Charles' Rules of Argument

March 21, 2004 3:34 PM

Another thing I used to have time for when I was at University was getting into long, involved arguments. Anyone who had the misfortune of sharing one of the SorceryNet IRC mailing-lists with me during the late 90's will probably remember one or two rather vicious ones. (Let me be clear here: this isn't going to be an apology. I was right, you were wrong. End of story.)

Now, though, I have much less time, and pointless arguments were one of the things that had to go. If I get in an online argument these days, I inevitably just end up annoyed that this thing is taking too long, and that the other party in the argument obviously has all the spare time I don't have any more.

So over the last few years I've come up with an informal set of rules for argument. I've never thought of them as such before today: they accreted over time as unconscious heuristics that I am now attempting to put into print. I'm still not perfect in following these rules, but when I do follow them, I end up happier and less frustrated with life than when I don't.

Rule one is scarily simple. You will never change anyone's mind on a matter of opinion. Someone going into an argument believing one thing, and coming out the other side not believing it is a freak occurrence ranking somewhere alongside virgin birth and victorious English sporting teams. People change their minds gradually, and if anything a prolonged argument only serves to back someone into a corner, huddling closer to the security blanket of what they believe.

Correcting a factual error is much easier, but never confuse correcting a factual error with changing the opinions that fact was being used to support. The opinion will survive in the absence of the fact, until a new fact is found to justify it. (See also, the many reasons for invading Iraq).

Seeing as arguing is largely pointless, one of the best things to do is to severely limit what you end up arguing about:

  1. Never seek out things to disagree with. There are too many of them out there, and correcting the ills of the world just isn't your job.
  2. If you come across something you disagree with while randomly browsing, let it pass without comment (see rule 1). If it's truly frustrating, write a reply, then delete it without sharing it with anyone else.
  3. Even in the limited scope remaining, it is not your job to correct everything you find that you disagree with. Try to limit yourself to things where the subject is at least something that makes some practical difference to your life.
  4. Do not argue about politics, religion, or matters of personal taste or comparative morality.
  5. DO NOT argue with Lisp programmers, believers in the Semantic Web, or furries.
  6. Saying something controversial in your own space (i.e. your weblog) is only arguing if you directly reference somebody you are disagreeing with (or it is clearly understood in subtext who you are disagreing with), and that person is likely to give a shit about what you said.
  7. If someone disagrees with something you've said, you're already in an argument. See below.

Once you find yourself in an argument, your job is now to make your point clearly, and then leave. You are allowed two passes:

  1. State your case
  2. Clarify any misunderstandings

Once you have stated your case, there's no point re-stating it. Going over the same ground repeatedly will damage your case: nobody likes reading the same interminable debate over and over again. Similarly, if people read what you have to say, understand it, but continue to disagree anyway, there's nothing more you can do unless you suddenly come up with a totally new argument. The only productive thing you can add is if people clearly don't understand what you're saying, and you need to clarify.

There's a trap here, though. Sometimes, understanding is experiential. For example, to understand religious belief you must at some level 'experience' God. Someone without this experience can understand the mechanics of belief, but never understand the belief itself. Besides religion, I also have precisely this problem with RDF: I get into long debates where people try to explain the damn thing to me when I already know the mechanics. I just haven't experienced that spark of enlightenment that has gone with it for the True Believers.

If you are in one of these arguments, you can clarify 'misunderstandings' until you're blue in the face, but someone who has experienced the belief will not ever be talking on the same wavelength as someone who hasn't.

After you've stated your case and made a single pass at clarifying any misunderstandings people may have about your case, that's it. Time to leave. Getting the last word is only important in a protracted argument: the longer the argument, the more valuable the last word becomes. Keep the argument short, and it barely matters.

Sometimes, you'll ignore all these rules, and get into a month-long argument about RDF with a fundamentalist gun-nut emacs-user. What then?

The ideal attitude to project during any argument is one of calm disinterest.

Any emotional involvement you show is a weakness that can be exploited by your opponent. Even being passionate about your subject is dangerous, because over time passion becomes zeal, and zeal becomes shrillness. Affect the air of someone who is completely convinced of their correctness, but does not really care that the rest of the world is so stupid as to not realise it.

If you can get away with it, try for a mildly amused disinterest. It will infuriate your opponent, and if your opponent gets angry while you're remaining calm, that is a distinct advantage, especially when there is an audience involved. People who are sitting on the fence in a debate will naturally gravitate to the speaker who is perceived as being reasonable.

Other useful techniques are being nasty out-of-band, in the hope your opponent will bring that into the debate, or saying something inflammatory and then immediately retracting it: your opponent will run with whatever it was you said, while the audience discounts it due to the retraction. Both these techniques will make you enemies, but generally they'll only make enemies out of people who don't agree with you in the first place.

Amused disinterest also gives you a face-saving escape plan: if you were never emotionally invested in the argument, you can walk away from it without conceding defeat.

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Arguing Correctly from Stefan Tilkov's Random Stuff on March 21, 2004 7:43 PM

I really like Charles Miller's Rules of Arguments. My favorite: The ideal attitude to project during any argument is one of calm disinterest.... Read More

I think this is reason enough. And if it isn't, then that is. Any easy-to-use MT add-ons that somebody would like to suggest? I guess I could do the category thing... but that still seems like too much work for... Read More

Came across these rules of argument, quite good. I always thought that when I wrote a huge ranty reply to... Read More

Stuff, Jam, etc from MeriBlog : Meri Williams' Weblog on March 23, 2004 5:44 AM

Creepy Cat With Hands movie [warning: movie file] via Neil Gaiman Rules of Argument -- definitely quite a good set of rules. Doesn't particularly account for the troll factor though. via 0xDECAFBAD Fantastic illustration of the trolling point above,... Read More

Via: Simon Willison I saw The Fishbowl: Charles' Rules of Argument. I particuarly like how he likens RDF to religion and "The ideal attitude to project during any argument is one of calm disinterest.".... Read More

Charles's Rules of Argument from The Indiana Jones School of Management on March 25, 2004 3:20 AM

Those seeking to participate in online debate should read Charles's Rules of Argument. I used to violate every single one of these ... often. I probably still do so from time to time. That's probably my time in student government coming home... Read More

Surprisingly, this is very similar to what I think my own rules are. I never took the time to figure them out exactly, but these ring true. It's the only reason I can think of that I don't debate anything... Read More

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The Wildcat has placed her latest order for things wanted from Paris, but will have to wait. Read More

Rules of Argument from Mulley - Damiens Mulleys blog on March 25, 2004 10:01 PM

Charles Miller has made a post about his Rules of Argument. Its a good post, but what I really like is the comments. I find that quality blogs with authors that have have a clue attract intelligent people after a... Read More

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Charles' Rules of Argument should be read by anyone attempting to go near The Motley Fool, Usenet, or even Telnet BBS's. Read More

Extraits et même traductions sommaire pour vous aider à avoir des discussions productive. Rule one is scarily simple. You will Read More

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21 Comments

Your entire premise is pointless and wrongheaded. But what's the point in even trying to set you straight?

Haha! Just kidding. Excellent post. I've basically stopped reading any kind of reader-feedback thing, e.g. the Fray at slate.com. (Blog comments don't count.) As you point out, people never change their minds, so why argue with them?

PS Another strategy is to just agree with people, what the hell.

Lovely, lovely post.

Allow me to add another technique. In honor of the NCAA tournament, I'll call this one the "crossover dribble."

Step 1: Stake out a controversial position.
Step 2: Say something very inflammatory.
Step 3: Play Devil's Advocate and offer some fairly lame arguments for your opponent's side to make him believe that you don't really care and aren't invested in the argument.
Step 4: "Cross him over" by going back to your original position and ramming your point home like a grenade attack when your opponent shows weakness during Step 3.

I stumbled onto this technique, but I find it works pretty well to soften opponents up.

Nice, nice... I'll have to show this to everyone on Bill Maher's discussion forum. The mildly amused and disinterested approach is solid gold. Nothing like being able to chuckle while your opponent loses credibility with unfounded anger.

Furthermore, stating your case and clarifying misunderstandings is really hard if not impossible, because "Communication usually fails, except by accident". See Korpela's commentary on Wiio's laws of communication:

http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/wiio.html

Very cogently put, Charles.

But, for some reason whilst I was reading this post I couldn't help but be reminded of the Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch (http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/sn-python.html)

1. Oh, you do ramble on, don't you?

2. I suspect that a blogger that has time to write a thousand words about writing has run out of things to write about.

> People who are sitting on the fence in a debate will
> naturally gravitate to the speaker who is perceived as
> being reasonable.

3. Presumably because the size of the author's head is affecting local gravitational fields.


Hey! This mildly amused disinterest is fun. Thanks :)

Alan: You're being distressingly predictable. All those l33t PHP apps must be sapping your creativity.

Lovely post. For a good example of all these rules being used in a practical context, see jwz's interaction with Branden Robinson:

http://www.livejournal.com/users/jwz/204780.html

One other technique I've seen used by someone as a result of protracted, drawn out debates where people kept entering the argument without taking into account of what had gone before, resulting in the need to constantly re-state the person's case - put all of your main points and some responses to common counter-arguments in a single web page, then link to that page should the argument come up again.

http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/estate/dh69/ffi/

Charles,

I DEMAND YOU RETRACT YOUR UNFOUNDED ALLEGATIONS IMMEDIATELY!!!! MY PHP APPS ARE !NOT! l33t!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In other news, http://daringfireball.net/2004/03/introducing_markdown has some good thoughts on the kind of argument most likely to change somebody's mind.

One thing worth noting about long online discussions is that while they are unlikely to change views of people involved in the argument, they may help those uninvolved to form their own point of view.

However, if the goal is to keep one's own peace of mind, your points are truly great :)

You paint a very distressing view of the Internet. If nobodies views were changed then really all we're doing is creating a deeper schism between opposing ideologies by grouping like minded individuals together to ferment their perception of the world in an almost incestuous fashion. Perhaps it's useless, but I can't help but troll the oppositions sites looking for arguments nonetheless. I guess then I fall under the category having 'too much free time'. Still, it's better than rehashing the same old agreements between like minded people. At least there's some drama!

Everything said above is utterly wrong, but since I'm disinterested in your opinions I shan't pause to correct you all :)

What is RDF?

I once saw a list of ways to win any argument. Don't remember
them all, things like saying "you're begging the question" to
confuse your opponent.

However one tip, which I tried as a joke at first, turned out
to work almost all the time. Simply say "that sounds like something
Adolph Hitler would say". They always start backpedaling.

Tom: You'll find in any forum there's at least one person who knows the precise definition of "begging the question", and will be able to explain in excruciating detail why they're not. All it takes is one guy who took first-year Philosophy, and you're left looking stupid.

As for the second tactic, that's what Godwin's Law was invented to combat.

This was utter crap, and contradicts its own point. It wants to change our mind... its an argument, except we dont really get to offer a counter point (barring these comments here).

This is the problem with the world today. Apathy. No one has enough time to become empassioned about anything, and thats why this world is going down the toilet. I say passion and long arguments are a GOOD thing! It may not neccessarily change someones POV there and then, but it WILL offer them food for thought, and then maybe contribute to a change of mind later down the track.

All in all, all the wit and faux insight that this guy offers is for naught. This article was pointless and contradicts it's own core point, and all in all, was a big waste of my time.

I'm empassioned about at least 1 thing:

its denotes possession - "this is its reason for being"
it's is a contraction for it is - "it's an argument"

That's a fact. Any clarification needed?

This is pretty great. I think you have to have had the spare time to get into the arguments you describe and now finds themselves frustrated by that behaviour to really get what you've said here.

It's important to realise such pointless behaviour, thanks for condensing it into a legible form and sharing it with others.

On some Usenet group, there was a guy whose sig went something like this:

"Arguing with people on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics. Even if you win, you're still retarded."

A bit offensive to some, but it makes the point in a memorable way.

This is an excellent resource for the millions of BBS, IRC and alike users. Unfortunately I just came out of a petty argument, but I will be sure to remember these rules in the future. Once again - excellent resource.

Thank you.

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