Sporting vs. Herding: two styles of discourse

by Suspended Reason9 min read25th Jul 20204 comments


Communication CulturesConversation (topic)DisagreementWorld Optimization
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Status: Vaguely culture-war, but trying to stay meta.

I wanna talk about two blogposts, Seph's "War Over Being Nice" and Alastair's "Of Triggering & the Triggered." Each lays out the same erisological idea: that there are two distinct modes or cultures of running discourse these days, and that understanding this difference is crucial to understanding the content of our conversations as much as their form.

This frame has key overlaps with Ruby's frame of combat vs. nurture conversation cultures, but also some key differences. Most crucially, where the nurture vs combat paradigm describes tonal norms and etiquettes for registering disagreement (blunt vs. apologetic), sporting vs herding describes paradigms for implicit rules of conduct: the bounds of permissible argument and the basis for scorekeeping. Where nurture vs combat is a real source of conflict-by-misunderstanding in workplaces and social settings, sporting vs herding describes the terms by which public discourse advances and is refereed.

The first style, sporting, Alastair writes, is indebted to the Greco-Roman rhetorical and 19th C British sporting traditions. (It also has a less-acknowledged debt to chavrusa, and Jewish discourse norms.) A debate takes place in a "heterotopic" arena which is governed by an ethos of adversarial collaboration and sportsmanship. It is waged in a detached and impersonal manner, e.g. in American debate club, which inherits from these older traditions, you are assigned a side to argue; your position is not some "authentic" expression of self. Alastair:

This form of discourse typically involves a degree of ‘heterotopy’, occurring in a ‘space’ distinct from that of personal interactions.
This heterotopic space is characterized by a sort of playfulness, ritual combativeness, and histrionics. This ‘space’ is akin to that of the playing field, upon which opposing teams give their rivals no quarter, but which is held distinct to some degree from relations between the parties that exist off the field. The handshake between competitors as they leave the field is a typical sign of this demarcation.

All in all, it is a mark against one in these debates to take an argument personally, to allow arguments that happen "in the arena" to leave the arena. This mode of discourse I see exemplified in LessWrong culture, and is, I think, one of the primary attractors to the site.

In the second mode of discourse, inoffensiveness, agreement, and inclusivity are emphasized, and positions are seen as closely associated with their proponents. Alastair speculates it originates in an educational setting which values cooperation, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, affirmation, and subordination; this may be true, but I feel less confident in it than I am the larger claim about discursive modes.

Provocatively, the two modes are dubbed "sporting" and "herding," with all the implications of, on the one hand, individual agents engaged in ritualized, healthy simulations of combat, and on the other, of quasi-non-agents shepherded in a coordinated, bounded, highly constrained and circumscribed epistemic landscape. Recall, if you are tempted to blame this all on the postmodernists, that this is exactly the opposite of their emphasis toward the "adult" realities of relativism, nebulosity, flux. Queer Theory has long advocated for the dissolution of gendered and racial identity, not the reification of identitarian handles we see now, which is QT's bastardization. We might believe these positions were taken too far, but they are ultimately about complicating the world and removing the structuralist comforts of certainty and dichotomy. (Structureless worlds are inherently hostile to rear children in, and also for most human life; see also the Kegan stages for a similar idea.)

In the erisological vein, Alastair provides a portrait of the collision between the sporting and herding modes. Arguments that fly in one discursive style (taking offence, emotional injury, legitimation-by-feeling) absolutely do not fly in the other:

When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first [new, sensitive] form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second [old, sporting] can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge.

Seph stumbles upon a similar division, though it is less about discursive and argumentative modes, and more about broad social norms for emotional regulation and responsibility. He calls them Culture A and Culture B, mirroring sporting and herding styles, respectively.

In culture A, everyone is responsible for their own feelings. People say mean stuff all the time—teasing and jostling each other for fun and to get a rise. Occasionally someone gets upset. When that happens, there's usually no repercussions for the perpetrator. If someone gets consistently upset when the same topic is brought up, they will either eventually stop getting upset or the people around them will learn to avoid that topic. Verbally expressing anger at someone is tolerated. It is better to be honest than polite.

In such a culture, respect and status typically comes from performance; Seph quotes the maxim "If you can't sell shit, you are shit." We can see a commonality with sporting in that there is some shared goal which is attained specifically through adversarial play, such that some degree of interpersonal hostility is tolerated or even sought. Conflict is settled openly and explicitly.

In culture B, everyone is responsible for the feelings of others. At social gatherings everyone should feel safe and comfortable. After all, part of the point of having a community is to collectively care for the emotional wellbeing of the community's members. For this reason its seen as an act of violence against the community for your actions or speech to result in someone becoming upset, or if you make people feel uncomfortable or anxious. This comes with strong repercussions—the perpetrator is expected to make things right. An apology isn't necessarily good enough here—to heal the wound, the perpetrator needs to make group participants once again feel nurtured and safe in the group. If they don't do that, they are a toxic element to the group's cohesion and may no longer be welcome in the group. It is better to be polite than honest. As the saying goes, if you can't say something nice, it is better to say nothing at all.

In such a culture, status and respect come from your contribution to group cohesion and safety; Seph cites the maxim "Be someone your coworkers enjoy working with." But Seph's argument pushes back, fruitfully, on descriptions of Culture B as collaborative; rather, he writes, they are accommodating in the Thomas-Kilmann modes of conflict sense:

Seph and Alastair both gesture toward the way these modes feel gendered, with Culture A more "masculinized" and Culture B more "feminized."[1] While this seems important to note, given that a massive, historically unprecedented labor shift toward coed co-working has recently occured in the Western world, I don't see much point in hashing out a nature vs. nurture, gender essentialism debate here, so you can pick your side and project it. This is also perhaps interesting from the frame of American feminist history: early waves of feminism were very much about escaping the domestic sphere and entering the public sphere; there is an argument to be made that contemporary feminisms, now that they have successfully entered it, are dedicated to domesticating the public sphere into a more comfortable zone. Culture B, for instance, might well be wholly appropriate to the social setting of a living room, among acquaintances who don't know each other well; indeed, it feels much like the kind of aristocratic parlor culture of the same 19th C Britain that the sporting mode also thrived in, side-by-side. And to some extent, Culture A is often what gets called toxic masculinity; see Mad Men for a depiction.

(On the topic of domestication of the workplace: We've seen an increased blurring of the work-life separation; the mantra "lean-in" has been outcompeted by "decrease office hostility"; business attire has slid into informality, etiquette has been subsumed into ethics, dogs are allowed in the workplace. Obviously these changes are not driven by women's entrance into the workplace alone; the tech sector has had an enormous role in killing both business attire and the home-office divide, despite being almost entirely male in composition. And equally obvious, there is an enormous amount of inter- and intra-business competition in tech, which is both consistently cited by exiting employees as a hostile work environment, and has also managed to drive an outsized portion of global innovation the past few decades—thus cultural domestication is not at all perfectly correlated with a switch from Culture A to B. Draw from these speculations what you will.)

There are other origins for the kind of distinctions Seph and Alastair draw; one worthwhile comparison might be Nietzsche's master and slave moralities. The former mode emphasizes power and achievement, the other empathy, cooperation, and compassion. (Capitalism and communitarianism fall under some of the same, higher-level ideological patterns.) There are differences of course: the master moralist is "beyond" good and evil, or suffering and flourishing, whereas Culture A and B might both see themselves as dealing with questions of suffering but in very different ways. But the "slave revolt in morality" overwrote an aristocratic detachment or "aboveness" that we today might see as deeply immoral or inhuman; it is neither surprising nor damning that a revolting proletariat—the class which suffered most of the evils of the world—would speak from a place of one-to-one, attached self-advocacy. One can switch "sides" or "baskets" of the arena each half or quarter because they are impersonal targets in a public commons; one cannot so easily hold the same attitude toward defending one's home. This alone may indicate we should be more sympathetic to the communitarian mode than we might be inclined to be; certainly, those who advocate and embody this mode make plausible claims to being a similar, embattled and embittered class. A friend who I discussed these texts with argued that one failure mode of the rationalist community is an "unmooring" from the real concerns of human beings, slipping into an idealized, logical world modeled on self-similarity (i.e. highly Culture A, thinking over feeling in the Big 5 vocabulary), in a way that is blind to the realities of the larger population.

But there are also grave problems for such a discursive mode, especially when it becomes dominant. Because while on the surface, discursive battles in the sporting mode can appear to be battles between people, they are in reality battles between ideas.

As Mill argued in On Liberty, free discourse is crucial because it acts as a social steering mechanism: should we make a mistake in our course, freedom of discourse is the instrument for correcting it. But the mistake of losing free discourse is very hard to come back from; it must be fought for again, before other ideals can be pursued.

Moreover, freedom of discourse is the means of rigorizing ideas before they are implemented, such as to avoid catastrophe. Anyone familiar with James Scott's Seeing Like A State, or Hayek's arguments for decentralized market intelligence, or a million other arguments against overhaulism, knows how difficult it is to engineer a social intervention that works as intended: the unforeseen, second-order effects; our inability to model complex systems and human psychology. Good intent is not remotely enough, and the herding approach cannot help but lower the standard of thinking and discourse emerging from such communities, which become more demographically powerful even as their ideas become worse (the two are tied up inextricably).

The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses. However, ideological conflict is the crucible of the sharpest thought. Ideological conflict forces our arguments to undergo a rigorous and ruthless process through which bad arguments are broken down, good arguments are honed and developed, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different positions emerge. The best thinking emerges from contexts where interlocutors mercilessly probe and attack our arguments’ weaknesses and our own weaknesses as their defenders. They expose the blindspots in our vision, the cracks in our theories, the inconsistencies in our logic, the inaptness of our framing, the problems in our rhetoric. We are constantly forced to return to the drawing board, to produce better arguments.

And on the strength of sporting approaches in rigorizing discourse:

The truth is not located in the single voice, but emerges from the conversation as a whole. Within this form of heterotopic discourse, one can play devil’s advocate, have one’s tongue in one’s cheek, purposefully overstate one’s case, or attack positions that one agrees with. The point of the discourse is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions through rigorous challenge, not to provide a balanced position in a single monologue

Thus those who wish us to accept their conceptual carvings or political advocacies without question or challenge are avoiding short-term emotional discomfort at the price of their own long-term flourishing, at the cost of finding working and stable social solutions to problems. Standpoint epistemology correctly holds that individuals possess privileged knowledge as to what it's like (in the Nagel sense) to hold their social identities. But it is often wrongly extended, in the popular game of informational corruption called "Telephone" or "Chinese Whispers," as arguing that such individuals also possess unassailable and unchallengeable insight into the proper societal solutions to their grievances. We can imagine a patient walking into the doctor's office; the doctor cannot plausibly tell him there is no pain in his leg, if he claims there is, but the same doctor can recommend treatment, or provide evidence as to whether the pain is physical or psychosomatic.

A lack of discursive rigour would not be a problem, Alastair writes, "were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing."

As for myself, it was not too long ago I graduated from a university in which a conflict between these modes is ongoing. We had a required course called Contemporary Civilization, founded in the wake of World War I, which focused on the last 2,000 years of philosophy, seminar-style: a little bit of introductory lecture, but most of the 2 x 2-hour sessions each week were filled by students arguing with one other. In other words, its founding ethos was of sporting and adversarial collaboration.

We also had a number of breakdowns where several students simply could not handle this mode: they would begin crying, or say they couldn't deal with the [insert atmosphere adjective] in the room, and would either transfer out or speak to the professor. While they were not largely representative, they required catering to, and no one wished to upset these students. I have heard we were a fortunate class insofar as we had a small handful of students willing to engage sporting-style, or skeptical a priori of the dominant political ideology at the school. When, in one session, a socialist son of a Saudi billionaire, wearing a $10,000 watch and a camel-hair cashmere sweater, pontificated about "burning the money, reverting to a barter system, and killing the bosses," folks in class would mention that true barter systems were virtually unprecedented in post-agricultural societies, and basically unworkable at scale. In other classes, though, when arguments like these were made—which, taken literally, are logically irrational, but instead justify themselves through sentiment and emotional legitimation, in the Culture B sense—other students apparently nodded sagely from the back of the room, "yes, and-ing" one another til their noses ran. Well, I wanted to lay out the styles with some neutrality, but I suppose it's clear now where my sympathies stand.

[1] It should go without saying, but to cover my bases, these modes feeling "feminized" or "masculinized" does not imply that all women, or women inherently, engage in one mode while all men inherently engage in another. Seph cites Camille Paglia as an archetypal example of a Culture A woman, and while she may fall to the extreme side of the Culture A mode, I'd argue most female intellectuals of the 20th C (at least those operated outside the sphere of feminist discourse) were strongly sporting-types: Sontag, for instance, was vociferous and unrelenting.