Do you fear the rock or the hard place?

by Ruby4 min read20th Jul 20195 comments


DisagreementConversation (topic)Tribalism

Epistemic status: fairly confident based on my accumulated experience of debates and disagreements. I wrote this for myself as much as others.

There is a conversational dynamic which I think is extremely common, a failure mode which is all too easy to fall into. Alice and Bob are debating some course of action, e.g. should they do X or Y? Alice thinks that X is very likely to result in terrible consequence R, so they should definitely opt for Y. Bob thinks that Y most definitely will cause horrific result H, so they should definitely do X.

The distilled conversation goes a bit like this:

Alice: “We can’t do X! That would lead to R, which is unacceptable.”
Bob: “I don’t think you get it, Y results in H. You can’t think that we could allow H, do you?”
Alice: “I feel like you’re not listening, we need to account for R!”
Bob: “H is definitely a much worse and more real danger than R . . .”

Alice is afraid of the rock (R) and Bob is afraid of the hard place (H).

Possible values of X, Y, R, and H:

X = more gun control; Y = less gun control; R = people unable to defend themselves and having their rights taken away; H = increased risk of mass shootings, suicides, and children shooting themselves or others.
X = raising minimum wage; Y = maintaining minimum wage; R = reduction in number of jobs causing people to be fired; H = people not earning enough from their jobs to subsist.
X = increase immigration; Y = reduce immigration; R = loss of jobs from local community, erosion of national culture and values, crime committed by migrants; H = humanitarian impact, loss of potential growth of the national economy.

The above exchange is actually relatively good. Alice and Bob each know what they’re afraid of and have expressed that clearly. Bob even acknowledges Alice’s concern about R, but states that he thinks it’s the lesser danger. They’re at a point where they might be able to usefully double crux [1].

What goes wrong?

Failure to identify and articulate the fears

If Carol has held the position that X is really bad for a long time, or if her position stems from deep System 1 models and frames, then she might struggle to articulate clearly what specifically she’s afraid that X will cause. She might find any attempts by others to clarify to be unsatisfying, and possibly threatening because any incorrect articulation of your fear is often worse than none at all. Dylan might come along and say “you don’t like X because you’re afraid of P, but P won’t happen, so you should be okay with X.” This could be scary to Carol who feels her fears are just being played down so they can be dismissed.

If both Carol and Dylan are unable to voice what they’re afraid of, the resulting conversation can be Carol and Dylan simply shouting each other about how terrible and evil they think the other’s position is. It becomes one person’s cached store of fear and horror pitted against another’s.

Failure to acknowledge the other person’s fear while being desperate for yours to be acknowledged

Caught up in her dread of R, Alice can become insistent that Bob acknowledges the extreme danger she sees. Bob failing to do so is scary - perhaps he will advocate for X not realizing the tremendous harm he will cause.

Alice’s fear of Bob’s position can be overriding. It’s easy for her to feel the conversation can’t proceed until Bob can be made to realize what his position will result in. Indeed, if Bob can’t see the extreme danger of X leading to R, then possibly he can’t be reasoned with at all. Alice will focus all her attention, energy, and emotion on trying to make Bob see reason here.

This is not conducive to Alice listening to Bob. If Bob isn’t acknowledging R, then it’s easy to see all his words as a perverse and willful refusal to acknowledge R.

But it’s worse! Bob is in exactly the same state as Alice. He is dreadfully afraid that Alice isn’t worried about H. That she’d gladly and foolishly let H happen to avoid R. Does she just not care about H happening? Will she sacrifice it all so readily? How can he debate with someone with such distorted values? Someone who keeps ignoring his outright statements that Y leads to H!

You easily get two people yelling their fears at each other, unwilling to listen until the other person acknowledges the badness they have been advocating for. The conversation goes nowhere. Tones start out calm and civil, but rapidly become outraged at the wanton obtuseness of their infuriating interlocutor.

Refusal to acknowledge the other person’s fear because Arguments Are Soldiers

Politics is the mind-killer. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary. - Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

Even if you understand what your interlocutor is afraid of and you think there’s something to it, it can be tempting to not acknowledge this. Acknowledging their fear can feel like putting points on the board for them and their position. So you deny them this, not willing to cede any ground.

This is bad, don’t do it kids. It’s possible that your concern is by far the greater one, but that doesn’t mean their worries aren’t legitimate too. (Or maybe they’re not legitimate, but you can at least show you understand what they are feeling.) The discussion can proceed if you at least acknowledge the fact they have their own fear too.

What to do?

If you think you might be headed for a Rock vs Hard Place dynamic, I’d suggest trying the following:

  1. Understand what you are afraid of. What is the outcome you think is at risk of happening?
  2. Understand what they are afraid of. Know what their fear is.
  3. Acknowledge their fear. Acknowledge that something they think is very important is at stake in your discussion. [See this important comment by Kaj on what this requires.]
    1. Step 1 is simply to acknowledge the fear. The following steps depend on your own beliefs.
    2. You might say “I too am afraid of R”, but:
      1. I have thought about this and believe that X won’t cause are R / can be made to avoid R.
      2. I think that the danger of R is outweighed by the worse danger of H.
      3. I think that there are ways to minimize the risk or damage that are good enough.
    3. You might say “I don’t share your fear of R”, because
      1. I think you are mistaken that R is in fact bad.
  4. Don’t fall into Arguments Are Soldiers/Policy Debates are One-Sided traps.
  5. Realize that the fear most salient to you will derive from your experience, background, situation, and models. Someone might reasonably be afraid in the other direction, and their situation has made that much clearer to them. There’s a chance you can learn from them.

These steps can be taken somewhat unilaterally. You can acknowledge someone else’s fear without them acknowledging yours. Possibly after you’ve done so, they can relax a little and will be open to acknowledging that you have your own fear.

If someone is completely unwilling to consider that their fear is misplaced, mistaken, or outweighed, then the conversation may struggle to go anywhere. Best to realize this quickly and find an alternative path forward than end up in circular conversations that only generates fear and hostility.

That said, I’m hopeful that once people are able to acknowledge their own and other’s fears, productive double cruxing can happen about where the balance lies between the rock and the hard place.


Appendix: On a more positive note

While I’ve framed this post in terms of fears and potentially negative outcomes, it applies also in cases where people are disagreeing about different policies that would result in different benefits. Just as gradient ascent and gradient descent are effectively the same things, sometimes people are fighting over their fears of not netting some positive benefit.

[1] Double-Crux Resources: