Discussion Revisited: The Lost Art of Diplomacy

Not long ago, I left a series of comments over at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiatives blog, discussing whether public infrastructure spending could be considered "capital" in the economic sense of the word.

I don't want to re-hash that debate on the pages of my own blog. I bring it up here because I noticed something that speaks to me about the "climate of discussion" in today's world. We hear all the time that the climate of political discourse is disintegrating. I think it's true.

I think one of the major contributors to this decline/disintegration is the apparent disappearance of real diplomacy and tact.

First, An Example
User "Bob Smith," for example, refused to concede even the most minute ground in the capital discussion. When I pointed out that no one ever accounts for "public roads" in a Cobb-Douglas function (meaning, during a microeconomic analysis), "Bob Smith" insisted that it could be done. I admit that it theoretically could be, but who would do such a thing? First, it misses the point of microeconomic analysis; and second, it yields precious little information. In that sense, public roads are not a "capital input."

But this point of argument came up after I had conceded in good faith that "Bob Smith" was right about  "public capital." A gesture of good faith on the part of "Bob Smith" would have been to say something like, "Oh, I see where your error came from, and so I see your point. But nonetheless, public capital is widely understood to be capital."

Such a statement would have demonstrated a desire to seek common ground. In absence of such a desire, what is the purpose of a technical discussion at all?

The Example, Generalized
"Bob Smith" was clinging to his point with a stubbornness that defies truth-seeking. He didn't want knowledge, he wanted vindication. He wanted to win.

How many times have you discovered this in your own dealings with people? How many times are you guilty of such a thing yourself?

This is a rather fascinating concept. Perhaps "Bob Smith" was merely joshing me a bit, engaging in some fiery discourse, and going home to the peace and comfort of his family and friends. That is the best-case scenario, and I hope it is the real one. The alternative scenario is not so pretty.

The alternative scenario is that the various "Bob Smiths" of the world believe that truth comes down to who wins the debate. Not "right is might," but "might is right." "Bob Smith" might have far more at stake in the discussion than I do, because he's not seeking to discover the truth, he's seeking to determine the truth.

For him, it may well be that the victor's view of the world is what the rest of the world accepts, and his lone viewpoint floats away into obscurity, never to be utilized by anyone. Given that we were discussing an academic matter on an academic blog, this is certainly a plausible hypothesis, and an understandable fear that an academic might hold. If his ideas aren't the ones that take root, "Bob Smith" loses. I win. My view reigns supreme...

I have said many times (on the blog, probably, but I can't cite a specific article) that truth is not a popularity contest. You don't get to be correct just because a majority of people agree with you. The majority can be wrong. It's happened before, and it will happen again.

"Bob's" Big Brother: Brinkmanship
While academic concepts are debated, resources and outcomes are negotiated.

A classic "game" in Game Theory is called "Battle of the Sexes." It describes a situation in which the Woman wants to e.g. watch a romantic movie, while the Man wants to watch an action movie, but neither of them wish to watch separate movies. The ideal outcome for each person is to to watch the movie they prefer, but an acceptable outcome is to stay together, no matter which movie they want to see. (The equilibrium outcome, by the way, is for each person to recommend seeing the movie that they do not prefer.)

Now imagine yourself in such a situation in real-life (for most of us, it's not difficult to imagine, because it has happened many times). One possible way to resolve this conflict is to willingly give up on your movie preference and completely satisfy the other person, claiming partial satisfaction for yourself.

Still another way to resolve the conflict is to practice brinkmanship, that is, to refuse to see the other person's movie; to hold out until the other person caves in. Plenty of couples do this all the time.

And of course, it's not just couples. It seems to me that society more and more resorts to brinkmanship to resolve conflict. Cling to your version of the truth until the other person gives up. Hold out for everything, because there is nothing to be gained from a partial victory.

What does it matter that you get to see your movie if you have to wash the car later? You know your partner won't leave you over a movie choice, so it's only to your benefit to hold out long enough to win every time. If you push this too far, you can claim moral credence by ridiculing your partner for being so petty as to create major relationship problems over something so trivial as a movie. You know your partner is patient and kind, so you insist on your movie every time, and every time you win.

A Short-Sighted Victory
Any such "victory" over your partner is of course a complete lack of showing good faith and empathy for the other person. For one thing, we really don't want to show a lack of good faith to people whose relationships we value. For another thing, even if we're engaging in brinkmanship with people for whom we have no respect at all, it strikes me as an incredibly short-sighted policy.

It might work once or twice. Maybe three times. Eventually, though, the "loser" in this game will grow unwilling to capitulate. Then you're faced with a new game: one in which both sides refuse to budge an inch, period. When both sides hold out equally, we have reached the wrong equilibrium, the one in which nobody watches any movies with any other person.

Of course, understanding this during the negotiation process requires a decently honed cognitive time-horizon. One must be able to foresee that consistent brinkmanship poisons the well. Even if it's worth it now and then, refusing to budge during every negotiation process is not much of a negotiation at all. You will acquire a bad reputation. No one will enter negotiations with you, for they have nothing to gain by wasting their time. They know you will hold out indefinitely, so they don't even come to the table. With nothing to offer you, you no longer hold any power to affect a positive outcome for yourself.

Simply stated, people stop asking you to the movies.

Poisoning the Well
The "Battle of the Sexes" is such a good case-study that it really doesn't require additional real-world examples; even so, there are many. How about the issue of nukes in Iran? How about the average labor dispute? How about the daily goings-on of Congress?

For major issues, there may be some merit to practicing brinkmanship, but never forget: When you have nothing to offer, you also stand to gain nothing in return. So as we cling to our political ideologies and refuse to concede the good points made by others, we may score some rhetorical points... temporarily.

We can easily claim the short victory and drop the atom bomb on our opponents. We can pull the race card in politics. We can sling hurtful insults at the ones we love until they feel so bad that they are willing to apologize for anything. We can blame absolutely all ills on the shortcomings of the opposing point of view and claim perfection on our own side.

But in doing so, are you poisoning the well? I have lost many friends over silly arguments in which they found it important to claim a total victory over me. I have walked away from many a disagreement scratching my head, wondering why it was so important for the other person to be so right than I was not even allowed to agree to disagree. I have had many of my views discarded before they were considered, under the dismissal that I hold whatever political ideology the listener has pre-determined me to hold, without considering the merits of the specific points I make. And I am not alone.

In our quest to win the debate, we are poisoning the well and rendering further discourse impossible. Why discuss something if the discussion itself offers us nothing in return. If the outcome of every debate is a cold shoulder and wicked gaze, why speak to each other at all. We may as well stick to LOLcats and other memes; they have become the only thing that as yet does not divide us.