Walls of Words

[This essay is going to focus primarily on the skeptic/atheist community, as that’s the community I mostly interact with. I’m sure it holds true for others too, so don’t read this essay as me claiming that this is somehow unique to skeptics and/or atheists. Additionally, this essay only applies to people who want to discuss things with other people. If your preferred style of communication is lecturing people, and you’re not particular interested in changing (or even hearing) their position: this does not apply to you]

In the years that I’ve been involved in the skeptic/atheist community, I’ve noticed two tendencies that are, unfortunately, completely at odds with one another: making the claim that we really want to discuss things, and doing a massive information dump, laying out our ‘complete’ position on something in one go.

Not only are these two things in tension, they’re actually mutually exclusive. Here’s why.

Regardless of whether we’re discussing things in person, on social media (facebook, twitter, the comments section of a blog), or over email, I’ve noticed that people try to respond comprehensively to a point that someone is making, while at the same time claiming that they want to discuss the topic at hand.

A discussion necessarily requires a mutually understanding of the conversation, on a point by point basis. If your position is a cumulative buildup of points that depend on earlier points, then you necessarily have to have assent to the earlier points in order to have assent with the later points. There’s no point in getting mad at people who want to discuss something you just blew past if it’s central to your whole position (even if you don’t think it is). This is a problem because either

  1. The person didn’t understand your point, and is explicitly confused.
  2. The person thought they understood your point (but didn’t), and is disagreeing due to an error.
  3. The person actually understood your point, and disagrees.

In the first case, they’re simply going to be unable to follow the rest of your pontificating: they’re confused. It’s no longer possible for them to connect the dots between your start and your completion. Once you clarify the confusion, you’re going to have to repeat everything again.

In the second case, they’re just convinced that you’re wrong, and it’s likely that they’ll want to object. But now, they have to wait until you’re finished your speech, which will erode their patience. Ask yourself: how much do you enjoy sitting through some schmuck waffle on about something they clearly know nothing about? You don’t. And, again, once you revisit the earlier point and clarify their misunderstanding, you’ll have to repeat everything else again, but this time you’re going to have to deal with someone who had the impression that you were wrong to say all that you did. And sure, they’ll be doing their best to put that behind them, but emotions are not easy to shake.

The third case is largely the same as the second, but instead of them being in error (i.e. they actually understood your point), it’s now necessary to shift the discussion to this point. Congratulations: by pontificating, you just wasted 5-10 minutes of everyone’s life. You could have avoided this just by checking in at the end of each point.

All you are doing, at this point, is erecting walls of words.

With all the above in mind, it would seem to simply be pragmatically better to stop after making each and every point, and checking in with the other people in the discussion, to see that everyone is on the same page. It could be, of course, that the group of people you’re with all have something to say, and that your pausing will be read as an opportunity for them to leap in and drag the conversation off in an entirely different direction: such is life. The fact of the matter is that while it may suck for the conversation to be driven in a direction you didn’t want it to go, the alternative (i.e. you don’t provide space for anyone else to talks) has all the downsides that I listed above. So the risk that people might actually be able to return to the points you’re making later (perhaps with a bit of reminding), rather than attempting to monopolise the conversation.

Perhaps all of the above isn’t convincing, that you feel that it’s all too “subjective” and focused on “feelings”? Alright.

It’s an empirical fact that our short-term memory has finite limits. What these limits are is, to a degree, up for debate. However, it’s pretty clear that our short-term memory doesn’t simply encode 5 minutes of someone soapboxing. Hell, demographically speaking, 30 seconds of speech is beyond the reach of the vast majority of humanity. So if you are actually concerned about the information you’re uttering being embedded into the brain of the person to whom you’re speaking, it’s biologically impossible for that to happen, if you just rabbit on at length. By speaking for long periods at a time, you are essentially denying the known neuroscientific facts about how the human brain works. So if you’re someone who cares about the knowledge you’re laying on the people around you, then speaking in short bursts, while frequently checking in with them is the evidentially supported way of conversing with people.

But perhaps you have a third approach: you don’t care about whether people understand you in the moment, nor do you care about their feelings, nor do you care about the data regarding the cognitive capabilities of human beings. Fair enough so: you need to stop telling people that you care about “discussion”, because your actions indicate otherwise. And, to be frank, actions are all that matter. If you choose to waffle on and on knowing that there is little to know chance of people A) understanding or b) retaining it, then you are nothing more than a white noise machine in a room otherwise full of human beings. You are why we can’t have nice things. And you need to stop, and listen to those around you.

For once.

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