The Game of Argument (was Plea...)

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Fri, 24 Jan 1997 17:13:54 -0800 (PST)

> EWF:
> With what end in mind? *That* is what I am asking you to bear in mind.
> Are you engaging in discourse for mere amusement, or do you want to
> accomplish something in the world by means of your discourse? At this
> point I can only conclude that you must be in it for sheer amusement, so
> there is no point in my attempting to continue this particular argument.

[ Note: since this is a question, I feel that answering it in this
public forum is justified even though Mr. Forste himself does not
want to continue the discussion. I will not solicit further input
from him and will limit myself to the question posed. ]

This seems to be our central point of contention: What is the purpose
of argumentation, and which methods best achieve that purpose? Let us
call the two methods currently under consideration "hawk" and "dove":
a hawk is vocal, unrestrained, brutally honest, even deliberately
provocative. A dove is honest but restrained, tries to predict his
listener's reactions, argues in his listener's terms, and avoids at all
cost causing his listener to break off dicussion in anger. It is clear
that there are different listener strategies as well, being more or less
receptive to new ideas, more or less willing to devote time to the game,
more or less sensitive to offense.

It will be difficult to assign quantitative payoffs to the outcomes to
arrive at a stable mix of strategies, but if we can get at least an
estimate of their signs and magnitudes, we can at least reach /some/
conclusions about the nature of the stable mix, and try to match those
with evidence from the historical record. It is necessary at
this point to identify the purpose. Why do we argue? In the short
run, we are trying to convince a listener that some assertion of ours
is true. But that's /too/ short term. In the long run, one argues
for an idea because one believes it will be to your benefit for more
of the population as a whole to hold the idea. I argue for "free trade"
because it benefits me to have more producers to trade with. It also
benefits my listener, but that is not my ultimate goal; ultimately,
selfishly, I am concerned only with the argument's payoff to me. If I
benefit my listener in the process, that's fine--and inevitable--but
still it is only my benefit in having the idea spread through the
population that I must consider in formulating a strategy.

There is another thing to consider: Ideas have an objective survival
value. Some ideas are, by their nature, more likely to benefit you
than others. The paragraph above assumes that the speaker holds the
valuable idea, and that therefore transmitting the idea successfully
has a positive payoff. I cannot assume symmetry without loss of
generality, because the functions of transmitting and evaluating an
idea are not seperable: the process of communication also brings them
out for evaluation. So the mathematical model becomes quite complex.
Even moreso than the predator/prey and male/female relationships that
occupy so much of the literature on evolutionarily stable strategies.

So I'm going to cop out for the moment. Rather than set up the six-
variable simulation (an interesting exercise I may well investigate
at some point) of two speaker strategies, two listener strategies and
two idea-evaluation strategies, I will lazily resort to the historical
record directly as evidence that a combined strategy is more stable
than a fixed one.

Let's an idea like "American Independence" and see how it spread.
Certainly there were hawkish arguments: Samuel Adams's "may posterity
forget you were our countrymen"; Jefferson's "blood of patriots and
tyrants". Certainly there were dovish arguments as well. Even
Jefferson's own letters to his friends and family were quite mild.
Why the difference? Perhaps because the costs of one-to-one discourse
are different from those of publication.

The cost of arguing one-to-one is very high. You must invest time
toward the goal of only one "conversion", and the risk of alienation
is therefore more costly. Also, you may have an investment in the
listener himself. Pissing off your brother is very detrimental, but
pissing off 100 strangers with an argument that convinces 1000 is a
fair bargain. But even if publication lowered the risk of hawkish
argument, it would still be less effective if a dovish publication
might have convinced all 1100 readers. Why, then, is there plain
evidence of hawkish argument (the aforementioned revolutionaries,
evangelists, Ayn Rand)? Perhaps there is a risk in dovish argument
as well. There is also more cost to dovish argument. A writer might
have to tailor different articles to varied audiences, spend more
learning about their prejudices and motivations, learning their
peculiar vocabulary. There is also likely an advantage to hawks
that they are more likely to inspire readers to evangelize in turn.
Hawkish arguments tend to be shorter as well.

Should one then always speak dovishly in person and hawkishly in
print? No, because in a world of exclusively hawkish publications,
a few dovish ones will find an easy market in the pissed-off hundreds.
And a dovish argument that has already been paid for (say one that I
developed for my brother) can be cheaply published to a selected
audience of similar listeners. And certain persons you might know
to be tolerant of hawkishness in person. And even those who are not
may serve the purpose of shutting out your argument early if they
would have been unreceptive to it anyway, thereby allowing you to
invest in more profitable argument elsewhere. So even one-to-one,
if dovish argument always succeeds more often than hawkish, the
costs may still favor a mix of strategies.

This historical data convinces me that neither strategy is stable
in isolation, but that a mix of them is likely to be. Why then am I
exclusively hawkish on this forum (even though I am actually quite
dovish in person)? Because somebody has to be, and I'm good at it.
I must extend my gratitude, though, to those skilled doves who spread
ideas to those I fail to reach, because even though history may
remember the words of the hawks, they only remember the hawks who had
enough doves on their side to spread the ideas to everyone.