A discussion needs to make sense simultaneously from both people’s points of view (povs). That means each person gets all his requirements met. (More than two people is harder and I won’t address that specifically.)
If my requirements for the discussion aren’t met, then we don’t have mutual benefit from the discussion. If yours aren’t meant, then we don’t have mutual benefit. The discussion should only happen if there is mutual benefit.
This means you can use my discussion methodology, or propose an alternative that I find acceptable, or you shouldn’t expect a conversation with me.
If someone refuses debate and also wants to be some sort of public intellectual – rather than leaving ideas and truth seeking to others – then he ought to say why. I do say why. I’ve written about my discussion methodology and I’m responsive to critical discussion about it.
Sharing one’s reasoning means that mistakes on either side can be potentially fixed. It leaves a path open for progress to happen, regardless of who is mistaken. And I try to be extra tolerant of methodology and framework differences when people try to discuss my methodologies and frameworks themselves. Demanding someone fully use my approach to discussion before discussing/criticizing my approach to discussion would be problematic. But I do expect people, even in those conversations, to try to use an approach that makes sense and is productive from my point of view. If they can’t or won’t tell me how it should make sense or offer value from my perspective, and I don’t see it (after trying some), then it’s not going to work. If I can’t see how their comments will lead to progress, and they won’t tell me in a way that addresses my concerns, questions, criticisms, etc., then it’s not going to lead to progress for me.
There are aspects of discussion that I’m flexible about. Some things I prefer one way but I can deal with them being another way. They aren’t dealbreakers. I see how progress can be made even if something is a bit inconvenient or non-optimal.
There are other aspects of discussion which I’m inflexible about. I don’t want to meet people half way or compromise. E.g., I don’t think it’s productive to criticize things I don’t think I said and refuse to use quotes. I don’t see value in having a discussion of that nature. Similarly, I don’t see value in people saying things I consider unclear or ambiguous, and then not being very responsive to clarification requests. People often say unclear things faster than then clarify any. If you won’t or can’t tone down the unclear, “sophisticated” or “advanced” statements to the point where communication is working, then I don’t know how to have a productive conversation with you.
I can be flexible about the occasional statement I have a problem with, and drop or ignore it without clarification. But if it’s a frequently recurring problem affecting the main points of the conversation, then either initial communication or clarification needs to be working reasonably well.
I also want reasonably organized discussions. There is lots of flexibility here but it can’t just be mass chaos. People who won’t cooperate with attempting to organize things make bad discussion partners.
I require that people respond to me. If people won’t answer my questions, then I don’t know how to have a mutually beneficial discussion. I am responsive to direct questions. Often people don’t use or respond well to direct questions or requests, and this makes discussion hard. They want me to respond to things they don’t say, and I want them to respond to things I do say, and neither of us is getting what we want. I won’t switch styles without my concerns being addressed, but the people who want to operate by unwritten rules and social hints don’t want to discuss that system itself and acknowledge what they’re doing, so my concerns don’t get addressed. Often instead they agree to use my system of saying things in words but then don’t. They haven’t practiced it and don’t really know how to do it, and don’t acknowledge their beginner status and work on learning, so then discussion fails. I don’t know what to do about that besides either not discuss or they try to learn and work their way up at rational, explicit discussion. I’m open to alternatives if someone can offer one that offers mutual benefit and makes sense from my pov.
I don’t know how to have a conversation that benefits me when people are doing a bunch of unacknowledged social dynamics, passive aggressively sniping at stuff, being dishonest, and refusing to (or more often incapable of) analyze text literally. And people get offended if I express problems like this. They also get offended if I question their competence. But what am I to do? Refuse to discuss and refuse to say why? Dishonestly take the blame for the discussion’s failure? Present myself as unwilling to discuss? No. I would discuss but have certain concerns. If people don’t want me to name concerns like those, they shouldn’t converse with me in the first place. I’m not going and doing this to random people who never signed up for it. I run forums aimed at rational, critical discussion. If people don’t want criticism they should go elsewhere. People come to me and I’ve written a ton to try to warn them about what to expect. And I’ve been open to suggestions on how to better warn people but no one seems to know any fixes. It’s hard to fix by writing different warnings since in general people don’t read much before discussing, and even if they do they usually don’t understand much of it. I occasionally do go to other forums but I pick ones that claim to be focused on rational discussion and I’m less assertive or pushy there and I much more often will drop conversations without explanation. I think it’s OK for me to stop responding there because anyone who cares can come to my forums and debate me, or can make an explicit request that I explain why I left. (I do make some effort to let people know those options exist.)
One of the things I commonly want in discussion is persistence. I’ve already had a lot of discussions. I don’t want to go over old ground at the start of the discussion … and then stop there. I understand that may be new ground for others, but if that’s going to be the whole discussion then I often don’t want it. I’m more interested in unbounded discussions that try to reach conclusions about important issues. Lots of people think their opinions and ideas don’t really matter. That is their privilege but it isn’t what I’m looking for.
A common discussion problem is people make statements that rely on premises that I don’t share. Either I disagree with some of their premises or I’m unfamiliar with some, or both. This is a reasonable and expected thing to happen some. But people should understand the issue and be willing to discuss the premises instead of continuing on the original topic. And they should start building up a mental model of me and should get better at saying things that don’t read to me as skipping steps (using premises I don’t know) or building on stuff I disagree with instead of speaking to the disagreement.
People are bad at lots of this stuff. Most people are pretty incompetent at discussion. But most of them won’t admit it. I won’t simultaneously treat you like a beginner, give you leeway and help you learn to discuss better while also treating you as a peer who is seriously challenging my ideas. People often want both – they e.g. want me to go easy on them while pretending I’m not going easy on them, so that they look good. And they want me to do that without being asked. It’s dishonest and doesn’t benefit me. And their sometimes implied offer to do the same for me in return is not appreciated. You can’t have it both ways and the excuse “I have great ideas; I’m not just great at debating” is not going to fix it. If you want help figuring out how to have a productive discussion, say that. If you think you’re in a position to correct me on stuff, say that. But don’t try to have it both ways at once. If you really think you can do both at once, say so, and try to explain why and how.
It’s hard for me to help people who refuse to present themselves as learners. When I try to help them learn, they often find it condescending and threatening to their implicitly claimed status as experts. A lot of people should be trying to learn but instead try to debate, and are really bad at learning from/during debate, and so it doesn’t work, and the discussion can easily shift to the issue of them doing a bunch of stuff they’re incompetent at, and so they ought to figure out a course of study to become competent first, and people often hate that and find it threatening to their self-esteem and social status. But there’s no benefit from my pov to ignoring recurring patterns of incompetence that are preventing the original topic from making progress. And I don’t want to quit the discussion without saying why. Again, all I want is a way to continue that offers value from my perspective. And you should have a way of continuing that offers value from your perspective. And that may not happen, in which case we need not talk. Lots of people just don’t want to be judged, and don’t want anyone to talk openly about problems discussing with them. If that’s you, don’t start a conversation with me, because I do judge and I do talk about my judgments and reasons.
If you present yourself as a beginner/student/learner who’s trying to improve and isn’t very good at stuff yet, you won’t find me very judgey. That’s fine and I’m sympathetic to that.
If you present yourself as an expert who knows I’m wrong about important issues, then that’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to reach a judgment about. Can and should my judgment be impersonal? The short summary is that people mostly consist of ideas, so impersonal criticism of ideas is often threatening and scary to people, and feels personal. And also there are often patterns of error in ideas someone shares – e.g. they try to argue that I’m wrong about several things and make recurring mistakes – and speaking about those patterns and their causes is personal. Saying those ideas (that Joe said) contain patterns of error caused by specific thinking methods (the ones that Joe uses) is not going to to make Joe happy. That kind of wording change doesn’t address the real issue, which is that part of Joe’s identity is connected to the ideas being criticized.
If you want to be treated like a beginner every time you’re wrong, but also to spend most of your time trying to argue that I’m wrong instead of trying to learn anything, it’s not going to work. Learning via debate as a primary mechanism is hard and most people have no idea how to do it. It’s not taught effectively anywhere. People don’t go to classrooms, debate their teachers, and learn a bunch by doing it. That is not a common or standard way to learn. If you’re trying to learn in a way that’s dramatically different than all the learning that happens from interacting with parents, teachers or books, you should have some sort of plan and explanation of what you’re doing, how you developed the skill, why it’ll work, etc. If you don’t have that, don’t assume you know how to multitask debating and learning. Try doing one thing at a time, and only maybe do two at once if you’ve gotten both of those things to work well multiple times individually.
People often want to talk about sophisticated, advanced stuff with me, but they don’t know the medium stuff that builds up to it. That doesn’t work well and they usually don’t want to hear about the gaps in their knowledge. But it doesn’t work well from my pov to try to fill in those gaps as short tangents to an advanced debate. Learning those medium things is hard enough when it receives full focus for weeks.
If you don’t like any of this, or want something else, say so. Ask for what you want and we can discuss my concerns, if I have any. I’m open to other stuff as long as you can tell me the benefit from my pov or I can figure that out myself.
Thanks for writing this Elliot. I've had FI stuff on and off my mind for months now but haven't participated much. I've been trying to write down the reasons why I waa having so much trouble learning FI, and a lot of it has to do with unacknowledged social dynamics and guilt around not contributing well. There's a ton of dishonesty involved in how I try to have rational discussion in the long run, and lots of flawed ideas causing issues, but I have to find ways to make progress and not give up long term and not get pessimistic or stuck permanently.
I think you've built a great community and have had to deal with many problems that most communities don't take seriously. Problems like the individual context of people and how they have to use their own judgment when applying general ideas, or share more contextual details to get more specific advice and help.
You've built a place for anonymity and pseudonymuty for people to be respected and valued as a right rather than a place that pressures people to go by their irl name (at a time when people are being cancelled, but also feel pressure in many communities not to be anonymous because anonymity is considered to bring out the worst in people or lead to low commitment. These things might be true but you've decided to find ways to deal with them while still offering people the option to be anonymous.)
My message gets more and more unclear and vague as I keep writing, but i think my point is that you've chosen to address difficult and important problems that many people just accept as unchangeable or don't even realize matter because they focus on other problems. I'm realizing how many of your ideas link together and just how consistent you've been for decades and I respect that even though I personally struggle to apply it well to my own life and grow as a person.
This was meant to be an appreciative, honest, non fear based message but it turned into something else. I have fear sending it but I think holding back isn't good for me or for the FI community, so I'm willing to send this even though I'm conflicted. Thanks for all the generous work that you do and I hope that I can fix my mistakes one by one and make my life better in a way that I value and also in a way that would make you proud in the long-term.
#18262 Thank you. You're welcome. Good luck.