Being “fair” when we communicate.
I’ve been in just about every form of discussion from formal debate to dinner table squabbles. And I am friends with people whose opinions are almost totally contrary to my politics, my religion, and my values. Yet, those relationships are among my strongest and ones infused with the most mutual respect.
Though of course there are many factors involved in this, one theme is strong: fair-mindedness reigns on both sides of any disagreement or discussion I have within said relationships.
In our current political environment, I’ve recently participated in a number of—we’ll call them “discussions”—on social media that for a number of reasons were not nearly as productive or mutually enlightening, primarily from a lack of fair-mindedness. Indeed, before things would go very off the rails, I would often attempt to get some sort of mutual agreement to be fair between us, and most online participants couldn’t even muster a rudimentary definition of what being fair-minded means, to them. Generally speaking, they hadn’t really thought about it!
So today I will attempt to provide a thorough definition or at least a “profile” of fair-mindedness - For my own benefit, but also to serve as a grounding of sorts. I strongly believe that we should stand up for causes we believe in, but I see too many people who are discouraged or even anxious about voicing their thoughts because of fear of backlash and retaliation. Before you jump to thinking any lack of progress or productivity in a discussion is your fault… it might be worth your time to look for patterns that perhaps the person on the other end of the table is—by definition—someone who under no circumstances wants to have a productive conversation. For whatever reason, they’re just not going to treat you fairly: perhaps their entire goal is to validate their own views, put down others, or otherwise see the world through a narrow lens that no amount of diplomacy would have a strong chance of opening up.
That’s the first category of differentiating fair-minded people from what I’ll call “arbitrary” people.[i]
A fair-minded person actually wants—explicitly desires—to know more and to learn about the world, including about other people and how they think. Though they may believe in objective truth and objectively better methods and goals, they understand that a difference of opinion isn’t something inherently threatening: potentially it’s exciting—something to learn and grow from. They seek truth, which to them has high potential to be different from any one initial position.
An arbitrary person, by contrast, likely doesn’t have the goal to listen or learn. Their intent, more often than not, is seeking that their opinions/feelings be validated. Period. They talk and engage with others to be “seen” as smart, right, and/or bask in the attention/imbued feeling of self-importance that comes with someone engaging them on a topic important to them. They are likely patently uncomfortable when they encounter someone with a different view and so when they encounter such people, their unwritten goal can become to point out how that person is uninformed, mistaken, even mentally ill… or evil. In their world, putting down difference is essential to maintaining their feeling comfortable—Their vision of peace in the world often demands “sameness.” If you’re not the same as them, there must be something wrong with you. Forget learning from others who are different, the very existence of someone different is a threat to them. Oftime the only acceptable choice for such (in their mind) is a binary one: become converted or become outcast.
Similar to intent, a fair-minded person has a distinct mindset going into any conversation. For example, they come into a conversation keeping in mind that the default for any scenario is that most likely the things they don’t know far exceed the things they do know—and that’s important. Often of equal importance, they likewise realize, there are “unknown” unknowns that could bear on any point made and most assumptions a person would want to naturally make in things that are not known are speculative and unwarranted. It keeps them humble and changes the way a fair-minded person can reasonably talk about things. It sets the tone for what can be reasonably inferenced and what is purely fiction or hypothetical (areas of conversation that, while interesting, are often tangential to the main goals of productive conversations).
Relatedly, their mindset keeps in mind the difference between an opinion and a fact. They can have a solid opinion on the facts they know but they consciously acknowledge that theirs is but one way to interpret what is known (or knowable). This charitable, fair mindset allows for others to see those same facts from a different (and possibly equally valid) lens and arrive (from their different assumptions) a different and still respectable conclusion. They tend to talk in tentative terms of how something “strikes them” and how things “seem” vs. talking in “well this is how it is”-absolutes (it is very rare that anyone can know something for 100% certain, though of course, there is a reasonable line between where justifiable assumptions end and nonsensical conspiracy theories begin).
Further, their mindset values learning from and being sharpened by contrary opinions. They’re typically naturally curious. They enter into a conversation with the assumption that more likely than not their counterpart has information that they do not, and even if they see the facts differently, enlightenment can be gained by listening to the other person’s set of facts. A fair-minded person can hold their own opinion to be valid and worthy, while also sincerely want to know if there is something they’re missing or wrong about and are open to—even seek—that possibility. It’s one of the cornerstones of being fair-minded (and mature). Indeed, their empathy extends so far that even when their counterpart makes an obvious blunder or contradiction they don’t seize upon it aggressively. Rather, they try to respond with curiosity or assumed confusion e.g., “did I hear you right… or did I misunderstand…” and then charitably gives the other person a chance to clarify.
Arbitrary people often operate from the mindset that they already have all the facts and they’re there simply to speak their truths loud and long enough until they achieve submission from any ‘errant’ adversary. If someone disagrees with them, it doesn’t expose the weaknesses and limitations of their view. Their mindset naturally can take this as evidence of some imperfection in the other person only—they aren’t very open to seeking further truth, the only righteous option is defending their truth. You can’t make progress with them because progress (to them) is one-sided: They won’t give up ground because they already occupy the only ground worthy of occupying and anyone not standing alongside them is, by default, to blame for causing any problems for not coming in the only direction that matters—toward them. Their opinion and “reality” are one and the same to them.
This mindset seeps into almost every aspect of a conversation. Watch the next time you’re in a conversation with an arbitrary arguer and see how often they use one standard for themselves and their opinions, and a completely different standard for anything brought up that goes against what they say. They seamlessly transition from expecting their opinion to be accepted at face value, to demanding contrary opinions be from the “right” place with “acceptable” sources without one shred of imperfection or applicable bias—all with the presumption being if you fail in one detail, their “rightness” is established by default. Arbitrary people are more than eager to “fill in the gaps” of unknowns with details that justify their story or perspective. To them, that is the only way to finish the story. To have to concede that their opinion makes too many assumptions to be warranted just isn’t something they think about. To them, if it feels right, it is right. Period.
This is because (and this is important in understanding just how unfair arbitrary people can be), they actually set themselves up as the ultimate judge of all truth. Their mindset doesn’t think in terms of what is justifiable in absolute or logical terms—like if what is said passes the “reasonable person” test to use a legal term—the only thing that matters is what they personally think, how they personally feel regardless of how little information they have and how much evidence may go against it. Facts and fairness are tossed out the window because the only important criteria in a point or explanation is what they personally find convincing: they are the measure of all things! Never mind how an outside observer or third party or anyone would debunk an explanation they accept as true. Such people are often “just wrong”—their contradictory standards suddenly and without apology just changed the level of justification needed (from “research-paper” level to “zero”) to dismiss a point merely because it goes against their opinion!
Another egregiously unfair habit of this one-sided mindset is to what I call “sniping” opponents: instead of listening empathetically—with the intent to capture and understand the major point or essence of their counterpart, they instead will interrupt in the middle of a point to “pounce” upon or “snipe” whenever some small detail (to them) isn’t ironclad or makes a small (even if totally unrelated) mistake (a “gotcha!” moment). This not only derails the conversation as a whole, but makes it impossible to converse with them unless you are ready to present novel-sized “acceptable” memorized facts rather than more reasonable levels of facts and inferences. Again, an arbitrary person typically isn’t interested in truth and learning: they seek agreement, sameness, submission, and feeling superior. If a petty point is on their side, that is all that is needed to bring it up—scope and relevancy be hanged.
A fair-minded person purposefully keeps a “pulse” as to the way a conversation is going. They pay attention to the body language and subtle gestures of the other person and guard against making them uncomfortable or jumping to conclusions. They pay attention to tempo and pace: have they talked for too long at any one point or otherwise dominated the conversation? “To restore balance,” they think at the back of their mind, “maybe I need to yield or ‘check in’ with my counterpart.” It is important to them that both parties be in sync with one another and they are willing to go back to better delineate a point made sloppily or obtusely. They hesitate to move on until a mutual understanding is felt between both sides on a particular point. After all, how can learning and mutual understanding grow… if the basic building blocks of understanding are shaky? Going back, starting over, or trying something again is a bedrock of their conversational habits. The flow may seem slower at first (one of their habits is to say things like “so what you’re saying is…”, “so what we’ve established so far can be summed up as….”) but these tendencies contribute dramatically to greater productivity and less frustration overall (so long as truth and understanding are included in the goals of the conversation). Meaningfully, a fair-minded person puts the goals of the conversation ahead of their own pride. If a point gets lost or tangled, a fair-minded person can reset it instantly with a “hold on, I think I made a mistake” or a “my bad, let me try that again” and “that’s on me”: to them, it is more important to get the flow going again than to waste time in the blame game or rehashing old ground for the purposes of shaming or avoiding admitting a mistake.
An arbitrary person has no qualms about changing the subject or going on a tangent whenever the conversation gets too close to “losing” ground, gets cagey (or vague) with any points that don’t showcase their superiority, isn’t above making personal attacks, and gets frustrated at any direction that leads away from them making their desired points—even if said direction is necessary to the overall conversation. Though they will often interrupt their counterparts, their own time to talk is sacrosanct and immutable—even if they ramble so profusely that they expeditiously destroy any possibility at a logical discussion—marked by mutual opportunity to opine and rebut one point at a time. They erringly think that taking up the most time is somehow evidence that their points are superior or they are “winning”. Conversation is an opportunity to be exploited to the fullest possible extent to get their points out there as often and as strongly as possible—they are unconcerned if potentially important points are left out, if it serves their goal of feeling that their side got more attention. The flow is more deeply impeded by the fact that any rhetorical, logical, or outright idiotic mistakes typically must not be explainable by them taking (often needed) responsibility and therefore must be tip-toed around or neurotically deflected onto circumstances beyond their control, the other speaker, or third parties. Because, contrary to all reason, nothing could be any fault of theirs.
Speaking of reason, a fair-minded person is movable, acknowledges their weaknesses and limits, tries very hard to be logical, and strongly values consistency and equanimity. In a word, they’re reasonable. Even when it may go against their position, they will answer any genuine and relevant question.
If emotions start to run too hot, a fair-minded person can keep their head in the game enough to attempt to de-escalate the situation or even completely step outside their emotions to see things from a point of view that perhaps they personally find objectionable—not agreeing with it, but simply exercising their objectivity long enough to consider a thought from a context they aren’t naturally inclined to or inherently comfortable with. As Aristotle is reported to have said “It is the mark of an enlightened mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Moreover, a fair-minded person wants all sides—even if not present—be represented fairly and accurately. Even if they disagree with it, they often will temporarily defend a point that isn’t a fair or accurate representation.
By contrast, an arbitrary person has few if any such equitable standards. When asked a question that goes against their goals, they think nothing of using rhetorical tricks to weasel out of answering or even give false or misleading statements or pointing out how someone else did a bad or similar thing too (and how dare you give them a pass while being so hard on me). Their logical toolbox is filled with fallacies that they utilize whenever it benefits them. One of their go-to tricks is to mock, distort, or extremify another’s position rather than argue against what they actually are saying: E.g., “it may be dangerous to open up cities too soon during this pandemic” to them becomes “so you’re saying we have to stay bunkered in our homes and never come out for five years?” They simply aren’t interested in being fair as much as they are being right.
They use emotions as one such tool. Not only do they naturally project emotions (and nefarious motives) onto others, if it suits their purposes, they also can sabotage any conversation by choosing to interpret an innocuous comment to be something personally offensive or (equally disdainful) implicating something to do with something like the “culture wars” and within second all semblance of order because—far from being able to “step into the shoes” of another person or “entertain a thought without accepting it”—now the only topic on the table is “how dare you ___”
Further, arbitrary people are not temperate when it comes to information. Their biases are such that they are hard to impress (they often “already know” things that are, in fact, new information), impossible to surprise (“that’s not news…”), and just about everything somehow falls within the boundaries of their “expertise.” They have built in defense mechanisms that can “auto-explain” away anything they’d prefer not to have to accept (see their tendency to only need superficial answers to complex questions, above, if it so happens to be on “their” side), and they are often far to “quick to understand” what is in fact a very deep, very complex and multifaceted issue (They of course haven’t stopped to consider how deeply implicative an issue could be because considering all the actual factors involved would overwhelm them with the weight of reality that what they don’t know far outweighs the things they do know. Which would open them up to a whole host of issues with their identity: namely that there are extremely smart, well-informed, most often right, and/or don’t need others).
With an arbitrary person, a conversation is often a constant frustrating battle on multiple fronts. Not only are they majorily unaware of why a conversation isn’t going well (and their usually-substantial contributions to that problem), but more often than not they blame their own faults and misunderstandings on the other party. To use another example from the Covid-19 pandemic, they misunderstand the difference between a factor-dependent projection that “up to 2 million people may die” (e.g., if no action/intervention is taken and making some assumptions about the behavior of the virus) with an absolutist promise “that 2 million people will die.” What is their response when 2 million casualties do not come to pass? Blame the experts for lying or “being wrong” of course. It never crosses their mind that a misunderstanding on their part could be what actually went wrong. They simply aren’t aware of how often the things they say—to an outside objective mind—don’t make sense, don’t mean what they think it means, isn’t backed up as strongly or as obviously as they think, etc. And it isn’t their fault that others don’t see their indisputable rightness… it’s everyone else’s fault but theirs.
Further, they rarely if ever acknowledge strong points of the other side. Their rebuttals almost entirely consist of the weaknesses of the other side’s point and gloss over, minimize, or worse completely bypass any strong points the other side makes as they are too prideful to admit aloud that someone other than themselves is actually being convincing. Not only do they often fail to recognize when their explanations are narrow or shallow but to them, any point—no matter how petty or wildly speculative—is treated in their mind as on par or superior with the most salient, far-reaching obviously notable point the other side may make. “If it backs me up, it matters” is their creed. Reality and integrity be hung.
To make the point even more strongly, I believe this entire discussion can be summed up as a simple spectrum: to what extent is a person clear-mindedly grounded in reality, or deluded and living in their own reality?
A fair-minded person, conversely, is consciously aware of how delicate communication itself is. They constantly monitor how their statements or tone might be off or at least open to misinterpretation. Likewise, they are completely comfortable with the frequency of how often, in fact, a very intelligent person can get things wrong (even when they very much believe they are right): they can miss a point, mishear, simply have let their mind wander at a crucial part, or—due to no one’s conscious fault—the point simply was not as clear in one’s articulated words as they perceived it was in their head. More often than not, communication has a lot of rough edges and a fair-minded person puts this at the forefront when trying to navigate to mutual and greater understanding. Further, they make it a point to acknowledge and build mutual agreeableness. They take opportunities to say things like “I agree,” “that makes sense,” “that’s a strong point,” etc. To them, being in a conversation isn’t a battle between two opposing forces, it’s (ideally) a team up where two people are trying to work together on a specific problem or goal.
So the next time you’re discouraged in any sort of discussion or debate... Take a moment to consider if your opponent is even open to hearing you out and playing fair… or if they’re playing by their own rules that from the start are designed to have them win, and anyone else impulsive enough to engage with them, lose.
 Or even automatically about a black and white “right or wrong” dichotomy—rather very likely two things along the same spectrum of achieving goodness!
 Obviously, most of us want our opinions and feelings validated. It’s a natural human need. The difference (and danger here) is seeking this outside the rules of fair play, or to seek this above the virtues of basic honesty or equanimity: is it fair to force the other person to become your personal therapist when you pitched this conversation as a debate about policy? Is it mature to downplay certain facts just so we can maintain a high opinion of our beliefs, or feel more comfortable about things that are inherently wrong or subversive?
 See Kathryn Schulz, “On Being Wrong”
 Somewhat paradoxically, being so deferential of the unknown doesn’t typically mean a fair-minded person knows less than their counterpart. Though of course there are many exceptions, the fair-minded person typically knows more than their adversary—their heightened awareness of the things they don’t know is so high because as they expand the boundaries of what is known to them the limits to their knowledges “touches” more edges of things that are unknown. Someone who has smaller boundaries of knowledge typically feels they know a lot more than they do—but rarely test and push those boundaries. See: Illusion of Explanatory Depth.
 If something they don’t like appears to be true, then all of a sudden it’s important to hold out for more research
 “Remember, when it comes to people, slow is fast. And fast, is slow.” -Stephen R. Covey
 Directly related to the tendency to making personal attacks, an arbitrary person’s habit of eschewing responsibility could be an essay in and of itself. Because of vastly different rules and goals from both sides, watching a fair-minded person and an arbitrary person argue often results in exchanges like the following:
The arbitrary person makes a wildly inaccurate claim, and the fair-minded person asks them to clarify or provide evidence for the claim. Where does the conversation turn? To how arrogant or condescending the fair-minded person is being.
Regardless of the merits of the actions of the fair-minded person, any and all of their actions could be labeled in self-serving ways. Again, the arbitrary person is serving themselves and a fair-minded person is often trying to get the conversation back on track, but to the arbitrary person all that matters is you made me feel bad, so you must BE bad. Of COURSE no progress can be made with such a person: at the get-go it is a foregone conclusion that they are right and perfect and good—and nothing can be said or implied otherwise!
This tendency even further interrupts flow because even referencing things that happened or were said within the very conversation you are having isn’t subject to basic acknowledgment or admission.
An arbitrary person just contradicted what they said at the beginning of the conversation? No they didn’t, you misunderstood.
They interrupted 6 times in the past 5 minutes? Never happened (or, they point out how their counterpart made an equal or worse offense) etc.
 This isn’t even always purposeful or malicious. Remember, they often DEFINE goodness and rightness as SELF-REFERENTIAL. To them, BY DEFINITION, who in their right mind could disagree that their position isn’t the right one? In order to maintain this delusion, they have a strong incentive to make caricature of other’s positions because to do otherwise would lessen the strength of their opinions (and open up the possibility that they may be wrong). “If you don’t agree with me, you must be crazy.” How crazy? I’ll show you.
 I’ll never forget one such debate (the topic was the unrest of a country where a branch of a company was operating and the question was “should the company continue operations as normal, or consider bringing employees home?” as there were signs pointing to significant increases in unrest). This was a situation in which literally lives were at stake and when presented with information on how the current situation very closely mirrored a situation that happened in a neighboring country 15 years previously in which things escalated very quickly, the response to the information wasn’t to know more about it, nor any other number of productive paths. It was, rather, an acrimonious “how come this wasn’t brought up to me sooner?”—self-referential, emotional, looking for blame, and going down a tangential path rather than focusing on what was most important. But instead, the next 10 minutes were wasting apologizing to this person about why they weren’t informed earlier (when, in fact, they had been—they just ignored it, or conveniently forgot it).
 This may be a “Sheldon-esque” blindness on my part, but why the heck can’t we—before a conversation starts—take 10 second to establish WHY we both are participating in a conversation? I think it would go a long way in turning a lot of arguments (in which people speak past each other because they are in fact talking about different things) into mutually satisfying discussions.
[i] Other names that to some degree apply are one-sided, self-serving, or biased people. Obviously in some ways we are all biased. But that is no reason to dismiss the fact that some people genuinely strive for objectivity and can achieve it in some respects. Someone with an extremely strong opinion of something can actually empathize, understand, and fully respect someone of the opposite view (I would add… so long as that opinion can be shown to have a self-consistent argument behind it!) The question is… do they so strive? Fair-minded people are careful to guard against biases, even if of course they will be naturally inclined toward one position over others because of unobjective criteria. ‘Arbitrary’ biased people, in contrast, are carelessly biased.
But I went with arbitrary primarily because non fair-minded people don’t have a strong sense of fair play and so to some extent set their own (unfair) rules or are contradictory in their standards of fairness—their standards apply differently for them and their opinions (a sympathetic one that is more than willing to “overlook” their flaws and weaknesses), and a different standard—often a moving target depending on what argument is made—for other’s opinions and “facts” (too often painting the weaknesses as the entire argument). In other words, they’re arbitrary! A synonym for arbitrary is inconsistent… but I didn’t think that fit as well because non fair-minded people can be remarkably predictable and consistent in some ways so I think arbitrary captures not only the tendency to apply different standards at different times but also the fact that they don’t tend to be aware of the ways in which they are inconsistent as well as outright assume more authority than they genuinely command—like an arbitrary authoritarian leader.