The first thing, if you find yourself getting fed up with all the toxicity, is not to let it discourage you from participating in these conversations in the first place. That’s how toxicity wins – by grinding down all the reasonable people until they’re too exhausted to continue and just opt out of the discourse entirely. No doubt, it can be very tempting at times to just throw up your hands and say, “To hell with it, I’m done trying to reason with you people.” But the thing is, once you’ve decided you’re done trying to reason with your opponents, you’ve removed what might be the only voice of reason they’re hearing. Engaging with people you disagree with – even people you vehemently disagree with, whose views completely disgust you – is the only way to ensure that they’re actually being exposed to different ideas that might have a moderating influence on their own opinions. Merely washing your hands of them and leaving them to their own devices just means that they’ll settle further into what they already believe, since the only people they’ll be hearing from at that point are those who already share their views.
Sure, it’s possible that you won’t get anywhere when you try to engage with them. That may even be the most likely outcome – and in certain truly intractable situations, it really may be the right move to strategically cut your losses and move on to more productive discussions. But you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking that this is an actual solution to your disagreement. The solution to bad discourse is good discourse, not no discourse. And if you’re able to keep your composure, stay patient, and not slip into the pitfalls of bad discourse yourself, occasionally you really can have an actual influence on those who disagree with you. Ian Danskin provides a parable of sorts:
I celebrated New Year’s 2014 in the Boston Common with my girlfriend. And after ringing in the new year, we took the 2 AM train back towards her place in Providence. And, you can imagine: 2 AM, New Year’s Day, the train had a fair share of loud, drunk 20-somethings. And after a half hour or so of in-your-face revelry, a dude at the front of the train turned around and yelled at them, “You need to keep it down. It’s late, we’re tired, you’re not the only people in the world, much less this train.” And the exact moment he finished talking, someone yelled, “Eat a dick, man!” and they all laughed him down and got back to celebrating. And yes, that’s [antagonistic discourse] in a nutshell: responding to “Maybe be a decent person” with “Go fuck yourself” and going right back to business as usual. But here’s the thing: After a couple minutes, the train car quieted down. Because the air was sucked out. Everyone was self-conscious now. It’s one thing to blithely keep the party going without thinking how it affects others, and another when you know full well how it affects them, because they just told you. Something that was ignorant is now spiteful. And spite is harder to sustain. It takes effort.
Of course, not everyone responds to opposing viewpoints by becoming more self-conscious and ambivalent about their own viewpoints. Given how widespread the norms of antagonistic discourse have become, it’s all too common for people to gleefully double down on their spite and throw it in your face when challenged (at least at first). But every now and then, if done right, speaking up and speaking out for what you believe genuinely can make a difference. It may be easy to feel otherwise – after all, you’re only one person; how much difference can you really make? And it’s not like you’re the only person in the world who can speak out for your side; even if you don’t step up, surely somebody else will, right? As Roger Fisher and William Ury write:
Sometimes people seem to prefer feeling powerless and believing that there is nothing they can do to affect a situation. That belief helps them avoid feeling responsible or guilty about inaction. It also avoids the costs of trying to change the situation — making an effort and risking failure, which might cause the person embarrassment.
But in an age where contentious issues are often decided by the tiniest of margins, even the smallest contribution to the discourse can matter in the bigger picture. As Alexander puts it:
Improving the quality of debate, shifting people’s mindsets from transmission to collaborative truth-seeking, is a painful process. It has to be done one person at a time, it only works on people who are already almost ready for it, and you will pick up far fewer warm bodies per hour of work than with any of the other methods. But in an otherwise-random world, even a little purposeful action can make a difference. Convincing 2% of people would have flipped three of the last four US presidential elections. And this is a capacity to win-for-reasons-other-than-coincidence that you can’t build any other way.
(and my hope is that the people most willing to engage in debate, and the ones most likely to recognize truth when they see it, are disproportionately influential – scientists, writers, and community leaders who have influence beyond their number and can help others see reason in turn)
The truth is, some of the biggest social changes in history have come about simply because one person decided to share their ideas with others, and did so in a way that turned out to be extremely convincing. Sometimes this has been a great thing, other times not so much; but the impact is undeniable. Just imagine, for instance, how different the world would be today if Karl Marx had never decided to write down and share his ideas. Or imagine if Ayn Rand had never written down her ideas and shifted things in the opposite ideological direction. Or imagine if Harriet Beecher Stowe had never written Uncle Tom’s Cabin and so profoundly aroused popular sentiments against slavery. Or imagine if Upton Sinclair had never written The Jungle and transformed the national dialogue around workplace health and safety. Or imagine if Rachel Carson had never written Silent Spring and inspired the modern environmentalist movement. The list goes on. In each of these cases, a single person managed to change their whole society, simply by presenting their views in a compelling way. And this demonstrates a crucial point: Ideas really do matter. Presenting an idea in a way that the right people find convincing – whether those people be an entire population of voters or just a few powerful decision-makers – can make all the difference in the world. “Indeed,” as John Maynard Keynes (the most influential economist of the 20th century) once noted, “the world is ruled by little else.”
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.
And Friedrich Hayek, arguably the second-most influential economist of the 20th century, agreed:
Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers [and today that might also include TV and internet thought leaders], with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.
(To see just how prescient this turned out to be, I highly recommend these two great posts on the Mont Pelerin Society (to which Hayek belonged) and the Fabian Society – two tiny, relatively obscure groups whose quiet influence helped shape our entire socio-economic order into what it is today.)
For all the emphasis we place on the actions of politicians and activists when discussing how history is changed, those individuals’ actions – their votes and demonstrations and proposed laws and so on – are generally more an expression of the zeitgeist than a shaper of it. What actually drives their actions are the ideas that influence them. And that means that when it comes to changing the world, the thing that makes the biggest difference is simply spreading the right ideas to the right people, and doing so in a way that they actually find compelling. The key point here, though, as I’ve been stressing this whole time, is that those people actually have to be convinced; they can’t just be browbeaten into joining the cause.
And this brings us back to another important point from before – that once you’ve decided to engage in the discourse, merely joining the fray isn’t enough; you have to be smart about how you engage. It’s important not to shy away from grappling with opposing views – but it’s just as important not to overcorrect too far in the other direction by taking an ultra-combative approach that embraces hostile conflict. You want to make sure you’re participating in a way that’s actually constructive, not simply deepening the hostility between the two sides.
Most obviously, this means rejecting violence as a tactic. Sure, there have been sporadic cases of mass movements achieving their goals through the use of force in the past (and causing widespread death and destruction in the process) – but these instances almost universally took place before the advent of the modern-day free press and mass media that we have today. Now that we live in a time where information is so ubiquitous, conflicts aren’t just decided by whichever side fights the hardest; they’re decided by whichever side is best able to control the narrative and convince people that they’re right. It’s not a question of who’s physically stronger anymore; it’s all about public persuasion and optics now. And this is a good thing – it means that righteous underdogs have a better chance of winning than they used to. But it also means that if they aren’t smart in their strategy – i.e. if they adopt the same violent tactics that they’re protesting against – then they’re shooting themselves in the foot and doing more harm to their cause than good (to paraphrase Christian Picciolini).
Take the aforementioned example of leftists using violence to disrupt white supremacist rallies, for instance. As Robinson writes:
[In indulging violent impulses,] we might punch a Nazi, and feel pleased and victorious as we watch him bleed and cry, [but what we don’t realize is] that we have just made him 100 times more determined and vengeful, and have pushed his previously unsympathetic friends another inch closer to the far right position.
Consider Natasha Lennard’s article on “making Nazis afraid.” […] Lennard’s theory appears to be that the only way to prevent the rise of fascism is through violently attacking those who support it, and that if any violent anti-fascist group failed, it was simply because they did not have enough people committing enough violence. The solution is always, then, more violence. If you see white supremacist groups growing, you need greater numbers of people “besieging” them.
But what if this is wrong? What if, in fact, violent besiegings do contribute to an escalating cycle of violence? What if, here and now, they do serve as a formidable recruiting tool? I hope we’re certain that this is not the case, because if we’re wrong the consequences could be disastrous. I even see people on the left citing Hitler himself, who said that “only one thing could have stopped our movement – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” But are we certain that we should be trusting Adolf Hitler as an authority on what to do about Nazis? Hitler believed in a world in which only “superior brutality” could ensure political success. And, certainly, it worked for him – it just also left tens of millions of people dead. Personally I believe we should make sure we have exhausted every other possible option before resorting to “utmost brutality” and I would like to know why people think we have exhausted the other options.
I’m not confident that Lennard is taking the difficult questions seriously. For instance, she says that “white supremacy has never receded because it was asked politely.” But this is a facile and unfair description of those who question the utility of violence. Nobody is saying you should ask white supremacy politely to go away. The battle is not for the hearts and minds of white supremacists, but for the hearts and minds of the general public. Many on the left who take Lennard’s position believe that those who call for nonviolence are suggesting you can “debate white supremacism out of existence.” That’s not the case, though. What they say is that you win more public supporters by making your case through a clear and well-organized communication of your ideas than through showing up to right-wing events and hitting people with clubs. “Nazis don’t listen to reason,” people scoff. No, but people who are not Nazis might listen to reason, and the important thing is to make sure that the Nazis are marginal by keeping the vast majority of people on your side rather than driving anyone else toward theirs. “Fascism cannot be defeated by speech.” But how the hell do they know this? Nazi Germany couldn’t be defeated by speech. But a nascent and tiny group of fringe racists? I have more confidence than many on the left in the power of left-wing ideas to defeat pseudoscience and bigotry. And I’m always amazed that people give up on the value of communicating anti-racist ideas using reason and rhetoric even before they have actually tried it. (Also, if we’re being honest, some white supremacists can actually be convinced to drop their ideology. Former KKK “prodigy” R. Derek Black was slowly drawn away from his father’s racist belief system thanks to patient and caring liberal classmates, and recently wrote an essay on how shameful America’s racial history is.)
Many of the arguments I’ve seen against nonviolence […] have not been especially persuasive. Sometimes they’re just sophistry: this Washington Post op-ed suggests that “violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history.” The author’s justification for this statement is that Martin Luther King intentionally provoked violence from police and white supremacists in order to demonstrate the violence inherent in the U.S. racial hierarchy. But using this to say that “violence was critical” to the civil rights movement is odd, because it implies that the civil rights movement itself was violent, when it wasn’t. One can blur distinctions, but the civil rights movement simply did not deploy aggressive violence against its opponents.
The usual response here is to invoke Malcolm X: Martin Luther King’s nonviolence, it is said, only worked because whites preferred to deal with the nonviolent Martin rather than the non-nonviolent Malcolm. And that’s true: King succeeded in part because of a tacit “good cop/bad cop” dynamic between himself and more radical black activists. Endorsing King’s nonviolence without understanding the full range of tactics used in the pursuit of black liberation is a selective reading of history. But flattening Malcolm X into little more than a “scary, violence-advocating counterpart” to MLK is no less misleading. Something that is very rarely noted about Malcolm X is that while he is known for his defense of violence, he is not known for actually having used violence. In fact, in his practice Malcolm X was generally no more violent than King. He was famously pictured holding an M1 carbine rifle, and openly criticized demands that black people refrain from fighting back even if attacked. But Malcolm did not stage armed uprisings; he spoke of self-defense against aggression and a willingness to use whatever means would actually secure a person’s rights and dignity. “I don’t mean go out and get violent,” he said, but rather exercising nonviolence on the condition that others remained nonviolent. “It doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense.” The rifle-photograph actually illustrates Malcolm’s attitude well: in it, he stands looking out the window, gun at the ready. He is not prowling around seeking racists to kill, he is standing firm and protecting his rights and dignity.
If someone is going to advocate “self-defensive violence” or “violence if necessary to achieve one’s rights” it’s very important to make clear what would and would not constitute self-defense, and what “necessity” is. Malcolm X was an incredibly disciplined and thoughtful individual, and he made careful distinctions between violence as a specific narrow tool for achieving one’s liberty against another violent aggressor, and wanton, useless violence. One can even agree with everything Malcolm X says about the legitimacy of violence in self-defense and still believe that King’s strategy of nonviolence is the optimum way to achieve certain social objectives. Personally, this is where I come down: I do not feel comfortable telling someone who is physically attacked that they should not defend themselves, but I also think King is right that radical nonviolence (never forget the “radical” part) is usually the best way of winning the public to one’s cause, unless you are already in a situation where Hitler is about to take power and there is little left to do but fight.
If we’re going to endorse “self-defense,” though, it’s important to be clear on what that is. In Charlottesville, the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported seeing “club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” Is attacking people who are retreating a form of self-defense? The justification here is usually that fascist ideology is itself violence, meaning that it’s not necessary for a person who holds such an ideology to actually be the one to initiate physical force in order for violence to be “defensive.” But if we accept that, then simply walking up to a Trump supporter and stabbing them would seem to also be an act of self-defense, at which point… “self-defense” seems to mean something quite different from people’s ordinary understanding of it. Mark Bray (a white Ivy League professor!) says it is a “privileged” position to criticize “self-defense.” Fine. But have we thereby justified every single kind of aggressive act toward anyone on the right, or are there some we haven’t justified? The slippage, where once you’ve justified “any means necessary” in combating fascism, you have license to do anything to anyone that you’ve labeled a fascist, seems in part responsible for some of the more aggressive (and, in my mind, strategically unhelpful) acts by Antifa members.
Nicholas Christakis sums it up succinctly when he says:
Disagreement is not oppression. Argument is not assault. Words – even provocative or repugnant ones – are not violence. The answer to speech we do not like is more speech.
And without a doubt, there are much more effective ways of advancing worthy causes than simply going out into the street and administering beatings to anyone who opposes them. As Singal writes:
What proponents of disrupting racist gatherings often leave out is that there are alternatives that can help delegitimize white supremacists without falling into any of these potential traps, and without setting aside progressives’ normal ethical qualms about violence. For those instances in which a group of white supremacists really are just attempting to rally or to march, have their permits in order, and so on – meaning there’s no legal way for their opponents to prevent the event – Schanzer laid out a fairly straightforward alternative: Counterdemonstrators should respond assertively, vociferously, and in far superior numbers – but at a distance from the extremists themselves. This tactic both prevents the sort of violent conflict American hate groups want, and has the added benefit of drawing at least some media and social-media attention away from the smaller hateful gathering and toward the much larger counterprotest.
It also seems to be the preferred approach of a wide variety of experts and advocates in this area. “The main thing that [hate groups] seek is attention and publicity to disseminate a message of hate,” Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, told NPR’s “All Things Considered” during an interview about today’s planned “free speech” rally on Boston Common, which some are concerned will be a magnet for hate groups. “And so the best-case scenario is they come and they speak at the Common and there is nobody there to listen.” And Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a contributing op-ed writer at the Times, explained earlier this week that according to experts, “Violence directed at white nationalists only fuels their narrative of victimhood – of a hounded, soon-to-be-minority who can’t exercise their rights to free speech without getting pummeled.” “I would want to punch a Nazi in the nose, too,” Maria Stephan, a program director at the United States Institute of Peace, told him. “But there’s a difference between a therapeutic and strategic response.” Progressives would be eagerly echoing and retweeting this sort of logic if the wonks in question were talking about ISIS rather than the National Vanguard. Why should their insights suddenly be ignored?
If this line of thinking is correct, anyone disgusted by organized displays of explicit hatred should adopt a stance along the lines of this: “You know what? Let the Nazis rally. Let them try to promote a dying ideology the entire nation finds execrable. Down the road we are going to set up a big, inclusive show of solidarity that will be ten times larger. And anyone who is scared or intimidated or angry should come there, rather than risk their well-being facing down the dregs of society.” To be sure, this approach may not be as satisfying as punching Nazis, but it may increase the odds that in the future, there will be fewer Nazis to punch in the first place.
But perhaps the best reason to try to respond peacefully, whenever possible, is simply that violence is unpredictable and never easily contained (not even in the short term – [just ask the] two journalists who got attacked [by anti-Nazi demonstrators during the 2017 Charlottesville protests]). The risk that white-supremacist groups could get more and more radicalized and militant needs to be taken seriously, because however scary it was to see what happened in Charlottesville [in 2017], things can get much, much worse. And if things do get worse, plenty of the victims will be people who never asked to take this fight to the streets. In most other situations, progressives understand – or claim to understand – the moral gravity of calling for violence. They shouldn’t let a scary but small group of deeply loathed bigots steer them off course.
By the standards of history, a striking feature of the late-20th-century Rights Revolutions is how little violence they employed or even provoked. King himself was a martyr of the civil rights movement, as were the handful of victims of segregationist terrorism. But the urban riots that we associate with the 1960s were not a part of the civil rights movement and erupted after most of its milestones were in place. The other revolutions had hardly any violence at all: there was the nonlethal Stonewall riot, some terrorism from the fringes of the animal rights movement, and that’s about it. Their entrepreneurs wrote books, gave speeches, held marches, lobbied legislators, and gathered signatures for plebiscites. They had only to nudge a populace that had become receptive to an ethic based on the rights of individuals and were increasingly repelled by violence in any form. Compare this record to that of earlier movements which ended despotism, slavery, and colonial empires only after bloodbaths that killed people by the hundreds of thousands or millions.
King immediately appreciated that Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent resistance was not a moralistic affirmation of love, as nonviolence had been in the teachings of Jesus. Instead it was a set of hardheaded tactics to prevail over an adversary by outwitting him rather than trying to annihilate him. A taboo on violence, King inferred, prevents a movement from being corrupted by thugs and firebrands who are drawn to adventure and mayhem. It preserves morale and focus among followers when the movement suffers early defeats. By removing any pretext for legitimate retaliation by the enemy, it stays on the positive side of the moral ledger in the eyes of third parties, while luring the enemy onto the negative side. For the same reason, it divides the enemy, paring away supporters who find it increasingly uncomfortable to identify themselves with one-sided violence. All the while it can press its agenda by making a nuisance of itself with sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations. The tactic obviously won’t work with all enemies, but it can work with some.
Karuna Mantena cites Reinhold Niebuhr to further explain why nonviolence is so effective:
Niebuhr was a political realist, perhaps the most influential realist of the 20th century. As such, he argued that political conflict was rooted in struggles of and over power. At the same time, political contestation generates and is exacerbated by resentments and egoistic sentiments. People take criticism of their political beliefs and position very personally, as insults and unjust accusations. Movements that question privilege will be met by indignation, animosity and resistance. Moreover, insurgent movements, movements that question the status quo, suffer a triple burden. They have to fight a better-resourced and entrenched opposition. They face the impassioned hostility that the contestation of privilege provokes. Protestors are readily branded as criminals, anarchists and inciters of violence.
Disciplined nonviolence can disrupt these natural presumptions and dynamics. Niebuhr saw that nonviolent protests, like all protests, involve coercion, intimidation and disruption. Protest in the form of economic boycott or a nonviolent march or demonstration will understandably be resented by those against whom it is aimed. But more neutral bystanders whom the protest incidentally disturbs and inconveniences might also respond with hostility and misunderstanding. The Occupy movements, for example, generated criticism as public nuisances.
Successful movements try to mitigate these negative consequences through the style and structure of nonviolent protest enacted. By ‘enduring more suffering than it causes’ (in Niebuhr’s words) nonviolence demonstrates goodwill towards the opposition. Its discipline displays a moral purpose beyond resentment and selfish ambition. Together, goodwill and the repression of personal resentment temper the passionate resistance of opponents. Ideally, this tempering can help to weaken the opposition’s entrenched commitments. More often, it has a salutary effect on potential allies of the movement, the neutral observers and the public at large. When protestors adopt discipline in their comportment and dress, this negates portrayals of them as criminal elements or enemies of public order. The jeering opposition is now exposed as irrational and uncivil in their response to the civility of the protestors. Disciplined, temperate protestors can divert and reduce hostilities to help the public to see beyond the inflamed situation to the underlying dispute.
Gandhi and King’s nonviolence required the repression of resentment and anger to garner the right political effect. Neither of them denied anger was a justified response to the experience of oppression, but they saw that it would not be, in Niebuhr’s terms, ‘morally and politically wise’ to make resentment the face of political action. Resentment, anger and indignation arouse opponents’ egoism and hostility, and tend to alienate bystanders. This was why, for Niebuhr, ‘the more the egoistic element can be purged from resentment, the purer a vehicle of justice it becomes’.
A movement’s success, in short, doesn’t just depend on how passionate or outraged its participants are. It depends on how well they’re able to channel that passion and outrage into constructive action. And just to add to this, “constructive action” doesn’t just mean street demonstrations. Even if a movement’s participants conduct themselves perfectly, street demonstrations alone can’t be expected to carry that movement to victory unless there’s a broader plan of action to follow them up. This is another major reason why the civil rights movement was so successful – its participants weren’t just venting their frustrations through big, theatrical gestures and then going home. They actually organized, planned, and carried out concrete steps toward achieving specific policy goals. Heller explains:
Why did civil-rights protest work where recent activism struggles?
“Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organization cavity before the first protest or march,” [Zeynep Tufekci] writes. “However, with this speed comes weakness.”
Tufekci believes that digital-age protests are not simply faster, more responsive versions of their mid-century parents. They are fundamentally distinct. [At protests of the Erdoğan government] at Gezi Park [in Instanbul], she finds that nearly everything is accomplished by spontaneous tactical assemblies of random activists – the [L.A.] Kauffman model carried further through the ease of social media. “Preexisting organizations whether formal or informal played little role in the coordination,” she writes. “Instead, to take care of tasks, people hailed down volunteers in the park or called for them via hashtags on Twitter or WhatsApp messages.” She calls this style of off-the-cuff organizing “adhocracy.” Once, just getting people to show up required top-down coördination, but today anyone can gather crowds through tweets, and update, in seconds, thousands of strangers on the move.
At the same time, she finds, shifts in tactics are harder to arrange. Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations. When the Gezi Park occupation intensified and the Turkish government expressed an interest in talking, it was unclear who, in the assembly of millions, could represent the protesters, and so the government selected its own negotiating partners. The protest diffused into disordered discussion groups, at which point riot police swarmed through to clear the park. The protests were over, they declared – and, by that time, they largely were.
The missing ingredients, Tufekci believes, are the structures and communication patterns that appear when a fixed group works together over time. That practice puts the oil in the well-oiled machine. It is what contemporary adhocracy appears to lack, and what projects such as the postwar civil-rights movement had in abundance. And it is why, she thinks, despite their limits in communication, these earlier protests often achieved more.
Tufekci describes weeks of careful planning behind the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, in 1955. That spring, a black fifteen-year-old named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested. Today, though, relatively few people have heard of Claudette Colvin. Why? Drawing on an account by Jo Ann Robinson, Tufekci tells of the Montgomery N.A.A.C.P.’s shrewd process of auditioning icons. “Each time after an arrest on the bus system, organizations in Montgomery discussed whether this was the case around which to launch a campaign,” she writes. “They decided to keep waiting until the right moment with the right person.” Eventually, they found their star: an upstanding, middle-aged movement stalwart who could withstand a barrage of media scrutiny. This was Rosa Parks.
On Thursday, December 1st, eight months after Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat, Parks was arrested. That night, Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, typed a boycott announcement three times on a single sheet of paper and began running it through the school’s mimeograph machine, for distribution through a local network of black social organizations. The boycott, set to begin on Monday morning, was meant to last a single day. But so many joined that the organizers decided to extend it – which necessitated a three-hundred-and-twenty-five-vehicle carpool network to get busless protesters to work. Through such scrupulous engineering, the boycott continued for three hundred and eighty-one days. Parks became a focal point for national media coverage, while Colvin and four other women were made plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that, rising to the Supreme Court, got bus segregation declared unconstitutional.
What is striking about the bus boycott is not so much its passion, which is easy to relate to, as its restraint, which – at this moment, especially – is not. No outraged Facebook posts spread the news when Colvin was arrested. Local organizers bided their time, slowly planning, structuring, and casting what amounted to a work of public theatre, and then built new structures as their plans changed. The protest was expressive in the most confected sense, a masterpiece of control and logistics. It was strategic, with the tactics following. And that made all the difference in the world.
Tufekci suggests that, among that era’s successes, deliberateness of this kind was a rule. She points out how, in preparation for the March on Washington, in 1963, a master plan extended even to the condiments on the sandwiches distributed to marchers. (They had no mayonnaise; organizers worried that the spread might spoil in the August heat.) And she focusses on the role of the activist leader Bayard Rustin, who was fixated on the audio equipment that would be used to amplify the day’s speeches. Rustin insisted on paying lavishly for an unusually high-quality setup. Making every word audible to all of the quarter-million marchers on the Mall, he was convinced, would elevate the event from mere protest to national drama. He was right.
Before the march, Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered variations on his “I Have a Dream” speech twice in public. He had given a longer version to a group of two thousand people in North Carolina. And he had presented a second variation, earlier in the summer, before a vast crowd of a hundred thousand at a march in Detroit. The reason we remember only the Washington, D.C., version, Tufekci argues, has to do with the strategic vision and attentive detail work of people like Rustin. Framed by the Lincoln Memorial, amplified by a fancy sound system, delivered before a thousand-person press bay with good camera sight lines, King’s performance came across as something more than what it had been in Detroit – it was the announcement of a shift in national mood, the fulcrum of a movement’s story line and power. It became, in other words, the rarest of protest performances: the kind through which American history can change.
Tufekci’s conclusions about the civil-rights movement are unsettling because of what they imply. People such as Kauffman portray direct democracy as a scrappy, passionate enterprise: the underrepresented, the oppressed, and the dissatisfied get together and, strengthened by numbers, force change. Tufekci suggests that the movements that succeed are actually proto-institutional: highly organized; strategically flexible, due to sinewy management structures; and chummy with the sorts of people we now call élites.
The dry technical work of formulating policies, identifying the people whose views it’s most important to change (this part is crucial), and coordinating the necessary logistics to reach those people may not be as satisfying as spontaneously taking to the streets and busting some heads – at least not to some activists – but it is generally more effective. Pargin puts it this way:
You need to ask yourself one crucial question: Are you in it for the cause, or are you in it for the fight? There’s an easy way to tell: Do you get involved with the boring parts?
Donald Trump’s entire agenda could be obliterated a little more than a year from now with a new congress, but statistically the vast majority of you won’t vote at all (and I’d say the vast majority who show up to anti-Nazi rallies also won’t cast a vote). Smacking Nazis with clubs is fun. Voting in midterms is not. Only one results in real change. Hell, in the 2016 election that supposedly determined the future of humanity “Did Not Vote” won 44 of 50 states. Why are some of you willing to put yourself in physical danger at a protest but won’t suffer the tedium of real-world policy change? Deep down inside, you know the answer.
“But voting doesn’t change anything!” Okay, the outcome of exactly one senate race just prevented Obamacare from being repealed. Twenty million people will have health insurance next year because just a small group of voters — enough to fit in a stadium — showed up instead of staying home. You think Hillary would be talking about repealing DACA? “Sometimes violence is the only way!” Are you saying that based on evidence, or because you want it to be true? For every nationalist/authoritarian movement that got turned back by war, literally thousands quietly died due to losing elections or just failing to drum up popular support. How many elections has David Duke won?
Like it or not, the battle of ideas isn’t a battle that can be won through brute force. (In fact, just to drive the point home, even actual wars – the kind with tanks and bullets – are becoming harder to win through brute force; rather than crushing their enemies through violence alone, modern military forces are increasingly being forced to wage battles for “hearts and minds” instead, lest they radicalize populations against them.) If you want people to take your ideas seriously, then smashing windows and picking fights isn’t how you convince them to join you in your cause. You have to engage constructively.
And this doesn’t just mean rejecting physical violence, by the way – it means rejecting rhetorical belligerence too. Getting in your opponents’ faces and spouting off buzzword insults is a great way to discredit yourself in their eyes (and in the eyes of neutral observers) and sabotage any possibility of constructive engagement – so if that’s your goal, then by all means mock your opponents and misrepresent their views all you want. As David Christopher Bell writes:
Hey conservatives, want to make liberals stop taking you seriously? Call them a “cuck” or “libtard” or “snowflake.” Heeeey liberals, want to make conservatives stop taking you seriously? Call them a “basement dweller” or a “fascist” or a “deplorable.” Call the president “Cheeto-face” or “Drumpf.” It’s a surefire way to make your opponent not only unaffected by your words, but also think of you as being another cultist reading off a tired script of go-to phrases and insults.
But if you actually want to bring people around to your way of thinking, you need to demonstrate that your ideology is a thoughtful and well-reasoned one. A lot of activists seem to have this idea that the best way to get their opponents to stop ignoring them and start taking them seriously is to just be louder and more aggressive and more in-their-face. But of course, as Friedersdorf notes, this is in fact the best way to make people want to keep ignoring you and rejecting your ideas:
People are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.
It’s understandable that tempers might be running high and patience might be running low given how contentious a lot of these issues are, and especially given how much is often at stake. If what the other side is doing is especially egregious, you might find it almost impossible to treat them with anything other than hatred or contempt. These are matters of life and death hanging in the balance, after all – can you really be expected to act as polite and civil as if this were just some academic debate club? But the key point here is that it’s possible to be both completely outraged about something and strategically judicious in your approach to resolving it – and it’s precisely because the ideas you’re arguing are so important that it’s so crucial to promote them in a way that will actually change people’s minds rather than polarizing them against you. The most successful political dissidents in history have embodied precisely this approach; when Martin Luther King stood up in front of the entire country to give his legendary speech, he didn’t just start spewing vitriol into the microphone (and you can imagine how well his arguments would have been received if he had just gotten up there and started screaming “HEY MR. SO-CALLED PRESIDENT FUCK YOU FOR NOT ACKNOWLEDGING OUR RIGHTS YOU FASCIST PIECE OF SHIT,” etc.). Rather, when the spotlight was on him, he realized the importance of making his case – and by doing so in a way that was serious and compelling, he turned the nation to his side and won the day.
Here’s T1J on the subject:
For some people, politics seems to be a game of good versus evil. So the concept of common ground with political opponents seems unthinkable. And some people are astonished by the mere suggestion that they should have to ever defend their positions.
[These people] often have this smug incredulity where it’s like, “You should already know better, I shouldn’t have to explain it to you” – and I’ve even been guilty of that, and maybe it’s even true sometimes. But it’s damn sure not convincing. Neither are insults or social media callouts. But you know what is? Arguments. If you’re good at making them.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the patience for this kind of intellectual maneuvering. In some activist circles, even raising the possibility that reasoned dialogue might be more productive than angry outbursts can get you accused of “tone policing.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, the strongest case for it I’ve seen is this comic strip.) But pointing out that angrily shouting at people is less likely to get a positive response than calmly talking with them isn’t the same as (say) a police officer giving someone a ticket for speeding; it’s more like a friend warning them that driving too fast can attract speeding tickets. The latter isn’t an act of “policing;” it’s a helpful heads-up about which actions will lead to which consequences. That is, it isn’t a prescriptive statement – saying that you have to conduct yourself in a certain way – it’s a descriptive one – saying that if you conduct yourself in a certain way, then it’ll be more likely to get a negative response than if you conduct yourself in another way. Accordingly, if your goal in expressing your opinions is just to let off steam or commiserate with people who feel the same way you do (even if it means potentially alienating people who don’t belong to your in-group), then by all means vent your frustrations freely and don’t worry about how your tone might be received. But if your goal is to actually persuade the people who don’t already agree with you (as it seems like it should be if you really believe in your ideas), then it’s just an unavoidable fact that blasting them with outrage will probably do more to undermine your cause than help it. This doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore the question of whether an issue affects you emotionally; if it’s central to the issue being discussed, then of course you should include that fact in your discussions. But trying to change people’s minds with emotional outbursts as a substitute for well-reasoned arguments is a recipe for failure. Sure, strategic self-restraint can be hard; you may have to grit your teeth and force yourself to maintain composure even if you’re seething inside. But again, it’s just a matter of what your priorities are – are you more interested in being able to cathartically vent your outrage and signal that outrage to your peers, or are you more interested in making legitimate progress on this issue you feel so strongly about? To put it more bluntly, is it about you, or is it about the cause?
It’s hard to take someone seriously when they appear to prioritize their own outrage above the cause they’re ostensibly outraged about. From your critics’ perspective, it proves that your activism is simply a pretense – that you’d rather continue being a victim (so you can keep being outraged about it) than produce real change in the world so that you’re not a victim anymore (and don’t have to keep feeling outraged). It gives the impression that you’re not really a mature adult committed to helping your cause by whatever means will be most effective (even if it means, God forbid, strategically keeping your own personal emotions in check at times), but rather that you’re just a spoiled child whose only concern is being able to give the world a piece of your mind whenever you want, regardless of the consequences. This may be an unfair judgment, sure – but when you persistently refuse to “calm down and have an adult conversation,” it’s the impression you give, whether you want to or not.
The alternative approach – making a conscious effort to be reasonable – doesn’t mean that you have to water down your beliefs or compromise your convictions just for the sake of “playing nice.” It’s perfectly possible to advocate even the most radical beliefs while still maintaining your poise and dignity. Choosing to remain civil just means recognizing that there are better ways of winning people to your beliefs than simply demanding that they do so. The way to get respect is by displaying respectability.
And for what it’s worth, there are also good reasons to choose civil discourse over combative rhetoric just in terms of your own personal self-interest. Constantly maintaining a hostile, trip-wire mentality – constantly reacting to things and finding new reasons to get outraged – can be exhausting. It can lead to perpetual bitterness and, in time, to total burnout. If you’re able to maintain your composure, on the other hand, it can do a lot more to preserve your mental sharpness and ensure your long-term durability. So even if all you care about is your own peace of mind, keeping an even keel is usually the best way to achieve that.
As Megan McArdle adds, it’s also important to maintain civility simply in order to coexist with the other parts of your society which are going to continue to exist whether you like it or not. A lot of activists seem intent on treating life as if it were a video game, in which you could defeat your enemies in a way that would cause them to simply disappear – but as she explains in a podcast interview, the reality is the exact opposite:
I wrote a column about the fact that America is like a marriage. It’s like a marriage in a country with no divorce. You cannot win a marriage. You can only win something that ends before you do. And so, you can’t just beat the other 50% of the population. They’re here. You’ve got to figure out a way to live with them. And if we want, we can have a bad marriage. There were lots of them around before divorce was legal; there are still some around now. We can have a terrible marriage where we scream at each other and we’re bitter, we say nasty things to each other all the time. But you don’t win that. You lose that. Because now you’re in a miserable marriage. And the other person has just as much power to hurt you as you have to hurt them. And that is, I think, in a lot of ways the lesson of Trump – and you can also say the lesson of gay marriage, where social conservatives turned around and said, “Why is everyone beating me up?” and it’s like, “Well, these people felt like you were beating them up for a long time, that’s why.”
We have to recognize that the other population is not going away. And that if you want to live with them without them constantly hurting you, you have to not look to constantly hurt them.
Eboo Patel agrees:
When did they teach you that diversity is […] just the differences you like? It’s not all samosas and egg rolls. Diversity is about disagreements. There’s a great line: “Diversity is not rocket science; it’s harder.” Because if you’re engaging people with whom you have differences that you don’t like, [with whom] you have disagreements, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to engage those people. Does the fact of that disagreement – voting differently in a particular election, disagreeing on fundamental issues, immigration policy for example, abortion – does that disagreement cancel any chance of a relationship? If it does, we don’t have a civil society anymore. How do you have PTAs, or a little league, or hospitals? That’s what a diverse civil society is about: the ability to disagree on some fundamental things, and still work together on other fundamental things. That doesn’t mean that you bracket your disagreement forever. Part of the beauty of working together on other fundamental things is the ability to build a relationship on something that matters, such that you might be able to broach that disagreement with a different tone. But if we allow some disagreements to cancel any possibility of a relationship, we’re in real trouble as a society.
Now of course there are limits. I am happy to engage just about everybody in the United States of America in a conversation, or to be part of an athletic league with them, or to be on the PTA with them, but I’m not buying a brownie from the KKK bake sale. There are limits. But I think that in a diverse civil society, when we recognize that diversity is not just the differences we like, those limits are not “the person who voted differently from you in the last election;” those limits are “the true barbarians.” And the way the great political philosopher defined the term “barbarian” is: the barbarian is the person who destroys the conversation. Civilization means people from different backgrounds living together and talking together. The barbarian is the person who destroys the conversation. I think that person is beyond the circle of civil discourse; anybody else, I’m engaging with.
Aside from these purely pragmatic and self-interested reasons, though, Patel’s last point also raises the most important reason of all to treat your ideological opponents with civility – which is simply that, believe it or not, most of them aren’t actually the over-the-top caricatures of evil that your side so often wants to paint them as. Your opponents might dispute some of your ideas – their own ideas might even be horribly, disastrously wrong – but that doesn’t automatically mean that each and every one of them is therefore some kind of fiendish mustache-twirling villain whose sole terminal value is to inflict maximum suffering on others and make the world a worse place. In 99.9% of cases, people genuinely believe that they’re the “good guys” acting in the cause of righteousness. And the fact that they may be misguided in this belief, or that they may have been exposed to inaccurate information that has led them to draw the wrong conclusions, doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or evil. It just means that they’re wrong. As Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay write:
Differences of opinion, even moral opinions, are not necessarily moral failings. People hold moral beliefs for a range of reasons, from culture to personal experience to ignorance. If someone reasons her way to a false moral view, this doesn’t make her a bad person. It just means her reasoning was in error.
People can get things wrong sometimes – even horribly, disastrously wrong – while still believing that their ideas and actions are based on well-founded principles and that they’re on the right side of the moral argument. And if you just say they’re stupid or evil and that’s the end of your explanation, then as Steven Zuber puts it, you’re probably not thinking hard enough.
Yudkowsky talks about this in depth:
Are your enemies innately evil?
As previously discussed, we see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and their inherent dispositions. We see unusual dispositions that exactly match the unusual behavior, rather than asking after real situations or imagined situations that could explain the behavior. We hypothesize mutants.
When someone actually offends us – commits an action of which we (rightly or wrongly) disapprove – then, I observe, the correspondence bias redoubles. There seems to be a very strong tendency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy’s mutant, evil disposition. Not as a moral point, but as a strict question of prior probability, we should ask what the Enemy might believe about their situation which would reduce the seeming bizarrity of their behavior. This would allow us to hypothesize a less exceptional disposition, and thereby shoulder a lesser burden of improbability.
On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America. Now why do you suppose they might have done that? Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?
Realistically, most people don’t construct their life stories with themselves as the villains. Everyone is the hero of their own story. The Enemy’s story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad. If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you’ll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy’s mind.
But politics is the mind-killer. Debate is war; arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the opposing side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back.
If the Enemy did have an evil disposition, that would be an argument in favor of your side. And any argument that favors your side must be supported, no matter how silly – otherwise you’re letting up the pressure somewhere on the battlefront. Everyone strives to outshine their neighbor in patriotic denunciation, and no one dares to contradict. Soon the Enemy has horns, bat wings, flaming breath, and fangs that drip corrosive venom. If you deny any aspect of this on merely factual grounds, you are arguing the Enemy’s side; you are a traitor. Very few people will understand that you aren’t defending the Enemy, just defending the truth.
If it took a mutant to do monstrous things, the history of the human species would look very different. Mutants would be rare.
Or maybe the fear is that understanding will lead to forgiveness. It’s easier to shoot down evil mutants. It is a more inspiring battle cry to scream, “Die, vicious scum!” instead of “Die, people who could have been just like me but grew up in a different environment!” You might feel guilty killing people who weren’t pure darkness.
This looks to me like the deep-seated yearning for a one-sided policy debate in which the best policy has no drawbacks. If an army is crossing the border or a lunatic is coming at you with a knife, the policy alternatives are (a) defend yourself (b) lie down and die. If you defend yourself, you may have to kill. If you kill someone who could, in another world, have been your friend, that is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy. The other option, lying down and dying, is also a tragedy. Why must there be a non-tragic option? Who says that the best policy available must have no downside? If someone has to die, it may as well be the initiator of force, to discourage future violence and thereby minimize the total sum of death.
If the Enemy has an average disposition, and is acting from beliefs about their situation that would make violence a typically human response, then that doesn’t mean their beliefs are factually accurate. It doesn’t mean they’re justified. It means you’ll have to shoot down someone who is the hero of their own story, and in their novel the protagonist will die on page 80. That is a tragedy, but it is better than the alternative tragedy. It is the choice that every police officer [is tasked with potentially having to make], every day, to keep our neat little worlds from dissolving into chaos.
When you accurately estimate the Enemy’s psychology – when you know what is really in the Enemy’s mind – that knowledge won’t feel like landing a delicious punch on the opposing side. It won’t give you a warm feeling of righteous indignation. It won’t make you feel good about yourself. If your estimate makes you feel unbearably sad, you may be seeing the world as it really is. More rarely, an accurate estimate may send shivers of serious horror down your spine, as when dealing with true psychopaths, or neurologically intact people with beliefs that have utterly destroyed their sanity (Scientologists or Jesus Camp).
So let’s come right out and say it – the 9/11 hijackers weren’t evil mutants. They did not hate freedom. They, too, were the heroes of their own stories, and they died for what they believed was right – truth, justice, and the Islamic way. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean their beliefs were true. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean that we have to agree that what they did was justified. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean that the passengers of United Flight 93 should have stood aside and let it happen. It does mean that in another world, if they had been raised in a different environment, those hijackers might have been police officers. And that is indeed a tragedy. Welcome to Earth.
The fact is, even the most egregious wrongdoers have reasons for believing what they believe. These reasons may not always be very good ones, but the fact that they exist in the first place means that there’s something there that can be addressed and potentially refuted. People’s minds can be changed if you use the right approach – but that’s only possible if you acknowledge that your opponents really do have beliefs that they sincerely think are right, and that they hold these beliefs honestly and are therefore capable of changing them. If your criticism is focused on these ideas, not on the people themselves – if your aim is to correct bad ideas rather than to punish the people who hold them – then you actually can move the needle, even if only little by little. But if you insist on treating your opponents as pure mindless forces of evil, which can never be persuaded to change their minds and therefore can only be destroyed, then by definition you’re making it impossible for the dispute between you to ever reach a peaceful resolution. As Pargin puts it in another podcast discussion:
Even if it is a snarling person at a rally screaming racist slogans – that person’s got a story; they got to that place in their life somehow. People don’t pop out of the womb with a swastika on their neck; they make a series of choices to get there. And we know from history that there are factors in society that create these movements, and you can do things to combat them – but you have to acknowledge that it’s a real thing; you can’t just be dismissive of it, and just be very snarky and sarcastic and just endlessly make fun of these people as being ignorant or hateful or whatever, because we now have evidence, that’s not a winning technique.
[Even the most radical extremists] can be convinced [to change their views]. But they are not shamed out of their positions; that simply doesn’t work. And what the Daily Show does, and what John Oliver does, and what now Samantha Bee does, and many other outlets on YouTube or whatever, where you just mock those people and call them monsters and you roll your eyes, and it’s like, “How could anybody possibly believe these things or support these things?” – that doesn’t work. That doesn’t bring them around.
If you’re actually interested in trying to turn your enemies into allies – and not just denouncing them to show how passionate and committed you are to your cause – then you’ve got to do more than just demand that they join your side and then mock them if they don’t. You’ve got to actually bring good arguments to the table and lay those arguments out in a persuasive way. As David Pizarro puts it:
If you are right [in your beliefs], then there ought to be reasons you are right. [You should] register those reasons, and make them known, [but just] shouting down [your opponents] really misses the whole point of being able to exercise your ability to have free thought. [When] there’s no well-reasoned arguments [and instead] you have protest by shouting, then I feel like you lose.
To return to our point from before: In the same way that violence is a symmetric weapon – i.e. one that helps the more powerful side to win regardless of who’s actually right – so too are tactics like trying to silence or punish your opponents rather than persuading them. As Alexander writes:
A good response to an argument is one that addresses an idea; a bad argument is one that silences it. If you try to address an idea, your success depends on how good the idea is; if you try to silence it, your success depends on how powerful you are and how many pitchforks and torches you can provide on short notice.
Shooting bullets is a good way to silence an idea without addressing it. So is firing stones from catapults, or slicing people open with swords, or gathering a pitchfork-wielding mob.
But trying to get someone fired for holding an idea is also a way of silencing an idea without addressing it.
A lot of people would argue that [using tactics like this] holds people “accountable” for what they say online. But like most methods of silencing speech, its ability to punish people for saying the wrong things is entirely uncorrelated with whether the thing they said is actually wrong. It distributes power based on who controls the largest mob (hint: popular people) and who has the resources, job security, and physical security necessary to outlast a personal attack (hint: rich people). If you try to hold the Koch Brothers “accountable” for muddying the climate change waters, they will laugh in your face. If you try to hold closeted gay people “accountable” for promoting gay rights, it will be very easy and you will successfully ruin their lives. Do you really want to promote a policy that works this way?
People […] have to understand that the correct response to “idea I disagree with” is “counterargument”, not “find some way to punish or financially ruin the person who expresses it.” If you respond with counterargument, then there’s a debate and eventually the people with better ideas win (as is very clearly happening right now with gay marriage). If there’s a norm of trying to punish the people with opposing views, then it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing it with threats of political oppression, of financial ruin, or of social ostracism, the end result is the same – the group with the most money and popularity wins, any disagreeing ideas never get expressed.
If you want your opponents to stop ignoring your ideas and start taking them seriously, then, you shouldn’t just keep demanding that they do at ever-increasing levels of volume. You should try actually sitting down with them and having a conversation. This is the kind of approach that people respond to – not in every case, of course, but certainly more often than with the “screaming in their face” approach. John Cheese gives the example of his own experience:
I used to be a steadfast conservative. I’m talking the “abortion is wrong and gay people are a plague” type. I’m not that way anymore, but I didn’t get there on my own. I talked to people who didn’t blow me off as a raging lunatic. They didn’t scream at me or throw handfuls of shit. They explained why they thought I was wrong, and guess what? Over time, I found that I actually agreed with them. If I had been met with nothing but hatred and insults, my only reaction would have been “Go fuck half of yourself. Then take a break. Then come back and fuck the other half of yourself.”
Stories like this aren’t particularly uncommon. Even the most radical extremists – let’s take the example of Klansmen again – can be reasoned out of their positions with the right combination of patience, reason, and understanding. Carl Sagan recounts one such instance:
When permitted to listen to alternative opinions and engage in substantive debate, people have been known to change their minds. It can happen. For example, Hugo Black, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: It was said that when he was a young man, he dressed up in white robes and scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes and scared white folks.
There’s actually a whole genre of stories like this, where Klansmen or neo-Nazis eventually change their views and become advocates for equal rights. Reading through their accounts, you see the same basic story over and over again – and it’s never “Well, I was confronted by an angry mob that called me a fascist piece of shit and screamed slogans at me until I said, gosh, you know, I am in fact a fascist piece of shit and had better adopt these people’s views instead because they really seem like they’ve got a lot of wisdom to share.” Rather, the way these success stories always go is that the Klansman or neo-Nazi sits down and has an earnest, respectful discussion with someone whose views differ from their own, and it gets them thinking about and reexamining some of the assumptions they’d always taken for granted. They start to realize that – lo and behold – some members of their out-group actually might be capable of reason and intelligence and kindness after all, and they aren’t just a bunch of crazed animals. In fact, the more they interact with people from their out-group, the more they start to realize that maybe these people are actually a lot more normal and decent that they’d thought. They gradually become a little more receptive to the out-group’s perspective each time they sit down with them from then on; and slowly their own views shift until they ultimately come into a more harmonious alignment with the other side.
One of the masters of shifting people’s views in this way is Daryl Davis, a black musician who has personally convinced dozens of people to leave the KKK by befriending them and engaging them in patient, civil conversations. He explains his approach in a Q&A:
People make the mistake of forming anti-racist groups that are rendered ineffective from the start because [they] ONLY invite those who share their beliefs to their meetings. [Here’s a better approach:]
- Provide a safe neutral meeting place.
- Learn as much as you can about the ideology of a racist or perceived racist in your area.
- Invite that person to meet with your group.
- VERY IMPORTANT — LISTEN to that person. What is his/her primary concern? Place yourself in their shoes. What would you do to address their concern if it were you?
- [Ask] questions, but keep calm in the face of their loud, boisterous posture if that is on display, don’t combat it with the same.
- While you are actively learning about someone else, realize that you are passively teaching them about yourself. Be honest and respectful to them, regardless of how offensive you may find them. You can let them know your disagreement but not in an offensive manner.
- Don’t be afraid to invite someone with a different opinion to your table. If everyone in your group agrees with one another and you shun those who don’t agree, how will anything ever change? You are doing nothing more than preaching to the choir.
- When two enemies are talking, they are not fighting, they are talking. They may be yelling and screaming and pounding their fist on the table in disagreement to drive home their point, but at least they are talking. It is when the talking ceases, that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So, KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING.
To those who refuse to engage with their opponents’ worldview on the basis that “their ideology is one that can’t be reasoned with,” Davis’s example provides a good counterargument. Even if your opponents seem too extreme and absolutist to be reasoned with, it may still be possible to influence them; you just need to step up your game.
His advice to “keep the conversation going” also illustrates another important point – that even when your conversations do succeed in having an influence on someone (whether it be an extremist like a Klansman or just a more everyday person who happens to hold differing political or religious views), you can’t expect that it will always be a matter of winning them over on the spot and instantly converting them to your worldview. As Beck writes:
When someone does change their mind, it will probably be more like the slow creep of [Daniel] Shaw’s disillusionment with his [meditation] guru [who, after years of spiritual lessons, started to seem less and less impressive over time]. He left “the way most people do: Sort of like death by a thousand cuts.”
Hardly anyone ever changes their mind in real time, in the middle of a debate. You shouldn’t ever expect to see someone suddenly stop mid-sentence and say, “You know what? I just realized that your argument is totally airtight. My worldview is completely wrong!” Instead, what usually happens is that the process of reexamining arguments, reconsidering beliefs, and adjusting worldviews only takes place over the course of weeks, or months, or even years. That’s why, if you find yourself in the middle of a debate, your focus shouldn’t necessarily be on trying to “hit the home run ball” and force your opponent to change their entire worldview on the spot. You’ll probably have more luck if you just gently plant the seeds of your ideas in the other person’s mind and let them germinate there for a while. As commenter Gneissisnice puts it:
An argument isn’t about changing someone’s mind. You’re almost never going to get someone to admit that they’re wrong. [Your] goal is make them understand your position. You want them to say “Huh, I see where you’re coming from. I disagree, but I understand why you think that.”
In most debates, the most productive approach isn’t even to have each side try to “win” at all – at least, not at first. The best place to start is just to dig down into exactly what each side believes and why – asking clarifying questions along the way and trying to build bridges of understanding wherever possible – in order to get to the root of where exactly the disagreements lie and what the fundamental points of contention really are. This is the most effective way of avoiding the classic debate fiasco where both sides end up talking past one another and arguing completely separate points. But it also creates openings for each side to take new information on board that they might not have been giving any consideration to before. If they don’t feel like they’re required to win the argument, they might be more receptive to opposing ideas. Alexander talks about how this gradual “chipping away” process works, as well as some of the other benefits of constructive dialogue:
What’s the point? If you’re just going to end up at the high-level generators of disagreement, why do all the work?
First, because if you do it right you’ll end up respecting the other person. Going through all the motions might not produce agreement, but it should produce the feeling that the other person came to their belief honestly, isn’t just stupid and evil, and can be reasoned with on other subjects. The natural tendency is to assume that people on the other side just don’t know (or deliberately avoid knowing) the facts, or are using weird perverse rules of reasoning to ensure they get the conclusions they want. Go through the whole process, and you will find some ignorance, and you will find some bias, but they’ll probably be on both sides, and the exact way they work might surprise you.
Second, because – and this is total conjecture – this deals a tiny bit of damage to the high-level generators of disagreement. I think of these as Bayesian priors; you’ve looked at a hundred cases, all of them have been X, so when you see something that looks like not-X, you can assume you’re wrong – see the example […] where the libertarian admits there is no clear argument against this particular regulation, but is wary enough of regulations to suspect there’s something they’re missing. But in this kind of math, the prior shifts the perception of the evidence, but the evidence also shifts the perception of the prior.
Imagine that, throughout your life, you’ve learned that UFO stories are fakes and hoaxes. Some friend of yours sees a UFO, and you assume (based on your priors) that it’s probably fake. They try to convince you. They show you the spot in their backyard where it landed and singed the grass. They show you the mysterious metal object they took as a souvenir. It seems plausible, but you still have too much of a prior on UFOs being fake, and so you assume they made it up.
Now imagine another friend has the same experience, and also shows you good evidence. And you hear about someone the next town over who says the same thing. After ten or twenty of these, maybe you start wondering if there’s something to all of this UFOs. Your overall skepticism of UFOs has made you dismiss each particular story, but each story has also dealt a little damage to your overall skepticism.
I think the high-level generators might work the same way. The libertarian says “Everything I’ve learned thus far makes me think government regulations fail.” You demonstrate what looks like a successful government regulation. The libertarian doubts, but also becomes slightly more receptive to the possibility of those regulations occasionally being useful. Do this a hundred times, and they might be more willing to accept regulations in general.
As the old saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win.”
Another important discovery that psychologists have recently uncovered is that, in most casual debates, the best way to make someone more receptive to opposing views isn’t even to pressure them with counterarguments at all – it’s often more effective just to ask the right questions and let them discover the weaknesses in their own arguments for themselves. As McRaney explains:
Research by psychologist Steven Sloman and marketing expert Phil Fernbach shows that people who claim to understand complicated political topics such as cap and trade and flat taxes tend to reveal their ignorance when asked to provide a detailed explanation without the aid of Google. Though people on either side of an issue may believe they know their opponents’ positions, when put to the task of breaking it down they soon learn that they have only a basic understanding of the topic being argued. Stranger still, once subjects in such studies recognize this, they reliably become more moderate in their beliefs. Zealotry wanes; fanatical opposition is dampened. The research suggests simply working to better explain your own opinion saps your fervor. Yet the same research shows the opposite effect when subjects are asked to justify their positions on a contentious issue. Justification strengthens a worldview, but exploration weakens it.
Boghossian and Lindsay break down how this phenomenon works:
A philosopher and a psychologist, Robert A. Wilson and Frank Keil, have researched the phenomenon of ignorance of one’s ignorance. In a 1998 paper titled “The Shadows and Shallows of Explanation,” they studied the well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand how things work better than they actually do. They discovered our tendency to believe we’re more knowledgeable than we are because we believe in other people’s expertise. Think about this like borrowing books from the great library of human knowledge and then never reading the books. We think we possess the information in the books because we have access to them, but we don’t have the knowledge because we’ve never read the books, much less studied them in depth. Following this analogy, we’ll call this fallacy the “Unread Library Effect.”
The Unread Library Effect was revealed in an experiment by two researchers in 2001, Frank Keil (again) and Leonid Rozenblit; they called it “the illusion of explanatory depth” and referred to it as “the misunderstood limits of folk science.” They researched people’s understanding of the inner workings of toilets. Subjects were asked to numerically rate how confident they were in their explanation of how a toilet works. The subjects were then asked to explain verbally how a toilet works, giving as much detail as possible. After attempting an explanation, they were asked to numerically rate their confidence again. This time, however, they admitted being far less confident. They realized their own reliance on borrowed knowledge and thus their own ignorance.
In 2013, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, with behavioral scientist Todd Rogers and cognitive psychologist Craig Fox, performed an experiment showing that the Unread Library Effect also applies to political beliefs. That is, helping people understand they’re relying upon borrowed knowledge leads them to introduce doubt for themselves and thus has a moderating effect on people’s beliefs. By having participants explain policies in as much detail as possible, along with how those policies would be implemented and what impacts they might have, the researchers successfully nudged strong political views toward moderation. Taking advantage of this phenomenon, then, confers at least two significant benefits in an intervention. First, it allows your conversational partner to do most of the talking, which affords you the opportunity to listen and prevents them from feeling as though you’re trying to change their mind. Second, they lead themselves into doubt rather than feeling pressured by someone else.
Modeling ignorance is an effective way to help expose the Unread Library Effect because, as the name implies, the Unread Library Effect relies upon information about which your conversation partner is ignorant – even though she doesn’t realize it. In essence, you want her to recognize the limits of her knowledge. Specifically, then, you should model behavior highlighting the limits of your own knowledge. This has three significant merits:
- It creates an opportunity for you to overcome the Unread Library Effect, that is, thinking you know more about an issue than you do.
- It contributes to a climate of making it okay to say “I don’t know,” and thus gives tacit permission to your partner to admit that she doesn’t know.
- It’s a subtle but effective strategy for exposing the gap between your conversation partner’s perceived knowledge and her actual knowledge.
Here are some examples of how you can apply this in conversations. You can say, “I don’t know how the details of using mass deportations of illegal immigrants would play out. I think there are likely both pros and cons, and I really don’t know which outweigh which. How would that policy be implemented? Who pays for it? How much would it cost? What does that look like in practice? Again, I don’t know enough specifics to have a strong opinion, but I’m happy to listen to the details.” When you do this, don’t be shy. Explicitly invite explanations, ask for specifics, follow up with pointed questions that revolve around soliciting how someone knows the details, and continue to openly admit your own ignorance. In many conversations, the more ignorance you admit, the more readily your partner in the conversation will step in with an explanation to help you understand. And the more they attempt to explain, the more likely they are to realize the limits of their own knowledge.
In this example, if your partner is an expert in this aspect of immigration policy, you might be rewarded with a good lesson. Otherwise, you might lead her to expose the Unread Library Effect because you started by modeling ignorance. Should your conversation partner begin to question her expertise and discover the Unread Library Effect, let its effects percolate. Do not continue to pepper her with questions.
It’s worth repeating that this strategy not only helps moderate strong views, it models openness, willingness to admit ignorance, and readiness to revise beliefs. Modeling intellectually honest ignorance is a virtue that seasoned conversation partners possess – and it is fairly easy to achieve.
Commenter Ayy_2_Brute recalls how effective this approach can be from personal experience:
My father had this habit that my mother’s constantly reminded me of since he died. No matter how well versed he was on a subject, he always let the other person do the talking first, then would ask them questions. Not only was he able to learn more, but it naturally made him entertain opinions contrary to his own, making him a much more open and humble person. If the person didn’t know what they were talking about, the discussion didn’t descend into an argument, they’d just slowly realize they’re talking to someone much more informed based solely on the questions he was asking. Which in turn made them a lot more open to receiving an alternate opinion as well.
If you’re in a debate with someone and you just sit back and let them explain their reasoning in as much detail as possible, without interrupting or challenging them until they’re finished, in many cases your attentive silence can make them even more self-conscious about what they’re saying than any counterargument ever could. They may start second-guessing whether their justifications really sound as strong out loud as they seemed to be in their heads – and the fact that you aren’t trying to force them into this self-questioning can make them feel more willing to admit it to themselves without feeling like they’re conceding anything to you or making themselves look foolish by losing an argument.
That, by the way, is another crucial point when it comes to changing someone’s mind – you’re a lot more likely to be successful in influencing your opponent’s thinking if you can adopt a gracious, unassuming attitude which allows them to admit where their arguments are weak (and maybe even make concessions on those weak points) without feeling like they’re losing face, or like you’re going to taunt and humiliate them for being wrong. Sun Tzu famously advised in The Art of War: “When you surround the enemy, always allow them an escape route. They must see that there is an alternative to death.” And this is good advice for ideological debates as well. If your opponent doesn’t see any viable “outs” – and they know that defeat will lead to nothing but humiliation and damage to their side’s cause – then they’ll naturally fight even more ferociously against you, and inflict even heavier costs on your side, than if you had just left them a line of retreat. Giving them a way out of their position, and making sure it’s one that allows them to save face, enables them to come around to your side without feeling like they’ve “lost.” In some cases, it may even prompt them to adopt your ideas more strongly than they might otherwise, in an effort to demonstrate that they actually agreed with you all along and weren’t really conceding anything in the first place. This is a win-win for everyone involved.
In short, then, the fundamental key to winning someone over is that you want to make it as easy as possible for them to agree with you – and the way to do this by removing the mental obstacles that might cause them to subconsciously resist. If you go into a conversation fully aware of your opponent’s desire to avoid embarrassment, you can try to lower the costs to them of admitting when they’re wrong. Or similarly, if you recognize the fact that they won’t want to give any satisfaction to someone who rubs them the wrong way, you can try to be the type of person that they’ll want to get along with and reach a common understanding with. Commenter namethatisntaken probably speaks for all of us on this point:
My ability to admit I was wrong is largely determined by the attitude of the person I’m arguing with.
And Haidt elaborates:
The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.
When does the elephant listen to reason? The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges.
But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants (that’s the social persuasion link in the social intuitionist model) or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants (that’s the reasoned persuasion link).
There is a critically important truth here, which is that people’s ideological positions aren’t always determined by specific facts and beliefs about a topic, so much as by their broader overall attitudes toward that topic. Just laying out all the facts may not be enough to change a person’s mind, because if they hold a fundamentally negative underlying attitude toward your side, they’ll want to resist coming over to it even when the facts say they should. If, for instance, someone just has a deep-seated gut intuition that conservatism is callous and closed-minded, or that liberalism is self-indulgent and irresponsible, you can show them all the facts and figures you want demonstrating the benefits of your conservative tax plan or your liberal social policy or whatever – and superficially, they may freely accept the validity of these points – but if their fundamental attitude toward the concept of “liberalism” or “conservatism” as a whole is just too loaded with negative connotations for them to want to get on board with it, then their overall worldview won’t shift much. This is also why certain concepts like “government spending” can be such automatic conversation-stoppers for conservatives, or why liberals instantly bristle at anything to do with big corporations, or why religious believers won’t even touch the word “atheism” with a twenty-foot pole. When you try to debate them about these particular subjects, you’re no longer dealing with neutral facts and beliefs, you’re dealing with attitudes – and changing someone’s attitude toward a topic is a much longer and more involved process than getting them to accept one specific fact or idea. (In fact, people’s specific beliefs can actually be surprisingly fluid and malleable (recall the Cohen study mentioned earlier, where people switched their stances at the drop of a hat just because they thought their “side” held a different stance than it did); it’s just their allegiance to their chosen side that’s so rigid and hard to budge.)
For this reason, if you’re trying to produce some kind of large-scale social change, it’s a good strategic idea to start with certain very specific points that people can easily get on board with, and then take baby steps from there – approaching it as a gradual long-term process – rather than trying to instantly shift their entire attitude in one fell swoop. Converting someone from a full-fledged Marxist into a full-fledged capitalist overnight, or from a religious fundamentalist into a secularist over the course of a single conversation, is just a bridge too far in most cases – those beliefs have been accumulated over an entire lifetime, and you can’t presume to be able to just reverse them instantaneously, no matter how good your arguments are. It’d be like trying to get someone to walk the length of an entire football field in a single step. But if you’re only leading them along one step at a time, then that’s a different story; it’s a lot easier to get someone to accept a single point for your side than to accept the whole package. The key is not to ask too much of them all at once – start with the parts of your ideology that will be easiest for them to get on board with, and promote those first. Then, once they’ve gotten used to the feeling of agreeing with you on something, and have had a while to integrate that new position into their own worldview, you can try to persuade them of another point, and then another, and so on – until ultimately they’re a lot closer to being on your side than when they started.
Frum explains how this difference in strategy can mean the difference between success and failure for mass socio-political movements:
The classic military formula for success: concentrate superior force at a single point. The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable. Successful movements are built upon concrete single demands that can readily be translated into practical action: “Votes for women.” “End the draft.” “Overturn Roe v. Wade.” “Tougher punishments for drunk driving.”
People can say “yes” to such specific demands for many different reasons. Supporters are not called upon to agree on everything, but just one thing. “End the draft” can appeal both to outright pacifists and to military professionals who regard an army of volunteers as more disciplined and lethal than an army of conscripts. Critics of Roe run the gamut from those who wish a total ban on all abortions to legal theorists who believe the Supreme Court overstepped itself back in 1973.
These are limited asks with broad appeal.
On the other hand, if you build a movement that lists those specific and limited goals along a vast and endlessly unfolding roster of others from “preserve Dodd Frank” to “save the oceans” – if you indulge the puckish anti-politics of “not usually a sign guy, but geez” – you will collapse into factionalism and futility.
If you are building a movement […] you should remember that the goal is to gain allies among people who would not normally agree with you.
Commenter snyderjw puts it this way:
A wise old man once told me “my advice to revolutionaries is this, you have to run your revolution to win the love of an honest square… we finally defeated segregation and the Vietnam war when the men in suits started joining the protests on their lunch break.”
Granted, if you’re passionate about your cause and you think the ideas you’re promoting are obvious and irrefutable, it can be frustrating to feel like you have to dumb things down and put training wheels on your ideas just to convince the less-informed hoi polloi to get with the program already. But like it or not, it’s a necessary process, because not everyone has experienced the same things you’ve experienced over the course of their lives, and not everyone has been exposed to the same sources of information you have. Just as you can’t blame somebody for not following your religion if they grew up in a part of the world that has never been exposed to your religion before, you can’t just automatically assume that someone who has spent their whole lives immersed in one ideological narrative will immediately be able to get on the same level as someone who’s spent their entire lives immersed in the opposite narrative at the drop of a hat. T1J shares his thoughts on the subject:
Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend other people’s ideas. We just can’t imagine how and why some people believe the things they do. The correct view is so obvious to us, and we either assume that people are just lost and will never change their mind, or that we can somehow convince them to do a complete mental 180. Both of these are possible. But neither really reflect how most people actually are. People are usually hesitant to flat-out admit that they were wrong. But we can add nuance to someone’s view by offering a different perspective. The problem is that we sometimes think people should naturally understand things in the way that we do, so we’re confused when they aren’t very receptive to our ideas. If you’re trying to teach your old racist grandma who grew up in Jim Crow about racial microaggressions, it’s likely that she’s not going to be eye-to-eye with you. (Get it together, Grandma!) It’s possible that it’s a lost cause. But maybe you can find an alternate route towards getting her to understand. The fact of the matter is, sometimes you have to meet people where they are, rather than demanding that they catch up to you.
Speaking very generally, there are at least two types of social justice advocates on the internet. There are people who work with others to discuss effective solutions to the problems that society faces, and on the other hand there are people who don’t seem to be really interested in actually solving problems, and just kind of want to express their frustration and call people out. Now in many ways, that frustration is valid and justifiable. But in my opinion, you shouldn’t expect angry confrontation to lead to very much actual progress. But if you’re just here to just sort of yell at people, then… carry on I guess? But this [advice] isn’t really for you. This [advice] is for that first group – people that actually want to find solutions to both societal and personal conflicts.
I think a lot of us have this delusion that we’re going to convince other people to just suddenly wake up, like they’re going to have a light switch flipped in their brain overnight and come to realize that we were right all along, and then they’ll join us on the front line marching for freedom. And then we have this principled stubbornness, where it’s like, “Well if they can’t understand that they’re wrong, then fuck ‘em. The people who are right will win in the end anyway. They’ll just have to be on the wrong side of history.” And it’s true that some people have no interest in being informed or expanding their perspective. But it’s also true that some people just haven’t been engaged properly. Now, I believe that the world seems to slowly get more progressive over time. But I feel like proper advocacy involves doing our best to make our world a little bit better for this generation, not just future ones. And that’s got to involve getting out there and touching people’s hearts and minds. But everybody is on a different step in their journey towards enlightenment. Some people need just a little nudge in the right direction, while others probably need to be tossed a larger bone.
So for example, a thing that you often hear is, “You should respect women, because that woman is someone’s mother, or daughter, or wife, etc.” And this is kind of obnoxious, because it’s like, you should respect women because in addition to being wives and daughters and mothers, they’re also people and they don’t deserve to be mistreated. Like, you shouldn’t have to invoke familial relationship to a woman in order to understand why you shouldn’t be shitty to them. And that is 100% true. But if the goal is getting people to appreciate and respect women, and an effective context in which we can convince people to do that is reminding them of their relationships with the women in their own family, I feel like you should take the small victory. Not everyone is going to gain a sophisticated insight overnight. Sometimes we have to let people use training wheels until they catch up. And if we create this culture where anything less than perfection causes you to be dismissed and dragged regardless of your intentions, that just seems to be a very good way to alienate potential allies – which, if your goal is progress, is not what you want to be doing.
A couple months ago, there was a viral video on Twitter of this guy who was protesting outside of a Roy Moore rally. […] This guy was protesting Roy Moore’s homophobic remarks in honor of his gay daughter who had committed suicide. In the video he implies that at one point he didn’t accept his daughter’s homosexuality: “I was anti-gay myself; I said bad things to my daughter myself, which I regret.” The video is very moving in my opinion, and I’m kind of even getting emotional thinking about it, and it got a very positive response. But I did see a bunch of comments talking about how shitty it is that a gay person had to die before they were recognized as legitimate. And I mean, that’s a fair point. But first of all, this is a grieving father – like, back up for a minute. Secondly, this guy has probably lived his whole life in a homophobic environment, and it took something tragic to get him to reconsider his views. It’s terrible that he had to go through that, but he’s on the verge of a breakthrough – this is not the time to antagonize him. He’s probably not going to be marching with rainbow flags anytime soon, but he can share his story with his community and help bridge the gap. He could tell his friends to chill out when they’re using homophobic slurs or making shitty jokes. He could be a friend to closeted people down at the farm in Wicksburg, Alabama. I don’t know if he’s going to do any of these things. I’m just saying he’s less likely to if we immediately dogpile him for not being woke enough.
So here’s my thing: I understand that a lot of this is just wacky people on social media being mean just for the sake of doing it. One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that Twitter doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual state of our society and our movement in reality. But I do think that there’s a notable segment of activists, both on and offline, who claim to want progress and change, but seem to be more concerned with dismissing people they deem to be “not on their level” than they are with actually trying to help people get there. And like I said, if that’s what you want to do, I think that’s unfortunate, but it’s not really my place to tell you not to. I just don’t think it does anything. In fact, it’s probably actively harmful to the movement. And again, some people clearly have no intention of engaging ideas in good faith or considering the possibility that they might be wrong about something. And it’s actually important for us to develop the ability to identify when that’s happening so we don’t waste time arguing with brick walls. The willingness to open ourselves to new ideas is a step that we all have to take on our own. No one can force us to do that. But at the same time, we can help people find their way to that door if we’re a little more patient, and take the time to meet them where they are in their path towards understanding.
In short, you can’t necessarily grade everyone on the same curve, so to speak. You have to be able to recognize areas where their understanding might not be in the same ballpark as yours, and make mental allowances for those differences. This can be hard, no doubt. If the person you’re debating just keeps spouting off nonsense with all the confidence in the world and doesn’t even seem aware that other opinions exist, it can be downright maddening. But if they already shared your beliefs, there wouldn’t be any need to have the conversation with them in the first place, because they’d already be on the same page as you. By definition, getting them to that point means that when you start off the conversation, the two of you won’t be on the same page – and it’s only through patient dialogue that you’ll be able to close the gap. You won’t win anyone to your side, if you’re a Christian, by preaching to the choir; and you won’t win anyone to your side, if you’re a social justice liberal, by only interacting positively with other social justice liberals. You only make progress for your cause by engaging with people whose opinions seem outrageous or absurd to you, and maintaining your composure for long enough to persuade them otherwise. Alexander provides a parable:
The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”
Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.
The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.
Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”
The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”
And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”
The best thing that could happen to this post is that it makes a lot of people, especially myself, figure out how to be more tolerant [of their ideological out-groups]. Not in the “of course I’m tolerant, why shouldn’t I be?” sense of the Emperor. […] But in the sense of “being tolerant makes me see red, makes me sweat blood, but darn it I am going to be tolerant anyway.”
Again, this doesn’t mean you have to pretend that your opponents’ views are just as correct and valid as yours. If you thought that, then you wouldn’t have any reason to prefer your own beliefs over theirs. All it means is that you should recognize the sincerity of their beliefs – and understand that if they’re wrong, you can and should try to persuade them as you would a friend, rather than blowing them off as brainless idiots or trying to bully them into submission. The most impressive people (for my money, at least) are those who try to be kind and understanding toward everyone, not just toward the people who are easy to be kind and understanding toward.
Here’s T1J again:
“So I have to, like, walk on eggshells and tiptoe around everything I say and everything that I do?”
Yes. It’s called being a thoughtful, considerate person. You should go out of your way to avoid fucking up other people’s lives. You should want to do that. And I promise you, it’s not that hard.
At the very minimum, try this: Whenever you discuss your views – whether it’s with someone who agrees with you or someone who disagrees with you – see if you can do so without at any point expressing disdain for the other side (especially if you find their opinions particularly contemptible). If you don’t entirely understand the justifications behind your opponents’ views, it’s perfectly fine to be open about that; if you think there might be a certain flaw in their reasoning, it’s OK to say so and carefully explain why. But see if you can actually explain yourself without expressing anything that might even be perceived by the other side as dismissive eye-rolling or impatient tetchiness. This approach will, at the very least, ensure that the discussion won’t devolve into a total train wreck that does more harm than good and causes both sides to dig in their heels even deeper.
Of course, there’s no good reason just to settle for this bare minimum alone. If you really care about the topics being debated, you should want to do better than “not an overall negative” – you should want your conversations to be an overall positive. “Not counterproductive” is great; but “productive” is even better. The way to achieve legitimately productive discourse, then, is to demonstrate not only that you’re willing to patiently listen to your opponents’ arguments, but that you actually understand their reasoning perfectly and can recognize exactly where their ideas are most compelling, before you even begin to think of refuting them. This concept is known in philosophy as the Principle of Charity, defined as “interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.” Alexander puts it this way:
[The] Principle of Charity […] says you should always assume your ideological opponents’ beliefs must make sense from their perspective. If you can’t even conceive of a position you oppose being tempting to someone, you don’t understand it and are probably missing something. You might be missing a strong argument that the position is correct. Or you might just be missing something totally out of left field.
It’s not always easy to imagine someone else’s mindset as accurately as possible – the natural urge to construe their ideas as weak and faulty (and therefore easy to beat) can sometimes be almost impossible to override without conscious effort. But if you’re able to consistently adhere to the Principle of Charity, it’s one of the best ways to ensure that your ideological debates will actually get somewhere productive, because it gives you a more accurate understanding of what foundations your opponents’ arguments are actually resting on, and which points therefore need to be addressed in order to influence their views. If you’re just trying to argue against some misconstrued ideas that your opponents don’t actually hold (i.e. committing a straw man fallacy), then you’re trying to resolve a problem that doesn’t actually exist. You’re like the proverbial drunk who loses his keys in the dark bushes but looks for them under the streetlight instead because “the light is better there.” Sure, it would be easier to find the keys if they were there – just like it would be easier to refute your opponents’ ideas if they actually were the egregious caricatures you’d like to imagine them to be – but the fact that they aren’t means that any effort toward that end is a misdirected waste of time. On the other hand, if you’re able to accurately articulate the reasoning behind your opponents’ arguments, then it gives you legitimate grounds to be able to dissect and refute them. It’s a lot more convincing for your opponents to hear their arguments refuted by someone who understands the arguments perfectly – maybe even better than they do – and still doesn’t think they’re strong enough to hold water, than to hear those same arguments refuted by someone who doesn’t seem to “get it” at all and is just reciting their own side’s talking points.
So just to take one common example, if you’re an abortion activist who stubbornly maintains that the only reason anyone could possibly be opposed to abortion is that they want to control women – or that the only reason anyone could possibly be in favor of abortion is that they want to kill babies – then you won’t convert many people to your cause if the desire to control women or kill babies is not, in fact, the thing motivating their views. On the other hand, if you recognize that your opponents’ positions actually rely fundamentally on whether they consider fetuses to be the moral equivalent of full-grown people, and then you address those assumptions in a proficient way, it’s much more likely that your arguments will have a real effect. By addressing the more charitable interpretation of your opponents’ views, rather than some demonized version that they don’t actually subscribe to, you’re effectively striking at the roots of their beliefs, and not just hacking away at the shadows of the branches.
Fisher and Ury write in their famous guide to negotiation:
Many consider it a good tactic not to give the other side’s case too much attention, and not to admit any legitimacy in their point of view. A good negotiator does just the reverse. Unless you acknowledge what they are saying and demonstrate that you understand them, they may believe you have not heard them. When you then try to explain a different point of view, they will suppose that you still have not grasped what they mean. They will say to themselves, “I told him my view, but now he’s saying something different, so he must not have understood it.” Then instead of listening to your point, they will be considering how to make their argument in a new way so that this time maybe you will fathom it. So show that you understand them. “Let me see whether I follow what you are telling me. From your point of view, the situation looks like this. . . .”
As you repeat what you understood them to have said, phrase it positively from their point of view, making the strength of their case clear. You might say, “You have a strong case. Let me see if I can explain it. Here’s the way it strikes me. . . . ” Understanding is not agreeing. One can at the same time understand perfectly and disagree completely with what the other side is saying. But unless you can convince them that you do grasp how they see it, you may be unable to explain your viewpoint to them. Once you have made their case for them, then come back with the problems you find in their proposal. If you can put their case better than they can, and then refute it, you maximize the chance of initiating a constructive dialogue on the merits and minimize the chance of their believing you have misunderstood them.
Daniel Dennett reiterates this point:
Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).
This technique, of laying out your opponents’ arguments not only in a way they’d agree is accurate, but in a way that is actually more compelling than how they themselves are making their case, is often referred to as creating a steel man (i.e. the opposite of creating a straw man). Chana Messinger explains the logic of this approach:
“The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.” – Eric Hoffer
You know when someone makes an argument, and you know you can get away with making it seem like they made a much worse one, so you attack that argument for points? That’s strawmanning. Lots of us have done it, even though we shouldn’t. But what if we went one step beyond just not doing that? What if we went one better? Then we would be steelmanning, the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented. Mackenzie McHale, from the Newsroom, puts it on her list of Very Important Things for journalists (#2), and it would serve us well, too.
Why should we do this? Three reasons: It makes us better rationalists, better arguers, and better people.
1. Better rationalists: I, and all of you, I think, care a great deal about what is true. One of the ways we find out what is true is to smash our arguments against each other and see what comes out, abandoning the invalid arguments and unsound conclusions for better and brighter ideas as we march towards Truth. Perhaps the greatest limitation on this method is the finitude of the arguments we can possibly encounter. By chance, we may never be exposed to good arguments for other positions or against our own, in which case we may wrongly but reasonably discount other positions as unsupported and incorrect, and we would never know.
So we need to find better arguments. Where? Well, aside from sitting in rooms alone arguing with ourselves (guilty), we have the opportunity to construct these better arguments every time we are arguing with someone. We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling. So I challenge you, when arguing with someone, to use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement.
If you know of a better counter to your own argument than the one they’re giving, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right. Take their arguments seriously, and make them as good as possible. Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with. Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.
Do what fictional Justice Mulready does here:
In this way, you both learn, and you’re having discussions of the highest level you’re capable of, really grappling with the ideas instead of bringing up rehearsed points and counterpoints. It is a difficult task, but it forces us to face those arguments that might actually pose problems for us, instead of just what we happen to see around us. This ensures that we have the right answer, not just a successful answer.
2. Better arguers: But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds.
Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning.
First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs.
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
3. Better people: I’m serious. I think steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you’re arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even actively dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.
Try it. It might just be more challenging, rewarding and mind-expanding than you expect.
It’s easy to want to focus on the low-hanging fruit and only contend with the most ridiculous and wrongheaded arguments against your worldview. But limiting yourself to the “lowest common denominator” level of the discourse only means that you’re preventing yourself from being able to participate in the higher-level exchanges of ideas where the real intellectual progress is made. As Tyler Cowen puts it:
Every movement…has a smart version and a stupid version, I try to (almost) always consider the smart version. The stupid version is always wrong for just about anything.
If you focus on the stupid version, you too will end up as the stupid version of your own movement.
Alexander elaborates, pointing out that if you only focus on your opponents’ worst arguments, it can desensitize you to their legitimate points which might actually be worth engaging:
Inoculation is when you use a weak pathogen like cowpox to build immunity against a stronger pathogen like smallpox. The inoculation effect in psychology is when a person, upon being presented with several weak arguments against a proposition, becomes immune to stronger arguments against the same position.
Tell a religious person that Christianity is false because Jesus is just a blatant ripoff of the warrior-god Mithras and they’ll open up a Near Eastern history book, notice that’s not true at all, and then be that much more skeptical of the next argument against their faith. “Oh, atheists. Those are those people who think stupid things like Jesus = Mithras. I already figured out they’re not worth taking seriously.” Except on a deeper level that precedes and is immune to conscious thought.
If you’re really serious about your ideas, then, you should scrupulously try to avoid such mental shortcuts; you should instead seek to grapple with the strongest counterarguments you can find. You shouldn’t convince yourself that you understand what the other side believes simply because of what you’ve heard from your own side about what the other side believes (typically easily-refuted caricatures). And you shouldn’t just seek out a handful of the least competently-made arguments from the other side and then declare victory once you’ve refuted them. You should actually make an effort to listen to the smartest people on the other side directly, until you get to the point where you’re confident that you genuinely do understand exactly where they’re coming from. As Ben Casnocha writes:
I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.
And if you’re truly serious about your ideas, you can go even further than that. As Yudkowsky writes:
The economist Bryan Caplan invented an improved version of steelmanning called the Ideological Turing Test. In the Ideological Turing Test, you must write an argument for an opposing position which is realistic enough that an adherent of the position cannot tell the difference between what you have written, and something that was written by an actual advocate. The Ideological Turing Test is stricter than ‘steelmanning’, since it is far too easy to persuade yourself that you have generated the ‘strongest argument’, and much less easy to fool someone who actually believes the opposing position into thinking that you were sincerely doing your best to advocate it. It is a test of understanding; a trial to make sure you really understand the arguments you say you don’t believe.
People fail the Ideological Turing Test […] because they’re attached to their own mental moorings, because they fear the violation of letting themselves see the universe from another viewpoint, because they plain lack practice at imagining that another viewpoint might also think itself justified.
But if you can overcome these difficulties, this technique is the strongest way of using the Principle of Charity to its fullest potential. True, it may still be possible in some cases to get away with just cynically pretending to understand your opponents’ arguments in order to manipulate them into agreeing with you. But more often, taking that approach will just cause your opponents to pick up on your insincerity and resent you for it. If you really want to have a productive conversation, you have to honestly, genuinely understand the other side. And if you can do that, then although you may still disagree with your opponents in the end, you will at least be able to identify exactly which of their perceptions and intuitions differ from your own and how those differences lead to your contrasting worldviews. As Fisher and Ury put it:
At the very least, if you and the other side cannot reach first-order agreement, you can usually reach second-order agreement – that is, agree on where you disagree, so that you both know the issues in dispute, which are not always obvious.
T1J explains this process in more detail:
There’s a common misconception that the point of a debate is to change someone’s view on a topic. But seeing as how debates often, if not usually, cover subjective topics about which people have strong convictions, changing someone’s view on a topic is something that very rarely happens. Personally, I think a better goal than changing someone’s view is to find what I like to call the Fundamental Disagreement.
Okay, now first of all, any good argument is based on facts. If you have an argument but it’s not based on facts, then you already lose; you’re already doing it wrong. But the amount of facts that we know is finite. So I would argue that every position and every opinion can ultimately be traced back to one premise (or premises) that is accepted to be true without necessarily being proven as such. So the goal of the debate should be to find that fundamental premise that you and your opponent disagree on. And since that premise is often something that can’t conclusively be supported or refuted, usually there’s nothing more to argue after that.
For example, I often find myself in religious debates, as you might imagine. And much of what I object [to] about religion is based on science. So most of the arguments I make are hinged upon the idea that science is valid and reliable. Now, I think science has a good track record, but I can’t necessarily prove that science will always be reliable, and someone else can’t prove that it will not be. So if you disagree that science is reliable, then that’s the Fundamental Disagreement. We can’t argue about that because we can’t prove it either way. Now, we can have a chat about the fundamental nature of existence, and what’s reliable and what’s not, but that’s all very metaphysical; and metaphysical discussions, while interesting, don’t really get us anywhere. But a good thing about using this method of debate is that sometimes before you even get to that Fundamental Disagreement, you might find that one of your or your opponent’s premises is in fact incorrect – and then maybe someone will win the argument. (But like I said, I think that rarely happens.)
A lot of times, when you discover the fundamental source of disagreement between you and your opponent, it turns out that it’s not even necessarily a matter of one of you being completely right and the other being completely wrong; it’s more a matter of the two of you having been exposed to completely different sets of facts and influences, and therefore formulating worldviews which, despite making logical sense within their own isolated context, don’t fit the context of the other’s perspective. Alexander explains:
I read Atlas Shrugged probably about a decade ago, and felt turned off by its promotion of selfishness as a moral ideal. I thought that was basically just being a jerk. After all, if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need (I thought) it’s more selfishness.
Then I talked to a friend who told me Atlas Shrugged had changed his life. That he’d been raised in a really strict family that had told him that ever enjoying himself was selfish and made him a bad person, that he had to be working at every moment to make his family and other people happy or else let them shame him to pieces. And the revelation that it was sometimes okay to consider your own happiness gave him the strength to stand up to them and turn his life around, while still keeping the basic human instinct of helping others when he wanted to and he felt they deserved it (as, indeed, do Rand characters).
In a recent essay I complained about bravery debates, arguments where people boast about how brave they are to take an unorthodox and persecuted position, and their opponents counter that they’re not persecuted heretics, they’re a vast leviathan persecuting everyone else. But I think I underestimated an important reason why some debates have to be bravery debates.
Suppose there are two sides to an issue. Be more or less selfish. Post more or less offensive atheist memes. Be more or less willing to blame and criticize yourself.
There are some people who need to hear each side of the issue. Some people really need to hear the advice “It’s okay to be selfish sometimes!” Other people really need to hear the advice “You are being way too selfish and it’s not okay.”
It’s really hard to target advice at exactly the people who need it. You can’t go around giving everyone surveys to see how selfish they are, and give half of them Atlas Shrugged and half of them the collected works of Peter Singer. You can’t even write really complicated books on how to tell whether you need more or less selfishness in your life – they’re not going to be as buyable, as readable, or as memorable as Atlas Shrugged. To a first approximation, all you can do is saturate society with pro-selfishness or anti-selfishness messages, and realize you’ll be hurting a select few people while helping the majority.
But in this case, it makes a really big deal what the majority actually is.
Suppose an Objectivist argues “Our culture has become too self-sacrificing! Everyone is told their entire life that the only purpose of living is to work for other people. As a result, people are miserable and no one is allowed to enjoy themselves at all.” If they’re right, then helping spread Objectivism is probably a good idea – it will help these legions of poor insufficiently-selfish people, but there will be very few too-selfish-already people who will be screwed up by the advice.
But suppose Peter Singer argues “We live in a culture of selfishness! Everyone is always told to look out for number one, and the poor are completely neglected!” Well, then we want to give everyone the collected works of Peter Singer so we can solve this problem, and we don’t have to worry about accidentally traumatizing the poor self-sacrificing people more, because we’ve already agreed there aren’t very many of these at all.
It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.
A lot of the time this happens when one person is from a dysfunctional community and suggesting very strong measures against some problem the community faces, and the other person is from a functional community and thinks the first person is being extreme, fanatical or persecutory.
This happens a lot among […] atheists. One guy is like “WE NEED TO DESTROY RELIGION IT CORRUPTS EVERYTHING IT TOUCHES ANYONE WHO MAKES ANY COMPROMISES WITH IT IS A TRAITOR KILL KILL KILL.” And the other guy is like “Hello? Religion may not be literally true, but it usually just makes people feel more comfortable and inspires them to do nice things and we don’t want to look like huge jerks here.” Usually the first guy was raised Jehovah’s Witness and the second guy was raised Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.
The point here is not that both sides are always equally correct, of course, or that it’s impossible to ever distinguish between competing truth claims. The point is just to illustrate why the Principle of Charity is so important when trying to determine where the truth really lies, because it’s so common for one or both sides of a debate to only have a partial view of the entire picture. The opposing sides may be operating from completely different baseline sets of facts and assumptions, and it’s only by making an earnest effort to get to the root of those contrasting worldviews that it’s possible to progress toward truth and common understanding. Here’s Alexander once again:
This […] ethos might be summed up as: charity over absurdity.
Absurdity is the natural human tendency to dismiss anything you disagree with as so stupid it doesn’t even deserve consideration. In fact, you are virtuous for not considering it, maybe even heroic! You’re refusing to dignify the evil peddlers of bunkum by acknowledging them as legitimate debate partners.
Charity is the ability to override that response. To assume that if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.
There are many things charity is not. Charity is not a fuzzy-headed caricature-pomo attempt to say no one can ever be sure they’re right or wrong about anything. Once you understand the reasons a belief is attractive to someone, you can go ahead and reject it as soundly as you want. Nor is it an obligation to spend time researching every crazy belief that might come your way. Time is valuable, and the less of it you waste on intellectual wild goose chases, the better.
It’s more like Chesterton’s Fence. G.K. Chesterton gave the example of a fence in the middle of nowhere. A traveller comes across it, thinks “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here, it sure was dumb to build one” and so takes it down. She is then gored by an angry bull who was being kept on the other side of the fence.
Chesterton’s point is that “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here” is the worst reason to remove a fence. Someone had a reason to put a fence up here, and if you can’t even imagine what it was, it probably means there’s something you’re missing about the situation and that you’re meddling in things you don’t understand. None of this precludes the traveller who knows that this was historically a cattle farming area but is now abandoned – ie the traveller who understands what’s going on – from taking down the fence.
As with fences, so with arguments. If you have no clue how someone could believe something, and so you decide it’s stupid, you are much like Chesterton’s traveler dismissing the fence (and philosophers, like travelers, are at high risk of stumbling across bull.)
I would go further and say that even when charity is uncalled-for, it is advantageous. The most effective way to learn any subject is to try to figure out exactly why a wrong position is wrong. And sometimes even a complete disaster of a theory will have a few salvageable pearls of wisdom that can’t be found anywhere else. [It’s often enlightening to rebuild] a stupid position into the nearest intelligent position and then [see] what you can learn from it.
Indeed, even in the cases where your opponent’s worldview might seem utterly mystifying, there is often at least one useful thing that you can take from it – one tiny kernel of underlying truth that motivated them to form their ideology in the first place. If you can maintain your patience and curiosity for long enough to find it, then even the most far-out debate can be a worthwhile experience. You might even discover some weaknesses in your own arguments that can be changed or improved.