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Some thoughts on how to have nicer discussions online

Towards Discussion Guidelines

I personally like to have discussions in the spirit of the Socratic method. Instead of declaring my opinion, I ask a relevant question. How about this situation? What about this case? This has two possible outcomes.

  1. The other person explains to me how things work in that case. I realize that I misunderstood, and we both come out enriched and in agreement.
  2. The other person realizes that those situations are not covered. They realize they misunderstood, and we both come out enriched and in agreement.

In both cases, it could have been a conflict, egos crashing together. But by asking questions, it becomes a collaboration to find the best answer. Even the simple act of asking a question in the first place says, "I care what you have to say, we can agree on this." That said, I have noticed that it is definitely still possible for things to go wrong within this framework. How can this happen?

There was a passage from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that really stuck out to me. Not only does he outline what I have said more clearly, I think he gets at the missing piece:

My list of virtues contain'd at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or so it appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

If you search around for "socratic" in the full text you will find other wise things about this general idea, phrased much better than I have here!

@oresmus

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commented Oct 13, 2016

What do you think is the missing piece that he gets at?

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