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 Although the article was written in 1991 it hardly seems outdated in its twelve points to keep in mind when trying to make convincing points about politics.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.