Discourse is a social behavior with cooperative (dove) and selfish (hawk) strategies. If we want discourse to be cooperative, we need to recognize, avoid, and punish discourse hawks.
For years I have been turning the phrase “the nature of discourse” over in my head, like a tumbler polishing a stone. Discourse is a verbal interaction among people. As such, it is a social behavior that might benefit from evolutionary analysis. Never mind that discourse has already been studied by great minds for centuries and even millennia. So have other major topics such as religion, morality, economics and sexual behavior. Evolution provides a new conceptual framework for understanding these other topics, and perhaps it can do the same for the nature of discourse.
Let’s begin with the elementary observation that a verbal interaction can reflect either cooperation or selfishness. We know from general evolutionary models of social behavior that when individuals behave selfishly, the outcome is seldom good for the group as a whole. As a simple example, consider the famous hawk-dove model from evolutionary game theory. Doves cooperative with each other, hawks exploit doves for their own selfish gain, and hawks fight with each other to their mutual detriment. Whenever the hawk strategy evolves in the hawk-dove game, the outcome is a waste of time and energy for everyone. Nothing good can come from it.
Dovish strategies can evolve in a game theory model in a number of ways. If doves can choose their social partners and if it sufficiently easy for them to find each other, then they can robustly evolve because pairs of doves fare better than pairs of hawks and mixed pairings seldom take place. Alternatively, we can introduce conditional strategies into the model (e.g., behave like a dove toward doves and like a hawk toward hawks) or strategies that include punishment (e.g., behave like a dove and punish hawks).
Readers familiar with evolutionary game theory will recognize these models as standard fare, but what happens when we interpret hawkish and dovish strategies as different types of discourse? Nothing good can come from hawkish discourse strategies. We should try to stamp them out, just as we try to stamp out other forms of antisocial selfishness. We should do this by excluding discourse hawks from our conversations, by reflecting their hawkishness back at them while remaining dovish toward doves, or by flat out punishing the hawks. If we don’t protect ourselves from discourse hawks, they’ll take over and verbal communication, the lifeblood of human social life, will be poisoned.
This is not how most people think about discourse. True, we all lament how bad it has become and use terms such as gridlock to say that nothing good can come from it, but we seldom make an effort to distinguish between discourse hawks and discourse doves, or to punish discourse hawks in the same way that we would punish other acts of antisocial selfishness. If we did, then maybe discourse would become more cooperative and we’d have less gridlock.
Avoiding and/or punishing discourse hawks requires recognizing them for what they are. This is not as simple as it might seem. Punishment behavior often looks like hawkish behavior and we must be careful not to shoot the sheriff. In addition, productive discourse doesn’t necessarily resemble an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. It can be a competitive process where opponents do everything they can to defeat each other and winning is based upon who has the best argument. That’s what debates, the legal system, and scientific controversies are all about. Productive competitive discourse is designed to be cooperative as a system, even if the opponents don’t look like they are cooperating.
How can we distinguish productive competitive discourse strategies that are acceptable from hawkish discourse strategies that need to be stamped out? Judgment calls are made all the time in formalized competitive discourse. Debating societies, legal systems, and scientists all have rules that keep the competition productive and are enforced when they are broken. The same goes for competitive sports. Every second of a sports match is overseen by referees to keep the competition clean.
The same cannot be said for political discourse or the popular media. There are no formal referees, many people are not exhibiting self-control, and there are no effective mechanisms of mutual policing. If you fed those conditions into an evolutionary game theory model, the hawks would win. And the discourse hawks have won in those domains of discourse.
Another elementary insight from evolution is that you needn’t regard yourself as a discourse hawk to act like one. The behavioral strategies that we employ and how we think about them need not resemble each other in any way at all; it’s only necessary for the latter to cause the former. That’s the fundamental distinction that evolutionists make between ultimate and proximate causation. Discourse hawks need to be recognized by their actions, not by how they think about it.
The problem is aggravated by the currently dominant economic narrative, which teaches us that laissez faire leads to the common good. If we can make society work by all independently trying to get rich, then why not make society work by all independently yelling at each other? In this fashion, well-meaning people who think they are part of the solution can become part of the problem. We need to replace the currently dominant economic narrative with one that recognizes the basic evolutionary dynamics of cooperation, before we can see hawkish discourse strategies for what they are.
When hawkish strategies win in a game theory model, they are often locally stable, which means that work is required to move the system beyond the selfish domain of attraction into a more cooperative domain of attraction. Fortunately, the cooperative domain of attraction can also be stable, even more stable than the selfish domain, so that only an initial effort is required to accomplish the domain shift. Not only is this theoretically possible, but I think it is also feasible. The first steps are to get people to think about discourse as a kind of social behavior with dovish and hawkish strategies, to recognize hawkish discourse strategies for what they are, and to combat them with avoidance and punishment. That’s what we do for hawkish strategies of all sorts, and discourse hawks should be no exception.