Ask A Question

It often happens to me when I’m in a debate that I will make some statement that expresses a part of my view, but not the whole thing. I do this for many good reasons.

One is that I want my conversation to be a mutual discussion, not a soliloquy, so I start by saying a little bit instead of a lot in order to gauge my interlocutor’s interest. Another reason is so that I have a better understanding of my interlocutor’s position and/or familiarity with the thinking behind mine. It wouldn’t do me any good to make a point about “Dunning-Krueger effects” if I’m talking with someone who has never heard the term before. It also helps us both understand where our point of disagreement is; does my friend think that the minimum wage should be raised because he doesn’t know what the classic economic argument against minimum wages is, or because he doesn’t think that the argument applies in this one example?

I could try to move a bit faster, by directly asking my partner, “Are you ignorant of the economic treatment of minimum wages, or do you just think they don’t apply here?” My fear in asking this kind of a question, though, is that it might come off as being unnecessarily aggressive. Besides, I want my partner to tell me what he’s thinking, rather than merely responding to my framing of the issue with simple yes-or-no answers.

In doing so, however, I expose my own position to a particular kind of weakness: the absence of reciprocity. That is, I might be very interested in giving my partner enough space to clearly state his position and make his best case for it; but he might not want to extend to me the same courtesy.

Indeed, I have often been in conversations where I express a part of my view, hoping to gain a little feedback from my interlocutor, and perhaps expecting that he’ll ask follow-up questions once he’s had a chance to consider the first part of what I said. Instead, it’s more often the case that my interlocutor will simply assume that everything I just said is everything he or she needs to know in order to respond. If I pause to check whether we’re all following along, the other person will simply assume that I have nothing further to say. Then, he or she will start picking apart a partially articulated argument.

In the best case, I’ll have a chance to fill in the blanks as I respond to the counter-argument, and my interlocutor will say, “Why didn’t you say that before?” (You never asked.) In the worst case, my partner will respond with a long diatribe attacking a straw man argument that I don’t actually believe; then, when I point this out, I’ll be accused of “changing my story” or making a “motte-and-bailey,” or some other such thing.

In the future, I’ll have to give some thought toward how I can best approach debates in order to avoid eliciting this kind of response from people. But for now, I’ll just say this: I hope you will all take the time to pause and ask questions about what you’re hearing when you’re debating someone. Help them articulate their point and check for understanding. Only then should you attempt to refute what you’ve heard.

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