent, it’s much too easy to accidentally misconstrue your opponent’s arguments — describe the argument in a way that doesn’t do it justice — because you’re debating to win and you’ve already convinced yourself that you’re right and that your opponent’s argument doesn’t matter anyways.
This is what impressed Sloan:
“Every so often, the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco hosts a debate. It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress — high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.
Instead, it goes like this:
There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction — a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument — and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.”
Imagine for a moment that the form of debate you compete in follows this format. Before you refute your opponent’s argument, you must first describe that argument in such a way that is satisfactory to your opponent.
Obviously, there are logistical issues that have to be worked out, and formalizing this tactic into a rule for competitive highschool debate is arguably unfeasible. But guess what? As people and communicators with the latitude to determine how we describe our arguments, we have the opportunity to implement this tactic even without a rule.
If “strawmanning” is the vice of making your opponent’s argument weak so your response seems strong, then steelmanning, according to Chana Messinger, is “the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.” Messinger uses three reasons to steelman:
First, it helps you in the pursuit of truth. Comparing the best arguments of both sides and seeing which one comes out on top is the best way of determining which argument is the best.
Steelmanning also helps you become a more effective arguer and a better person. Messinger writes (this is a long quote but it’s ALL worth reading):
“First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs.
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
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 kind of [debating] is dangerous because it goes beyond (mere) argumentation; it becomes immersion, method acting, dual-booting. To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry.”
Steelmanning is what we — in our debate rounds, political discourse, and personal lives — desperately need. Assume the best of other people when engaging in discourse with them, whether it’s with their intentions or content. This makes us more compassionate and empathetic while helping us become better at pursuing truth by forcing us to face life issues head-on instead of dumbing them down. In short, steelmanning is a life-skill that makes us better people.