The Fog Island Tavern Quarrgument Symposium, second night:

– So friends, did we settle the weather for today? No hurricanes on the horizon? Are we ready to tackle the second part of Abbé Boulah’s agenda? Do you have any questions or suggestions about it?

————————————————————————-

2 Needed provisions / agreements for
   a) ‘Social’ Communication, Conversation?
   b) Decision-oriented ‘Planning’ Platform?
­————————————————————————-

– Let me try to restate my understanding of this in my own terms, Vodçek, correct me if I’m wrong: The distinction between the two separate questions is now based on the different kinds of talk intentions we found last night: simple friendly conversations without any particular aim or focus on the one hand, and discussions aiming at a goal, a solution to a problem, a decision, on the other? And the question is about how to prevent either one to degrade into a ‘quarrgument’?

– Close enough, for the first kind.

– Only for the first kind? Why?

– Well, for the second kind, shouldn’t we also worry about how well that aim or focus can be achieved — of reaching a decision? A meaningful, reasonable one, a good plan?

– You are jumping right into the thick of it, Sophie. Would it be useful to first see how far the agreements for the conversation of the dialogue kind can get us?

– You are talking about what they call ‘general netiquette’, essentially, aren’t you? The rules for polite conversation in decent company, now extended to online discussions on a social forum?

– That would be a good place to start, yes. And suspect it’s more difficult than it looks at first sight — given all the quarrgument-like exchanges we see on the internet, in spite of the well-intentioned policy statements and rules of all those platforms?

– Is there a simple comprehensive summary of those rules?

– Well, the main rules for common polite conversation would be to abstain from crude, obscene language, from ALL- CAPS entries which is understood as the equivalent of yelling and shouting in face-to-face conversation, to stick to the general topic, and above all, not engaging in personal attacks on other participants — the various forms of ad-hominem fallacies; no name-calling, ‘strawmanning’, and so on. Many forum leaders try to forestall problems by listing a number of rules or advice for ‘positive’, constructive, friendly, ‘comfortable’ language and content, for participants to promise to strive for. Hoping that the focus on the positive will keep people too busy to engage in the negative?

– Hmm. I wonder if calling exclusive positive thinking wishful thinking would be a negative term? Those aims are fine and generally accepted, even if not always adhered to. So many moderators feel compelled to simply ‘ban’ — which means just not accept for posting — entries that violate those.

– Yes: Already you can write simple algorithms to do the same thing: scan all entries, given an accepted list of unacceptable words and phrases that automatically blocks the offending entry that contains one of those words. But the issue gets sticky when it comes to the question of offending the beliefs or standards of certain groups in society. Heresy — involving disparaging comment about religious beliefs — has been extended to many other domains, gender, race, politics and philosophy. And the boundaries and the ‘coded’ disguises of objectionable positions can become so fuzzy that many platforms have instead adopted the practice of asking participants to complain about offending posts, and then deciding what to do about them, the complaint becoming the criterion for banning.

– Looks like a slippery slope towards the abyss of political correctness censorship. But also: can the same offending content be blocked in some groups but accepted in others? And isn’t the problem then, that they will be posted and the damage, e.g. of a personal attack, is done; the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There ought to be a better way.

– Yes, Sophie. It has led group ‘leaders’ or originators to involve several moderators to ‘intervene’ or ‘resolve’ such incidents by asking the offending participant to change the wording of potentially offending comments, either before they are made public, or after somebody complained. The jury is still out about how that will work out in the long run — there will always be complaints by some offenders, of undue ‘censorship’, illegal constraints on ‘free speech’ and so on.

– Yeah, and there will always be ‘administrators’, moderators, who get their jollies out of doing some undue censorshipping, exerting their power by ‘keeping the discourse clean’…

– Are we straying from the topic a tad here, folks? I agree the power issue is one we might want to look at, but is it part of the agenda we agreed on?

– Spoken like a good social media moderator, Vodçek: to compound the offense with an ad-censorum while we’re at it.

– Yeah, I may have to cut some of you off… How about looking at the relationship between the ‘do’s’ of such discourse, not only the ‘don’t rules?

– Is there a difference between responses to ‘don’ts and responses to failure to do ‘do’s?

– To do or not to do, dobedobedo…

– Renfroe…

– Hey Vodçek: think you could get me another glass before you cut me off this dobedialogue?

– It seems that the mere suggestion of straying off the topic has, how are they saying these days, gone viral? So there should be a rule against such suggestions?

– Right, Professor. They are themselves straying off the topic. The only recourse is to not even ignoring them, as the Bavarians say.

– Holy Ignoraminous the Third, of Yerehwon in Lower Lugubria, pray for us!

– Okay, enough of this. Where were we? Sophie, do you remember?

– I’m not sure we were anywhere worth remembering, Vodçek. It seems that there were no really hard and fast rules or guidelines even for keeping conversation-style civilized, if there happen to be less civilized participants involved, who weren’t brought up to properly participate in civilized conversations. Other than with the help of moderators. Who must be granted some power to intervene, at the expense of slightly bending the rule of free speech.

– A balancing act, yes. I’m glad you mention he upbringing part — is it the responsibility of education to instill proper polite conversation behavior habits? That would lessen the problem a bit, wouldn’t it? Supported by silent glacial schoolmarm stares by the community in case of inadvertent violation? Poignantly ignoring the offending remark and returning to the topic? Laughing the poor impolite boor out of the room would already be too much of acknowledgement?

– Remember, we are talking about online conversations here. Those old remedies won’t work there — is there a need for icy-stare ‘nomoticons’ (no-emotion, no rising to the bait, but silently conveying the message?) — to replace those? Making the offenders’ i-screens freeze? Put the designers to work!

– Let’s see, Vodçek: Are you saying that the traditional standards for civilized conversations still apply to online friendly conversations without specific aims, but the tools for ensuring their adherence on online forums need to be improved or invented? Or can equivalent tools be developed for online discourse that would serve the same purpose?

– I’d say that we could leave that to some evolutionary process for the ‘friendly conversations’, as you called them. The types of forums, participants, issues and even purposes that can be discussed are too different to imagine a one-size-fits all set of rules to be used for all of them. ‘Self-governance’ responding to problems as they occur may be the best strategy for that first question.

– I agree, Professor — even though the question of what to delegate to education to prepare people for such interactions might require some common core definition of those basic standards? As long as there are no serious decisions at stake — or inquiries with significant implications for our lives, — let’s leave it to evolution and self-governance. But when we are faced with planning or policy-making decisions that impact the well-being of our human communities, will we not need better methods for the discourse leading to those decisions? Even for traditional ‘live’ events such as town meetings or debates in parliamentary decision-making bodies — but decidedly more so for online discourse?

– So it seems that there is some overlap between the two kinds of processes or discourse types when they are done online — but the question of online standards becomes critical for decision-making settings? Which means that we are now moving to question (b) of our second phase agenda. Okay?

– I agree, Vodçek. Especially because it is becoming increasingly obvious that even the traditional practices for what we may call governance decision-making are still falling short of some basic expectations. So even for those, better tools are urgently needed.

– That’s a serious complaint, Bog-Hubert. Some might say even bordering on the unconstitutional, eh? Can you be more specific about those expectations and shortcomings?

– I guess we can make a list of such problems, and use them to look for ways to meet the corresponding expectations. Let me start with the connection between the discourse and the decision. The great parliamentary principle and tradition of ‘let’s leave our weapons outside and sit down to talk before making a decision’ — don’t laugh, Renfroe, I am serious, I know you like to call all that talk and filibustering pretentious BS or worse — it was a great civilized improvement on prior practice of going straight to violence and war, to ‘resolve’ differences of opinion.

– Hmm. So what’s wrong with it, if it’s so great?

– Oh, Sophie: Look at the improvement side first, to see where things go wrong: ‘Let’s talk’ means that we are willing — agree — to listen to all sides’ points of views, concerns, intentions, learn abbot their ideas of a good plan and decision, and try to tell each other about what we see as the pros and cons of the proposals made. Ideally, that could and sometimes even does result in improvement, redesign of the originally proposed plans. And that is the basic beneficial principle: the decision about the plan or action should be the result of due consideration of all those pros and cons, all the ideas and concerns that have been brought up during the talks.

– I see what you are getting at, Bog-Hubert. Abbé Boulah did talk about that as well. And about the problem: all too often, in the end, the decisions are made by methods that can ignore or override many if not all those ideas and concerns.

– What in three twisters names are you talking about?

– Voting, Renfroe. Majority voting, or the single vote decision by some leader or chairman or president. And voting that allows people who haven’t even listened to any of the talk and don’t really know what the issues are about.

– You want to do away with free elections and majority vote, you’re cruising for trouble, I’d say.

– We’re not talking about doing away with that: the problem is about making a better link, a better connection between the concerns, the content and merit of the contributions to the discussion and the decision. All of the contributions. A more transparent and, if you like, accountable connection.

– Okay. So that’s a first or primary criterion that you think should be provided in online planning discourse?

– Right. One such consideration — didn’t we already mention some? But yes, a key one. And of course that makes sense only if all pertinent considerations, all the expected benefits as well as all the costs, the potential ‘unexpected side-and-after-effects’ have actually been brought up to be given due consideration, wouldn’t you say?

– I see. So the platform or forum must allow all such considerations to be voiced — and even invite, encourage people to bring them up.

– In practice, doesn’t that run into what some call ‘voter apathy’, people don’t care enough about the issues to participate?

– Yes — or they are convinced (possibly based on actual experience?) that their concerns won’t make a difference in the decision, won’t be given due consideration? So should there be provisions for overcoming those obstacles? Some form of incentives?

– You’re talking about something like paying folks to vote? Old hat. And not a good one. No better than the dirty efforts to keep some people from voting, wether by ‘cleaning up the voter registration rolls’ or gerrymandering, or making the trip to the voting stations so difficult that some folks can’t make it…

– Right, Sophie. I think we aren’t talking about the vote, though, but about incentives for contributing good information, whether pro or con, that should inform decisions. Incentives in a currency other than money, of course.

– Won’t the discourse be overwhelmed with all the comments, if you succeed in making such provisions? Can you expect everybody to express their concerns in succinct arguments — pro or con — that are the essence of the talk? How can anybody digest all that material?

– Indeed, good points. You’ll have to expect, and allow, all kinds of expressions, rhetoric, bombast, and even what in ‘polite’ friendly conversations would be objectionable forms of contributions. That’s why there should be provisions to sort things out in displays that give everybody some concise overview of the concerns — no repetitions, for one, and the core content, the key claims of the ideas and arguments stripped of rhetorical bombast and characterization.

– What do you mean, characterization?

– Well, if you bring in a ‘con’ argument against some plan provision, calling it ‘stupid’ or ‘shortsighted’ or ‘brilliant’ or some form of ‘ism’ is already a form of evaluation — an assessment of the claim, that really should be done by every participant at a separate stage. For example, say I’m asked to give ‘due consideration’ to a comment that sounds like this: “That stupid, ill-advised proposed legislation to reduce the use of fossil fuels to stop the hoax of global warming should be opposed because it won’t work”, I may have an opinion about whether the legislation will work to reduce fossil fuel use, another about whether it will help to reduce the effects of global warming. Or whether the global warming predictions are a hoax, in which case any legislation would be moot or have other beneficial or detrimental effects. Or whether calling the legislation stupid and ill-advised is inappropriate whether I believe it will be effective or not.

– So any judgment — e. g. ‘not true’ or ‘good point’ about the comment as a whole does not really help me or others to understand my real opinion of the various claims or premises the comment makes. To be properly evaluated, they should be stated as separate, basic assertions: “The legislation should be opposed”; “The legislation will not reduce the use of fossil fuels”; “Reducing the use of fossil fuels will not reduce global warming”; “There is no global warming”; and /or “Something should be done to slow or stop global warming”, etc. And shouldn’t there be a rule that people who make such claims should be prepared to offer explanations, evidence, support for them: required to respond the the question ‘Because…’? For which ‘explanations’ like “because the opponent of the claim is a moron” or an ‘…ist’ of some kind, are not acceptable — not related to the claim.

– I see: Everybody can have different assessments about each of these or about the entire statement; and resulting ‘conclusions’ about the wisdom of the proposed legislation will differ accordingly.

– Right. So besides appropriate provisions to display the essential claims — for overview, and for some in-depth, systematic evaluation, — there should also be incentives to provide support, evidence, for the claims, at least upon request from people who are not yet ready to accept the claim as stated?

– That could be trouble. The thing about evidence is a bottomless pit, isn’t it? Ultimately, aren’t all our judgments based on beliefs we think are so ‘self-evident’ that there’s no need, nor even possibility, of further evidence? And the folks who are convinced to ‘have’ the truth, because it’s self-evident, or revealed from up high, will resent the request for evidence more than the fact that there are miserable doubters who just don’t see it.

– So in practice, how should that be dealt with?

– Good question, no easy answer, because any answer would rest on ultimate premises that another party doesn’t share. The best I can think of is another basic agreement — one that relates to the aim of each party in such argumentation, which is to nudge the other party to adopt other’s conclusions. The agreement is this: If you propose an ultimate ‘self-evident’ premise that your argument, your reasoning is resting upon, but you can’t offer any more reasons that can nudge me to accept it, you can’t expect me to change my position to yours, and more that I can expect my ultimate premises to change your mind if I can’t give you more reasons to accept them. So when those arguments of both sides lead to contradictory or incompatible conclusions (or plans), it’s time to look for a different, better plan, or some compromise.

– Interesting. Think people will actually go for that? Like Georges Brassens whose friendship with a bishop rested on the agreement “Il me laisses dire merde, je lui laisse dire amen”? (He lets me say shit, I let him say Amen) But this can become a lengthy and cumbersome affair, Bog-Hubert. Especially when you are going to add whatever evaluation techniques needed to determine the ‘merit’ of all the contributions.

– Talking about that merit, and the special techniques, Bog-Hubert: wouldn’t that involve a whole slew of additional agreements and rules and calculations?

– Why, Vodçek?

– Well, Sophie: Wouldn’t the participants have to agree on what their judgments — about the truth or plausibility, and the importance, significance, of each claim — letters like A,B, C, D, F or numbers zero to ten, or minus 3 to plus 3, or smiley-faces etc. ‘mean’ and how they will be assembled into some overall measure of support for or against the proposed decision? Like we now agree, with some reservation, that 51% of a vote will mean approval of a decision? We’ve been talking about those issues before here, haven’t we?

– Oh. I see. So we’ll need some discussion about all those agreements even before we start the discussion? How do we ever get started? ‘Cause we’d need some agreements about how to get started, and those will have to be discussed…

– Yes: That’s what constitutions and by-laws are for. if you wait to agree on those rules until you run into disagreements in mid-process, you’re asking for trouble. That applies especially to the tasks of evaluation or assessment we haven’t talked about yet: developing some measure of that ‘merit’ of discourse contributions we wanted to connect to the decision.

– I remember, we had a long discussion about the tools for that some time ago. Once you decide that voting isn’t doing a very good job of either due consideration or accountability for why the vote seemed to ignore all the assembled evidence, you are opening a Pandora’s box about evaluation approaches. I’m afraid that we won’t get through all of that tonight, much less arrive at a generally acceptable recommendation for that problem. I know our buddy up at the university had some ideas about that, — there are some of those in the appendix of the paper — but whether they will be easily and generally accepted for such discourse is another question.

– So what do you suggest we do about that now, Vodçek? Because it sounds like that would be a very necessary component of any meaningful discourse platform?

– How about putting the task of development of better approaches, doing some experiments on how they work, developing easy-to-understand manuals or worksheets and supporting calculation programs on the agenda as work to do, maybe devote another weekend to that, later. And perhaps see what ideas our buddy’s proposed Planning Discourse Support Platform has to deal with that?

– I agree, Bog-Hubert. It’s getting late; we don’t have to solve all the world’s problems in one night. So let’s summarize the expectations of decision-oriented online discourse that we have touched upon tonight, and look at what that PDSS has to say about them tomorrow night. Here’s a list of the main issues or expectations we have come across so far:

————————————————————————-
* Standard ‘netiquette’
* Education for proper discourse participation?
* Response to violations?
* “Inviting, even providing incentives to voice ALL concerns”
* Evolution of self-governance for responses to violation
* Parliamentary principle — but
* Decision based on merit of all contributions
    Link between discourse contribution merit and decisions:
    transparency, accountability
* Inviting, even incentives to voice ALL concerns
* Ensuring ‘due consideration’ of all concerns
* Displays of essential ‘core’ content
* Separating claims and evaluation
* Identifying all ‘premises’ for assessment
* Emphasis on evidence, support for claims
* Up front procedural agreements
* Needed: R&D on evaluation of discourse contributions
————————————————————————-

There are probably more, and they may have to be put into a slightly different order, but it may be enough for a start and to give them some thought while you’re trying to catch some flounder from the pier tomorrow morning. Don’t get lost in the fog on your way home…

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