Steelmanning: Argumentation for Lazy Intellectuals

I’ve heard it said that the hallmark of argumentation is being able to summarize an opposing viewpoint in a way that the person holding this view would agree with your summary of their position; thereby ensuring that you not only understand the viewpoint you are arguing against, but are also tackling the most robust interpretation of the opposing side.

This principle of charity in arguing has been around debating circles for a long time, but has in the last few years gained traction under the neologism of steelmanning (an obvious negation of its logical antonym of straw-manning, where one argues disingenuously against a position that an opponent never presented, and does not hold).  And on the face of it, this seems like a great development I can entirely get behind.  Who would come out and seriously propose that one should not have a clear understanding of an opposing argument, let alone that one shouldn’t argue against an honest representation of said opposition?  This is simply a case where, in principle (even if not in practice), the majority of reasonable people will be of one mind.

That’s all great so far.  However (don’t look shocked, you knew this was coming when you read the title of the post), while it’s not hard to steelman the argument in favor of steelmanning, the way in which the concept has been thrown around lately leaves much to be desired for me personally.  Whereas it’s meant to stand as an honorable demonstration of mutual respect between intellectual opponents, it’s also taken on the form among some very, very lazy thinkers (who, nonetheless, fancy themselves as stalwart intellects) where they demand for others to strengthen their arguments for them, in ways they never did, and never could have done to begin with.

As a point of principle, if I’m feeling inclined to engage in an argument with others, I will argue against what they say.  Not what I think they should say to make their side more compelling.  Not even what I would say, were I to hypothetical be forced to switch to their side on gunpoint.  But, strictly, what the arguments are that they give to me to support the viewpoints they deem worthy to state aloud for public criticism and/or derision [no, despite what some people say, mockery does not immediately make one guilty of having committed an ad hominem, as long as the mocking follows a salient line of counterarguments; though weak debaters are usually prone to focus in on any well-placed jabs made against them as a clever means to deflect from the fact that they’ve run out of things to say to support their position.]

So when I come out and say…oh, I don’t know…promoting the concept of a white ethnostate is racist and fascistic, and I in turn get emails lecturing me about how I haven’t dealt with the most robust arguments in favor of the alt-right’s ethnostate position, I’m going to call bullshit on claims of my supposed failure to steelman such a clearly racist and fascistic position, because I didn’t pamper it first with a string of dishonest white nationalist euphemisms used to conceal a proposition invoking outright ethnic cleansing.

The fact that I can follow an argument from its premises to its unpalatable logical conclusion–whether or not its proponents have the reasoning capabilities or the guts to follow the same thread of their own argument–does not require me to waste my time to think of ways to make these kind of arguments more pleasant for mass consumption before I attempt to refute them (personally, I find it far more honest to deal with things in their unfiltered form).  Nor am I required to do other people’s intellectual legwork for them, and bend over backwards to make their arguments stronger than they could ever hope to do on their own, so they can feel like they are being given a fair hearing in “the marketplace of ideas” (TM), where apparently every half-baked idea should be allowed to be spouted free of consequences.

Instead, I’d ask the question that if you keep finding yourself in a position in which you have to call on people to give your arguments the most charitable interpretations, you should: 1. Consider the possibility that you are a lousy communicator on behalf of the positions you are looking to promote, and 2. Give some thought to the notion that it’s not really the case that people are misinterpreting your views as absurd, horrendous, or laughable, but that your views actually are exactly that.

If you feel the need to argue a point, go argue it.  If you want to have controversial conversations, then have them.  But if you’re going to spent as much time whining afterwards about how everyone’s just so mean and unfair to you because they won’t paint every inane thing you say in the best possible light–or take every opportunity to fellate your ego about how brave you are to say dumb shit people will take offense to–save us all the trouble (and the bandwidth) and keep your poorly constructed arguments to yourself.


Forcing the Narrative

So you’ve decided to write a story.  Before you begin, you put together a pretty coherent outline.  You have your protagonists and antagonists all clearly panned out.  You might not know exactly how long it will be, or all the minor details that will pull the whole plot together, but if there’s one thing you do know it’s exactly how the major parts of this story will progress from beginning, to climax, to finish.  There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem–your characters aren’t behaving like they should.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, really.  The dialogue is crisp and clean; without too many overly excessive and cumbersome adjectives repetitively cluttering up the prose.  All the different personalities are well laid out, and totally not cliche or one-dimensional.  There’s a deep subtext noticeable throughout the work, though not of the rambling variant [yeah, suck on that, David Foster Wallace].  But there’s something that just is not working, and it’s driving you crazy trying to figure out why your narrative is not behaving as it should–as you have so clearly planned it out from beginning, to middle, to end.

What the hell is going on?!

Well, you’re in luck, because I may just have the solution to your problem.  The problem probably isn’t that the story you’ve set out to write is unmanageable, or that the characters you’re eager to create aren’t as capable of being the greatest heroes and villains in fiction as you’ve imagined them to be.  More than likely, the problem is you.  By which I mean, the problem is that rather than letting your story unfold, and your characters respond and adapt to their surroundings, you have allowed yourself to get stuck in one of the easiest pitfalls for an author to find her or himself in: you have forced the narrative.

Forcing the narrative can happen in many different ways, but the most common occurs when authors stubbornly refuse to follow the natural progression of the story they have set out to create, for no other reason than that doing so may deviate from the original blueprint they have arbitrarily committed themselves to in their minds.  And, of course, stagnant character progression is often the first victim to suffer as a result of this stubbornness.

Say, for example, that you’re writing a story that has two characters that you know you intent to have fall in love halfway through the plot.  You introduce them separately to the reader, so each can have distinct personalities that your potential audience will relate to.  They spent all these pages developing identities that are unique and self-sustaining (as they very well should be), but the moment you finally have them interact with each other–the moment the entirety of your whole plot hitherto was supposed to be leading up to–and…there’s nothing.

Where you thought the dialogue would flow smoothly between these two people you crafted to be perfect for one another, all their exchanges instead sound too contrived to be authentic.  You can force them to say all the things you think are necessary to convey the message that they are love-bound soulmates, but every time you do just that everything that comes out of their mouths starts to read like a rejected script for a corny made-for-TV movie of the week.

So what gives?  Are you such a lousy writer you can’t even get a genuine romance plot right?  Maybe…or maybe you’re working to hard to wedge a square peg trope into a heart-shaped prose.  By which I mean, maybe the characters that seemed perfect for each other before you put pen to paper…err…I mean, fingertip to keyboard?… whatever, the point I’m making is that a plot idea can seem perfect before you set out to write it, but once you get going it can become downright impossible to stay true to said idea without sacrificing the integrity of the narrative you have created up to that point.

As already mentioned, this dilemma can show itself in the most basic of details.  Including the very issue of whose story it’s going to be.  You might have a main character in mind from the start, but the more time you spend with him the more you start feeling like writing intriguing dialogue for him is a strenuous task taking up way too much of your creative concentration than it should.  Perhaps you even find yourself preferring to spend time with secondary characters that have taken on more interesting lives compared to your once-great-now-bland protagonist.

“Well, what’s to be done in this case?”  Good question, hypothetical reader!  When you are in the thick of this frustrating bit of a writer’s conundrum, it’s easy to miss the simplest of solutions staring back right in your sleep-deprived, bloodshot eyes.  That is to say:  Screw your preliminary outline.  Tear up your rough draft notes (it’s called a rough draft for a reason, after all).  Go with what your instincts tell you as a reader first, and ignore the self-righteous indignation of your inner-writer unwilling to deviate from an unworkable premise.

Are two characters not hitting it off as well as you thought they would?  Fine, try having them hate each other instead.  Or even try pairing them up with side characters that showed more prospect in the plot, and see where that goes.  Is your main character too wooden to lead the story the way you hoped?  Then why not sideline him, and shift the perspective onto a different character whose personality and dialogue carries your narrative forward with so much more ease than you ever thought possible?

All these options are readily available to you, because, no matter what, it is your world–it can only exist as you wish it to.  But you need to trust your instincts, not just as a writer, but also as a reader on what makes for compelling storytelling.  And you are allowed to change your mind about the details of the happenings in your fictional world, if these changes help bring about the greater narrative you set out to breathe life into.  Treat the initial bits of ideas that inspired you to start on your journey as just that–a cursory launching point to something better.  Nothing you write down–be it at the beginning, the middle, or the end–is sacred scripture.  It is not absolute, or inadaptable to subsequent burst of creativity that may strike you once you have already begun to feverishly churn out the bulk of your prose.

It’s important to be aware that if something doesn’t feel right about your story to you as you are barely writing it, it will definitely not seem right to your readers as they are reading it.  Even if they might not know how to articulate what’s so off-putting about it when they notice a belabored prose, the audience can definitely sense when something isn’t working as well as it could be.  And forcing a narrative, in an otherwise great story, is a perfect way to ensure that it won’t be working for anyone; neither you, nor your characters–but, above all else, not the reading public.