Cory Doctorow gem about communication from NYPL talk


Cory: So this has turned out to be really a rather hard fight. And it’s turned out to be a hard fight because mostly we end up disagreeing with each other in a way that is very hard not to make it sound like, “I am better at defending the open web than you are. You are doing something wrong.” It is more by way of saying “I think you’ve misjudged the situation”, and we all misjudge our situations, and that’s when we need to hear from our friends the most. And it has been the most acrimonious fight of my life. And one that gives me enormous sorrow when I think about it, because these people who I respect so dearly are so very angry that they are in this position.

Paul, you’ve got your microphone there.

Paul: “So how does one change someone’s mind?”

Cory: Yeah, you know - One of the things that I love about Ed and that shows up in Walkaway and that is a piece of both the left and the right at the kind of libertarian fringe maybe or the anarchist fringe is this idea that argument is something that you take very seriously. You know, when I started out in technology I was a great believer in copy protection. I thought that it could enable all kinds of cool things if only we could get it to work. And I got on an airplane with a lawyer called Fred Von Lohmann from San Francisco to Hong Kong and we argued about it for fifteen hours. And fifteen hours later I changed my mind. And this is a remarkable thing.

There is a Reddit Subreddit devoted - because Reddit has lots of Subreddits and some of them are terrible - but there is this Subreddit called Change My Mind that is devoted to people who are honestly interested in having their minds changed. And they deploy a lot of the strategies of the so-called rationalist movement. Which is to do things like try systematically to identify and avoid logical fallacies, and to - before you begin your discussion - you have to know your interlocutor’s argument so well that you can present it to them, and they have to assert that you presented it accurately. It is called ironmanning, it is the opposite of strawmanning. And that good will, and willingness to spend the time is a way that minds genuinely change. And I have seen it work. It’s the hard work though. It’s the difference between a relationship where you say “our ideal relationship is one in which we never have a fight”, and a relationship in which you say “our relationship is one in which all of our fights end with some mutual understanding”.

Paul: It reminds me of a quotation of Robert Frost who said that the liberal is someone who can never take his own side in an argument.

Cory: I have heard that. You know, I think that if you can genuinely understand your adversary’s argument, that you are a long way along to finding some common ground. The most frustrating thing in an argument is to have the person you are talking to seem to just not only disagree with you, but to disagree with something you are not saying. That’s really the hardest possible argument to have. And that’s funny because in impact litigation, which is an area where I do some work, where we try and sue the U.S. government or get sued by the U.S. government in ways that’s likely to invalidate laws we think are bad instead of convincing a plurality of congress to do what we want. We are often about trying to get them to ask the question we want heard, and not the question that they would prefer to ask. And so while it’s a useful tactic in sort of parliamentary systems, it’s not a good way to come to an agreement. It is an honored activist tradition. You know, we remember Rosa Parks as a seamstress who grew tired and sat on the bus, but the reality is that she was an incredibly shrewd, canny, committed lifelong activist, who worked with her colleagues to figure out how to get the U.S. government to ask the question she wanted to ask, which was not “do private bus companies have the right to decide who sits where”, which was a very hard question, but instead “is racial discrimination enforced by the state lawful and consistent with the constitution?”


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