Common Problems in Discourse (2017-04-12 18:04)
When speaking publicly, having a conversation or presentation we often fail to avoid some common problems that can have a significant impact on our audience.

Some of those common problems I observed more and more in recent month. Maybe the reason for this is solely that I became aware of them myself, maybe they have been committed more often.

However the main reason I decided to write this entry is my recent attendance of the DjangoCon Europe. Witnessing the poor execution of addressing some fundamental concepts in ethics and philosophy and not explicitly naming concepts and consequences of implicitly assumed concepts did not really help for following certain presented arguments.

I intend not to blame anyone, but rather to share my viewpoint and start a discussion whether we should be more explicit in our conversations.

Affirmative Action

One of the biggest concepts in Justice is the question of whether one supports affirmative action or not as explained by Michael Sandel [0].

Affirmative Action is the policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group who suffer or have suffered from discrimination within a culture. (from Wikipedia)

It is an important property of the conversation, that needs to be made explicit, because it can mitigate the backfire effect [1] going off in the audience. People who do not understand, that the choice is to explicitly favor an underrepresented group might perceive the decision as unfair and therefore fight back. A solid understanding though would persuade them and probably allow them to easier agree or at least accept the choice in that particular situation.

Confusion of Story and Reasoning

One big fallacy that I experience more and more is the problem of mixing Individual Stories and the claim of therefore being the only one who can actually come up with a solution. One example that I like to mention on that area is the problem with a dark ally in a city. Assume now that women feel worried when walking this way. They should share this story and be given the space to address this issue. However, their identity doesn't matter when we discuss possible solutions as a group. One example phrase that I try to use and encourage others to use is:

I will share my story so we can all figure out what to do about it. [Story goes here]

Free Choice

The biggest fallacy that I came across during the conference is the simplistic take on free choice by some of the speakers.
As choice is also one of the biggest topics in philosophy and ethics, it is no surprise that most elements of our everyday life depend on it:

  • Don't like your job? Just quit!
  • What do you put on your toast in the morning?
  • Did you hurt that person by accident or on purpose.

Related topics to this are intend, free will, nature vs. nurture and circumstances that lead to actions.

Most people ask why it matters to think about free choice, especially at a Tech Conference. The answer to this is that assuming that everyone has a free choice is something that doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny.

A good example was the talk by Sara Peeters: "The art of interacting with an autistic software developer". It doesn't seem that anyone would argue that she has just made a choice to have it more difficult or even further just choose to 'drop' the constraints she needs to live with.

But that is a psychological condition - I already hear people argue as a defense. That of course is not a choice, but I can choose to just switch to green energy or what I put on my toast. You might feel this way, the question however is:

Are you responsible for the structure of your brain allowing you choose from the set of those options. I would argue that neither Sara nor anyone else can be held really responsible for their precursors. Keeping this in mind is crucial to not drift into blaming people, but rather helping them expanding and gaining knowledge to overcome a limited set of options and accept that some people simply can't use all options.

In the end this topic can go even deeper reaching to the fundamental question of Free Will and other related areas. I won't touch those this time in detail but feel free to reach out to me if you want to read about my take on this topic in more detail.

Free Speech

Restricting what people can say is not a good idea shown in almost all instances of history. I will not go into much detail in this section as I plan to cover the issue of Free Speech in another post. However one question or standpoint that could be taken is to allow people to say whatever they want, given they need to deal with the consequences. An example on the conference was the "Hey Guys" example which could be a problem for some people to be addressed this way.

The following questions surrounding this statement are some that I would have loved to discuss openly:

  • Who thinks it doesn't address them?
  • Does the intend behind the statement matter?
  • How can a person learn if an error leads to very dire consequences?
  • What type of injunctions can we demand from people?


Most often, these topic can be hard to swallow and a diverse opinion about the reality still remains after I presented such arguments. I would therefore like to hear your take on those questions and fell free to reach out to me on the respective channels.

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  • [1]
  • [*] Identity Politics