Rappaport’s Rule(s)

Rappaport’s first rule of any constructive dialogue that aims to increase knowledge is:

You should attempt to re-express your interlocutor’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that they say “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way myself.”

Clearly, it’s an extreme version of understand-before-disagree and maybe life’s too short to expect to fully comply, but it puts the emphasis in the right place by shunning rhetorical tricks like straw-men as well as avoiding simple but important misunderstandings. Together with hold-your-definition – where Dennett suggests we don’t get too hung-up on objective definitions too soon in any discourse, since it’s unlikely we’ll interpret and understand them the same way anyway – Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps and Other Thinking Tools” captures Rappaport’s four rules and many more constructive ways of thinking and arguing.

[Note: since this is clearly the opposite of a “straw-man”, it is often called a “steel-man” and the process I call Rappaport’s Rule – after Dennett – can be found referred to as Steelmanning.]

In full:

You should attempt to re-express your interlocutor’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that they say “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way myself.”

You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

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[All rules are “for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools“.]

[More on Rhetorical Rules of Engagement.]

[More on the rules of humour – The Court Jester.]

[Post Note: there is an aggressive variant of the passive Steelman – maybe the active Strongman – to succinctly summarise (even caricature) your opponent’s position and then to aim to destroy it. The “and” is very important. If the summary is aimed at being destroyed, it’s really a bad-faith straw-man (unless and until you and your interlocutor genuinely agree in good faith). A steelman is a strong version of your opponent. A strongman is an aggressive version of yourself. Steelman is about truth; Strongman (like Strawman) is about winning.

Again here, the strongest form is about “winning” arguments, not about truth.
Steel = truth.
Strong = win.
Nicely done
.]