I hate the word ‘steelmanning.’

Steelmanning refers to arguing with the best possible version of someone’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented. Put like that, it sounds really good! After all, we all think it’s important not to misrepresent people [citation needed]; trying to present the best possible version of someone’s argument is good.

The problem is that every time I’ve seen the word ‘steelman’ used, it’s referring to one of two things.

In the least obnoxious case, Alice misinterprets and strawmans Bob’s argument, and then presents the argument Bob actually made as a steelman. That kind of steelmanning can feel really frustrating and condescending: not only is this person strawmanning you, but they’re also acting like you’re an idiot and they’re so much better than you for being able to think of the argument you actually made. However, it’s not that bad, because at least Alice does eventually get around to arguing with something that Bob actually said, however self-deceptive and strawmanny she is in the process. The best way to eliminate this sort of steelmanning is just to ask “did you mean [insert steelman argument here]?”

In the most obnoxious case, Alice doesn’t actually understand Bob’s argument at all. Often, there are fundamental worldview differences: for instance, Bob might be a Marxist, while Alice is not only a liberal but does not realize that non-liberals exist at all. That sort of steelmanning can feel like looking at your beliefs distorted in a funhouse mirror: Bob plaintively cries “but I don’t actually believe in autonomous individuals making decisions uninfluenced by society!” as Alice continues “now, the strongest form of ‘exploitation,’ I think, is that sometimes workers aren’t in a good bargaining position compared to employers, which can be totally solved by a universal basic income…”

That form of steelmanning is actively harmful to epistemic charity and to careful thought. Instead of understanding that people believe things differently from you, you’re transforming everyone into stupider versions of yourself that don’t notice the implications of their own beliefs. In fact, this kind of steelmanning is a form of strawmanning.

You can say “but neither of those are actually steelmanning! Real steelmanning is being able to put other people’s viewpoints in words they themselves find more compelling than their own arguments!” However, that is an extraordinarily rare and difficult skill; even most people who do it once can’t do it consistently. Saying “to steelman position X…” should be interpreted the same way as saying “to express perfect loving kindness for all beings…” It’s certainly a nice ideal which people might want to approach, and some people even manage to pull it off sometimes, but it’s a bit arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it. Even when you think you are, you usually aren’t.

What are the alternatives to steelmanning?

First, seek to understand the actual viewpoints people you disagree with are actually advocating.

Second, seek out intelligent and well-informed advocates of viewpoints you disagree with. You don’t have to make up what your opponents believe! As it happens, you have many smart opponents!

Third, whenever possible, try to switch conversations from a debate focus to a collaborative truth-seeking focus. This is best in one-on-one conversations between people who trust each other. You should be able to say “hm, but I’ve just noticed this piece of evidence against my position” without the person talking to you jumping on you and saying “ha! This proves I’m right! You admit it! I win I win!”– and they’ll do you the same favor.