A couple of Wednesdays ago, I signed onto the internet—the global haven of kindness and good-natured conversation—and I observed people debating sneaker technology. Maybe ‘debate’ is the wrong word. Rather, a bunch of people were talking past one another on the common topic of sneakers. Over the past few weeks, the Great Sneaker Debate has devolved in much the same way other internet debates do, by becoming a means by which we figure out who is on our side and who we can dismiss out of hand, without ever engaging reasons for the opposing view. It is a bit embarrassing to watch adults online talk past one another. And, frankly, it is nothing new on the internet.
My intention in this article is to address thinking in public for runners, with an emphasis on thinking, which is something we often fail to do well collectively. I am going to do so by introducing a few lessons I teach to my ‘Introduction to Logic’ students. The first lesson is this: Our ability to reason well is as much (or more) about your character as it is about your intellectual ability.
Welcome to My Classroom
The introductory-logic course I teach to undergraduates is broken into two units—deduction and induction. Throughout the course, we learn argument forms and also have short readings and in-class reflections about how reasoning well is both a function of our thinking and our characters. (An example is that it does not matter how sophisticated of a thinker I am if I lack the patience to listen to another person’s ideas.) In the induction unit, we spend time identifying types of fallacies. One fallacy in focus is the strawman.
The strawman fallacy is presenting a weak or exaggerated form of an interlocutor’s argument to make it easier to defeat. An example in the Great Shoe Debate is this: Person A expresses concerns and calls for the regulation of curved carbon plates between increasingly thick foam materials in racing flats. Person B responds, “You must be a Luddite! You’re against technological advancements entirely!” Person B’s response misrepresents Person A’s argument, making Person A sound naïve. The argument ends before either person has the opportunity to be edified by the reasons for the opposing view.
This past semester, I began by providing a definition of strawman, and we talked through examples in the media. I broke the class into pairs. Students were assigned to identify a disagreement between them. Some of these included whether it is morally wrong to tip less than 18%, whether NCAA stars should be allowed to earn money for their performances, and whether children should own iPhones. The students were assigned to listen to each other’s opposing views, write them down, and articulate those views for the class to the satisfaction of their partners. Afterward, we debriefed, and the students talked through the difficulty of the task. They decided that strawman is not just a fallacy of reasoning; it is a failure of virtue as well. We had a conversation about how reasoning well requires fairmindedness and honesty, as well as the humility to listen. As a class we decided we all need to do a better job of listening to one another, and to take ownership for the qualities of our persons that prevent us from doing so.
Truthfully, it’s easier to listen to one another in a classroom, where face-to-face conversations are possible, and I encourage people to seek out these situations as often as possible. But since, increasingly, the internet has replaced any semblance of a ‘public forum’ for discussion, we need to do better at arguing together from afar. Here are a few reminders to help:
Arguments and fights are not the same thing.
As a philosopher, arguing is what I do every day. I like it. It is a constructive way to learn from others and to figure out the consequences of particular shoes (oops…I mean views… carbon-plated views). What I hadn’t realized until I spoke with undergraduates was that many of them avoid arguments because they think disagreements are fights, and fights are a bad thing. In fact, the most time-consuming part of the assignment I described above is when the students have to identify an area of disagreement. They resist. Many are afraid to make claims another person might disagree with. But arguments are not fights. Fights are fights. Arguments are how we figure out which premises support what claims. Maybe if more people recognized this—that arguments don’t have to be fights—it would soften the way we respond to disagreements online.
Frank speech sustains democracy.
In Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, Arlene Saxonhouse writes about parrhesia, or frank speech. (1) She writes about how speaking candidly and truthfully from personal experiences, while often met with shame, actually sustained democratic Athens. (2) In a democracy it is important that we provide room for people to speak candidly and to talk about what is important to them, in order to make space for one another. Maybe you see things differently from that person because of your background. Good. Think about it.
I share this because it does not seem that we always receive frank speech as charitably we should. I shy away from it myself. But we need frank speech. It could very well be the case that someone has a shoe-per, I mean super, helpful insight into the consequences of carbon-based sneakers I never considered because of my limited perspective.
Listen first. [Pause. Think. No, really. Think.] Respond.
I highly recommend a new book by Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017). He describes how resistant we are to genuine reflection, often substituting in emotional responses for reasons and, in general, just not engaging with the information before us. (3) Some of this is time-saving. (It would be too hard to deliberate about everything we encounter.) But some of it is just that we tend toward being a bit intellectually lazy. Jacobs’s observations helpfully describe the shoe wars happening online. A lot of the responses are emotional and combative and not productive engagements with reasons.
You all are runners, so my advice is this. If something strikes you in an emotional way, sometimes it is helpful to resist an immediate response. You might go for a run. Think about it. Then return to it later. Many an impetuous response crisis has been averted by an afternoon jog.
A couple of Wednesdays ago, I signed onto the internet—the global haven of kindness and good-natured conversation—and I observed a lot of people talking past one another about sneakers. As a logic-teaching sneaker lover, the spectacle of it all vexed me, so I am addressing it here. My advice for engaging in public is this: Listen. Pause to think. Really, though. Think. And remember that reasoning well is as much about your character as it is about your intellect.
It is a constructive practice to listen well and to consider another person’s perspective. Walk a mile in their [unregulated carbon-plated] shoes. [It will be a mile personal record.]
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- When was the last time you found yourself talking past another person with whom you share divergent viewpoints? And, how did you rectify the argument so that the two of you could make room for each other?
- What do you think about the conclusion Sabrina’s students made that reasoning well is about both intellect and character?
- What is another example (besides carbon plates in shoes) in the running community where many of us disagree with each other but are apt to talk past each other rather than really engage with our opposing viewpoints?
- Arlene Saxonhouse, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 87.
- Ibid. p. 88.
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017. p. 22.