When to engage and when not to: An update on my New Year’s resolution

When I resolved for New Year’s 2018 to quit online political discussions, I left open the question of when I should refrain from in-person political discussions. I wanted to do this in principle, I said, but sometimes find these discussions useful, and hadn’t found a way to tell the helpful from the unproductive. I didn’t know it at the time, but my real mission for 2018 would be to figure out how to draw this line.

At the time, I listed four cases that are sufficient conditions for engaging:

  • where someone is explaining an issue to me that I have little prior knowledge or belief about,
  • where I’m explaining neutrally an issue to someone who has little prior knowledge or belief about it,
  • where I’m talking to someone who is neither Kiwi nor American about their own country’s politics, or (because I should return the favour) where I’m talking to someone who is not Kiwi about New Zealand politics, and
  • where someone is explaining a perspective that is informed by their own personal anecdote.

But nailing down on necessary and sufficient criteria has been harder, and it’s the necessary side — when not to engage — that’s important. This year, I’ve certainly engaged in political discussions I’ve later regretted, because they felt pointless in retrospect. But with each one I learnt a little more about what such a criterion might look like. Here’s an update on where I am, five months in.

If I could summarize my current decision rule in one sentence, it would be:

At face, this criterion seems reasonable, almost trivial. But it rules out a surprising amount.

Obviously, it rules out echo chambers, almost by definition. But it also rules out discussions where you’re both just trying to persuade each other to adopt your point of view. For example, if I believe that the housing crisis (in e.g. Auckland or the Bay Area) is due primarily to regulatory restrictions on development, and someone else believes it’s primarily due to immigrants or unscrupulous landlords, that discussion is going to be a waste of time.

At first, I thought this was because in practice we’re both stubborn and won’t drop strongly held beliefs. But on reflection, that’s not the real reason. The real reason is that, if I hold such beliefs on the housing crisis, it’s probably because I’ve thought and read about it a lot, so I know what the debate is. And somehow, after all this reading and thinking, I’ve settled on my conclusion. So it’s unlikely that someone else who has similarly arrived at a conclusion can tell me something I didn’t already know.

Sure, perhaps this someone else is an academic who studies the housing crisis for a living — in which case, I can normally tell, and I’ll pick their brain. But in most cases, it’s someone who knows as much as I do about it, and it ends up being a merry-go-round of trading barbs.

It’s fairly easy to verify that my new decision rule encompasses my old one: each of the four cases above involves someone learning something. To the extent that my old criteria have a converse, that converse also fits most of the time. The reason I shouldn’t talk to Kiwis about New Zealand politics, or anyone about American politics, is that I follow daily news sites in both places, and have been for long enough to understand the background. Anyone I talk to is probably relying on similar sources, and it seems unproductive to discuss topics that we both know similar things about.

A more surprising corollary of my new decision rule is hinted at by my fourth old criterion. It implies that anecdotes are typically worthwhile, while discussions about statistics are often less so.

How can this be, when statistics are rigorous knowledge, and anecdotes are of just one person? The answer is not that statistics are damned lies and shouldn’t be trusted — on the contrary, it’s absolutely essential for our political opinions to be backed by verifiable, quantifiable facts! It’s that, when the question is whether to engage in discussion: either I know the statistic already, in which case trading competing interpretations of it isn’t a productive exercise; or I haven’t seen it, in which case I often need to go away and spend some time researching it to understand its context and caveats (example 1, 2, 3) — something you can’t reliably do during an impromptu discussion.

On the other hand, an anecdote is normally a perspective I haven’t heard before. One should never accept an anecdote as representative without question. But it tells me about what it’s like for someone to experience a phenomenon; sometimes, it tells me about phenomena I didn’t know existed. (To give one example, I’m frequently astounded by accounts of aspects of my female friends’ everyday lives.) For this reason, social justice advocates often call these “lived experiences”, and a few of them probably just bristled at how I put that in quotation marks and equated it to “anecdotes”. But, if you’ll allow a short digression, I really do think it’s important to appreciate how anecdotes complement data: they give us a qualitative insight that data can’t; they tell us what questions to ask, so that statistics can quantify answers.

You’re hopefully dying to point out an obvious objection: It’s rather arrogant, to put it mildly, to assume that I know everything that a political opponent is about to tell me. To some degree, I plead guilty as charged — mostly by selection. The topics where I’m likely to devolve into unproductive argument are precisely those I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about, whether I’ve come to a conclusion or not. Everyone will probably know something that I don’t about such a topic, but almost always nothing significant, unless it’s their area of professional expertise or they’re recounting personal anecdotes, which normally becomes apparent quickly.

But that’s only the case most of the time. More importantly, the learning criterion gives me a concrete question on which to make judgement calls about exceptions. When I can see that someone has knowledge, or opinions I didn’t even know existed — not opinions I’ve previously considered and dismissed — using that question allows me to see that I should jump on the opportunity to learn more, even if it’s a topic I’m familiar with. Now, classifying accurately will still be a challenge, particularly in these edge cases. But the question, “will someone learn something?” is at least a more specific feature than (and, I claim, a sufficient statistic for) “will this discussion be useful?”

Another fair objection is that I’m being self-centered, optimising for what I can learn, and how I can grow. This is true, and because I think it’s important to reciprocate, I phrase my decision rule symmetrically, and I promise that if someone genuinely does want to hear my perspective, I’ll provide it, just as I’m grateful to people whom I ask for theirs.

Of course, I don’t know whether this decision rule will work well for others. If you think it would or wouldn’t work for you, I’d love to hear from you; please do send me a message. All I can say is that it seems to be a positive step for me.

I’m still refining my model. That decision rule will probably evolve more through the year, as I continue to make mistakes and reflect on them.

In this process, I owe thanks to those friends with whom I used to engage in political discussion often, who have been admirably firm in respecting my new abstention. Sometimes they’ve even reminded me when I came close to breaking it. I deeply appreciate this; their support really means a lot.

As for the other parts of my resolution, I’ve kept off Twitter, avoided political doomthreads, and I haven’t used either of my quota of two political Facebook posts. I’ve been sorely tempted, several times, even writing the post before canning the idea. Each time, I asked myself, “do I really want to burn one of them on this?”, which became, “what do I hope to achieve by sharing this?”, then, “what will I achieve by sharing this?”, to which the answer is, “probably nothing”.

I’ve also been progressively hiding overtly political posts from my Facebook News Feed, and I’m breaking the habit of opening Facebook to check on the latest outrage in my echo chamber. Thinking about this more consciously has helped me identify other areas, too. I’m developing an instinct against clicking on newspaper op-eds that are likely to resonate with me. I’m far from perfect at all this, but I’m improving, and I’m definitely a happier person for it.



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