Rapoport’s Rebuttals – A Model for Better Online Civil Discourse

Not all online discussions are models of congeniality and civility.

From the 45th President of the United States on down to the trolls who inhabit the comments section of nearly every online article and discussion thread, far too many people are rude, dismissive, and wholly uninterested in anything resembling a search for the truth.

I can’t control much of that, but what I can do is try to be a model for a better, more civil form of online conversation.

As a way to try to live up to that standard, I’m going to play around with a new feature, called Rapoport’s Rebuttals, which I’ll add to the end of some of my more sensitive or contentious posts.

The idea is to present the other side’s position on the post’s topic in a fair, clear, and even-handed way.

The name comes from social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, who proposed a set of rules for criticizing an intellectual opponent in a way that is fair and that might actually encourage greater responsiveness. His rules were recently popularized as follows by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps and and Other Tools for Thinking :

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Since in this case, my intellectual opponent will often be a composite or a fiction, my main focus will be on Rule #1, fairly presenting possible counterarguments. But since the spirit of Rapoport’s rules is the vision behind the concept (and because it’s alliterative), I’ll name it after him.

The goal will be to force myself to consider opposing viewpoints and to try to underscore the fact that, even when people might disagree, perhaps it’s possible to do so not quite so disagreeably.

Rapoport’s Metarebuttal:

  1. This exercise does not improve the clarity of one’s writing. The writer should know something before he sets out to write, and his purpose should be to articulate that to the reader. Good writers present their writing as an observer of truth, and rebuttals and metarebuttals are the kind of ornamental displays of excessive navel-gazing that only serve to undermine a writer’s true purpose.