Last time, I did promise to apply the principles I discussed to the meta-discussions we’ve had recently. I haven’t done much work on this, but what I had in mind originally is the right to exit. I think there’s a case to be made that this applies to any conversation.
Barring exceptional circumstances, I would say that anyone who wants to avoid an uncomfortable conversation for whatever reason may do so. However, there is no obligation to not regard this as an escape from responsibility — e.g., think of the politician ducking a reporter. In more personal areas, I do think we should be charitable and not assume the worst when someone seemingly ducks a hard question.
The Ethics of Communication
This brings me to my topic for today: More ingredients of what might be called the ethics of communication. Here’s the matter that I wrestle with the most — the subjective aspect of human reactions. Consider the following scenario:
A: I don’t think we should take action X. It is dangerous for reasons Y and Z.
B (distressed at “dangerous,” thinks to himself, “Better report this.”): OK, A.
(Some time later.)
C (to A): A, we have to maintain a cordial work environment. Don’t say “dangerous.” It distresses people.
A: I don’t understand — I do not think I was rude, or that discussions of danger are off topic when discussing what we should do.
C: It isn’t that you said it but how you said it.
A: I understand that some may object to the word. But that applies to anything I could say, in principle. What principles are at play here?
C: That you don’t upset people.
A: I don’t deliberately upset anyone. But if someone reacts that way, it seems that there is a point at which I cannot reasonably foresee the result.
I, like many others, worry that truth is lost here. But not only that — the whole possibility of communication is in jeopardy if people have no way of knowing whether what they say is going to be regarded as reasonable, not upsetting, etc. Note that this does not rule out the reverse: I am in perfect agreement that there are situations where one should know not to say certain things. But in cases of mere upset over a term which has no rude, pejorative, etc., connotations, in any sociolect of English I know, I would hope that grasp of more standard ones would allow people to give the benefit of the doubt.
Another aspect of the ethics of communication concerns expertise. It is expected in some professions to start work on all aspects of a problem in parallel and not wait. In others, people think they can postpone many aspects. Failure to understand these differences makes for difficulty in communication.
So what are the expectations about asking an expert for clarification and even recognizing an expert in a field other than one’s own? And is the “It is all out there, go read!” trope ever justified? My answer here is no. But I also think that the expert can and should sometimes start by stating the “way in” to the matter and see the reaction to that. This way in should be tailored to the audience, which may require careful understanding of where someone is coming from.
A puzzle to consider on all of this: Is there a way to “weaponize” my suggestions? What are their failure modes? Next time we will discuss failure in general and learning from mistakes.