How to debate more effectively

Trigger warning (snicker): here be politics.  Feel free to skip it if you wish.

The art of persuasion has always been an important thing. “The pen is mightier than the sword” and all that good stuff.  There are those who dismiss the importance of debate, to the effect that doing is better than talking.  I get it, actions speak louder than words, and taking action is indeed essential.  Even so, getting your message out there has its place, as this is what motivates the doers to do something.  Our society is in pretty bad shape now, and getting our message out there is the only hope we have of turning things around.  The public discourse is dominated by people who either are oblivious to the full effects of this downward slide, or are cheerleading for it.  We should all be aware of the indoctrination going on in public education, as well as who is running the media.  The Internet is one thing our opponents aren’t fully in control of, as well as private conversations between individuals.  This is where we can make a difference, and change minds one at a time.  Being effective at this is critical.  The art of rhetoric is a broad subject, and has been covered by great minds since antiquity, but to begin with, here are some important pointers.

Rule 1 – Go in with the facts

Having the truth on your side is obviously a huge advantage in any argument; demonstrating this is how you leverage the advantage. Exposing distortions will cause your opponent’s credibility to take a big hit.

This is very good for us, because our opponents have to rely on half-truths, outright lies, and emotional appeals. It pays to do your research.  Save quotations and citations where you find them.  For a public debate, print it out if you think you’ll need it.  Original sources are better than commentary on the findings.  Be aware of the ways that statistics can be misrepresented – for just one example, the “wage gap” myth.  Still, be careful not to get drawn into a “my researcher can beat up your researcher” debate; this is one of several ways that someone who is losing ground might sidetrack a discussion.

Rule 2 – Know your audience

Argumentation will take many forms: discussions among friends, online forums, public debates, scholarly articles, etc.  As Aristotle put it (so I understand), use logic with a friend and rhetoric with an opponent.  It’s easiest to get through to a friend, though sometimes they just like to argue, so be on guard for that.  Your audience has to be able to relate to what you’re saying.  Ultra-lefty Saul Alinsky made the point that you can’t go outside of people’s experience, by telling a story about ordering from a numbered menu and then requesting a modification to the order, which resulted in the order being screwed up because the diner staff was used to going by numbers.  Ultra-righty George Lincoln Rockwell made an analogy about targeting the tone of your message for your audience:  if you were working in a grocery store and an elegant Frenchman came in, you wouldn’t try to sell him hog jowls.  If those two can agree on something, then it has to be right!

If you go too far outside of the audience’s experience, you’ve lost them. If you give a fire-breathing Patton style speech to genteel people, they’ll recoil in shock.  Keep the terminology recognizable and not too exotic.  For instance, someone who has no experience with the Manosphere will have no idea what a beta orbiter is, even if he’s an unfortunate soul who happens to be one.  Explain concepts ahead of time where needed to prepare your audience.  Also, is your audience composed of the rich or the poor, fundamentalists or atheists, professors or dropouts, liberals or conservatives?  The way you’d talk to truck drivers will be different than speaking at an academic conference.  Be aware of whether or not your audience is mostly friendly.  If they’re on your side, then feel free to make your opponent look silly.  If they’re not on your side, then be Mr. Reasonable.  If you go too far outside their beliefs and world view, then they’ll tune you out.  Avoiding that problem means that you might not be able to say everything you want, but at least you might be able to leave a favorable impression as well as get through to some people and raise some doubts about their views.  If instead you come across as insulting (whether you meant it or not), then they’ll be convinced further that you’re wrong.  The more you can get them to see that you’re someone like them, the more likely they’ll relate to your message.  If your audience has a preconception that people like you are unreasonable or evil, then you have a chance to show that maybe they were wrong about this, and other things.

Rule 3 – Use economy of force

Talking to each other can lead to common understanding, but talking past each other does not. Suppose a fundamentalist tells an atheist that he’s going to burn in hell for eternity, and the atheist replies that the fundamentalist must be a sixth grade dropout.  Did they settle anything or change each other’s minds?  No, they were just yelling at each other.  That doesn’t score points; that convinces the other side that they’re right and you’re a big meanie.

Name-calling and the like may feel good, but that’s not the same as winning hearts and minds. Since Social Justice Warrior types rely on this quite a bit – as well as trying to shout down opponents – this is another opportunity for us.  “I’ve brought up several logical arguments backed up by peer-reviewed studies, and all you’ve managed to do so far is call me a racist sexist homophobe meanie.  It sounds like you’re out of ideas there.”  In fact, if you can stay calm while your opponent goes into an infuriated lather, then you will win over any uncommitted audience members!  The degree to which you can be hard-hitting is limited by your audience; again, they’ll start tuning you out if you diverge too far from their preconceptions.  How you phrase things is important too.  For instance, “riding the cock carousel” is pretty well-recognized amongst the Manosphere.  However, “meaningless promiscuity” will be a much better way to put it for a more moralistic audience, and in an academic journal you would call it “hookup culture”, because none of them want to hear about cocks.  Speaking and writing judiciously helps to prevent turning off potential allies too.  Always remember, you’re out to win hearts and minds, not preach to the choir.  Even so, we should take care not to water the message down too much or consider certain topics off-limits.

Rule 4 – Stick to the discussion

If your opponents don’t have the truth on their side – expect this to be the case quite frequently – one of the things they’ll try to do is side-track the discussion. I see this sort of thing happen again and again with online debates.  This puts you on the defensive, and takes you off-message for whatever point you were trying to make initially.  In the OJ murder trial, the defense lawyers insisted that the prosecution prove the validity of DNA evidence, and the judge let them get away with it.  So then the prosecution had to bring in experts to defend well-established scientific fact, droning on for hours about alleles while the jury’s eyes glazed over.  There’s much more that can be said about that trial, but the defense’s efforts at sidetracking hurt the prosecution’s chances.

Suppose you’re discussing the horrifying topic of race and crime in the USA. (Hello again, OJ.)  Then a SJW starts calling you a racist, and you go on a tangent about how you see everyone as individuals and judge people on their own merits.  You would do better to put a stop to that argumentum ad hominem by pointing out that crime statistics don’t stand and fall on whatever your personal beliefs are or aren’t.  Suppose the SJW says that Black versus White crime is justified by slavery, and again you go on the defensive and point out that slavery was seldom questioned until the Age of Enlightenment, and that one thing setting the USA apart is that we were one of the first countries to abolish it, etc.  All that’s valid, but you would be better off stating that crime is not justified by what someone’s great-great-great grandfather might have done (or more likely, didn’t do) to someone else’s great-great-great grandfather.  In either case, you can follow up by calling out your opponent for trying to derail the discussion.

Rule 5 – Be aware of rhetorical tricks

I’ve already mentioned one fallacy, the “argumentum ad hominem” where someone flings mud at the opponent rather than confronting the opponent’s argument. “You’re just saying that because you’re male”, “Check your privilege”, and “You’re a Nazi” are other examples of this one.  Another biggie is the unstated assumption.  For instance, someone who says “Society has failed to ensure that more women are entering STEM careers” is making an unstated assumption that it’s society’s job to pick people’s careers for them.

There are long lists of rhetorical fallacies, and unfortunately I don’t have the space to go in depth on this. Read up on these and other ways people twist words.  Those are sloppy tactics used by people who don’t have the truth on their side or can’t figure out a decent counter-argument.  Be prepared to call out an opponent for this, and make sure your own arguments rely on facts and solid reasoning.

Rule 6 – Be aware of confirmation bias

People tend to resist believing things that challenge their world view. I recall discussing a labor dispute on an Objectivist list.  (I don’t fully buy into Objectivism, but they do have some important points to make.)  In this instance, I showed that the strike happened because they found out that upper management gave themselves huge pay increases while the company was on the verge of closing.  I got blown off because of their pre-existing bias that labor is always wrong and management is always right.  I could have pointed out that refusing to listen to evidence you don’t like is not an Objectivist value (Ayn Rand herself called this “evasion” and described it as an evil thing), and also that not every assistant vice president is exactly another Hank Rearden.  But, instead I decided not to waste my time with them any more.

So, what can you do where there’s a major difference between your views and someone else’s? Keeping rules 2 and 3 in mind will be somewhat helpful.  Also, you’ll have to establish a lot of common ground first.  You won’t be able to win over everybody.  If two people just won’t agree on basic premises – or they’re refusing to listen to what the other person is saying – then making headway is impossible.  In a public debate, chances are that you won’t be able to convince your opponent that you’re right, but you can bring some of the audience around to your way of thinking, or at least raise some doubts.  It’s not unheard of for a feminist to see that her side has been unreasonable and antagonistic, or a liberal to realize that quite a few costly government programs have failed to do anything positive.  Perhaps it’s even possible to convince an Objectivist that quite a few assistant vice presidents are overpaid pencil-pushing bootlickers who aren’t as important as the people who actually do the work.

So go out there and spread the enlightenment.

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How to debate more effectively

6 thoughts on “How to debate more effectively

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