Do you fear the rock or the hard place?

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: