Rules of Rhetorical Engagement

R.E.S.P.E.C.T is the only rule – Good Faith and Honest Intentions.

(Once again for the hard of hearing,
the ONLY RULE of engagement is
good faith and respect for the engagement.)

  • Rule #1 RESPECT – Understand & Question before Disagree & Criticize.
  • Rule #2 RESPECT – No ad hominem attacks on the Individual or their Tribe.
  • Rule #3 RESPECT – Careful use of potentially offensive Humour or Irony.

Whilst bearing in mind that:

Rules are for guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools.

That’s it. Full stop.

Lots more on respect and rules and more, below and in the footnotes, rules of discourse, but also rules most generally. (I can’t believe it needs saying that Mafia tactics of harassing people’s employers and hosts and threatening people and livelihoods when you disagree or disapprove – Cancel Culture – is the very antithesis of respect and good faith?)


If you need elaboration, read on:


Preamble: Several papers and posts here describe each of these aspects, but even when dealing with would-be factual knowledge, the content may not be entirely objective or logical and anyway, the process is always rhetorical, involving communication between human individuals and the tribes with which we identify. In simplest form:

“Tread softly, for you tread upon my dreams.
(W B Yeats)

“Reflect on what you hold sacred
and be gentle with what other people hold sacred.”
(Elizabeth Oldfield)

The rules of engagement below, first published in this page format in 2018, are collated from earlier collaborative forums as far back as 20th C bulletin boards and email exploders. They seem to apply equally to any correspondence, face-to-face debate, on-line commenting and/or social media, formally moderated or otherwise. In fact they apply to any argumentation in dialogue or debate in democratic, political, real life. And they really are about engagement generally. It’s more obvious when there really is an argument, a debate, a disagreement at issue, but they apply to any dialogue about any topic of interest to share or increase understanding and/or commitment to a decision or action.

In fact, “Why?” are we having this exchange at all is a good starting point. You might just be wasting each other’s time, unless “shooting the breeze” are your only mutual aspirations, which is fine of course. Social media will be all our downfall if we don’t respect the rules:

The Rules of Respect for Dialogue:

Well, there is really only one rule: R.E.S.P.E.C.T

(Or simply Good Faith
honest intentions and mutual respect for the rules,
the intent of the content and the participants,
but we can unpick these further below.)

Rule #1 RESPECT – Understand & Question before Disagree & Criticize.
Critical debate is essential to all our agendas and anyone voicing direct disagreement with or criticism of the arguments of another must be seen to have understood, or sincerely attempted to understand, the others’ argument and intentions and to have related their counter argument to it. Conversely, if someone disagrees with you directly, your first response, unless you see your own error, must be to establish that they do indeed understand your position and you theirs.
(See also Rappaport’s Rule(s) also known as Steelmanning, below).

There are many other tactical rules for resolving apparent disagreement. Evolving mutual understanding always beats attempting to prove yourself right and the other guy wrong, except in particular mutually-agreed, artificially-controlled “debate” and “critique” circumstances (see additional “Rules” below). Most of real life is neither of those. And remember, if it’s a new conversation with someone new to you, the early part of this “understand & question” phase may be as much about values you may or may not share as the content of the particular argument. If you jump too quickly to testing the others position by summarising it back to them in rhetorical questions you could be much wider of the mark than you realise, offending unspoken values held sacred. Until you know you’re both ready for a good-faith steel-man assume the principle of charity, that the other person is at least as virtuous as you are in terms of values and knowledge. “Surely you don’t mean X?” is effectively a strawman if it’s something you couldn’t already agree to yourself.

Rule #2 RESPECT – No “Ad Hominem” attacks on the Individual or their Tribe.
Absolute no-no. Anyone having trouble with an individual should resolve directly with that individual, involving a confidential and mutually-respected mediator if necessary, with public sanction and/or disengagement only as a last resort.

And again, remember a straw-man couched as a rhetorical question copied @ third parties may be received ad hominem, even if it is not intended as a direct insult.

Rule #3 RESPECT – Duty of Care when using Humour or Rhetorical Irony.
OK, but life (mine and yours) would be boring and sterile if we politely agreed with each other. So lively, critical, robust, intelligent discourse and argument in good faith is positively encouraged. Unless you are recognised as The Court Jester what will not be tolerated is any perceived intent to circumvent Rules #1 & #2 under cover of  rhetorical tricks or ironic humour – and never forget irony and downright sarcasm do not travel well in any electronic medium! Needless to say any actual intellectual dishonesty or deception is bad faith. You can never further objectify Rule #3 definitively, but example rules of thumb might help:

      • If you use rhetorical questions and/or (playful) straw-men and/or (attempted) humour to draw attention to your point, you must follow-through the dialogue to mutual understanding.
      • Without this follow-up, playing to the gallery, rhetorical zingers and mockery will be seen as ad-hominem of your target. Only mock someone who already knows you love and respect them. “Collapse of stout party” is merely a rhetorical move, not a conclusion.
      • If you share (or like or applaud or otherwise add to) someone else’s rhetorical move, or you game the levels of irony and sarcasm on top of theirs, you inherit the responsibility for the follow-up.
      • Seriously though, only The Court Jester (note below) is exempted from these rules and, fun though it is, we can’t all be court jester at any given time. That’s entertainment.
      • When all is said and done, it’s a game, games have rules (*) and creativity demands that the rules are there to be broken. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools. There is after all, only one rule; see Respect (**).


[Post Notes: There are many possible examples, elaborations and exceptions – they’re only rules after all. These too are spread around many posts and pages here at Psybertron over the years. Some are captured or linked below others not, so I may need to consolidate an updated page sometime soon?]

[More on – Rappaport’s Rule(s) aka Steelmanning.]

[More on humour and mischief for The Court Jester.
And more complex reality of free-speech vs offensive humour. Free-speech vs offense whether humour or irony intended or not.]

[More on Intellectual Honesty & Good vs Bad Faith:

Intellectual Dishonesty (or potential intellectual inadequacy or stupidity) is in the mind of (you or) your interlocutor. If you start to suspect bad-faith, dishonesty or hidden agendas, frankly this is an interpersonal problem, not the topic of the dialogue (unless it is the topic of the dialogue?). This needs fixing person-to-person (see Ad Hominem above) before continuing any meaningful dialogue on the original topic (or deciding to pass on it). Agreeing to disagree, or parting (even muting or blocking) in disagreement is a suspension of hostilities, a matter of choosing which hill not to die on. For now. It’s a long game of many moves by many players. It’s why I have my own “three strikes and you’re out rule” in the more immediate social media like Twitter. Life’s too short – to argue the toss with every person on any and all points. And as with any rules – the game of repeated application is key – see more on Games (*) below.

The fact that proper good-faith dialogue is much harder than bad-faith discourse is related to the idea that “lies get half-way round the world before the truth gets its pants on“. Lies, half-truths, wise-cracks and bullshit are much easier to communicate. In complex dialogue there will be many topics tangled-up, but without good-faith on both sides Brandolini’s “bullshit asymmetry”  Law applies. It is simply impossible to progress a good-faith argument with a bad-faith party. Anyone arguing in bad-faith (check it’s not you) has endless opportunities for whataboutery, and another thing, straw-manning, changing the subject, moving the goal-posts, repeatedly demanding (objective) evidence not relevant to the (subjective) point (eg SeaLioning), logical non-sequiturs & false-metaphors, the child-like response “But why?” to every answer, and so on, ad-infinitum. A sure sign of such bad-faith dialogue frustrating any meaningful progress, is when ad-hominem adjectives start being bandied around, like bigoted, fascist, nazi, etc.

Go back to square one – establish “respect” and mutual good-faith before continuing any progress (or find better use of your time, or a more promising hill to die on.)]

[(*) More on Rules & Games generally?

In a climate where rights and freedoms are high on everyone’s agenda, there is a tendency to think of rules as constraints on those freedoms – censorship and policing of freedoms of speech etc. In the real world “Freedom runs on rails” – without standardised gauges, trains would get nowhere, there would be no railways. The hard bit is understanding and agreeing which and what kind of social imposed rules to value at the individual level. (There is a whole school of thought that says constraints and counter-factuals are essential for creative progress. Unconstrained freedom is the source of chaos only – which is fine if you’re intentions are anarchist.)

All rules are for guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools.
and therefore evolve by being broken – with care & respect.
However, Respect, Good Faith and Honest Intentions involve the evolution of trust over more than one interaction. In the short-run people need to understand the game to play it, in the long-run the players evolve the game and its rules by creatively discovering rule changes. We all benefit by seeking relationships over sufficient interactions and by ensuring the rules evolve to include increasingly valuable win-win outcomes. To appreciate this see Nicky Case’s visualisation of Axelrod 1984 on Game Theory. (And don’t skimp, really play through all the options several times. No trust without repetition).

What about Debate?

Finally on rules. Remember the rules above apply to general dialogue, discourse and argumentation. It’s not a debate unless mutually agreed in advance. Debate is something that comes with it’s own additional rules: neutral territory, neutral adjudicator, timings, interruptions, resolutions, voting and more. Real life is not “a debate”.]


It was a toss-up whether I chose respect or good-faith as my key word. I built these rules around the word respect – a summary of the intent of the “rules” suggested – because “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” is a meme / ear-worm to make it stick. Use – and intended use – beats a dictionary definition any day. (Anyone not now hearing Aretha Franklin, consult your therapist.)

However there was an important declaration around free-speech and unpopular speakers at (Cambridge) University, that made use of a distinction between respect and tolerance, so I need to clarify in that light. In fact Kenan Malik already made an excellent analysis here. And in his tweet he even points out it’s about “changing meanings”:

In my words. Respect is (obviously) about respecting freedom of (thought and) expression – that’s top of the UN hierarchy of rights. Respecting other humans and respecting their right to hold and express views counter to your own. But “terms and conditions apply” (respecting rest of the rules on this page if you want to engage in dialogue about those views). No rights and freedoms are absolute independent of the rights and freedoms of others. It’s your right to simply tolerate and leave in peace the thoughts of others. Respect for the humans, the rules and the process doesn’t mean you have to accept the truth, validity or quality of the opinion held or expressed, even if you must tolerate its expression. But if you do choose to question and contest, analyse and educate or learn from, those thoughts expressed, these rules – terms and conditions – still apply. Respect the expression (and any debate / dialogue), tolerate the content of the idea. You do not have to respect the idea itself.

With all due respect,
you’re still allowed to disagree,
but know what respect is “due”.]

[(***) More on tribal identities? See Identity Politics.]


More resources, added since this page was created:

Timandra Harkness’ BBC R4 series “How to Disagree now on SoundCloud.

Rory Stewart’s “Long History of Argument” on BBC R4.
[#1 ThesisFocus on mutual clarification in dialogue. Lots on Trust & Good Faith, and the wisdom & moral stance of the participants, as well as the rhetorical skills. M.M.McCabe, Katherine Tempest and Iain McGilchrist (and Jeremy Corbyn) amongst the contributors. Ethos & Pathos as well as Logos.]
[#2 Antithesis – Focus on winning. Power and Manipulation. Backlash against Rhetoric, dropped from education. Whips override debate with PM’s agenda. Public media audience beyond the chamber and identity politics. Jon Haidt on extremes squeezing out any middle ground. Performative grandstanding but no real argument – not just social-media but also increasing stress of conflicts and differences, exaggerated by SM. Lozza Fox vs Ash Sarkar.]
[#3 SynthesisSaving “good argument” from the tensions above. After “coalition” politics > divisive Bolsonaro, Modi, Trump & Brexit. McGilchrist – Extremism specifically to provoke extreme responses by example – not actually mutual dialogue. Nigel Farage. Hobbes. Facts vs Ideology – do recognisable facts of the matter actually exist. M.M.McCabe – we all actually have our ideologies. A return to real dialogue – finding middle ground between Dogmatism and Relativism – and finding spaces to hold such dialogue. Jon Haidt again on social media rules (after Musk). Rules of the locked-in chamber. Reversing transparency – not televising debates in real time? Federalism – delegating consideration to more appropriate levels and locales – where people know each other, more respect and empathy. Yay! – more Citizens Assemblies. And yay! more education including rhetoric – including metaphor and poetry of beautiful language. Understanding false metaphor. The root of argument to shine – enlighten – the issues. LOVE!]

The “But Why?” Conundrum – interesting tweet/retweet pair:

And on False or Misleading Analogies or Similes: