i teach you the spongemanrambleessay

September 2, 2017
A while ago my erstwhile debating partner introduced me to Rapoport's Rules, guidelines for criticizing the argument of an opponent. As formulated by my favorite philosopher Daniel Dennett, they go:
  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, "Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Another term for this is "steelmanning" - in contrast to "strawmanning", where you knock down a lightweight representation of the opposing argument that's designed to be knocked down, here you make an effort to really understand and then gird it in rhetorical steel and state it back to them.

On some levels the rules' concept is appealing, but also - unlikely, I guess I'd say, for people who have are arguing sincerely. If you could whole-heartedly restate your partner's (or as the rules put it, "target's") view, you'd pretty much have to be believing it yourself. That "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way" bit is also weirdly condescending - your displayed mastery of the domain is such that your "target" will humbly thank you for your cleverness of the restatement? For something that you still don't believe? What kind of insincere sophistry is that? Like a suit of armor, I think this kind of steelman will ring hollow.

My erstwhile buddy didn't really grasp my objections until he listened to Hannibal Buress on the Sam Harris podcast. (Admittedly Buress might be a little drunk, but I appreciate his sincere points) Around 29:00 minutes in, Sam Harris says

Here's a bet, here's a bet: I could summarize your view of me in a way that you'd agree with. You couldn't return the favor. You want to take that bet? I'm absolutely sure I can articulate how you view your side of the conversation in a way that you'd sign off on. I have absolutely no faith that you could do the same for me. That's a problem, we're not successfully communicating.
My buddy had an even strong reaction against Harris there than I did, that he saw Harris using the "I can see your side" concept as a bludgeon.

My counter-proposal was "spongemanning". The best we can do is try to absorb the other person's argument, then wring ourselves out, restating the argument as best we can, and have our partner comment on the drippings, to see how much of the salient info we had actually taken in. Spongemanning offers more substance than the superficialities of steelmanning, and it is more respectful than steelmannings "anything you can think, I can think better".

At its very best it invites participants to think about where their partner is coming from, and what are the headwaters of their current flow. (At the risk of straining the wet metaphor.) One of the few things I like about Ayn Rand is her alleged greeting of "What are your premises?" It's rather belligerent, but it gets to the heart of why sincere people who keep faith in the methods of rationality and discourse as a way of understanding the universe can still disagree... they have different starting assumptions and then differing concepts on what is best prioritized in life. By trying to absorb what your opponent is saying, you might better identify and catalog those sticking points - fundamental areas of disagreement where "agreeing to disagree" isn't throwing out the whole kit and kaboodle.

Behold: the spongeman! (With normal, double-tube-shaped pants)


Huh. After listening to an Atari podicast, I just now realized I know "Douglas Crockford" from two different contexts, Atari 8-bit demos and Javascript: The Good Parts...
I just found out the music composer for the new Mario/Rabbids crossover is named "Grant Kirkhope". That's a sentiment I can get behind.