The idea comes down to us from Maria Popova at BrainPickings. She found it in Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Dennett himself found it in the writings of social psychologist Anatol Rapoport.
What is it?
It’s a formula for engaging in productive debate and discussion. Or else, as Dennett and Popova describe it, it’s a formula for criticizing someone else’s work, constructively. By that I assume that they mean, without it costing you a friend.
Dennett summarizes Rapoport’s formula for “a successful critical commentary:”
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Evidently, this provides a useful antidote to the habit of demonizing one’s opponents and declaring that one holds a monopoly on the truth.
Surely, it was what Chief Justice John Roberts had it mind when he told a law school audience that those who do best at arguing their cases before the Supreme Court recognize the possible validity of their opponents’ arguments. After all, Roberts noted, if one side is all right and the other is all wrong, the case would never have gotten before the court anyway.
It reminds me of the structure of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.
Evidently, you are not going to persuade anyone of anything if you start by dismissing everything he says and disdaining his character. Yet, the purpose of the exercise proposed by Popova, Dennett and Rapoport is not so much to persuade as to connect.
In the best of circumstances you can connect with an individual without agreeing on every point of politics or theory. Doing so requires a mutual display of respect.
Of course, there’s a kicker. Following the guidelines requires work. Most people believe it feels more natural to ignore whatever is salient in someone else’s point of view. Otherwise, they would have to feel less of a thrill tearing into it.
People prefer to express their feelings and demand complete acquiescence. After all, you are the ultimate authority on what you feel.
In the meantime, those who wish to avoid the hard work of finding something valuable in an opposing point of view often compensate for their failing by making a conspicuous show of empathy.
Instead of granting credence to their opponents’ ideas they say that they understand how he feels.
If it sounds dismissive and rude, that’s because, in addition to being lazy, it is.