The steel man of #GamerGate

An amazing piece of writing appeared here on Medium the other day.

It made me more optimistic about the possibility of public deliberation than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

Weirdly, it was about an argument on the internet.

First, a scrap of context: The broad community of people interested in video games is roiling with accusations of corruption among game journalists; these accusations are marbled with some gamers’ irritation and defensiveness over recent criticisms of the deeply misogynistic content found in many games. Grievances incubated in the dark nurseries of 4chan and Reddit have grown into a full-blown schism, accelerated by the flywheel physics of Twitter hashtags.

The hashtag in this case is #GamerGate, and I won’t go any deeper into the details. In this context, they’re not important, because what I want to celebrate is not an argument, but a way of making an argument.

On Twitter, I follow a thoughtful writer named L. Rhodes. A few days ago, I noticed him interviewing users participating in the #GamerGate hashtag. His tweets had the cool, steady affect of a police detective. You say you saw him climbing the fire escape? Mm. What time was it? Could you see his face? Rhodes was asking questions. Listening closely. Asking more questions.

Days later, he emerged with a remarkable document.

“To fair-minded proponents of #GamerGate,” it begins.

A few nights ago, I spent several hours on Twitter asking questions and patiently reading the answers from a dozen or so of your fellow gamers. I had already read a fair amount about #GamerGate and the events surrounding it, but I wanted to get a clearer sense of what it means to the people who were promoting the tag.
To whom am I speaking? I should specify, shouldn’t I? After all, as the gamers I talked to on Tuesday made it clear, there are a great many people involved, and not all of them see entirely eye-to-eye. In general, though, those of you who were patient enough to answer my questions seemed to agree on three broad points:

He goes on to provide the clearest, most convincing summary of #GamerGate’s grievances I’ve yet seen — far more lucid than anything articulated by the hashtag’s own participants.

He goes on to argue against those grievances, strongly.

That pattern reminded me of something great.

Every so often, the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco hosts a debate. It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress — high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.

Instead, it goes like this:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction — a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument — and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.

The first time I saw one of these debates, it blew my mind.

Our democratic culture has, I believe, basically given up on debate as a tool for changing minds or achieving consensus. Instead, we use it as a stage for performance, for political point-scoring. When we debate — and this is true whether it’s a big televised event or a little online roundtable — we direct our arguments not at our opponents but rather at our allies. We rile the base. We face the choir. We preach!

Apparently, the Long Now Foundation didn’t get the memo, and neither did L. Rhodes. In his piece addressing #GamerGate, he truly speaks to his opponents, and his focus never wavers. There are no winks to his allies and no dog whistles that I can detect. It’s a miracle of tone. There are so many opportunities to be snide, to score a point — just one little point! — and he takes none of them.

Flickering at the center of his piece, therefore, is this glimmer of hope: Maybe we can speak to one another after all.

Rhodes’s piece reminded me, also, of Alan Jacobs’s reference, years ago, to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s review of a book by the philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Nagel is a staunch atheist; Plantinga, a devout Christian.

Jacobs wrote:

Having confessed that he “cannot imagine believing what [Plantinga] believes,” Nagel nevertheless must acknowledge that Plantinga is doing excellent philosophical work and that his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. Moreover, Nagel clearly relishes simply being exposed to ways of thinking so alien to his own — he obviously finds it refreshing.

Instead of the straw man argument — that scourge — we have the steel man: “the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.”

The fact that Nagel takes this approach shouldn’t be surprising; it has long been valued in philosophy and rhetoric, and more recently by the so-called “rationalist” community online. This is laudable — I mean, these people really know how to argue! — but there’s an inertness to the practice in those communities: a sense, too often, of arguments unfolding for their own sake in a hermetically-sealed arena.

So the thing that impresses me about Rhodes’s piece is that it is real: enmeshed in a real conversation and addressed to real opponents, which implies real risk. This isn’t a philosophy symposium; it’s a roiling argument that has spawned mobs of internet harassers.

Did Rhodes’s piece turn #GamerGate around? No.

Did it change a few people’s minds? There is evidence, here on Medium and also on Twitter, that it did. In this culture — on this internet — that’s a small miracle.

There’s a recipe available here, for anyone brave enough to use it: strong arguments presented in good faith not to our allies but to our actual opponents. I use the word “brave” very consciously, because I believe this is just about the most dangerous kind of writing and thinking you can do.

For example:

What if someone wrote a piece just like Rhodes’s, addressed not to disgruntled video gamers but rather to anthropogenic climate change deniers? What if the writer took seriously the claims of the smartest skeptics? What if she schooled herself so completely in their arguments, their data, that she was able to articulate their objections to the scientific consensus even better than they themselves could?

What if she emerged agreeing with them?

This kind of writing is dangerous because it goes beyond (mere) argumentation; it becomes immersion, method acting, dual-booting. To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry.

Anyway. Rhodes’s piece is just one small contribution to a big argument, and it’s an argument about video game culture. This isn’t police militarization we’re talking about here, or gun laws, or climate change, or any of the truly tough stuff that reliably wrenches us apart.

But it is something.

All I can say is that, for a moment, reading Rhodes’s piece, I thought:

We can speak to one another. We really can.