A month or so ago, I read Chana Messinger’s post about steelmanning other people’s arguments, which is a great article. And then I heard a phrase from a talk by Bryan Cantrill (a very good software engineer) where he called his co-presenter “The Public Defender” [of bad software]. His coworker/copresenter defended a piece of terrible software in the middle of his complaining about it, and Bryan exclaimed (something like) “You’re such a public defender. You’ll defend any bad code, won’t you?” This was even funnier later in the talk, when Bryan was talking about some missing functionality in one of his programs, and the coworker responded prompting Bryan to quip “Don’t tell me I need a Public Defender.” about his own work.
Being a Public Defender of Bad Ideas
It’s no secret that most people believe a lot of dumb things. I’m sure I’ve got some somewhere. So in order to put people at ease, it’s often a good idea to give good defenses of bad ideas and bad arguments. It raises the bar of discourse and results in people strengthening their skills. Part of this is obviously steelmanning your opponent’s ideas, but what you also do is humanize the in absentia opponent. Psychological factors affect all of our faculties, and in order to just simply get things done, we’re all subject to unquestioned assumptions, and it’s simply part of the economy of our scarce time on earth that we’ve got to pick which things to pick apart. Plus, when these arguments involve religion (and most do), I need to remind myself: I was once one of them. I believed. In a sense, I’m defending my past…something that formed part of who I am.
The Pathology of The Public Defender
There is a certain pathology from being a steelmanning Public Defender. Sometimes people get really angry and feel betrayed by defending these obviously-bad ideas. Sometimes these people need to grow up. Other times, these are just people venting their frustration. They’re spouting off a bunch of things they find repugnant about an idea off the top of their heads to just let off steam…something between l’esprit de l’escalier and being forced to shut up to maintain peace between them and themselves/family.
But there are also times that some people are simply traumatized by their past with these ideas and are just incapable of processing them the same way. They just simply lash out at the argument with a lot of emotion. And what I really want to say is that I have done this before. I’ve been insensitive to the psychological issues people have with their pasts, and making demands for better arguments puts them in a place where they aren’t going to be flourishing human beings. So there is a balance to strike here to avoid becoming a blanket Public Defender, and I think compassion is something I’ve developed to avoid it. Needless to say, the danger of knowing when to be the Public Defender is something you have to know, as at some extreme point it’s continuous with trolling and bullying.
Joyfully Resigned to Public Defender Status
There’s just a joy I get from steelmanning, and even defending religious ideas to atheists to see if they can get around all the roadblocks I put up. It’s fun to show people the “roadmap” of certain intellectual spaces, at least how I have learned them. There are even ways of making bad ideas interesting by linking them in to larger good ideas that have some potential merit. It’s fun to play with someone’s mind and their perceptions of other people, if only to make things look just strange enough to warrant a deeper look. Hopefully what I’m doing will help people in some way or another.