July 8th, 2008

Arguing politics

Since I became a blogger I don’t enter into political arguments too often in the real (as opposed to the virtual) world.

One reason is that I’ve found such talks only rarely to be fruitful and civil, even though I try mightily to preserve both attributes. Another is that most of my friends know my general point of view already, and most are not all that politically oriented—after all, a decade ago I was a person who rarely discussed politics at all. A third reason is that this blog focuses my political energy and takes care of much of my personal motivation to be part of such exchanges.

But that’s not to say that the subject never comes up in what’s known as real life. I have a couple of friends who are liberal Democrats and yet welcome the occasional discussion, which never ends up in a fight because they have open and receptive minds even though we often disagree.

But whether I’m talking about politics to friends or writing about politics here, I not only have the goal of expressing myself, but I still have the desire to inform and even to persuade, if possible. Since I’m interested in how minds change, I’m also fascinated by the process that can make this happen.

Therefore I was intrigued to read this piece by Owen Harries on the art of political argument, emailed to me some time ago by a helpful reader. Although the article was written in 1991 it hardly seems outdated in its twelve points to keep in mind when trying to make convincing points about politics.

The first rule is one with which I’m personally quite familiar, but it bears repeating:

Forget about trying to convert your adversary. In any serious ideological confrontation the chances of success on this score are so remote as to exclude it as a rational objective.

In my observation, this is true not only of the committed ideologue but even of the less politically invested and less well-informed person. That’s why my series is called “A mind is a difficult thing to change.” Politics has some things in common with religion, in that it is partly an article of faith. In addition, it is also an edifice constructed of many building blocks of information— some of them dependent on one another but some independent—plus years of habit and/or commitment and/or investment and/or social networks. It is often a profound component of one’s identity.

Putting even a small dent in this structure can take some doing. Harries goes on to write:

On the very rare occasions when [political conversion] does happen, it will be because the person converted has already and independently come to harbour serious doubts and is teetering on the edge of ideological defection. This is due, more often than not, to some outrageous action by his own side or some shocking revelation…

True; it most definitely can happen in just that way. Harries cites the example of those pro-Communists who were disillusioned by Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes.

It strikes me, however, that it’s possible to nudge that process along a bit by providing information about the existence of such events that might constitute the grounds for disillusionment. Many people are quite simply unaware of the facts that could spark a change of mind and heart. After all, those “outrageous actions” or “shocking revelations” on their side have no possibility of being seen for what they are unless they are brought to awareness. That can be part of the function of the blogosphere.

The MSM is rather good at informing us of those revelations that would challenge our view of the actions of the Right. They are generally less likely to broadcast revelations that would discredit liberals or the Left, although it does happen.

Which brings us to Harries’s rule number nine:

When bolstering the authority of what you are saying by the use of quotation, give preference wherever possible to sources which are not identified with your case. If you can, quote someone who is considered unimpeachable, if not omniscient, by your opponents. This will not convince them, but it will embarrass them and impress the uncommitted.

In talking to receptive friends or occasionally sending them emails with links, I’ve always tried to follow rule nine even before I knew it existed. I had noticed that it was very easy for people to discount as unreliable any information that came from a source perceived as being on the “other” side, even a reputable publication. Although it takes a lot more work to find something from the often-liberal MSM that bolsters an argument on the Right, it can be found and is well worth the effort because of the extra clout such an article has.

You’ll note that in the above quote, Harries differentiates between the reactions of opponents vs. the uncommitted. It’s a useful distinction. The former are ideologues who are very deeply committed to their point of view and are loaded with facts and authorities. Sometimes the facts are true and the authorities have some validity, but sometimes they are spurious and dubious. In the first case, a productive and mutually respectful argument can often be had, although it’s mostly an exercise in debating technique because minds are still resistant to change. In the second case, however, it will probably devolve into a shouting match and be of no usefulness whatsoever, unless the goal is to exercise the lungs.

The people Harries calls the “uncommitted” bring us to rule four:

Never forget the uncommitted: almost invariably, they constitute the vast majority. This may seem obvious, but intense polemical activity is often a coterie activity, and in the excitement of combat and lust for the polemical kill the uncommitted are often overlooked. The encounter becomes an end in itself rather than a means of influencing wider opinion. Yet what works best in throwing the enemy off balance—cleverness, originality, pugnacity—is often counterproductive with those who are neutral or undecided, who are more likely to be impressed and convinced by good sense, decency, and fairness.

The blogosphere tends to be populated by bloggers who are fond of the sort of coterie activity Harries describes so well. That’s not really my style, however, either in this blog or in person.

Although most of my friends have a political affiliation, some hold it far more tightly than others. Those others would fall into the general ranks of Harries’s uncommitted: they hold viewpoints, but they are flexible and open to new information. It is among these people that fact-based, logical political argument has the most chance of finding a receptive ear. That’s what I try my best to offer.

22 Responses to “Arguing politics”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    “I not only have the goal of expressing myself, but I still have the desire to inform and even to persuade, if possible. ”

    Nobel but when setting out on a journey to accomplish this, pack a lunch.

  2. vanderleun Says:

    While a good guide overall, I note that Harries in the now long ago states, “the mass media, which consume material at a furious rate and constantly demand something new, makes things difficult for them.”

    This was of course long before heavy rotation hit the news as a concept and a way to fill time and space. Today I’d recast this as the media constantly demands the same thing, only different.

  3. SteveH Says:

    Theres a phenomenon going on in political discourse in this early new century that may not ever get clearly analysed until after we’re all long gone.

    You’re on to something when you mention a religious facet to it. I never thought i’d see the day when drilling a hole in the ground to extract oil would stir people emotionally.

    Somethings just not right.

  4. jon baker Says:

    “Politics has some things in common with religion, in that it is partly an article of faith.”

    “On the very rare occasions when [political conversion] does happen, it will be because the person converted has already and independently come to harbour serious doubts and is teetering on the edge of ideological defection. This is due, more often than not, to some outrageous action by his own side or some shocking revelation…”

    “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. ” 1 Corinthians 3:6

  5. Jimmy J. Says:

    I have often asked why people can look at the same set of circumstances and make totally different judgments about those circumstances.

    Examples are socialism versus free market economics, treating Islamist terrorism as a criminal problem versus using the military to defend against it, and favoring big government solutions to every social problem as opposed to letting individuals or private enterprise do it.

    Those three categories are major bones of contention between the left and the right these days.

    I am interested in how much of this is due to hereditary and how much due to nurturance and culture.

    My younger brother lives his life according to conservative principles, but he always votes for democrats. He believes our society is deeply unfair and yet never complains about it as it pertains to himself. It is unfair to others, but not to him. We have fervent debates about these things and he is convinced that I am heartless because I believe that you cripple people when you let them become dependent on the government or some other benefactor. I believe in charity by church and NGOs, he thinks the government does a better job.

    We had the same parents, were raised pretty much the same, and we even look alike, yet we differ about these issues as if we were each from a different planet.

    I have often wondered if my brother and I are not genetically different. Steven Pinker, the MIT evolutionary psychologist, has posited such in his book, “The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He believes personality traits are innate and more important in our development than nurture or culture. Such traits are: open/closed mindedness, aggressiveness/passiveness, conscientiousness/carelessness, extroversion/shyness, and mentally stable/unstable. He believes these traits are inborn and will determine how we react to the world. This is a refutation of the idea that children can be molded completely by parenting and society. He says the idea of the Blank Slate “….denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts.” That’s quite a sweeping statement.

    If he is right about this, it is amazing that anyone changes their minds unless they happen to be innately very OPEN MINDED. I believe it explains why my brother and I see the world differently. He is less aggressive, less conscientious, and more extroverted than I. We seem to be equally mentally stable/unstable and closed/open minded. So our differences would seem to come from the three characteristics where we are not alike.

    It disturbs me somewhat to think that the three major points of debate, which I outlined at the start, are not ever likely to be resolved because, no matter the validity of arguments, innately different people are going to disagree.

    Maybe we are born tending to be conservatives or liberals and those who do change their minds are those in the middle who happen to be more open minded and swayed by reason or example.

  6. Mitsu Says:

    My own political views tend to be left of center, but I often find myself in disagreement with many of my liberal friends. To some degree, this is because I don’t identify myself as a “liberal” or “leftist” (or “conservative” or “right-winger”) as though it were some sort of team membership, as many people do. To me, the collection of political ideas people lump together in this country as “left” or “right” are in many cases somewhat arbitrary. I think in many cases people adopt a view simply because most other people on their “team” adopt the view, not because they have independently evaluated the idea and come to it on their own.

    I enjoy reading your blog, Neo, though it’s partly because I’m a bit puzzled by the fact that you seem to have adopted most or all of the “conservative” platform which you once rejected — which seems a bit peculiar to me. Reading the story of your own intellectual journey, it seems as though you describe an increasing disillusionment with it, and then a decision to adopt the “opposite” viewpoint. But I find that transformational idea rather curious, though it does seem to be common amongst those who flip “sides” so to speak. Many rightists were former leftists and vice-versa.

    I suppose in my case I’ve always been rather cynical about ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. The revelations which disillusioned you about the left for the most part don’t shock me — one can list out many revelations about distortions or mistakes on both sides. Surely the list of disillusioning events coming from the right is quite long as well. To me, being disillusioned comes from being overly credulous to begin with. The question of what’s the best policy, to my mind, ought not to be decided in my opinion in those terms, but rather in pragmatic terms. What works, what doesn’t work. That’s something that is always open to new information and analysis.

    I believe in the free market — it’s obviously more efficient than centralized planned economy. Then again, most liberals do as well. But right-wingers often rail against liberals as though they all want to establish a planned economy. I can’t think of a single mainstream politician of either party that wants to do this.

    I believe in a strong defense. I also think some form of universal health care, perhaps one that retains some aspect of the market, would be more efficient than the system we have (we spend twice as much on health care as many advanced industrialized nations who have universal health care — yet we have tens of millions of people who are uninsured or underinsured). I tend to agree with Republicans, however, that too much regulation is a bad thing, and one ought to govern with minimal regulation — however, too little oversight, and you end up with unstable markets, which isn’t good for business either. I supported welfare reform. I think free speech is a bedrock value. Etc.

    Some of my views are from the right, some from the left, some from the center. I choose things based on an independent evaluation, after looking at the available evidence. I don’t buy into something just because it’s the “right-wing” or “left-wing” point of view. I do tend to agree more with liberals than conservatives, but I am very much open. I supported the Gulf War, enthusiastically, even though it was started by a Republican president. Etc.

    I really think politics ought to be about careful evaluation of specific ideas, not buying into the whole platform of a single “team” whether it’s the blues or the reds or the Republicans or the Democrats.

  7. Vince P Says:

    Steve touched on something that strikes a chord with me

    I try to comprehend how our vast Federal agencies can be as stupid about Jihad as they were in 2000.

    I try to comprehend how Obama can say he will raise capital gains taxes even after being told that that will probably lower revenues and him responding with “but it’s fair” and he gets away with it.

    I try tio comprehend how the Left can get away with attacking bush for being
    (not that any of these claims are true)

    Unilateral – Iraq
    Multi-lateral – North Korea

    Preemptive – Iraq
    Reactive – Afghanistan

    Emphasizing strong military power – Iraq
    Ceding to EU-led diplomacy – Iran

    Failing to connect the dots – 9/11
    Connecting new dots – Iran

    Liberating people from oppression – Iraq
    Not liberating peopel from oppression – Sudan

    it goes on and on and on and on

    all these thing and much more.. and the only conclusion I can come to is a profound spiritual disorder in our lands. How else can otherwise smart people be so utterly blind?

    Having a political discussion with a Leftie is like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a cartoon

    This is why I have become increasingly referrign to the Bible. It says a time will come like this.

    2 Timothy 3:1 But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God.

  8. SteveH Says:

    VinceP,
    I’ve read that passage many times with astonishment. Making me wonder if our ancestors had more experience with this sort of self righteous anarchy than we will ever know.

    I personally think it may be a phenomenon of the brain short circuiting in some manner in reaction to a denial of ones own devine source.

  9. TmjUtah Says:

    Bureaucracies thirst for issues to address; just as long as they don’t involve value judgements outside the liberal narrative or having to be subject to any objective standards of performance or success.

    But how about on topic, for a change -

    If I find the conversation drifting towards politics, I have three questions I can use almost interchangeably:

    1. Do you think that the federal government had anything to do with 9/11?

    2. Do you believe that we went to war in Iraq on dishonest pretenses”

    3. Do you support drilling our own oil, building new refineries, and constructing new nuc plants as a sound energy policy?

    If they answer yest to the first two and/or no on the third, I smile big and talk about minor league baseball . Or work. Or the kids. Because there’s no point going down the political road with a troofer or doctrinaire leftist.

  10. douglas Says:

    A few different ways of looking at the same tactic:
    -Play on their home field. If you can defeat them there, they have no recourse.
    -Be more interested in seeding doubt where there was once certainty, instead of seeking victory through conversion.
    -Don’t even mark out your own territory, make it an exercise in critical thought of their own positions, rather than a promotion of your own.

  11. Vince P Says:

    Favorite Quotes From Ann Coulter’s ‘How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must)’

    “If you can somehow force a liberal into a point-counterpoint argument, his retorts will bear no relation to what you’ve said — unless you were in fact talking about your looks, your age, your weight, your personal obsessions, or whether you are a fascist. In the famous liberal two-step, they leap from one idiotic point to the next, so you can never nail them. It’s like arguing with someone with Attention Deficit Disorder.” — P. 3

    “Torturing randomly chosen people on the off chance that they might be up to something — as was routinely done in liberals’ favorite country, the USSR — clearly doesn’t work. Torturing the guy you know for a fact is withholding information actually works quite well. There may be good and sufficient moral reasons for not torturing people for information, but efficacy is not among them.” — P. 6-7

    “On the bright side, you know you’ve arrived when liberals start calling you a f@g. Curiously, these proponents of tolerance always choose “gay” as their most searing epithet. Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Matt Drudge, Starr’s prosecutors, Linda Tripp’s lawyer, Christopher Hitchens, Mel Gibson — all these have been denounced as homosexuals at some point by liberals…Arguing with liberals instantly becomes a game of gay-baiting musical chairs. We just don’t think they should get married. Liberals actually hate homosexuals.” — P. 15

    “I promise you, any Americans captured by al Qaeda will be tortured, disembowelled, and beheaded right before the traditional dancing on the American corpse begins. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of the United States actually going to war against any country that would honor the Geneva Convention. Despite the enormous groundswell of support for an attack on France, for example, we probably won’t invade France. The only people America ever goes to war against are utter savages.” — P. 31

    “The Democrats’ jejune claim that Saddam Hussein is not a threat to our security presupposes they would care if he were. Who are they kidding? Democrats adore threats to the United States. Bush got a raucous standing ovation at the State of the Union address when he announced that “this year for the first time, we are beginning to field a defense to protect this nation against ballistic missiles.” The excitement was noticeably muted on the Democrats’ side of the aisle. The vast majority of Democrats remained firmly planted in their seats, sullen at the thought that America would be protected from incoming ballistic missiles.” — P. 43

  12. Cheat Seeking Missiles » Wednesday Reading Says:

    [...] Arguing Politics Neo-Neocon [...]

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    If I do any arguing, it’s more to inform the other party that I know better. And if I know better, so does practically everybody else.
    So they look pretty silly trying to promote that which everyone they talk to knows better than.
    Few of my likely acquaintances with whom I would discuss such things on opposite sides are really so stupid as to believe themselves. If I convince them nobody else does, either, the noise level drops.
    There are a few who actually do believe themselves, but they go through life with their hands over their ears, singing LALALALALA.
    No hope for them.

  14. renminbi Says:

    Thanks for the Owen Harries link which is invaluable.
    Most people have pitifully little analytical ability,but if that were a sufficient condition Noam Chomski would be a great thinker.Intelligence is largely a moral quality-largely a atter of admitting ignorance and stating “I don’t know”or,”I don’t have an opinion”,but I rarely hear that.Being generally skeptical is wise,since the truth is often not easily apprehended,but our post enlightenment intelligentsia seems to think nihilism is even better.That goes nowhere.

  15. nyomythus Says:

    Politics has some things in common with religion, in that it is partly an article of faith. Faith is where credulity is introduced into any equation; initially I shifted from religious vagueness towards faith. Presently I’m resting well with Atheism.

  16. Truth Says:

    Forget about trying to convert your adversary.

    You might this very clear right but this approach taken far to convert others by wars!!

    Yes its hard to changing mind of people believe but the new Neoconservatism Madrasah believing in convert others by war its clear and they are determined

    Irving Kristol telling his book The Neoconservative Persuasion this:

    Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.

    So this is exactly the opposite what have done in US on political realm but it taken furthers to outside US to other nations by war.

  17. Chris White Says:

    As a frequent visitor and sometimes commenter here with views that are considered, especially in this forum, predominantly “left” rather than “right” as measured by the (to my mind false) polar balance bar of political duality, I am simultaneously amused and appalled by so much of what I read here. Neo’s conversion from liberal to neo-conservative seems to share much with the conversion of a drunken, dissolute, atheistic sinner who has become a born again proselytizing believer. That is to say she seems to have experienced a wholesale shifting of “sides” rather than a subtler shifting of emphasis and understanding. While it is difficult to know how stereotypically liberal her views were prior to her conversion, most of her postings might as well come from a central clearinghouse for neo-con talking points and rarely show much evidence of a truly independent mind eagerly exploring the full range of possible views. This is not so much offered as criticism, but just my observation that most postings, however well written and entertaining, rarely seem to diverge in any substantive way from those of the right side of the MSM (Fox, WSJ, et al). In short, they seem fixed and partisan rather than variable, nuanced and independent. Still, in this regard Neo does exceptionally well following Harries Rule 3, preaching to the converted, and offers well constructed, erudite, sermons to a coterie of followers. In fact, this particular post may be her way of offering gentle guidance to her flock.

    I also note that Neo only rarely makes comments beyond her original posting. Once her sermons are posted she mostly retires and allows the regulars to dominate the discussion. This congregation has a number of unfortunate tendencies that could, perhaps, use a bit more guidance from the preacher as they carry on. There are those who can be trusted to offer exactly the kind of “strawman” attacks they so despise and loudly attack from those who do not fully agree with their positions. Among the popular strawman attacks here are such perennial favorites as communists, socialists, liberals and democrats are an undifferentiated singular entity … these leftists admire Stalin and the USSR … leftists believe terrorists are misunderstood victims of US aggression … leftists admire Chavez … leftists are filled with loathing for America … the list of these strawmen at times seems endless.

    In this regard Harries Rule 4 – never forget the uncommitted – is routinely broken. Although it must be noted here that Harries seems himself to fall into the unfortunate trap of seeing virtually all political discourse as an exercise in duality. The notion here and in Harries piece that seems fundamentally wrong is the idea that there is an “Us” and a “Them” along with an amorphous number of “uncommitted” spectators who might be convinced to join one team or the other. It is precisely this simplistic, adversarial view that is so distasteful and problematic in contemporary politics.

    This ties directly to Rule 5 about addressing multiple audiences. Here anyone daring to offer a comment that does not immediately join the choir and sing exactly in tune risks being savagely attacked rather than persuaded to reconsider. The idea of changing anyone’s mind, however difficult that may be, is obviously far less important to most commenting here than scoring points with one’s chums. It is like a gang of intellectuals whose weapons are words rather than firearms defending their virtual turf from all who dare venture here.

    Rule 10 is similarly ignored around here on a regular basis. Anyone disagreeing with any neo-con conventional wisdom is accused of all sorts of evil motives and intent.

    Still, it is always stimulating to drop by and see what Neo has to say and how her congregation responds.

  18. Mitsu Says:

    I tend to agree with you, Chris. Though I find Neo a sort of fascinating person, in a way, which is why I find myself drawn back to her website, I do agree that her wholesale conversion seems odd to me (as I’ve noted before). Since I myself tend towards the center (with some left leanings), I find myself often reconsidering issues, but one at a time, not in a big lump, as Neo seems to have done. She even described it as crossing a deep but narrow abyss, as though the entire collection of her current views come as a package, with the “opposite” views on the other side of a nearly impassable canyon. Yet views which we call “conservative” and “liberal” in our country comprise a mix of views which are called “conservative” and “liberal” in other countries. There’s nothing particularly special about our specific set of conservative and liberal views, which is why I happen to agree with the left on most issues, but the right on some, and I do so based on an independent evaluation of the specific issue.

    I also agree that Neo herself seems to be far more intriguing than her commenters, who seem to exude extreme views with no awareness of the possibility of dialogue. Though I agree with your characterization of Neo’s views as relatively doctrinaire, at least one senses in her a willingness to dialogue which seems quite lacking in most of her commenters.

  19. Vince P Says:

    Chris; I always love it when a Lefty complains about people not welcoming them with open arms while at the same time going on a mini-tirade about your views being dismissed.

    “Debating” with people on the Left is pointless. Primarily because all they seem to want to do is point fingers for the past (and they are usually wrong in what they are accusing whoever of doing)

    I rarely see a leftist present ideas or solutions for scutinty.

    So what is usually the case , any debate turns in the Leftist blaming all the world’s ills on America.. tearing down other people’s ideas.. and not offering any of their own.

    it’s just a constant assault on other people while holding themselves “above it all” and free from criticism.

  20. Chris White Says:

    Vince – Thanks for making some of my points for me so quickly.

    There’s a strawman … “Leftist blaming all the world’s ills on America.”

    There’s the rejection of discussion … “Debating with people on the Left is pointless.”

    And there’s the implied evil intent of those who do not wholly agree with your views … “constant assault on other people.”

    Perhaps you should consider re-reading the Harries piece and addressing whether you think he is offering good advice or not rather than taking umbrage at a gentle tweaking (not mini-tirade) from an independent noting that many commenters here could improve their game by following the Harries rules more often.

  21. Bookworm Room » Watcher’s Results Says:

    [...] Arguing Politics Neo-Neocon [...]

  22. Thomas Says:

    So, Chris, do you have anything to add or are you just here to prove Vinces’ points?

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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