Thursday, August 28, 2014

The dangers of meta

In the context of a discussion, going meta means to talk about how we're doing the discussion.  For example, in skeptical discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about fallacies, and styles of argumentation.  In social justice discourse, a common way of going meta is to talk about the words we use in discussion, and whether these words are problematic.  Or we talk about "derailing", which is the way that people shut down discussions about social justice.

This post, of course, is going meta one level deeper.  I'm not talking about how we talk about things.  I'm talking about how we talk about how we talk about things.

For someone like me, there's a strong draw towards meta conversations.  And that's not a bad thing.  Meta-discussions are often what separate the advanced discussion and the basic discussion.  Meta-discussions inject a sense of self-awareness into our normal discussions.

Unfortunately, advanced discussion is not for everyone, and there's a reason the basic discussion is needed.  I know, for instance, that this blog will never have popular appeal.  And this doesn't just have to do with me.  Anything that involves reading thousands of words on such narrow topics will never have popular appeal.

And yet--I'm speaking for myself here--meta-discussions have a strong hold on me.  I can't let go of my self-awareness.  And self-awareness is just one step away from self-consciousness.  I am self-conscious about using arguments that I know are bullshit or political expedients (which is nearly everything).  As I've mentioned before, I am self-aware about concern trolling.  The self-awareness doesn't always stop me from doing it, but changes how I do it (and possibly not for the better).

Another problem with meta-discussions is that it feels like meta is the answer to everything, and that everything needs meta, but this is not true.  Meta-discussion is a general discussion.  Most problems require case-by-case judgments, and knowledge of specific details.  For instance, many skeptical topics, even the small and pointless ones like bigfoot, require specific knowledge to effectively address.  They require research.  Pointing out logical fallacies will only get you so far.

Meta is not the answer to everything, nor does everything need meta.  In many of my discussions on the internet, I have strong opinions on the meta aspects.  Like, say I'm talking with someone, and they declare that bringing up a particular topic is "derailing".  I have strong opinions on whether certain things count as derailing or not.  But even if I disagree with someone, bringing up a whole meta-discussion about derailing is itself honest to goodness actual derailing.  It's distracting from the main point, and frankly condescending.

I see this happen with other skeptics.  I see people bring up logical fallacies when it's inappropriate.  Whether or not I agree with the point on fallacies, it comes off as condescending, and a distraction from the point.  Like Process Man we're in danger of putting the arcane details of the process above the results.

Nonetheless, I would say that on some level meta-discussion really is indispensable.  The default, for many people is to fall along partisan lines.  Not necessarily partisan political lines (as in left or right), but things like the partisan skeptical line, the partisan atheist line, or the partisan social justice line.  One of the best ways to break out of these partisan lines is to have strong opinions about what sort of arguments are valid or invalid, regardless of who makes the argument.