There is a question of how the ground rules of discussions should flow. This applies to debates, discussion, challenges of belief, general scientific discourse and more.
There are two cultures in the particular trade-off I want to talk about. Collaborative and adversarial.
I pitch collaborative as, “let’s work together to find the answer (truth)” and I pitch adversarial as, “let’s work against each other to find the answer (truth)”. As fairly neutral descriptions, these are quite balanced. In an entrepreneurial/business setting, adversarial work is called red team.
I made some neat diagrams a while ago in a model of arguments.
As an epistemic practice, it's important to know what practice one is in (what practice one's counterpart is in,) and how this might shape interactions. Internally the stance for each is different. For collaborative, it might look something like, “I need offer my alternative view, between us, we need to seek the truth”. For adversarial, it might look something like, “I need to argue strongly for my (correct) view and if I ever sense that my view is wrong I need to quit”.
Externally (and from a collaborative culture perspective) someone in adversarial culture probably presents as defensive, aggressive, stubborn, yelling and shouting, ontologically arrogant, pulling out every stop possible (every fallacy) to advocate for their opinion. Once they have decided they are lost (or are convinced of the other side's opinion), they probably look like they do a backflip and staunchly argue against their own position. But before they do, they probably stop the argument and run away.
Externally (and from an adversarial culture perspective) someone in collaborative culture probably presents as weak willed, fragile (too politically correct), softly spoken, trying to be manipulative with friendliness, likely to not say what they really think, hard to pin to a belif or position, lacking confidence, and the sort of person who doesn't admit defeat even when they are clearly wrong.
Adversarial culture sees itself as the true arena for ideas, where concepts go head to head and there is only one true and final position. Adversarial sees ourselves as having a duty to call people out if they are wrong, this can get us into trouble and self-invested burdensome quarrels at times where we seem to fight over tiny details that don't matter to anyone else. Adversarial sees ourselves as guarding intellectual freedom. Ideas are taken seriously, no matter who brings them forwards, and as a consequence, people are expected to only bring forward their best ideas to battle where they can utterly crush each other with their truths.
Collaborative culture sees itself as the true arena for fostering novel solutions to deadlock problems. We need to think differently, see the problem differently to come up with new ideas. There's many ways to see a problem and by soliciting many opinions we can find the path to the outcome. But better yet, we can all contribute to the solution. Collaborative culture is not just about this truth, but every truth, and bringing forth an environment where we can foster the truths that are harder to admit. Where we can reward people for admitting they are confused and considering the other side.
Strong VS Weak opinions
There's something punchy about map & Territory that I can't put into words where different people hold their maps at strong or weak subjective opinions, they also have an adversarial or collaborative relationship with their maps (continued later)
A weak opinion in Adversarial culture looks like either saying yes to the first idea that comes along, then flip flopping as other ideas prove better, or keeping one's mouth shut until they form an opinion.
A strong adversarial opinion looks like a loud mouth that is likely overconfident in their domain. I know the solution and why won't everyone listen to me because if they did then the world would be a better place.
A weak collaborative opinion probably starts with some hedging, "Here's an idea", "I was thinking that...", "I heard...", "have we considered...". Or it starts with a question, "I'm confused about...". The other option is to start silent and only add when the ongoing discussion becomes strongly in conflict with their internal opinion.
A strong collaborative opinion might start with an opinion to set the stage, but requires intense listening skills to understand the other opinions and work out how to fit them in to the prevailing argument.
When might someone say, "this may sound crazy but..."
A collaborative player, weakly holding a novel opinion, trying to explore new ideas and work it out as they speak.
An adversarial player when they flip position. (Adversarial position would never take their position to be crazy)
Relationship to own ideas
How someone relates to their own ideas might be adversarial or collaborative. Most people collaborate with their existing opinion, forming a more and more coherent worldview as they go. Doing this they can get stronger and stronger held subjective opinions which are harder to break out of. At the same time I would worry for the internal mental health for an adversarial self agent. A constant battle between whichever is the loudest internal voice.
Culturally 99% of either is fine as long as all parties agree on the culture and act like it. each position includes the other at least a little bit, after all, we have to have some adversarial culture in collaboration or else we would not be trying to come to the truth together, we would just assume that we each already have the truth. We also have to assume there's some collaboration in adversarial culture or else I might go find the truth for myself and not bother to share it.
Bad collaboration is not being willing to question the other’s position (keep it all nice and don't rock the boat), and also not being willing to state a position strongly enough to be wrong.
Bad adversarial is not being willing to question one’s own position and blindly advocating (big ego advocacy).
I see Adversarial as going downhill in quality of conversation (faster than C) because it’s harder to get a healthy separation of “you are wrong” from, “and you should feel bad (or dumb) about it”, or "You are wrong and therefore not part of the in-group that I trust". And a further, "Only an idiot would believe that".
In a collaborative process, the other person is not an idiot because there’s an assumption that we work together. If an adversarial attitude (yes it's different to an adversarial culture but the difference gets cloudy) cuts to the depth of beliefs about our interlocker then from my perspective it gets un-pretty very quickly. Not only are they wrong, but they are The Enemy for being wrong too. Skilled scientists are always using both and have a clean separation of personal relationship and idea being put forward.
In an adversarial environment, I’ve known of some brains to take the feedback, “you are wrong because x” and translate it to, “I am bad, or I should give up, or I failed, I don't belong here” and not “I should advocate for my idea better”.
In a collaborative environment, I've known some brains to take feedback, "I don't know about that..." and reflect that "wow these guys are idiots who don't hold positions". Also feedback like, "If you believe Y, then X makes sense, but Y is not true, so X is not true", can sometimes be taken on reflection, "they are muddying up X issue with Y, and trying to confuse me with manipulative argument tactics".
At the end of an adversarial argument is a very strong flip, popperian style “I guess I am wrong so I take your side”.
At the end of a collaborative process is when I find myself taking sides, up until that point, it’s not always clear what my position is, and even at the end of a collaborative process I might be internally resting on the best outcome of collaboration so far, but tomorrow that might change.
I see the possibility of being comfortable in each step of collaboration to say, “thank you for adding something here”. However I see that harder or more friction to say so during adversarial cultures. At times it seems that to do adversarial culture, we must assume the presence of those "thank you for that addition" around every corner. Conceptually maybe we bring our own intellectual safety or worthiness to the table when we present our argument.
Intellectual safety or Worthiness
In adversarial culture, everyone is in charge of bringing their own intellectual safety. Every idea, no matter who proposes it, is equal. There's something of a meritocracy of ideas, where the good ideas are listened to, no matter who brings them forward.
In Collaborative culture, there's a recognition that everyone has something to offer, even if the individual themselves don't at first know it or believe it. Because of the way that brains sometimes question their own personal worthiness, we might need to advocate to those brains, or cultivate an environment that can bring out their best. We can't necessarily trust people to know they carry worthy ideas (and adversarial culture sees this as manipulation, coddling and the worst of all possible cultures).
Adversarial culture can suggest that Hitler had useful genetic ideals to breed a super race, and collaborative culture can confidently say he went about it in a terrible way (and any further discussion of human selection should be done very carefully). Collaborative culture can only talk about Hitler in the context of the atrocity and how we can only carefully talk about the issue, adversarial can talk about the issue assuming everyone already knows it was terrible and we don't need to rehash the arguments.
Collaborative sees Adversarial as stubborn assholes. Adversarial sees collaborative culture as deceptive manipulators.
I advocate for collaboration over adversarial culture because of the bleed through from epistemics to interpersonal beliefs. Humans are not perfect arguers or it would not matter so much. Because we play with brains and mixing territory of belief and interpersonal relationships I prefer collaborative to adversarial but I could see a counter argument that emphasised the value of the opposite position.
I can also see that it doesn’t matter which culture one is in, so long as there is clarity around it being one and not the other.
I'll be honest, I've tried to remain neutral over this piece but while writing this I convinced myself of collaborative being better, my reasoning is that a collective practice over an individual practice is going to be better in the long run. It appears that any process that seeks to include more of the context of the whole is more future thinking and more likely to get to the right answer. Yes each of us is individual, but we live, reason, and grow as collectives.
In isolation, For example in a chess game, there is likely one good move next, an adversarial chess move finding culture is likely to be a useful skill. In context there are many possible factors for the next move. As soon as we step out of the chess game, into the classroom, out of the classroom, into the family and interpersonal relationships, the "move" is very different to before. My next move might not be a chess move, it might be to smile at my opponent, or to suggest we take a break.
Not all games are to be played or won.