The Case Against Meta Discussion

Meta discussion is talking about the discussion or its participants, instead of the content of the discussion.

Meta is disruptive to a conversation. Meta encourages other people to reply in meta, instead of to the point. It may seem like meta is helpful, but it actually isn’t. It drives arguments into black holes.

Common types of meta are:

Ad hominemattacking the person’s motives or character rather than their argument
– “You’re only saying that because you’re a communist.”
– “I have never been a communist, socialist, or anything else you’re accusing me of.”
– “Why are you so hostile?”
– “You’re so closed-minded.”
– “Stop being an idiot.”
– “You’re being irrational.”
– “You’re just projecting.”

Talking about how well or badly the argument is going
– “We’re never going to agree on this.”
– “You missed the point.”
– “I don’t see the point.”
– “Why are you saying that?”

Talking about writing style
– “Are you aware that your writing style is very off-putting?”
– “You may have some good ideas, but you’re not going to persuade anyone with that tone.”
– “People would find it more pleasant if you wrote in a less abrasive way.”

Talking about other elements of the discussion, or about yourself
– “Forgive me if this is off-topic.”
– “I have decided to start posting again.”
– “The problem I have with this is…”
– “This is boring.”
– “I’ve had enough.”
– “This is not a nice comment at all!”

Asserting what the other person is doing/saying
– “You’re making a fallacy.”
– “You’re saying <X bad thing that doesn’t make sense>.”
– “Yes it is/no it isn’t.”
– “I agree/disagree”.

Although saying you agree/disagree can be useful as an indicator of which points still need to be addressed, it is often pointless, takes time away from the content, and gets bad when you say you agree/disagree when you actually don’t. People often make the mistake of saying “I agree” too readily, before they understand what the other person has said, because they want to show that they’re open or being reasonable. Similarly, people are too quick to jump to “I disagree” when they don’t understand what the other person has said and think the other is wrong.

The basic reason that meta is bad is that it’s off-topic. But that’s very important.

Say two people start off debating whether we should be in Iraq, and they end up debating whether the other person secretly wants to install communism. Arguing about Iraq and arguing about some person’s state of mind are two different arguments, which on the face of it have nothing to do with each other. In a debate when people are caught up in it, they totally think that those two are the same thing.

It’s clearly off-topic, but it’s hard to take on board the full significance it’s off-topic when you’re in the situation. It arises in the context about what a person meant by a term, then it develops about what they mean about terms in general, then it goes on to his momma.

Meta is irrelevant.

Meta drives arguments into black holes by the following:

1) Meta is off-topic.

2) Meta breeds meta.

  • You can’t contradict a meta statement without making another meta statement (which in practise always takes you even further away from the topic under discussion).
  • If you say, “You’re only saying that because you’re a communist”, they’d say “a) I’m not a communist, b) that’s not why I said it and c) I was right” (the ‘I was right’ is starting to go back on topic, but it’s a meta form. Substance of meta is bad, form of meta is OK-ish. “I meant rationalism as in Popper said” — in form it’s a statement about you, in content it’s a statement about what the argument meant).

3) Meta engages emotions.

  • Popper wants our ideas to die in our place. Meta wants to substitute us for our ideas, and let us die instead of our ideas (or if not die, be trashed).
  • Changes the focus from the substance of what’s being argument to attributes of the speakers or the nature of the discussion.

Including meta often longer than just saying content. It’s only shorter when you’re saying “what I just said” as a way of repeating what you said before except shorter (which is meta in form but not content). “I think that you think that blah blah blah, and I think you are mistaken” is much longer than just saying “blah blah blah is wrong”.

If there’s a danger of meta, instead of saying “I meant so-and-so”, say “that meant so-and-so”, just to be on the safe side.

If you think your interlocutor isn’t going to answer properly, there may be a temptation to answer with meta to clarify. But don’t. Resist, and answer with content.

If your interlocutor does meta, there are a few things you can do:

  • Relentlessly stick to the content.
  • Try asking a different question on the same topic, or ask in a different way, or change the topic.
  • Be more specific when you ask. (This is similar to asking in a different way.)

Meta can appear in articles and posts without two participants, too, e.g. in articles:

– “I am going to argue that…”
– “In this article, I have a presented a powerful argument that…”
– “I think…”
– “In conclusion…”
– “It is a matter of fact that…”

This causes problems: First, readers have to filter out more fluff to get to the point. Second, if you say you’re going to argue something, especially if you say how good the argument is, that will set up high expectations in the reader’s mind. The reader’s focus will shift to whether you’re fulfilling your promise — and looking out for ways in which you’re wrong — instead of trying to understand the content of what you’re saying.

Try scanning your articles or posts for meta, and deleting it. Is it shorter? Does it take away anything from the original? Is it easier to understand? Are the content points more obvious/prominent? Does it sound less hesitant, bumbling, or more confident, straightforward?

There are rare cases where meta is good. Sort of. One example is when you’re discussing morality: in that case, it’s stopped being meta because it’s a new topic branch. One should be careful to notice that it is a different topic, and not really meta.