Consensus or Conflict?

Many discussions are unproductive. Especially on the Internet. Worse if the conversation has any connection to offline events, people and organizations. What usually happens is that Internet commentators and bloggers value attention, sensationalism and stirring things up. A given controversy multiplies exponentially over the blogosphere, leading to entrenched “sides” bickering until it subsides a few weeks later, because people move on. If the struggle being fought online has any offline relevance, the topic is bound to come up at a later time, rekindling the situation. People and groups become entrenched, and very little changes.

Naturally, it is completely understandable that it is hard to focus when emotions run high and cherished positions are being critically (or sometimes not-so-critically) examined. It is especially troublesome when the subject(s) at hand have been given a skeptical free pass in the sense that there is a strong, active resistance to apply the same skepticism in that particular situation as is usually applied routinely and consistently in most other areas. This is not a demand to spend equal time for all skeptical issues, but to the problems with the resistance against examining particular issues with the same skeptical laser that is generally used. In some areas, such as feminism and misogyny, personal anecdotes are accepted as evidence by many sides, while they would be summarily rejected as actual evidence in any other field. However, it is important to listen and validate the feelings being displayed in such issues and take the best possible actions to rectify the situation. Misogyny should never be tolerated or accepted and neither should baseless accusations. Personal anecdotes may be inadmissible as convincing evidence, but they can form the basis for a more detailed, scientific examination of the issue. The wrong response would be to defend anecdotes with emotionally charged objections.

So banal conflicts in the blogosphere has its problems. They are escalating and emotionally charged. They tend to involve individuals on both sides who rarely apply the same skeptical criticisms of their own favorite position that they do to their opponents. They rarely result in a productive conversation across the divide. So what alternatives can there be? One such alternative is to focus on knowing what is reasonable, as oppose to wanting to be right at all cost (not my original phrase).

So, an attempt at seeking a broad consensus, rather than conflict, may be an option. Instead of listening to gather materials for a counter-attack, listen in order to understand. Make sure that you do understand the position of your opponent. Paraphrase it in your own words, and wait for confirmation or modification. More often that you think, your paraphrasing will be wrong. Then, in the clearest language possible, take some time to clearly articulate where and how your own position differs from that of your opponent. Then, make bullet points for those areas that you agree on. Ask for confirmation. Then, cautiously add to the list additional points. Have your opponent (now hopefully a cooperating contributor) to rephrase, modify, add or exclude content. Work towards shaping a list of points and issues you agree on. For those parts you disagree on, try to find the maximally bold statements that you both can agree on. Remember that this process is a collaboration and continually ask for opinions from your collaborator.

Once you two (or more) have established the strongest and most detailed statements that you both can agree on, then write a paragraph each detailing your point of disagreement. Make sure that your collaborators understand and accept where the disagreement lies. If needed, make the required modifications.

In the end, the agreement may be bigger and more practically significant than the areas where your positions part way. Or it may not. In that case, clearly articulate and agree to what differences exists between your positions. After that, you may ask each other what would be required to change your position to that of your collaborator(s) and try to fulfill it. If that does not work, then there is not much to do except part ways in this particular discussion. You have listed your points of agreement and the areas where you disagree and why. If you have presented specific facts or arguments to try and sway your collaborators after they have listed what would be the requirement to change their mind, make a shorter argument map with argument-rebuttal-defense for each argument provided by each individual.

If the conflict is not resolved, then there is no point in dragging it on. Thank each other for the collaboration and part ways knowing that you have been much more productive and cooperative than you otherwise might have been. I’m not sure how realistic this approach would be, and it would probably have to be put in action before emotions run high, otherwise it may be less productive if people do not want to collaborate in the first place. Also, this method may not be that workable in the blogosphere, as it requires a great deal back-and-forth that lacks sensationalism.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

14 thoughts on “Consensus or Conflict?

  • Your suggested method can work in some circumstances, when both parties genuinely want to hash through the issue to find the truth. (It *should* work in all circumstances… in a perfect world.) However, I’ve found that in these drama storms, the major players and the most-heard voices do not, and will not, conform to rigourous discussion. To them, it will seem ‘obvious’ that by asking them to reason things out, you ‘could only be’ hoping to ‘derail’ the conversation.

    There is a lot of jumping to conclusions, imagining nefarious motives, assuming that such motives ‘must’ be true, and then plonking anyone ‘suspicious’ into the ‘them’ camp.

    I have a new (relatively speaking) method of dealing with these situations which I find very effective. I first tried it during Elevator Gate (and wrote about it afterwards; this is a good beginning piece for illustrating the problem, and some ideas for how to handle it: http://www.rationalresponders.com/still_unapologetic).

    Since then, I have employed this method repeatedly, and it has never failed me yet. Not everybody likes me or my opinions, and that’s fair enough, but I have never been caught in the middle of a drama storm that I have not emerge from unscathed. I’ve even been involved in several, and each time I’ve been able to defuse the situation without compromising my ethics. This works offline, as well as online.

    I’ve been also learning more and more specific details about how to handle these conflicts, but the core of the method revolves around two major ideas: Resolving conflicting opinions with good evidence only (not anecdote), and the concept of self-skepticism and self-restraint (i.e. be sure never to do or say anything that you might later have to apologize for). Do not assume; ask questions for confirmation first (your suggested method also uses this idea).

    Your suggestions are a good start. However, I think you need to consider the context of a not-necessarily-on-your-side-nor-even-all-that-rational opponent in the dialogue. The method needs to be able to withstand all the dirty tricks (read: fallacious reasoning and unjustified accusations, repeated loudly and persistently) that will be thrown at it. If it can’t stand against a hostile adversary, then it will not stand in the real world.

    Ultimately, the only way to know for sure is to try it out, though. I could be completely wrong. (And I know how important it is that I need to be able to admit that. 😉

  • Hi, Emil,
    As per your post, you may be interested in the latest situation which has arisen, and which I am currently participating in, trying to apply the techniques I mentioned in my last comment. Here are the relevant links:


  • I quickly read a few of your comments and I thought a lot of it made sense. However, I feel I need to read the dozens and dozens of blog posts and listen to the podcasts to catch up in these particular discussion before feeling comfortable to comment on the overarching issues.

  • Hey Emil, are you a member of Facebook yet? If you are interested, I have a *very* good example of exactly the kind of adversarial conflict/discussion that I was talking about, and how I use the techniques I mentioned to recover the conversation without it degenerating into more flame wars. It is in a group that I admin on FB, so you would have to be on FB, and then I could add you to the group (it is semi-private, so non-members can’t see it from the outside). Post a message to my FB account (linked from my name above) if you want me to add you to the group.

    • Actually, you can see much of what I’m talking about here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/06/17/update-clarification-correction-on-holy-fucking-shit/

      It’s not as easy when there are multiple adversaries, so I haven’t made as much progress in this one. However, I have managed to stay pretty much spotless in terms of attacks on me that stick, I think. (If you disagree or agree or have any other comments, I would very much appreciate any feedback, even if it is negative.)

      I’m always conscious of the readers who are not participating. I think my performance there was pretty good, and mostly brought out the dirty tricks of my opponents to highlight the problem. Could be wrong. Again, would appreciate any feedback you have.

  • Hey Emil,

    My ADHD has kicked in, and I’m having a hard time keeping my interest-level up with this topic now, but thought you might be interested in this recent addition to the controversy I brought up, from thunderf00t: http://freethoughtblogs.com/thunderf00t/2012/06/25/misogynist/

    I would consider this an example of ‘doing it wrong’, as in, ‘I think thunderf00t probably has said some things he should apologize for’, but — aside from that — I’m largely in agreement with his central points. The backlash against him has been (predictably) quite heated and intense. Fortunately, I think TF can handle it just fine, but he is unusual in that regard, since he is a) already well-known and respected, b) also a scientist, and so has some professional clout against PZ Myers, c) only a recent member of FreeThought Blogs, and so he has ‘nothing to lose’ so to speak if he gets booted from their clique, d) can handle himself quite well in evidence-based argument, e) has the patience to fend off numerous opponents simultaneously, f) appears to have known (more or less) what he was getting into before he got into it.

    Most people would not be able to fend off that kind of backlash. Here is an example of another well-known and well-respected (though not nearly as popular yet as TF is) freethought activist Justin Griffith being subdued (in my opinion) by the same process: http://freethoughtblogs.com/rockbeyondbelief/2012/06/23/i-suppose-i-look-at-the-slimepit-differently/


  • It’s alright; the debate on this issue has grown far too large far too fast for me to be able to keep up.

    Yeah, I think Thunderf00t has some valid points, but he should have written a more professional and tightly argued post.

    I think I will write a blog post about groupthink in the skeptic community (or some variation on that theme soon), but I’m not sure I want to name names and go into the nitty-gritty details of the conflicts.

  • Hey Emil,

    I just re-read your post again, this time separating out the concept of trying to achieve consensus (I would prefer the word ‘agreement’, though I’m not sure if it’s all that different from what you mean), from the *specifics* of this current controversy, especially separating the concept from the reality that most sides in this current controversy are deeply entrenched.

    I think your suggestions are actually more substantial than I first credited them. The key though, is that both parties must *first* agree upon a certain minimal basis of standards for discussion and the resolution of conflicting opinions via evidence-based reasoning. But *if* such minimal basis for discussion can be agreed upon up front, *then* the conversation can proceed much like you have laid out. And I think you laid it out quite well how discussions *should* be able to proceed (I said ‘in a perfect world’, but actually such constructive dialogue *is* very achievable in practice in the real world; again, the key is that both parties must first agree to a minimal basis for reasonable discussion).

    I have actually been ‘working on this’ issue for several years now, though mostly through just thinking about it, and I haven’t yet written much down about it. But I do have a name for the idea, which I’ve pretty much settled on as my favourite term for this, which is the idea of ‘foundation’. In other words, the ‘foundation’ I’m speaking of is that mutually accepted ‘minimal basis’ for reasonable discussion between two people with conflicting opinions, as well as the process of finding ‘common ground’ as you’ve described above.

    There’s more to this idea of ‘foundation’ than that, which I hope to write about more in the future, but the primary motivation for ‘working on’ this idea for me has been that core human problem: resolving conflict peacefully, yet agreeably. In other words, rather than just parting ways with ‘agreeing to disagree’, you actually try earnestly to reach a maximal agreement (as you pointed out) within this minimal framework of evidence-based reasoning.

    For example, as I was re-reading your post, I was thinking, “I wish there was someone arguing the opposite side of this who was willing to operate under these guidelines. I think that would turn out to be quite a productive discussion, as I’m quite sure *I* am more than willing to operate under the same guidelines.” In fact, to a large extent, the recent developments I’ve made in my style of discourse have been — in a sense — to behave that way myself, and also to model that behaviour for others. I’ve got the behaving that way myself part down pretty good. I’m not yet sure how effective I am at modelling this behaviour to others, though.

    So, in fact, you’ve hit upon one of the subjects which has been a primary interest of mine since probably about 6 years or more ago. It is behind most of my participation in online discussion, e.g. around freethought/atheism/science/religion/etc.

    I think this is a very fruitful subject to investigate. Perhaps extremely fruitful. I’m very interested in it, and would be very interested in anything you post related to it. It seems to me to be centrally connected to the problem of denialism and other irrationalities.

  • Regarding your most recent comment. In some cases, naming names is very important, specifically in regards to the problem I raised about not spreading rumours about people. In some cases, rumours about ‘unnamed’ people (but we all know who) are equally or more dangerous and insidious than they would be if the people were simply named (obvious examples would be the insidious rumours spread about atheists, and in particular the so-called ‘New Atheists’, where such rumours, if they were attached to a specific name and/or incident, would be trivially easy to debunk, since they are almost without exception not anywhere close in reality to what the rumour claims).

    However, in other cases, I agree that naming names and even hinting at specific circumstances can distract too easily from important issues *about* conflict itself, and the concepts/ideas related to resolving conflicts in general.

    Thus, I suggest doing like you did in this post, and to keep your discussion at a ‘meta’ level, without naming names or even alluding to specific circumstances. Now, this does *not* mean to avoid mentioning any specific circumstances at all; in fact, I think it will be crucial to provide real examples of real conflicts, so that the meta-level discussion does not drift away from the realities of these situations. You may even use specific examples from current, ongoing conflicts. But there should be a clear delineation between the usage of a situation as an *example* only, and the meta-level discussion *about* conflict, resolving conflicting opinions, and reaching agreement in the general case. It may be a bit of a tight-rope walk in some cases, but I’m certain you can handle it, having seen your style on your previous posts.

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