Conversation Culture

In this post I want to playfully outline some different discourse strategies, and offer some musings on how they might interact with each other.

We will look at "debate", "dialogue", and "dialectic", and we will start with some loose definitions of these terms, to clarify how I am using them here.

Debate: A Zero-Sum Game

We all know what debate is: two opposing positions are put head to head, formally or informally, and a “winner” emerges.

Debate is useful and important, but it’s worth noting that winning a debate is not the same thing as being correct, or even being honest.
The structure of debate incentivises rhetoric over truth, and often the formats used for institutional debates incentivise sound-bytes over a coherent position.

The ultimate goal of a debate is to win, and this is orthogonal to a search for truth.

This doesn't mean that debate is not good, or not useful. For example, broadcast debate may be educational, and debating a topic may help to explore the landscape of possible arguments. Usually, if someone has their mind changed during a debate, they are a member of the audience.

Dialogue: Sharing ideas.

Dialogue is the first step away from zero-sum discourse towards positive-sum discourse.

Nobody is trying to convince anybody of anything, but neither is anyone under any immediate obligation to change their mind.

Through dialogue, different perspectives can safely co-mingle.

What was once black and white may begin to become blurry, as complexities are acknowledged.

We may learn that where two things seemed to stand in contradiction, there was actually a more complicated both/and situation.

Dialectic: Working together in the pursuit of truth

Dialectic is a type of dialogue which is explicitly oriented towards the truth. It is a collaboration that sets aside what we might like to be true, what would be convenient, or what would be most comfortable.

E.g, In a debate it might be desirable to "straw-man" an argument (i.e, prop up an overly simplified version of the interlocutor's argument to make it appear weaker than it is).
In a dialectic, two disagreeing parties might instead "steel-man" each other's arguments.

This works by having each party state the other's arguments as accurately as they possibly can, and only once this has been done can the argument be interrogated for weaknesses.

Different people, different discourse strategies

What happens when there is asymmetry in discourse?

Dialogue paired with Debate

In this pairing, Person A may be disappointed to find themselves without a typical debate partner.
Person B is calm, willing to listen, and occasionally even agrees with Person A.

Seeing that the debate is not on, Person A may (or may not) give up the game and adopt a dialogue stance.

Note: Sometimes a dialogue strategy (or maybe a slightly altered version of it) can be the kryptonite to an overly confident debating strategy. See the Socratic method.

Debate paired with Dialectic

This pairing can be counter-productive. This is especially true when the debater - Person A - is more knowledgeable, more articulate, or simply more confident than Person B.

Note: a person who wants to engage in a careful dialectic may come to realise that they are outmatched by a debater.
In my view, they may choose to revert to dialogue in this situation, without compromising their aspirations for an open search for truth.
This comes from an understanding that two different games are being played, both with different rule-sets and win-conditions. To ignore this and play anyway is to play a rigged game:

Losing a debate is not a lose-condition for dialectic, in fact it doesn’t even map onto the game very well. Therefore, given a poor match-up, it can be counter-productive to even play.

By switching to a dialogue, Person B neglects to play a losing game, understanding that if playing it were to have resulted in a move towards truth, it would have been by accident.

However, it is also possible for this dynamic to be flipped.
A strong voice that engages in dialectic may be so effective at changing minds that they become quite good at debating.

Dialectic paired with Dialogue

This pairing can be fruitful for both parties, and it is fertile soil for dialectic.
Person A gives an open line of communication to Person B, and Person B happily shares information with Person A.

The “Ladder” of discourse

As you may have noticed in the above examples, dialectic, dialogue, and debate can form a kind of game of rock paper scissors. However, I'm more fond of viewing them as a ladder:

| Dialectic | ← Positive Sum, win/win
|                   |
| Dialogue | ← The bridge
|                   |
|   Debate   | ← Zero Sum, win/lose

This ladder does not necessarily climb in the direction of “virtue”.
Rather, it climbs from “zero sum” to “positive sum”.
However, as it turns out, we generally have a preference for “positive sum” games at Conversation Culture.

Climbing the ladder

One of the goals of Conversation Culture is to try to spend more time at the top of this ladder of discourse, on the dialectic rung. In practice, this requires conversation partners to climb the ladder from debate to dialogue, and from dialogue to dialectic.

From Debate to Dialogue

This is an important step, because a single debater can cause a dialectic to regress to a dialogue.
Moving from debate to dialogue requires a rejection of motivated reasoning.
We have to allow ourselves to consider that we may not be correct.
Once we have done this, it is no longer natural to try to "win".
We also have to be aware of the ego, and of our own defensiveness, and not let it derail the productivity of the conversation. (The volume of one's voice has no bearing on the truth of their words)

From Dialogue to Dialectic

This is a subtle shift of orientation. In order to move from dialogue to dialectic, everyone involved needs to be willing and interested in discovering what is true. Then, they simply collaborate.

About the Author
Nathan K I'm a musician, ramen enthusiast, and software geek who is fascinated by consciousness.
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