Certain people (myself included) have a habit of reflexively attacking new arguments or ideas. Amanda Askell calls this “shark curiosity”: sharks bite things partly because their only real way of interacting with the world is their mouth, so biting is their way of finding out what something is.

Taken literally this implies a rather bleak picture (you attack things because that’s the only way you know to interact with them!?). But I think that the point is rather that to the shark, biting is not necessarily an aggressive action. For curious sharks anyway!

Collaborative biting

This is intimately related to collaborative and combative discussions. Curious sharks feel like attacking an argument is collaborative, rather than combative. This may sound counter-intuitive, but I think it’s often a good attitude.

Firstly, it requires you to be personally distanced from your ideas, so you don’t feel personally attacked if someone criticises your ideas. This is good: being personally invested in your ideas biases you towards them and makes it hard for you to abandon or modify them if they are wrong! And everyone is wrong – a lot.

This switch in orientation is key to collaborative discussion. Rather than A versus B, it’s A and B versus the problem. The idea is something we both care about (a potential solution to the problem), so we both want to know if it works, and if not, how it is broken. In this frame, someone finding the flaws in your argument is great – it means they’re getting properly engaged in the problem!

Secondly, it fosters an attitude of base scepticism towards ideas. One thing that studying philosophy taught me is that it’s incredibly easy to make convincing arguments for any and all sides of an issue. Most arguments are bad: unceasing critical thought is our main defence against this.

Don’t be an asshole

Of course, sometimes biting is aggressive. And human culture is complicated, so what signals an attack may be influenced by everything from the setting, to the audience, to the relative statuses of the participants. And plenty of people are just assholes. So sharks have to be very careful not to come across that way.

For me, the most important thing I’ve learned is just to bite gently. Qualify your criticism with uncertain language to make it feel less strong; praise ideas before criticising them; work to establish a collaborative frame of discussion; and so on.

Knowing your audience is also very important. Some people will be quite happy to get chomping, others will rarely if ever enjoy it. Be sensitive.

Finally, as Askell says, be careful not to squash new ideas. New ideas are often bad until they’ve been worked on a lot – if we attack them too much we may persuade people to abandon them prematurely. The best thing I can think of is again to be collaborative: if you can see a hole but you think it’s fixable, say so! Maybe you can even work on the patching together.