The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.
This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier piece, The Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate. Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.
I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?
Not a friendly conversation.
A case study in conversation
Normally I don’t have much to say about climate change, because I don’t know anything about it. (Nevertheless I think it’s a real problem; here’s why.) This conversation interested me because it was a sidebar on a creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, which is virtually a laboratory for conversations with irrational people. One of the leading figures in the Intelligent Design movement started the blog years ago, but he long since turned it over to a lawyer named Barry Arrington. It’s still mostly about how evil and dumb and awful Darwin and his terrible theory are, but these days its various authors also weigh in on how scientists are dumb, gay marriage is unnatural, feminists and atheists are unethical, liberal judges are ruining America, and of course, climate change is a fascist lie.
Arrington, the host, sets the tone for the site with aggressive, mocking posts that insult and belittle people who disagree with his beliefs—conversations that are brittle as they are hostile, as he is known for banning commenters whose questions, good manners, or greater expertise reflect poorly on his own contributions. The result is sometimes hanging questions or one-sided dialogues, as no one realizes that the other side of the conversation has been silently silenced. This particular conversation was par for the course; long before it was over, the host banned me and some other commenters then retreated, apparently to wait for criticism to die down. If you page through the comments, you’ll see that they start with better-educated readers correcting his misuse of a scientific term. Almost immediately, he loses his cool and calls them turkeys, credulous, idiots, fascists, hypocrites, and liars. (Well, the last two were directed just at me. I’m not a liar, but am I a hypocrite? Keep reading.)
Why stick it out through an abusive conversation? I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing. I’ve been yelled at and even physically threatened by many more obnoxious people, and had long, friendly discussions with many others who had more irrational beliefs than Mr. Arrington’s. But more importantly, I’m interested in how and why people communicate and argue about irrational ideas. Much too often those conversations wind up looking like Uncommon Descent: drawing lines between us and them and then using the pretext of a conversation to beat them about the head and shoulders. That’s especially common when the argument is about the kind of science that most people feel they can understand pretty well, like evolution or vaccines. Both sides are inclined feel like the other just isn’t smart enough or honest enough to come to grips with the facts. And the result is a low-quality, hostile discussion that reads more like a high-school debate than an educated conversation. Finally, I honestly enjoyed pushing the host’s buttons. We can all do better.
bark bark liar bark hypocrite bark idiot!
Remember who you’re talking to.
My day job is in the field of communication and negotiation. I often work with clients who are having trouble with bitter, difficult negotiations. Almost every time I ask them, “Do you trust the other side? If I asked them that question, what would they say?” Every time, they say “not always.” When a conversation is divided into sides, like with a debate or negotiation, trust immediately starts to go out the window. That’s not always necessarily a problem, because negotiators need to be a little skeptical. Be trustworthy, but not necessarily trusting.
Even so, I tell my clients to make a crucial assumption: try to believe that the person you’re talking to is just as smart and just as honest as you are. It may not be true. You may feel like you know for a fact that it’s not true. But try to believe it. No, this doesn’t mean that you automatically believe everything that the other person says. Trust, but verify. Or don’t trust at all, if you know you can’t. But even then, even if you know you can’t believe what the other side has to say, it’s almost always asking for trouble to walk into any conversation believing that the other side is dumber, sleazier, crookeder or nastier than you are.
The problem is that by the time a conversation gets heated, or even if you’re just expecting it, you’ve lost your objectivity as a judge of character. It’s too tempting to believe that the only reason anyone could believe something so stupid is that they’re stupid. Or worse, maybe they don’t believe it at all. Maybe they’re only pretending to believe for some nefarious reason. Maybe, maybe those things are true—but it doesn’t really make a difference. After all, do you expect them to drop their argument and agree that you’re right just because you accused them of being a dummy or a hypocrite? This is especially a problem in arguments about science and other matters of fact, because many of us (ironically, usually those of us who aren’t scientists) start to think that we’ve been proven right, thus making the other guys a pack of mouth-breathing cretins.
The high ground is a narrow ledge.
Once people on either side get bogged like that, it’s not the same conversation anymore. Letting yourself assume the other side only disagrees because they’re stupid or dishonest personalizes the discussion. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s tempting to treat the conversation like a contest. You want to show the world how awful the other side of the conversation is, and you start to think of the conversation as a tool for doing that. You can see that happen in the Uncommon Descent thread, where people who want to have a conversation run up against someone who wants to win a conversation. One side keeps asking, “But why don’t you respond to these arguments? What’s wrong about this, and how do you think that works?” The other side arms itself with a few useful talking points it can fire like bullets, without regard for context or substance. When the clip is empty, they declare absolute victory—after all, didn’t you hear all those gunshots? We smoked ’em!
Which side is which? It doesn’t particularly matter. The end result of that mindset is that neither side listens to the other. You won’t listen to someone who’s so obviously stupid or dishonest, and they won’t listen to someone who’s attacking them. (Often both sides will feel like they’re under attack.) If no one is listening, then what’s the conversation really about? Any opportunity to persuade the other side goes out the window. And worse, you might entrench the other side in their beliefs and encourage others to join them.
Don’t turn your argument into a recruiting poster.
People love to fight, and we love to pick sides. When it comes to arguments about science, it would be nice if people picked their sides based on evidence or data. But we know that’s not what happens in the real world. The research shows that when it comes to questions like evolution and climate change, “religiosity and right-left political outlooks” are much better predictors of a person’s opinion than how well they understand the science. In other words, for those of us who aren’t bona fide experts on a subject, we can’t escape the fact that our social groups have a heavy influence on our opinions, even if we’re convinced we make our decisions based just on the facts.
That’s important in a conversation or debate, because you have to remember there are almost always onlookers. Someone is listening to or reading your conversation, whether it’s lurkers on the forum or someone literally sitting at the same table. And when they see someone being pressured or attacked, they want to take sides and join in. Consider the Uncommon Descent thread we’ve been talking about, or its follow-up, or one of any number of ill-informed and misleading anti-vaccine rants. The authors of these pieces didn’t sit down and carefully reason out a position—they reacted to another position they don’t like, such as that climate change is real or that measles can harm children.
That reactive instinct is strong, and one of the most powerful drivers in getting people involved in public debates. There’s nothing really wrong with it; we want people to get motivated by important issues and get involved in the discussion. But if your contribution is primarily to demonize the other side, you’re only recruiting for them without actually moving the ball yourself.
Bantams are fighting cocks.
You can see this happen in comment threads and forums. Once someone starts an ugly conversation, others feel compelled to jump in and push back. If no one is willing to be the bigger person and return the conversation to a civilized footing, it’s a race to the bottom. That’s been the death of many otherwise interesting conversations.
It’s so easy to come up with a justification, and it’s going to feel like a good one–especially if you really want an excuse to open fire. This person really is that stupid, or I know for a fact this guy’s just pretending to believe this crap in order to start something, or What they believe is just too awful/dangerous/absurd/bigoted/immoral to take at face value. And that might be true–it would be a lot to ask of someone to have a straightforward, good-faith heart-to-heart chat with an actual Nazi. But how common are actual Nazis, compared to people who just get called Nazis to make them look bad?
Even if you really, truly feel you’re justified in treating the other side of the conversation like a moron, monster, or madman, remember that it’s not about you. A conversation has at least two parties, and no one is ever persuaded by being called an idiot. Nor are the people on your side of the table likely to be all that impressed. Thinking of the other person as a degenerate or idiot leads to your treating them that way, which will sink your chances of actually persuading them. (Persuading them doesn’t necessarily mean converting them to your opinion; you might also be interested in making them less certain of their own beliefs.) You might gratify the people on your side of the table, which might feel good, but it doesn’t actually accomplish very much. It’s a lot easier to feel like you won an argument than to actually change opinions.
Some people disagree, and treat the conversation just as way to amuse themselves, or make themselves feel good about supporting a cause they care about, or energize their side of the table like a cheerleader. If your goal is just to shine a light on yourself, without any regard for the other side, then it doesn’t seem as important to be charitable and assume they’re arguing in good faith. But even then, it pays to remember that you’re talking to decent, intelligent people–no one wins or feels good about a conversation with an idiot or a liar.
In it to win it.
Lots of people get into debates, especially online, to win them. Or show off how smart they are, or how clever and cutting they can be. I know I’ve done it, and it’s a fair bet you have too. Even then, it pays to remember that you’re talking to a human being—and to assume they’re as smart and as decent as you are. Even, especially, if you don’t want to believe that.
If all you want to do with a conversation is use it as a weapon, you’re not going to get very far by demonizing the other side. First, it’s not credible. People who already agree with you don’t need to see you denounce your opponent and won’t care all that much about it. The other side of the conversation certainly won’t be taking you seriously. And onlookers, the last people you might actually stand to influence, tend not to be all that impressed by hyper-aggressive rhetoric. A few may get energized and jump on board with you, but it’s just as likely they’ll sympathize with the people you’re attacking. Treating the other side like liars or fools pushes the people on the fence to choose sides, and you can’t control which side they pick.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that no one looks good throwing a temper tantrum. If you walk away from a conversation feeling proud that you called someone an “idiot,” you need better conversational skills. Far better to have the conversation and show that you’ve got something to say, rather than drenching your keyboard in spittle and frustration.
None of this means that it’s wrong to argue, or even that it’s wrong to argue with a sharp tongue. In fact, there are good reasons for being a little aggressive now and then. For one thing, people tend to argue about the things they care about, like truth, science, religion, health, food, and sports. There’s nothing wrong with honest passion. It can even help an argument, as a sign of credibility and honest commitment to a position. And it’s silly to pretend we could exile passion from our conversations even if we wanted to.
Passion can move minds, too. Actually changing someone’s opinion on a controversial topic with a clever argument is depressingly rare. Someone who’s committed themselves to a position, especially if they’ve done it publicly, is not going to reverse themselves on the spot just because you dragged up some piece of data that supports your contrary position. Instead, people change their minds (usually) slowly; we don’t always realize we’re doing it, but our beliefs shift over time. And they often wind up in sync with our community: the people we know, respect, and want to be like. Passion is an important part of that process. It’s easier to listen to someone who’s passionate about their position, easier to believe them, and easier to want to be like them, than someone who just dryly drones on about the facts. Passion is charisma, and charisma persuades.
Nor is it always wrong to call someone a liar. If you’ve caught them in a dishonest statement, go ahead and call them out on it. But be sure that you’re right, be sure that you’re thinking as objectively as possible, and remember that you’re taking the conversation in an aggressive direction that’s not likely to result in any serious agreements. That’s a move that’s far more likely to derail a conversation than begin one. The same thing is true of using words that may be objectively true, but also carry the weight of an insult, like hypocrite or ignorant or irrational. Are you saying it because you need to establish that it’s true, or because you want to swing the weight of that insult? See if from your side: do you want them to change their mind, or do you want them to feel bad about disagreeing with you? And see it from theirs: are they going to understand your meaning, or just take offense?
It’s hard to say where the line is. Sometimes there isn’t one. Most of the time it lies with how you treat the other side of the conversation. It can be the difference between arguing with them because you think their position is wrong, and attacking them because you want to shame them for being wrong. Could you sit down with them afterwards and have a civil conversation about something else? If not, someone may have crossed the line. Maybe it wasn’t you, but the only thing you can really control in the conversation is your side of the table. Even if the problem isn’t your fault, it’s your responsibility.
If you mean to walk away as friends, it’ll be a friendly argument.
If you mean to be the last one standing, it’s going to be a fight.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good place to draw that line. We’re all inclined to think that when we get heated it’s because we’re justifiably passionate, and when they do it they’re just being assholes. That distorted perspective doesn’t just make it hard to solve this problem, in a lot of ways it is the problem: not seeing the other side as someone who’s as human, as smart, as decent, and as emotional as you are.
What about me?
In a lot of ways, it was one specific exchange that spurred me to write this. The host at Uncommon Descent, after a few days of sparring on various subjects, told me that he thought I must “believe that only someone with a character flaw can possibly disagree with him.” I don’t think that’s right, and said so; he declared I must be “both a liar and a hypocrite.”
Is he right? The “liar” part is easy. I don’t think that people who disagree with me must have a character flaw. I think that some do, whether it’s because they’re dishonest or unhinged. But that’s a far cry from believing that disagreement is a character flaw. That would be a very difficult thing to believe for someone like me, who’s fascinated by debates and discussions out on the fringe with people whose ideas couldn’t be further from my own. (See, for example, Alfred Adask—I was a guest on his radio show for a friendly conversation, even though I think his ideas are about as wrong as it’s humanly possible to be.)
“Hypocrite” is a lot harder to nail down. I don’t think I’m a hypocrite, but then, how many hypocrites do? I’ve had my share of sharp conversations, especially online, where I lost sight of the human being on the other side of the screen. I’ve insulted people, explicitly and implicitly, for the crime of annoying me. I’m not proud of it, but neither am I alone. And I’m a human being, which means I’ll do it again.
(Hell, I’ll do it right now: This is barbecue. It’s made in TEXAS. I’m very happy to be moving to Kansas, but all those people who keep telling me you’ll still have good barbecue because blah blah Kansas City blah blah—those people are vile and dumb and should feel bad about their stupid opinions. Also, the people whining about the Patriots are sore losers and bad Americans.)
Going back to the climate change conversation, though, I think what the host was getting at was that I was purposefully needling him. And that’s true, I was. He was behaving badly, and rather than letting it rest I kept reminding him of it and trying to shame him with it. I picked at the fact that he was insulting his commenters and berating them for correcting his mistaken use of terminology. My pressure was a kind of criticism of his character. Even if I didn’t say outright that he was being a jerk, my opinion was abundantly clear.
At the end of the day, I can’t say I honestly followed my own rule in that conversation, to remember that Barry Arrington—like everyone I argue with—is as honest and as smart as I am. I may have enjoyed needling him too much, and his aggressive style of insulting rather than engaging made it easy to keep doing it. But neither can I say that I completely forgot the rule. How could I? It’s something I think about constantly, at work and at home where I’m writing a book about these things. At any rate, even if I could remember my state of mind during that conversation, I don’t think I’d trust it. Remember, you’re least objective about yourself, whether you’re giving yourself too much leeway or too little.
That’s going to be true of almost any conversation. It’s not very often that you’ll be able to say for sure, “that guy went too far, he’s objectively mistreating the other side of the debate.” (You’ll have lots of examples of exactly that. But it’s not because that kind of misconduct is common, it’s because it’s memorable.) You don’t need have objective proof of where the line is or who’s crossed it; it’s enough to know that personalizing a conversation is going to kill it for most purposes. What matters is looking back to see what was right, and what was wrong, about that conversation. Not whether the arguments were right, but whether the conversation was right.
In our example, I can’t change how anyone else behaved, and I don’t think anything I said was wrong. But I can see that it was a pretty useless conversation. Everyone walked away pissed off, with no opinions having shifted and no one having any better understanding or opinion of the other side of the table. Even if that wasn’t my fault, doing better is my responsibility. Just like it’s yours.
The best conversations come when both sides of the table see each other as real, live human beings: mostly honest, mostly reasonable, mostly decent, and pretty smart. You’re often going to feel like that isn’t true about the other side, just like they’re often going to feel it about you. You can’t control how they behave, but at the same time no one else is ever responsible for what you do. Don’t forget who you’re talking to.
This was Part 1 of our series on The Good Fight. From here, we’ll talk about why we have these conversations in the first place, focusing on the debate with irrational ideologies: anti-vaxers, creationists, etc. We’ll also explore just what it means to be irrational, with a focus on how completely sane, intelligent people can come to hold seemingly bonkers beliefs. After that we’ll start talking tactics, and how to actually be more persuasive when arguing online (or elsewhere).
In the meantime, please do tell us what you think about this first part. It’s a little (a lot) more self-referential than I expected it to be, but it felt hollow to talk about this sort of thing without a little self-examination. If you think I’m off-base, I’d love to hear about it. We won’t call anyone an idiot or a turkey or a liar or a hypocrite.