Friday, February 7, 2014

Convincing ideological opponents versus wasting time

I put a great emphasis many times on trying to convince people who aren't already on my side. I like to come up with arguments, analyze approaches, that I think will be maximally effective in getting through to people who are on the fence, or who are even (soft) opponents of the position I'm advancing.

At the same time, I recognize that some people just are not open to any kind of meaningful dialogue - and I'm not just referring to the Cultist of Gnu here. Some people don't ever hit the 'converse' stage and are instead, right from the start, in 'attack' mode. There's no goddamn progress to be had with people like that, at least on the issue in question. So why try? At that point I either bail, or I stick around and mock. Latter one's probably a bad idea in some cases - why alienate people who I may be able to talk with, even agree with, on other topics? In other cases - I'm talking about the left-wing diehard atheist - it doesn't really matter. They don't need conversation, they need a Saul on the road to Damascus experience, and I don't have that up my sleeve.

That said... when it comes to certain issues - social issues in general - I don't think intellectual arguments are really the way to go many times, even with people who are open-minded. At least, not direct ones. I think natural law arguments and various other assorted examples of reasoning are powerful in a logical and intellectual sense, but man, they require a lot of investment just to get some people to understand. Great for someone who likes to spend a lot of time thinking about these things. Few people do.

So here's the puzzle: when your opponents primarily rely on - and succeed with - largely emotional manipulation, caricatures and worse, how do you respond while still maintaining intellectual honesty? I think there's ways to do it, but it requires finesse.


Mike said...

Not related to the subject of the post admittedly, but I just wanted to say that I read your posts often and find them very helpful. So I wanted to thank-you....I greatly enjoy your blog. :-)

Crude said...


Thanks, glad to hear it. I'm always surprised to know I've got people beyond who I expect reading all this. :)

The Fez said...

"So here's the puzzle: when your opponents primarily rely on - and succeed with - largely emotional manipulation, caricatures and worse, how do you respond while still maintaining intellectual honesty? I think there's ways to do it, but it requires finesse."

In the past I would usually call out the behavior, and explain A. what the strategy is, and B. why it is duplicitous. While this is super great for you and all other rational people, individuals who are emotional (and utilize emotionally driven rhetoric) will rarely cease to be emotional when asked to stop being emotional.

In their heart of hearts, the intensity of their emotions grants them both anecdotal justification and moral hegemony over those who do not feel as intensely as they do. Hence, even those people who don't particularly care about homosexual people, the homosexual things they're doing, and why they're doing it wind up on progressive shit list anyway (for instance). The lack of emotional distress makes you just as culpable.

The difficulties may be further compounded by the environment in which you're debating. If you feel like engaging some liberal on Huffington Post, well, good luck, guy. The internet allows essentially anyone to slink off and obtain ideological affirmation in an orgy of digital group think. Debating anyone 'behind enemy lines' is a fool's errand. Furthermore, attempting to lure atheists / liberals, ect to a particular location en masse is also troublesome, because you'll only succeed in attracting those looking for a fight. That's why web-blogs (or otherwise) that seek, intentionally, to encourage debate between atheists and Christians are unmitigated disasters.

Online discussion also allows the participants a level of anonymity such that they don't actually have to worry about consequences. You can say what you want and enjoy complete immunity. Calling someone a racist homophobe to their face takes a greater degree of courage. You also get to see their faces. This detachment from basic human empathy (ironic considering the 'rawness' of liberal pathos) is the greatest barrier to straightforward discussion that you can encounter.

My general rules are:

-Only debate (online) in friendly ideological territory.

-Only debate on websites or blogs where the topics discussed are NOT framed so as to polarize the topic in an incendiary way.

-Only debate people who seem to have some personal stake in the discussion, do not take themselves too seriously, and appear to be earnest in finding out more about your position.

There's no obligation that I'm aware of requiring you to debate in a place where you will soon find yourself both miserable and emotionally depleted.

Crude said...

Very interesting and well thought out input, Fez. I disagree with some minor things, but agree in the main.

The Fez said...

Thank you, Crude. I've been e-stalking your blog for some time and find the discourse compelling.

I understand that there may be some points in there, like "don't argue with with people in hostile ideological territory" that may come across as both convenient and cowardly. There's an implicit double-standard there, right? If it is ill-advised to engage liberals in liberal territory, for instance, why should they travel over to theism land and get rolled up on by some boss Disciples of Christ, you no what I'm sayin' player lets go get a 40 and ride?

It also doesn't seem very Christlike to simply hang out with your other theist buddies in smoking jackets with your wingback chairs waiting for the hapless atheist / liberal to wander in so that you can control the pattern of the discussion to your advantage. Christ was up in your grill, and chillin' with sinners, as it were.

Regardless, given the sort of environment that the internet is, by nature, missionary gestures of the kind Christ and his disciples employed are more or less inert in the Dawkinsphere. In the past, if I felt absolutely compelled to do work in those dark realms, I targeted specific aspects of very particular topics. Narrowing the field of discussion to a very limited subset of conversation potentialities will work in your favor, as it prevents detractors from shifting the goal-post too egregiously.

My point is this: if your objective is to persuade or convince someone of the truth of your position, choosing the right context for that discussion to take place is going to be, like, half the battle. How much of military strategy depends on maneuvering your opponent into a disadvantaged position? Much of your work is done for you if you hold the high ground.

In my own experience, dragging people into one-on-one, private discussions is also advisable. There's no one for them to impress. No cheerleaders on the sideline. And even the least courteous of individuals will suddenly discover a degree of restraint. Affectation simply appears goofy in this context, and most internet debate is purely affectation.

Crude said...

No, I agree with your considerations entirely. Yes, environment matters. Yes, psychology matters. These are things that have to be kept in mind, and some people just aren't ready to converse. Note: not convert. Converse. Conversion isn't the end goal of just about any conversation I have. But a lot of people can't even have a conversation. And the conversation is necessary, not just so I can learn where people are honestly and truly coming from at times, but so I can clear up misconceptions. And man, there are misconceptions out there about a lot of the issues I care about. Which is probably why I care about them.

But I agree that taking an excursion to say... PZ Myer's site just won't work, except to use everyone there as case examples of maniacal people. That's one reason I started to pull conversation logs from other sites - I may not convince Diehard Gnu Atheist #2714 of anything, but when they go off the rails I can damn sure use their example in other contexts, so it's not as if I wasted my time. In fact I'm reminded of some preachers attending that ReasonCon thing a couple years back and approaching a snarky, hateful PZ Myers. They made no progress with Myers, but I bet they changed a few minds by getting him on video befuddled and hostile.