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Discussion and Boundary Based Relationships

Here’s a simplified model of relationships: they can be based on boundaries or discussion. There can be a mix of both, but often a whole relationship, or all interactions about a specific topic, predominantly uses either boundaries or discussion.

Boundaries mean there are rules. There are lines each person doesn’t cross. People get along by avoiding violating the other person’s boundaries. Basically, each person gets to ban some actions or ways of treating them. As long as no one does something prohibited, the relationship works OK. It’s not super optimized, but it’s acceptable.

Discussion means people talk about things and decide what to do. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s off limits. If someone has a good reason they can communicate that, and you’ll listen and consider. You’ll give reasons for not wanting things instead of just declaring what your boundaries are, and those reasons can be responded to with criticisms or solutions.

I like discussion-based relationships because they enable rational argument to change outcomes. They allow more problem solving and optimization. However, they’re more effort. And they require people to have decent communication skills and compatible communication styles.

I don’t attempt discussion-based relationships with waiters, cashiers, or strangers in public. I just try not to violate their boundaries and I expect them not to violate my boundaries. I don’t ask what their boundaries are either. I just assume some cultural defaults (e.g. many people don’t want to be touched or insulted). And I err on the side of caution: if something is a boundary for 10% of people, then I shouldn’t violate it with a stranger, since there’s a decent chance they won’t like that. A conservative policy helps avoid people getting hurt.

Online Forums

For rationality-oriented online discussion forums, I want discussion-based interactions. Boundaries are frustrating when rational discussion is one of the main purposes of the forum. This can lead to conflicts with moderators (or admins or whoever is in charge) who want to enforce arbitrary boundaries that they won’t clearly document or explain (which makes the rules hard to follow). And it can prevent improvement of the forum rules since they’re not allowed to be rationally discussed. Rational problem solving involves criticizing downsides of the rules, and suggesting alternatives, but many moderators don’t like that.

Due to the difficulty of finding any forum with rational moderators who are willing to discuss how a forum is run, I run my own forum. I value transparency for moderator actions. I allow questioning, criticizing and discussing forum policies.

I have pretty lenient, minimal forum rules. Mostly I use a subset of the standard rules that people would expect if there weren’t any written rules. However, I do have an additional rule that people aren’t used to everywhere. It is no misquoting allowed. This applies both to the content (e.g. you can’t post quotes with words changed) and the formatting (e.g. you can’t post quotes that have no block quote or inline quote marker, so they read as non-quotes; nor can you post quotes which are formatted incorrectly so that some quoted text is attributed to the wrong author). Inaccurate paraphrases can be unacceptable too. E.g. if you wrote “Earlier in this discussion, Elliot was arguing that abortion is immoral.”, that would be unacceptable (given that, actually, I took a pro-abortion stance). That statement not only gets my position wrong but also treats the inaccuracy like a fact. If you instead said, “Here is my attempt to summarize your position” and then you made some mistakes in the summary, that would be acceptable (unless the mistakes were egregious bad faith).

I’ve had difficulties with some users who persistently do quoting wrong. This was a larger problem in the past on the email groups where some competence was required to send correctly formatted emails. On the Discourse forum now, people quote less, and they do most of their quoting using built-in tools which get it right. It’s still a problem sometimes though.

Some people fix their mistakes after it’s pointed out. That isn’t so bad. It’s still repetitive how many new users make the same mistakes as previous new users. In my experience, no amount of explaining stuff in forum guidelines or FAQs has ever been very effective. New people just come along and either don’t read those canonical documents, read without trying to actually learn how to do it right, or forget. However, canonical documents are still useful because it’s easier to link someone to an existing document than write an explanation of the issue.

Some people give up after their mistakes are pointed out. Learning how to post only accurate quotes seems hard so they go do something else. That’s unfortunate but I’d rather they leave than post misquotes. If they are unwilling or unable to learn how to quote accurately, I doubt they’d write very intelligent posts anyway.

And some people persistently post misquotes. I can point it out many times and they keep doing it. I can explain the problem and they keep doing it. I can link them to documents about the issue and they keep doing it. These people are a pretty small minority but they exist and they’re difficult to deal with.

What’s going on? I think they’re used to boundary-based relationships. But I’m trying to deal with them in a discussion-based way. I try to explain the rules and reason with them. And that doesn’t get through to them. They see discussion of an issue as meaning it’s not a boundary/rule, or at least not a very important one. If it was really important, they assume I would take some action like banning them. If I’m trying to discuss instead of banning them, that proves to them that it’s not a big deal, so they don’t listen. (As an additional factor, I think this only happens with people who have difficulty understanding quoting. If getting it right was easy for them, they’d fix it. But they find the whole thing confusing and would have to put in significant effort to understand it.)

There was one user who was particularly bad and the only thing that ever got him to take the issue seriously, and learn how to quote correctly in a lasting way, was preventing him from posting for a significant period of time. Before that, he would stop doing some mistakes in the short term after they were pointed out, but then he’d forget and start doing them again later. Or he’d change the specific thing he was told to change, but have no conceptual understanding of the issue, so then he’d make the same type of mistake later in a different discussion.

It’s hard for me to determine who should be dealt with in a boundaries-based way. It’s hard to know when to flip the switch and stop trying to rationally discuss with people. I like rational discussion. I don’t like banning people. I also don’t like having their posts go into a moderation queue where I can read and approve (or reject) the posts, because that’s ongoing work for me. It’s important to me that my forum requires a low amount of work to run.

Relationships with Kids and Other People

A lot of parents use a lot of boundaries with their kids. Kids often learn to ignore discussion. They ignore being reasoned with or pleaded with. Either the parent prohibits something (and is willing to punish over it, e.g. by yelling or worse) or else the kid can do it. The kid is non-responsive to discussion and just responds to punishments. Or at least it can kinda look that way; often the kid actually is responsive to some discussion, suggestions, advice, requests, etc., but people focus attention on other cases where the kid “won’t listen” and won’t stop unless there is an actual boundary.

This can be awkward for babysitters who have to deal with a kid who assumes if you won’t punish him then you don’t really mind what he’s doing. But the babysitter doesn’t like punishing kids, but also doesn’t want the kid to do something problematic.

It’s important to have a primarily discussion-based relationship with your spouse and your kids. It’s also good to have with your closest friends. You should be able to do some rational problem solving with some people in your life instead of just working within the limits of the other person’s rules.

Your spouse is someone you choose. You should choose someone you can talk with and share some criticisms and arguments with. Being able to share thoughts like that enables improvements, optimizations and solutions that aren’t available in boundary-based relationships.

Your closest/best friend(s) are also people you choose. In some ways, your spouse should be like your very best friend. Again, you should choose people that you can actually discuss issues with.

Your kids don’t have a choice but to deal with you. And you chose to have kids. So you should be willing to listen to them and talk with them.

With other people, discussion-based relationships can be nice. But they often aren’t really available or won’t work. And that can be OK. You don’t have to have rational discussions with your in-laws, your extended family, or even with your parents once you’re an adult with your own home and income. Although it’s important that there can be some rational discussion at work, you can mostly respect people’s boundaries and limit the rational discussion to impersonal decision making that matters to the business (e.g. how to design a product). A lot of lower level employees at larger companies don’t get to have any input or discuss things – they’re treated in a boundaries-based way and the people above them don’t want to discuss stuff – but that kinda sucks. It’s better if you find a job where your thoughts are valued more instead of ignored.

On online forums, a lot of people expect to use boundaries for how people treat each other, and only discuss some impersonal topics like philosophy or politics. I don’t like that. I want unbounded discussion so that all problems can be solved, instead of putting some limits on how progress can be made. I think that kind of forum should exist and it’s broadly not available elsewhere. If you want more limited discussion, you can go use some other forum besides mine (there are plenty) or you can make a request about what you want in a specific topic. I did also make an Unbounded forum category and I follow more assumed boundaries in the other categories (e.g. I bring up meta issues less, and might ask for consent first if I do want to bring one up), and that’s been working OK.

Note: I don't generally actually want to discuss people personally. That's not the boundary I typically care about. What I often do want to discuss is discussion methodology and/or learning methodology. I often want to criticize how people organize (or don't try to organize) discussions, or ask about their plans for making progress. Stuff like that, which I think is highly relevant, important and productive – and it also involves philosophical issues (it's some of the same issues I'd write essays about or discuss purely abstractly). I also sometimes want to discuss people being biased or dishonest, or doing social climbing behaviors, when I think those things are relevant and harming a discussion; boundaries which disallow those topics can prevent success at discussion goals.

Elliot Temple on July 18, 2022


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