Twice in as many days, people have brought up the STEELMAN TECHNIQUE. I was caught unaware of what this is and I consider myself pretty well informed on debate techniques and fallacies.
Put simply, it’s building the best form of the other side’s argument and then engaging with it. It’s being charitable and patching up the weaknesses in the other side’s proposition so that he can bring the best counter-argument to your point of view.
This is an interesting point of view for as the article states:
If you listen to the language used to assess any debate, you’ll find that there’s always an element of “winning”.
And I've made that comment countless times, that I don't view "debate as competition" but as "debate as exposition", as in I will expose my views for you to chew on while you will expose your views for me to chew on. To ascribe to a competition point of view would require an impartial judge and rules to which both debaters agree upon beforehand and neither of these happens in online debates. Hence, what you end up with is both interlocutors walking away, cocksure that they are the winner and that they have "completely devastated" their opponent.
Debate is hard. Rational debate harder. Fallacy-Free debate harder still. I have no doubt this technique will be difficult but it's worth a try, don't you think?
In some ways it is very like the Socratic method, not a perfect fit but similar. Since you could say that in the Socratic method you get the other party to Steelman themselves, by inviting them to put forward ever more of their arguments until the basic structure fails.
I can see value in the idea of improving on the other person’s argument, but I don’t think that has been a main feature of the steelmanning I have witnessed in debates.
As I understand it, the minimum requirement is to simply state the other person’s perspective in your own words, to the other person’s satisfaction. This alone (without making actual improvements) is enough to ensure that you are actually addressing the person’s argument instead of talking past each other.
All too often people are ready to produce some canned reaction to a statement they haven’t the least understanding of. A most typical indicator of this is when they characterize the other’s statement as “word salad”. There is no more common indicator that they have no idea what you’re saying, but they somehow feel obligated to put it down.
Inviting them to steelman your idea stops this nonsense in its tracks, because the person who cries “word salad” clearly has no ability to comprehend what you’re talking about, let alone restate it in their own words. They just want to shoot off at the mouth and feel relevant.
There’s an excellent debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson where they demonstrate this technique like the two gentlemen that they are. It’s very illustrative of the technique. I’ll see if I can find it and post it here.