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Charles' Rules of Argument

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Charles' Rules of Argument are a strategy for online arguments that are often shared among some Geek Feminism community members and are mentioned in, eg, the Ada Initiative Ally Skills workshop. They were originally posed by Charles Miller in March 2004.

Some principles associated with Charles' Rules of Argument are:

  1. Entering into arguments is not necessarily good: they're tiring and you often don't convince anyone.
  2. Arguments make people defensive. Do not expect your interlocutor to change their mind during the argument. They will only change it later if at all.
  3. In groups, your argument is actually normally aimed at onlookers more than your interlocutor.
  4. Once you have stated your position and corrected any factual misunderstandings, there is nothing further you can do. Anyone who still disagrees with you cannot be convinced by you arguing with them.

Ally Skills formulationEdit

The Ally Skills formulation, with notes by Leigh Honeywell is:

  • Don’t go looking for an argument [there will always be enough of those headed your way]
  • State your position once, speaking to the audience [it's hard to convince people to change their minds, but you can often sway observers who are less invested in Being Correct]
  • Reply one more time to correct any misunderstandings of your first statement [Do this after waiting a bit for replies to roll in]
  • Do not reply again [IMPORTANT]
  • Spend time doing something fun instead [Self care! It's a thing! You should do! Eat some ice cream, watch trashy TV, hug a friend.]

Original formulationEdit

See Charles Miller's original 2004 post

The main quote is:

Once you find yourself in an argument, your job is now to make your point clearly, and then leave. You are allowed two passes:
  1. State your case
  2. Clarify any misunderstandings
Once you have stated your case, there's no point re-stating it. Going over the same ground repeatedly will damage your case: nobody likes reading the same interminable debate over and over again. Similarly, if people read what you have to say, understand it, but continue to disagree anyway, there's nothing more you can do unless you suddenly come up with a totally new argument. The only productive thing you can add is if people clearly don't understand what you're saying, and you need to clarify.

Charles acknowledged in 2014 that the original version also contains, essentially, a guide to using the Tone argument to win, and apologised.

On social mediaEdit

The rules of argument were designed for a fairly static group of interlocutors and onlookers who can reference existing posts easily, eg, an email list or a Usenet discussion group, and where the onlookers are presumed neutral. They can work less well on, eg, social media, where there can be an endless supply of genuinely uninformed participants and onlookers (together with troublemakers, trolls, original participants in the argument looking to revive it, etc). A possible variant for social media:

  • Don’t go looking for an argument
  • Background check your interlocutor, looking for, eg, misogyny or persistent trolling in their social media. A very new account is also a red flag. If you find red flags, do not engage, and block them.
  • Otherwise, state your position once, speaking to the audience
  • If the argument looks to continuing for a while, state your position and correct any misunderstandings somewhere more permanent and referencable, eg, in a blog post. (With comments off!) Share a link to it.
  • Do not reply again.
  • If the argument resumes, allow others to point people at your permanent reference rather than doing it yourself. Continue to "background check" onlookers and new interlocutors to see if they are disingenuous.
  • Spend time doing something fun instead.

If you're defending a feminist on social media, see the Cookie mentions page for how to avoid unnecessarily alerting her to the argument or drawing her into it.

See also Edit

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