Rachel’s Team Pick: How To Have A Rational Discussion

Excuse me while I have this tattooed on my forehead. (Infographic originally via atheismresource.com)

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. I kind of love this… but I also actually kind of don’t. I feel like “rules” like this about “reason” are very frequently used by men to shut down women who are trying to have conversations about things. This has happened to me one too many times in my life.

    I am not an unreasonable person, but sometimes I want to have conversations about things that aren’t all about “reason”. I would say that I am similarly unwilling to have a “discussion” with someone who is unwilling to allow that there are other ways of knowing, or that feelings are worth discussing also.

    • Do you mind elaborating? I’m not quite sure what you mean about “other ways of knowing.”

      • Insisting on reason as the only legit way of knowing anything is problematic, to me. I KNOW I KNOW, it’s also hella useful, and I get that it’s good to be able to people who want to tell us that we’re going to hell for being gay, etc, that they are not reasonable, that their holy book does not count as proof, etc.

        But refusing to have a “discussion” because someone isn’t being reasonable just doesn’t feel like a healthy way to build a society either. Sometimes people want to talk about feelings. Sometimes people have intuition.

        Women have been called “irrational” and dismissed for it by men since forever. That’s mostly what I’m saying. I do totally agree that there isn’t much point in having “discussions” with people who are clinging to un-retractable opinions and aren’t open to new ideas!

        • While I like the chart, I see where you might be coming from. What your saying reminds me of the debate in social science where non-quantitative studies (like those using interviews) are often/sometimes considered “less convincing” than studies based on statistical data. Interview studies, however, can explore ideas of emotion and feeling that statistical studies cannot. Interview studies have also been an important tool of feminist scholars to account for this kind of “emotion data” that numbers cannot capture.

          So, it’s problematic and gendered to say that interview-based studies are somehow not as convincing as statistical data because this suggests a feminist for of scholarship/way of knowing is less convincing or real than the male-dominated statistical studies. When the chart says something along the lines of “if your argument is faulty, will you stop using it?” it assumes that the people in the discussion can agree on what constitutes “faulty” knowledge. In social science, this debate of what is “real” knowledge and what is not is gendered.

          • How do you reconcile the view you express in this post with the one you posted ten minutes earlier about the shoddiness/unreliability/inadmissibility of “anecdata”?

            I promise I’m not trying to trap anyone here, I simply think the chart attempts to minimize the fallacies of appeals to emotion, rather than stifle the narratives that an interview study might reveal. Emotions within a narrative are entirely admissible, I think, but basing your argument on emotion is a weakness according to the rules of logic, rules which I do not think anti-feminist or gendered whatsoever.

          • The interview study discussion above is just an example of a gendered debate over what constitutes legitimate knowledge. I do not think the chart itself necessarily says anything about what legitimate knowledge is, but assumes that the two people involved in the discussion can agree on what that might be (where the chart says “provide evidence for your position or arguments”).

            Above I give an example where the chart would potentially silence feminist interview studies dealing with narrative and emotion data if this sort of data were challenging statistical conclusions. These hypothetical statistical studies, which dominate social science, would likely be considered good evidence in whatever discipline they work in and the hypothetical feminist study would likely be given less weight as evidence (and sometimes no weight at all).

            Below I discuss the misuse of anecdotal data to make statements about the broader social world. That last piece I should have specified. You can use anecdotal evidence to prove very precise arguments about very specific situations. It cannot alone tell us much about social phenomenon, though a collection of anecdotal stories, brought together through research methods constitutes empirical research and would be different. Feminist studies using narrative and emotion data are not anecdotal, but empirical.

            I don’t think discounting anecdotal evidence is the same as the gendered discounting of feminist research methods and feminist ideas of “what is knowledge/data” in academia. It’s very hard (and I would argue impossible) to know anything about the broader social world with individual experience. This is an assertion about what is legitimate knowledge, but I don’t see it as a gendered one. As far as I know using anecdotal evidence to speak to social phenomena is not a gendered way of knowing.

            Also, I think we have a misunderstanding of what I’m talking about when I say “emotion data.” I’m not talking about feminists basing arguments on emotion in their scholarship. Feminist scholars in sociology saw emotion as a social phenomenon and studied it like the study deviance or religion or race. I’m not saying their scholarship makes appeals to emotion to make a point or that feminist would necessarily want to bring emotion into the chart. I am merely describing a kind of feminist research that male scholars once considered illegitimate.

          • So, I think the crux of the matter is generalizability and systematization of data collection. Criticisms of feminist methodologies from sociologists most likely come from a question surrounding these two issues. Interviews and ethnographic research are oft used methods in sociology (although the field in general is moving toward statistical analysis).

            The reason why anecdotal evidence provides poor evidence is because it was not collected systematically and cannot then be generalizable. Also, I think anecdotal evidence in everyday speech can be distinguished from academic/theoretically grounded evidence/thought pieces that may still be anecdotal, but rests on much sturdier theoretical if not empirical ground. It is certainly a place for questions, but perhaps not definitive answers.

            Now, some people might say that rational thought/science, etc. is inherently gendered and/or racialized and I can get that to an extent, but I have trouble throwing out the scientific method baby with that bathwater. It could also be that I’m being trained as a sociologist and you know, would like to think that my systematically collected qualitative data could mean something beyond its particular case.

          • Part of the issue here is what we consider legitimate data or examples or points. Emotion, personal experience, or narratives may be very relevant to a particular problem that is being discussed rationally otherwise; maybe you can have a conversation like the one outlined here, that takes non-impartial forms of evidence and communication seriously?

            I love and recommend Iris Young, “Inclusion and Democracy,” esp ch. 4. She points out that we often privilege certain tones and forms of communication over others–so watch out for the authoritative ‘rational’ tone that isn’t necessarily more relevant, but congratulates itself on winning anyway, or gets more attention just because it sounds educated. People who aren’t from privileged groups might communicate in less recognized, but equally meaningful ways; narratives and personal experiences can also be very important for breaking through common misconceptions or simple ignorance of other people’s lives. ““What such privileging takes to be neutral, universal, and dispassionate expression actually carries the rhetorical nuances of particular situated social positions and relations, which social conventions do not mark as rhetorical and particular in the same way that they notice others.”

          • Thank you both for your interventions! Gosh it’s hot when gayelles speak smart (Maddow, anyone?). I’m generally just here for the puns, but you lovelies make elucidating points. Merci :)

          • That stories can be beneficial for disadvantaged groups to break through to elites is definitely true, but as you suggest some speakers can be disadvantaged in some institutional contexts. In fact, everyone tells stories, even elites and scientists. It is a question of which stories get more credence and which stories are a better fit to the institutional constraints placed upon what is good/successful story so it tempers a little bit the sometimes overzealous endorsement of narratives/personal story telling as a emancipatory panacea to disadvantaged groups woes.

            I can point you in the direction of some sociological discussions of storytelling if you’re interested.

          • THIS!!!!

            I love this discussion, thank you brilliant and graceful ladies, all of you.

          • I guess I just also want to say that my reaction to this chart is actually a perfect example of what I was talking about. When I read the chart, I laughed and appreciated it, but then realized that something about it didn’t feel quite right to me. I wanted to be able to talk about it. But the truth is, I’m no academic. And I have found myself, many times in my life, in conversations with people who are much better at this whole “arguing” thing than me. This often silences me – sometimes because I just don’t feel like I can compete, sometimes because the person I’m talking with is really aggressive with their use of debating techniques, rhetoric, “reason”, etc.

            In this example, I kind of froze up when asked to defend my initial comment (and I know you weren’t being aggressive, Terracottatoes, no accusations here). I tried, but felt I fell short. I was relieved when other “smart” people stepped in with good strong smart-sounding things to back me up.

            I know it’s important to be able to hold our own in discussions with people who think differently than us. But my personality/self/brain/whatever is organized in such a way that I have an easier time sharing stories/putting words to my feelings/trying to understand where the other person is coming from, than I do having a “rational discussion”. And I don’t like feeling like I should keep my mouth shut because of that. You know? And if I feel that way, as a white person with a graduate degree (almost!), I can just imagine how someone with far less privilege than me would feel.

            That’s all. Thanks for listening!

  2. LOVE! Gonna put that in the office ;)
    Maybe we will stop having pointless ‘discussions’..

  3. I wish they added in a clause about what counts as not just evidence, but good evidence for claims. Anecdotal stories from your/your family’s/your friends’ lives ≠ good evidence. Empirical studies reviewed by experts = good evidence.

    Example of bad evidence: “Minorities unfairly get accepted to colleges over whites because I didn’t get into University of Blah and I’m white, but Sarah McNon-white did and I had a B in chemistry and so did she.”

    • Your example of “bad evidence” sounds like what was often referred to as “anecdata” on ontd_p and a couple other similar sites. I always thought it was a really good term for that kind of thing. :)

  4. I will use the term “anecdata” when teaching undergraduates to write from now until forever. Thank you.

  5. I think that I should carry something like this around and every time someone tries to “discuss” my sexuality and gender presentation with me I can present them with this and then smack them with something like a fish or piece of wood.

  6. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this posted somewhere else but I don’t remember where (it’s going to bug me until out of the blue several days from now I suddenly remember), but I love this and always worth seeing again.

  7. Just one more reminder of my complete failure to be a rational person :/ SOMEDAY I WILL UNDERSTAND HOW TO NOT RUN ON FEELINGS 24/7!

  8. I have a lot of issues with this, the first being that the person who is undecided on an issue is automatically more capable of “reasonable” debate than someone who has a strong, unchanging opinion on it. Sometimes strong opinions come from not having been exposed to the other side very well, but they can also come from carefully considering both sides and realizing one really does have more merit than the other. We can all think of issues where the latter is obviously the case: LGBTQ people should have full and equal rights. The Earth is billions, not thousands, of years old. Having a particular skin tone or set of genitalia does not result in inferior intellectual capabilities. The Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. And so on and so forth. If you think these issues are ones where both sides have good cases, that’s not a mark for your reasoning abilities – it’s a mark AGAINST them.

    I also think that, as others have pointed out, the preferring of “reasonable” discussions ignores the fact that there are some issues where the ability to hear the other side out without getting too upset is a mark of privilege.

    • I’d also say that even with issues that are more truly controversial, reasonable discussions are possible between people with strong, opposing opinions who are not likely to be convinced otherwise. The key to this, of course, is if both people decide that the goal is less for one person to convince the other, and rather for each person to find out more about the other by learning what they think about an issue.

      I’ve done this a lot with religion, for example. Yeah, I’m not likely to give up my agnosticism for Islam, for example, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what my Muslim friend believes.

  9. LOVE. IT. ALL.

    i’m making handouts for my family! if only we could start all conversations this way….

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