A helpful co-worker pointed out that one of the links in my previous post that should have pointed at an old article instead pointed to Wikipedia, so I went to Google to track down the correct URL.
Two hours after I wrote it, my blog post is in the index and showing up in search results. That’s just a little uncanny. It’s not even as if I update my blog that often any more.
The Principle of Charity is a rule of debate that states you should always address the strongest possible form of your opponent's argument.
I've touched on this before.
Say you're arguing with someone and there is a flaw in their reasoning, but you also know that their argument could be reformulated to avoid that flaw. If you attack their argument as is, you'll either win a hollow victory with an argument that you know is faulty or you'll just prolong the debate as your opponent makes the obvious adjustment. It's the kind of thing you do when you're more interested in scoring cheap debating points than actually advancing the sum total of human understanding.
Not that there isn't a time and place for scoring cheap debating points.
Beyond straight argument, the principle of charity can provide a nice set of assumptions that help streamline interactions with other human beings.
- Assume intelligence. The person you are talking to has a brain, and knows how to use it.
- Assume honesty. The person you are talking to honestly believes what they are saying.
- Assume diligence. The person you are talking to, when given a task, will approach it with rigour and attempt to complete it to the best of their ability.
You could be wrong on any of these, that's why they're called assumptions. Ultimately, however, you're better off assuming the best and then adjusting your behaviour if you are proven wrong than you are starting off believing people are stupid, dishonest and lazy.
A very simple example. Someone else is working on a problem, and I think of a very simple solution. Do I walk over and ask “Did you think of X?”
If I do, I've just violated assumptions 1 and 3. If I could think of a simple solution, then someone else who is both intelligent and already diligently working on the problem is likely to have already thought of that answer and discarded it for some reason. Chances are I'm not even the first outsider to have suggested it.
If I rephrase the question as “So why didn’t you go with X?”, I’ve gone from assuming ignorance on their part to assuming I'm the one missing something. If X turns out to be something they didn’t think of after all, it’s a surprise for us both, and I sound a lot less condescending.
Now all I have to do is remember this sort of thing in practice.
It's 2009. You're an American-owned packaged food company, but all is not well Down Under. By accident of acquisition you happen to own an iconic Australian brand which in recent years has seen its popularity wane, especially among migrants (euphemistically, ‘New Australians’).
Vegemite is very much an acquired taste; strong and salty. Those of us who love it tend to have either been indoctrinated as children or convinced by friends or family to work through the initial ‘what the hell is THAT?’ reaction.
After some research you come up with a new product that you believe is friendlier to the unfamiliar palate. You hope that this product will bring you new customers, and maybe even act as a gateway to lure people to try the original flavour. So how do you get people to notice?
Some publicity is a given. Any update on a product that is in some ways synonymous with Australia will make it into the nightly news bulletin and the daily paper. If you grease the right palms you might even get a longer segment on a week-night current affairs show. But you're ambitious. Can you make your product launch occupy not one tiny corner of one news cycle, but a whole week of headlines? What about a month of them?
Well, this week we found out.
- Hold a competition to name your new product. That will get you on the news on release day, then a few mentions throughout the competition.
- When the competition ends, choose the worst name possible
- For extra points, pick a name that will be annoy people on the Internet, because ‘people on Twitter are upset’ is a flavour-of-the-month story
- For extra extra points, play on nationalistic outrage by announcing your new name for that most Australian of products during the Australian Rules Football grand final
- Once you've wrung as much attention as you can out of the “naming debacle”, apologise profusely for your “mistake” and announce a new competition to pick the real name from a pool of obvious candidates.
- Finally, announce the new name
‘iSnack 2.0’ was so obviously a name for the week, not a name for the ages. What I find most amusing is that the current generation of consumers are, at least if you ask them, so much more cynical of marketing ploys. We're more clued in to how the media works and the Internet has taught us to mistrust authority and question everything we read.
Yeah, right. Someone in Kraft marketing is on track for a pretty big bonus this year.