There are two interesting theories of political discourse articulated in this post by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex: Conflict Theory and Mistake Theory. Let’s investigate each of them, and see what we might learn about a superior path.
Conflict theory states that the other side of a political debate is too dangerous not to vilify and attack with aggression. “Conflict theorists treat politics as war,” Alexander pointed out. It is about fighting and criticizing. “Conflict theorists view debate as having a minor clarifying role at best.”
Mistake theory uses debate to diagnose issues and find the best way forward together. Therefore, debate is essential.
In mistake theory, we are all scientists working together to find the truth in the complexity of politics. “The State is the patient,” Alexander pointed out. We’re the doctors in this analogy discussing the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects. We all bring different expertise to the table, and once we all understand the whole situation, we can converge on the treatment plan that best fits the needs of our patient. As Alexander said, “Who wins on any particular issue is less important than creating an environment where truth can generally prevail over the long term.”
Conflict theory is a losing tactic, in my opinion. It is common among politicians and political entertainers on both sides of the political divide. I understand the attraction, but would argue that It will change few, if any, minds. It is insulting, because the attacks are most frequently false binary straw man arguments propped up as the real arguments of the opponent.
I am an avowed believer in mistake theory. In my opinion, everyone, including me, is wrong on political issues. The reason debate is so important is precisely because these are hypercomplex issues. It is only through discussion with people that disagree with us that the full nuance comes into view and we can come into a still imperfect, but better, solution. We are made better by listening to the accurate argument of others, and not making caricatures of their arguments to rally allies, which is what CNN, CNBC, Fox News and One America Network do all day long. It is unproductive, except to keep us divided.
We are all wrong and we improve through civil discourse. Socrates had it right all along. He was the wisest man only because he was the only one wise enough to know that he didn’t know anything.
Just my opinion. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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2 thoughts on “Mistake Vs. Conflict Theory”
Nice to see more people considering this framework.
You should probably briefly credit SlateStarCodex (Scott Alexander/ Scott Siskind) at the start/ end, since that’s where this blogpost idea originated (and that you use his phrasing verbatim in certain places).
Thank you! I have given credit and attributed exact quotes in the updated article. I appreciate the push.
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