Strawman vs Steelman

By: Butch Swank

I write a lot about how we, as a society, treat one another and see things. I feel it’s needed because there seems to be a real disconnect between the experience of our day-to-day lives and what the news media feeds us. They tell us the sky is falling, that hate is everywhere, and, Great News, our economy is fantastic. It’s to the point that I’m now patiently waiting to be informed the sky is actually green.

Years ago, there was an uproar when trophies for everyone in kiddie soccer were introduced. I’m a bit of a softie and, at the time, could see no real harm in giving all the kids something. The people arguing it’s a slippery slope believed that trophies for all would result in those kids growing up without learning to overcome and conquer adversity. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and it’s become evident they may have been right. As an employer, I have encountered many young people who genuinely have a tough time navigating the difficulties of “real life.” Way back then, I thought, why not give the terrible soccer players trophies – it’s nice! Now, I can appreciate that many of those players never got a chance to learn the valuable lesson that the pain of losing can motivate you to become better. Getting no trophy could have encouraged them to focus and be determined to improve instead of accepting a meaningless trophy as good enough. Lo and behold, with these new and hard-earned abilities, those kids would naturally want to compete and perhaps even become true champions. I appreciate that not everyone would do this, but maybe by giving every single player a trophy, we robbed the potential strivers of the pain needed to force themselves to get better. In short, we inadvertently taught most of these players that being just “okay” was good enough. In short, we promoted mediocrity over the struggle for excellence.

As adults, we’re certainly far from perfect, but we do have the power to make ourselves better day by day, and I have one idea for how to do that. I think most people have heard of a strawman argument. If not, in a debate/conversation, it’s hearing another’s side and then mocking it before offering your “superior” counterargument. It dawned on me that all the current media feeds us are strawmen because it’s seemingly always delivered from only one “superior” perspective, and we’ve become accustomed to this over time. We do it in our own lives, too. However, there is an alternative to this. Enter the steelman. This approach means you listen, really listen to someone, and then repeat back their argument as best you can. If you get it wrong, you ask them to help you better understand it, and you go back and forth until you fully get it. Now, depending on your motivation, you can either proceed to rip their argument to shreds or, if you’re feeling gracious, you can share your side and point out how your perspective has more benefits than theirs. Ideally, you can turn what these days becomes an instant argument into a constructive conversation. Remember those? Yes, we used to disagree about all kinds of things and yet remain family, friends, and neighbors. It’s sadly the case these days, but here’s some good news: just because you disagree with someone, that does not mean you need to write that person out of your life, no matter what the news tells you. If the trophy for winning an argument was losing a relationship, you should really consider if that trophy was worth it, right?

I say this because I believe our news media knows exactly what they’re doing. They minimize any chance of steelmanning. It also does not matter if your news is from the left or right; both sides do it. Isn’t it absurd that I just wrote left or right “news,” and you didn’t bat an eye? When I sat down to write this, I had never considered that point either, and it just now dawned on me. It’s truly astonishing how much we’ve been programmed to listen and not think. Regardless of what they say, America is still the greatest place to live on the planet and has the absolute best people on Earth. Next time you consider entering verbal warfare with someone, I simply ask that you pause for a moment and instead really listen to them. Take their words seriously, and don’t dismiss them. Repeat back their words until they agree you get their point. And here’s the important part: you then lay out your perspective until they understand your side, too. By your listening earnestly, I reckon they’ll do the same for you. I cannot guarantee that everything will be roses after, but I do guarantee you just upped the odds that you’ll still be friends or family after you’re done. Also, you two will, probably for the first time in a long time, really understand where you are both coming from and maybe find some common ground instead of being divided even further. Think about it: the news media wants further division, and I believe more steelmanning is an effective way to counter this. The reality is that we do live in trying times, and nobody is coming to save America but ourselves. We’re not elected officials and cannot change policies, but we absolutely all have the power to do this. So, let’s get to work unearthing all the truly common ground we share and begin appreciating each other again. That’s damn sure better than any meaningless trophy, right?

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