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Posted by gustav at 09:01PM, Sunday, December 07th, 2003

What Is Discussion?

The Problem is not that reasonable people don't change their minds, for they do. The Problem is that there are so very few reasonable people.

I'm tempted to say that the definition of "reasonable," as it pertains to human personalities, is that reasonable people will change their minds when confronted with sufficient inputs which conflict with their beliefs. Thus, George Bush, deciding in 2000 that he wants to invade Iraq, and presenting spurious argument after spurious argument to support the invasion, before finally choosing one lie and running with it, in the face of all evidence and facts, qualifies as unreasonable. When I changed my mind about supporting J2EE, after implementing a system built on it and seeing performance limitations and fitness-for-use, that demonstrated that I'm at least a little reasonable.

There are days when it feels like no one else is.

This came up in a discussion at work this morning between some coworkers. One guy was telling us about his theories of discussions in various cultures -- how Germans are very quiet and steady, thinking there is only one correct view; Americans get louder and louder, discomfiting continental Europeans; how Swedes are quiet and deliberate, sharing viewpoints until everyone reaches a consensus. This goes along with my theory that those on the Right (the belligerent, intolerant, language-subverting, refusing-to-answer-questions, incapable of logical debate Right as it is today, not that of long-lost true conservative ideals) -- and, perhaps, some on the Left -- don't understand debate, resorting to shouting down opponents, because they don't realize that shouting your viewpoint, without consistent, logical rationales and metrics, never convinces anyone.

Then, this afternoon, another colleague came to ask me a question about a modification to a system that was, mostly, built by consultants. I was a little confused until I realized that, in effect, he was asking for my approval for his plan, which was to make decisions based on putting a value in a new metadata field. The problem I saw is that this same value is already stored in another metadata field, and the same decision he wants to make, the code already makes elsewhere, based on the value in that other field. I asked why that's not good enough. I didn't write this thing, and I'm not attaching a value judgment to the way the consultants implemented it. I was just pointing out that it would be inconsistent to store identical values in two different places, and perform the same decision-making logic on each of them, but separately, based on values in two different fields, implemented slightly differently for each. His response was that it would be a pain in the ass to iterate through an arbitrary number of possible values in the existing field, and he'd rather just look at a single value in the new one. Well, fine, but why not make it all consistent, either way? Besides which, it's not like you'd have to write the code to iterate in the first place -- it, along with the rest of that decision-making logic, already exists somewhere in the code-base the consultants delivered. All you'd have to do is find it. I pointed out that that made maintenance of the metadata more expensive, and was confusing and, again, inconsistent, which would also make maintenance of the *code* more expensive. His response was that it wasn't a critical piece of logic or data, so it didn't matter, and he could do it his way.

At which point I decided his mind was already made up; he was determined to do it his way no matter what I said. Why, then, bother talking to me? Well, sure, you can dismiss my objections as unimportant since what we're working on isn't "critical." But this isn't logic for a phone switch; it's not AIDS research, or crash-test-dummy data-collection, or a famine-relief agricultural study. Nothing I've ever done at this job, ever, has been critical in that sense. It's all a matter of degree, and huge, complex, unmaintainable systems are the result when you give in to the temptation to make a hack rather than doing something the right way, telling yourself it's okay, just this once, because it's little, rather than big and critical -- and do that day after day. But what's the point in arguing that with someone who has already decided?

Is the tendency to walk into a situation asking questions, when you already know the only answer you'll believe, and then argue loudly and at length when it becomes clear the person to whom you're speaking doesn't agree with you, and isn't going to change his mind, a particularly American characteristic, or one shared by contentious people everywhere? I tend to believe what my coworker said about the Swedes and consensus, and I'd like to know how they do it. Is it just that their culture places a higher value on knowing when it's pointless to argue further, and knowing when to agree to disagree? Is it that they're better at expressing respect for others' opinions while disagreeing? Certainly, as a nation they seem to function on a much higher level in most things. They can sure drink, too. And build tube amps, turbochargers, and comfortable car-seats.

Mostly, I'm tired of the degree to which political debate in this country has sunk, and tired of kvetching about it. I want practical ideas of how we can fix it, so I don't have to worry that, when, forty years from now, people demand that my children explain why they don't think the first Clinton administration was the work of Satan, and they offer logical explanations and metrics, they'll feel like they're arguing with immovable, bile-spewing walls of Belief, whose only retort is "why do you liberals hate America so much?"
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