OP-ED: Restoring respectful discussion: A practical guide


A recent article called for “wholehearted praxis” in how we interact with our comrades, and argued against “internal policing.” I think the intent was good, but the article did not offer a concrete analysis of what goes wrong in personal interactions where there are legitimate political disagreements, and only gave vague advice about what we can do about it. It’s all well and good to say “be excellent to each other,” or as the Boston DSA code of conduct puts it, “act in good faith” and “assume good intentions,” but in the context of the complex and often charged political debates that are part of the day-to-day business of a multi-tendency organization like DSA, it’s not enough. So, here I will give a psychologist’s perspective on how and why political debates become personal or sectarian feuds, and what specific, concrete steps we can take to stop necessary and expected political disagreements from becoming a source of strife, toxic behavior, and fragmentation.


Let me start by adding some qualifiers to the three assumptions that start Joshua Whitaker’s article:


“1. On the whole, [internal DSA debates are] grounded in legitimate disagreements about tactics, priority and ideology.

  1. Folks on both sides have invested hours of their time, their reputations and their self-worth into DSA and the causes championed herein.
  2. Perhaps too often, they escalate into bad faith responses, personal attacks, gossip, snark, posturing, piles-on, and past policing.”


The first two assumptions may be true in general, but not always. We do need to acknowledge that there are a small number of internal debates that are not grounded in good faith, and are instead the product of prior grudges, egotistical self-promotion, internal political maneuvering, or deliberate attempts to sow strife and weaken the organization as a whole. It would be incredibly naive of us, as a leftist organization in the United States, to assume that such things never happen, and we must be vigilant for them.


However, I agree that we should expect that most disagreements start out as legitimate, good-faith differences of opinion about tactics or ideology, and we must be willing to make that assumption until we have specific reasons to think otherwise. It is an essential component of “assuming good intentions”.


In relation to the third point, we cannot and should not ignore that these escalations have gone much further than the behavior the previous article describes. In some cases, issues that started as political disagreements have gone as far as personal harassment, doxxing, and physical intimidation. In fact, in Boston we were recently forced into disciplinary action to address politically motivated personal harassment of some of our members. Notably, the members targeted by these toxic behaviors are usually non-cis-men and/or non-white. In the following article I will say a lot in the flavor of de-escalation and accepting your comrades, but none of it applies to harassment, doxxing, or any other form of deliberate harm. We cannot and should not accept or forgive such behavior, and we should always make clear that there is no space for it in DSA.


I’ll be the first to acknowledge we haven’t done a great job of that so far. While some locals (including Boston) have developed grievance and mediation processes, the national version is at best unclear, and maybe not fully implemented yet (that is one of the ways in which it is unclear). Existing grievance processes are not always effective, which will take time and careful thinking to address. In fact, one problem we now face is that some comrades are so used to facing harassment for expressing their political opinions that they have come to expect it, which severely hampers their ability to assume good intentions (and for good reason, if they have had bad-faith behavior directed at them). We cannot reject those experiences, and so I present all of this expecting that it will take time and clear evidence that people are actually acting in good faith to outweigh the negative experiences people have already had.


With those points up front, let me lay out the goal of this article: The Boston DSA code of conduct instructs us to “assume good intentions” from our comrades and “act in good faith” for ourselves. These are good values for any democratic socialist organization, but what do they actually mean? How do we do it? Where do we go wrong? How, exactly, can we do better?


I will be answering these questions by focusing on a few specific features of how our minds work. First I will introduce what psychologists call the “illusion of asymmetric insight” and the concept of “attribution”, and what people in general usually automatically assume about others (hint: it ain’t “good intentions”). Second, I will introduce the problem of “saving face”, which might be the single biggest source of toxic conflict in DSA, and something we should all make the effort to stop doing.

I. Insight and attribution

The “Illusion of Asymmetric Insight”, first described by the psychologist Emily Pronin, is one of those inconvenient features of human nature:


You think that other people can’t really understand you without knowing your internal mental states, moods, and circumstances, but that you can understand other people completely based on their observable behavior.


People aren’t necessarily aware that they hold these beliefs, but when psychologists start looking closely, we find that they usually do. The illusion breaks down into two halves, and each one leads to a different set of behaviors that are deeply related to how discussions in DSA can turn into toxic fights with no deliberate bad faith at all.


First, let’s focus on the assumption that you can understand people completely based on the behaviors you can see. This is probably the biggest reason we call it an “illusion,” because that idea is largely wrong (my job would be a lot less interesting otherwise). That leads to problems when we make attributions about other people.


Let’s take an example: Imagine you greet someone with “Good morning!” and they say “Fuck off.” You’ll probably think that person is an asshole. Now imagine that this person has had food poisoning for the last 36 hours, during which a long-time animal companion passed away, and they’ve got a migraine to boot. Still think they’re an asshole? You might not have known that going into the interaction, but once you do know, it’s easy to see why you got the reaction you did.


A more talented writer could string together some analogy here about the perpetual food poisoning-like experience of living under capitalism, but the basic idea is that we cannot always see why someone might act the way they do. This is at the core of one of the more contentious debates in social psychology. For many years, social psychologists argued that people were prone to something called the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. The “error” part of the FAE is that people tend to attribute the behavior of others to internal or “dispositional” factors about the other person (who they are as a person), when in fact the behaviors are due to external “situational” factors. The error, in other words, would be making the dispositional attribution that the person in our example was an asshole, rather than making the situational attribution that they were having an extremely shitty day.


By default, people prefer to make dispositional attributions.[1]  This is especially true in cases of uncertainty, where you don’t know what the other person’s situation is (for example, in online discourse).


We can use this to create a specific operational definition of what it means to “assume good intentions” in your comrades: Make the situational attribution first, and let them prove you wrong.


Let me dig into that a bit. When I see something I read as negative or hostile, I try to make the situational attribution first, especially with people I don’t know well. Whether or not it’s accurate, it is the more generous option. I’m not going to be stupid or naive about it though. If I keep seeing problematic behavior I will end up deciding that it’s not situational, but it takes some time to tip the scales.

To me, assuming good intentions means making the default assumption that people aren’t assholes, but that anyone can have a bad day. That means I don’t go into my future interactions with them thinking that they will be hostile. In general, I try to avoid attributing hostility to others whenever I reasonably can. This is not easy or simple: From childhood, we find it very easy to attribute hostility to others when they do something we do not like[2], whether they meant it to be hostile or not. This is an automatic process we have to try to resist and overcome.


However, we can’t pretend that we are hitting a reset button and ignoring any experiences we’ve already had in DSA. Many comrades have experienced severe harassment, and those that haven’t simply left the organization have been burned enough by extending good faith that they are faster to assume hostility and justified in doing so. One of the great paternalistic failings of 20th century psychology research is that behaviors that were classified as “irrational” or “unreasonable” were actually perfectly rational responses to negative experiences that researchers failed to acknowledge. If you repeatedly encounter hostility, no shit you’ll default to assuming people are being hostile to you, because they have been in the past!


The only solution to this is a collective one: It is on us as an organization to make extending good faith such a habit that the balance of evidence tilts in the other direction. If a comrade treats you as though you are being hostile, make the situational attribution about why they are doing that, be understanding that they may have experienced a lot of hostility previously, and expect that you will need to concretely establish that you are acting in good faith many, many times before they will assume that for you.

II. The problem of “face”

The other half of the illusion of asymmetric insight is that we think that understanding ourselves requires access to our mental states, our feelings, and our circumstances. One by-product of this is that whenever we do something that we’re not proud of, or that we are criticized for, we push the causes on to external factors, in other words make a situational attribution for ourselves. We try, as much as possible, to say “that’s not who I am,” and make excuses.


Our concept of “who I am,” our self-concept, is complicated and multifaceted. One aspect is referred to by social psychologists as “face,” defined as “the positive aspects of character that a person lays claim to (or is treated as having laid claim to) in a particular interaction.”[3] We are very protective of “face.” When it is challenged, by our own actions or by what someone else says, we get embarrassed. If you are around people you want to think of you as smart and you try to push a pull door, you feel embarrassed. Most people have a powerful drive to avoid embarrassment. We work very hard to save face, and that’s a very bad thing.


Saving face is a toxic habit, especially for activist organizations, and even more so for democratic socialists. We must be able to accept, publicly, that sometimes we are wrong. To “act in good faith”, don’t try to save face.


Let’s take a (minor) recent example from my own interactions with my local DSA chapter. I got into a discussion about a candidate who the chapter was considering talking to and endorsing, who had, as part of their platforms, police body cameras. I hadn’t worked out the intrinsic problems with body cameras (surveillance state, in short), and so I was confused when this got a strong negative reaction from some comrades. When I asked questions about this, I briefly found myself on a platform arguing about whether body cameras were a problem or not.


It took about four comments for me to realize that I was doing it exclusively to avoid being wrong, and for no other reason. So I stopped. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, publicly, that’s what had happened, and found myself trying to make excuses until I forced myself to stop. Eventually I just managed to put together “I didn’t think it through” and left it at that.


This isn’t the event that made me think face is toxic, by the way. I worked that out a while ago. But even with that in mind, I couldn’t stop myself. Saving face is practically reflexive. Maybe more for me than for some people, but research has concluded that saving face is nearly a cultural universal, with some variation in how far people will go to protect someone else’s reputation versus their own.

In any case, my anecdote is just an example of why face is bad. Why couldn’t I just say up front that I hadn’t thought it through? Why is it so difficult to even write about now? Because I hate being embarrassed. Kind of a lot, in fact. Publishing the version of this article that appeared on our chapter’s political education blog was the greatest success I’ve ever had in not saving face. If this makes it onto the national blog, that’ll be the new high water mark.

Now let’s think about this in a broader context of our organization: The “shame” that Josh talked about in his article.


Let me start by repeating a very important disclaimer: I’m not talking about callouts for personal harassment or extensive abusive behavior. There are such things as unforgivable actions, real harms that cannot be repaired by simple apologies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. You’re not just “saving face” if you’re making excuses for deliberately hurting someone, you’re being a tremendous asshole and you should be ashamed. There is no situational justification for actions that cannot ever be justified. When someone causes real, serious harm, they should admit they’re wrong, but just admitting they’re wrong doesn’t absolve them. Nothing I say here applies to those kinds of cases.

I’m talking about the exact kinds of issues that Josh wrote about. In my chapter we’ve seen public arguments about political education programs, electoral work, technology infrastructure, accessibility options, and the general internal political structure of the chapter. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of any of these issues, but I hope it’s clear that there is a difference between public arguments about these issues and public callouts for extensive individual harassment and abusive behavior. For one, when you’re dealing with what I’ll call “issue-based” callouts (for lack of a better term), you’re trying to bring people around to a different point of view, rather than publicize the danger they pose as individuals.

With that in mind, issue-based callouts are sometimes justified, and sometimes it turns out they are not. Regardless, when people are called out, more often than not the response I see is some kind of self-justification. Sometimes it’s an admission that something isn’t right and a situational excuse, sometimes it’s a doubling-down on the justification for whatever they are being called out on, to the point where they will express pride in it. Either way, the goal is clearly the same: to save face. The most awful forms of this that you may have seen are the non-apology (“I’m sorry you were offended”) and the outright gaslighting denial (“I never said that”).

The intended outcome of (most) issue-based callouts is a correction or a change of perspective. Saving face doesn’t do that. Most face-saving responses will drag the problem out, or make it worse, or at best ultimately correct the issue but leave some lingering resentment from the parties involved.

Consider an alternative: What if you listened to the critique, considered it seriously and honestly, concluded that you were wrong, and just admitted that? It’s hard to say because people are so rarely willing to do it, but personally, I think it would usually work out a lot better for everyone involved. If you are the one making the callout, it would address the issue you wanted addressed. If you are the one being called out, it would feel bad, in the short term. Embarrassing, to some degree. But, at the end of the day, you’ve learned something, and you’ve made yourself a better socialist in the process. Nobody is right all the time. We are trained from a young age to want to be right all the time, especially white cis-men who are raised with a patriarchal myth of infallibility. We need to abandon that. Not only will you be wrong some of the time, it’s completely ok if you are. So, first and foremost, be willing to admit, honestly and without excuses, when you are wrong.


Now let me highlight a couple of reactions you might be having at this point: If your first thought is, “Man, X in my chapter needs to read this so they learn to say when they are wrong,” you haven’t been paying attention. You need to be willing to do this for yourself, and other people need to be willing to do this for themselves. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat to other people’s ideas either.

There are three huge, important pieces to making this work for everyone, and will (I hope) stop the ideas I’m presenting here from becoming a bludgeon to the people in DSA who try to push their political positions on the organization as a whole without examining the counter-arguments they receive.

The first piece is that if you are challenging someone on their ideas and expect them to be willing to admit that they are wrong, you must also be willing to admit that you are wrong. There’s lots of ways this can happen. Sometimes it turns out you called someone out inaccurately based on incomplete information, misunderstanding, or just failing to assume good intentions from them. Sometimes it’s because your arguments just aren’t as good as you thought. Once you’ve made a critique, in a public sphere, you are committed to to that critique, and it can become a threat to your face. If you discover that your callout wasn’t justified, what do you do next? Well, one option is to admit you were wrong. The other is to try to save face. The pattern of saving face here is generally to double down, or dial back by half-measures. The end result is the same: It accomplishes nothing except to build hostility. In making a callout, if we expect those we are calling out not to try to save face, and to admit when they are wrong, we must be willing to do the same if it turns out we were wrong.


The second piece is that we must honestly and constantly challenge ourselves on our own ideas and positions. This is not easy to do. If you really think you are justified in your position, you should think about it from the perspective of someone who argues fiercely against it. Don’t start with the assumption that you are correct (you will, but try not to).

Find some opposing positions in written form. Break the argument down in the harshest possible terms, with the most negative possible readings of every single point. If you can do that successfully and you still think you’re justified, well, then you might be. If you find your position isn’t as strong as you thought, or if you can see where the harshest critiques of it come from, even if you still think it’s correct, admit those weaknesses. Don’t insist that it can’t be wrong. Don’t dismiss the arguments leveled against it. It’s possible to hold views that are flawed and acknowledge those flaws. If you are willing to acknowledge those flaws, you won’t engage on that topic in a way that creates hostility and alienation. For example, I vote. I’m well aware of the arguments against engaging with the American electoral system, and I know my arguments in favor of voting are not flawless, but I have examined my position well enough that I feel comfortable continuing to do it, and comfortable being challenged on it.


This applies in a slightly different form to how people respond to things we say or write. We often talk past each other, or people read our statements in a way we really did not intend (which I’m sure will happen with this very article).

The previous sentence is inaccurate. Here is the correction: Everything I say is ambiguous to some degree, and people make interpretations that are perfectly sensible based on their previous experience. Sometimes those interpretations will make me look like an asshole. In that situation, to save face we might want to dismiss or reject the interpretation. Instead, we should try to see where that interpretation comes from, apologize for it (critically we must accept that it is our fault, not our readers’), and make corrections as needed. This is because even when you can legitimately say it wasn’t your intent, saying so without acknowledging the other interpretation is dismissive and can often be taken as hostile. Again, the paternalism of psychology rears its head: The interpretation makes perfect sense for the person making it, and we cannot and should not invalidate that.


The third and final piece, and arguably the most important, is that we must all make it as easy as possible for people to admit when they are wrong. Thinking about the “shame” Josh Whitaker discussed, we certainly shouldn’t be shy to challenge people for views that are truly problematic. For example, my underdeveloped view on body cameras. However, in challenging those views, what happens if we succeed? We must make it clear to our comrades that we do not lose respect for them when they admit that they are wrong, or that they just didn’t know something or hadn’t thought it through before. We cannot hold grudges if people are willing to self-correct. If someone is willing to truly admit they are wrong, without making excuses, without trying to save face, we should thank them for it and move on knowing that one day we ourselves may be in the same position. I’m happy to say my comrades did not and have not held my mistakes over me, and so I’m less hesitant to admit when I am wrong. That’s not to say I fold to any critique. I have some strong and well-grounded views that I will staunchly defend (see also this article). I’m just comfortable adjusting my views that aren’t as strong or as well-grounded when I encounter good arguments against them, because my comrades have made it easy to do so, and I try to extend the same treatment to them. I know I won’t be mocked, shamed, or distrusted when I admit I am wrong about something. I can work happily and productively with many people I have disagreed with, in some cases many times. That is a multi-tendency organization at its best.


And again, one final disclaimer: This doesn’t apply to someone who admits that they engaged in harassment. There is a deep and very unsettling debate to be had about whether or how forgiveness is possible when you have caused harm, even accidentally. I call it the James Gunn debate, and it’s not one I’m equipped to have right now. That said, I don’t see any reason to think it’ll be needed in DSA in the near future: most of the harassers we’ve seen have been unrepentant.

III. Conclusions

So let’s sum up how to turn “assume good intentions” and “act in good faith” into praxis:

  1. Make the situational attribution first, and let them prove you wrong.
  2. Don’t try to save face. Be willing to admit when you are wrong, without excuses.
  3. If you want others to be willing to admit when they are wrong, you must also be willing to admit when you are wrong.
  4. Honestly and seriously challenge yourself on your own positions before you try to defend them.
  5. Make it easy for your comrades to say when they are wrong. Everyone should feel comfortable that being wrong will not be held over them or count against them.


These five points need to become core pieces of our organizational culture. Without them, a multi-tendency democratic organization is just a series of sectarian schisms going somewhere to happen. We will all be wrong sometimes. We will all have bad days. We must be willing to see the best in our comrades whenever we can. We must be willing to give up pride for a greater good. And, again, I’m sure that some readers will take this as a bludgeon to people who have strong political opinions simply to tell them that they are wrong and should admit it. If that’s what you’re planning to do, go back to the start of this post and read it again.

And again, let’s not pretend it’s 1982 here. DSA has been around for a while, and even the initial surge of 2016 is now two years behind us. There have already been a lot of instances of bad-faith toxic behavior, some very public, some less so. Don’t dismiss those experiences, don’t expect people to regain trust immediately. The best thing you can do is express that trust yourself, and hope that over time, we can restore the trust that has already been eroded. Like so much else that we do, it will be neither easy nor fast, but it is necessary.

[1] Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is the “fundamental attribution error”? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349.

[2] van Dijk, A., Poorthisu, A. M. G., Thomasse, S., de Castro, B. O. (in press). Does parent-child discussion of peer provocations reduce young children’s hostile attributional bias? Child Development.

[3]  Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.