The problem with refusing to constructively engage with people who disagree with you (well, one of the many problems) is that merely sneering at opposing ideas doesn’t actually make them go away. If all you’re doing is deriding and disavowing your opponents’ beliefs, then your opponents will usually just go right on believing them, because you haven’t given them a good argument to convince them otherwise. Sure, it’s understandable that you might not want to give the appearance of legitimizing your opponents’ arguments by taking them seriously. As Noah Berlatsky writes:
Bad ideas aren’t worth debating […] Lots of people believe in [bad political ideas], but lots of people believe in astrology, too. That doesn’t mean that mainstream publications should start running serious op-eds about what the arrangement of the stars says about the major political issues of our day.
But the thing is, there isn’t as much of a pressing need to address erroneous beliefs like astrology because the existence of such beliefs doesn’t have all that much of an impact on the daily workings of our world. If the President of the United States suddenly started basing major decisions like whether to go to war on astrological readings, then yes, it absolutely would be necessary to address those ideas – not just in spite of the fact that they’re so bad, but specifically because they’re so bad. Whether you want to recognize such misguided beliefs as legitimate is largely beside the point here, because what you need to be more concerned with is the fact that other people do regard them as legitimate enough to be worth taking seriously. Simply sticking your fingers in your ears and refusing to dignify them with a response doesn’t change the fact that those ideas still exist – it just means that they’re not being disproven. As Wong writes:
“So we actually have to have a discussion on why there’s no worldwide Jewish conspiracy to control the media?!?! Really?!?”
YES, BECAUSE THE DISCUSSION WILL OCCUR WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, AND IT IS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO STOP IT. ALL THAT IS TO BE DECIDED IS WHETHER OR NOT WE ADD OUR VOICES.
So if you imagine, for instance, some impressionable young person just discovering a particularly bad set of ideas for the first time, and finding some of the points persuasive because they don’t know any better, and then bringing up those points in a public discussion – then what happens when they don’t encounter any kind of serious counterargument or refutation of their points, but instead are only met with sarcastic taunts and insults? Well, it’s possible that they might become embarrassed and decide to reevaluate the validity of their beliefs – but that’s not always the likeliest outcome, especially if their detractors are people from an opposing ideological tribe. What’s more likely to happen is that they come away from the exchange thinking that the people on the other side are a real bunch of assholes who can’t even have a meaningful conversation; and they’ll probably also come away with the impression that since nobody actually made a legitimate attempt to disprove their arguments in a serious way, then such a disproof must not actually exist, and therefore they must be correct in their beliefs. If they only ever hear responses like “You’re too wrong to even be worth talking to,” or “I don’t even have the time to explain how wrong that is” (or worse, if they’re just angrily shouted down), then their natural response will most likely be, “Aha, they’re trying to dismiss me because they don’t actually have a good counterargument; that means the things I’m saying must be correct!” Wong continues:
If [some young person who doesn’t know any better sees] a protest in the park, and they see a white nationalist in a suit and tie speaking calmly into a microphone, saying “Well we of course don’t want to exterminate any minorities, all we want is peace between races, and history has shown that when races are separate, blah blah blah blah blah…” – that person speaking very calmly and very rationally – and then a screeching protestor starts slapping at them and clawing at their face, screaming “NAZI FASCIST NAZI” […] If you’re coming in cold, which of those two looks like the rational, thinking human being?
And Michelle Goldberg adds:
Some might argue that respectfully debating [bad] ideas […] legitimates them. There’s something to this, but refusing to debate carries a price as well – it conveys a message of weakness, a lack of faith in one’s own ideas. Ultimately, the side that’s frantically trying to shore up taboos is the side that’s losing.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that you have to go out of your way to empower the promoters of bad ideas, or give them more of a platform to spread those ideas by inviting them to speak at your university or whatever. But you do have to actually give them some kind of real response if you want them to change. Trying to mock or bully opposing ideas into submission instead of refuting them only causes the targets of your disdain to entrench themselves more deeply into whichever ideology they’ve adopted, and emboldens them to take a more antagonistic approach to subsequent debates.
Granted, this isn’t always what happens. If you browbeat enough people out of enough debates, then you’ll certainly deter some of them from participating in future exchanges altogether. A lot of times, what happens when somebody gets viciously blasted for their beliefs is not that they’re emboldened to become more assertive, but that the whole experience leaves such a bad taste in their mouth that they decide to just shut down, retreat back into their ideological bubbles, and stop trying to engage with people who disagree with them altogether. (They still maintain the same beliefs they had before, naturally, but now they just keep those beliefs to themselves, so they don’t have to deal with the hassle of being hounded by bullies on the other side.) On a surface level, this outcome might seem like a desirable one if you’re their opponent. From your point of view, a troublesome person whose ideas are evil and wrong has been effectively silenced, setting an example and deterring other would-be wrongdoers. Mission accomplished, right?
The problem, though, is that “would-be wrongdoers” aren’t the only ones influenced by this chilling effect; there’s collateral damage as well. When you make it clear that you aren’t taking any prisoners in your ideological battle – and that you aren’t particularly interested in differentiating degrees of guilt among your targets – it signals to others that you’re inevitably going to catch some undeserving people in your crosshairs and punish them right alongside the deserving ones. And when that happens, what you end up deterring isn’t “evil” or “wrongdoing,” but people’s ability to speak openly about their ideas and beliefs at all, because they fear that you’ll misconstrue them as being malicious and punish them accordingly. This phenomenon has made it harder in recent years for thoughtful people to talk candidly about their ideas, because they’re paralyzed by the thought that if they’re wrong – even if they’ve just made an honest mistake or unwittingly missed some key piece of information – they’ll be shouted down under a barrage of criticism and abuse. But when so many people decide to simply opt out of the public conversation and retreat back into their comfort zones, those among them who really are mistaken in their beliefs never get the opportunity to correct them, because they never put those beliefs out there to be judged by others in the first place. As Stephens writes:
[This brand of hyper-reactive, antagonistic discourse] has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short. Any argument that can be cast as insensitive or offensive to a given group of people isn’t treated as being merely wrong. Instead it is seen as immoral, and therefore unworthy of discussion or rebuttal.
The result is that the disagreements we need to have – and to have vigorously – are banished from the public square before they’re settled. People who might otherwise join a conversation to see where it might lead them choose instead to shrink from it, lest they say the “wrong” thing and be accused of some kind of political -ism or -phobia. For fear of causing offense, they forego the opportunity to be persuaded.
Take the arguments over same-sex marriage, which [they] are now debating in Australia. My own views in favor of same-sex marriage are well known, and I hope the Yes’s wins by a convincing margin.
But if I had to guess, I suspect the No’s will exceed whatever they are currently polling. That’s because the case for same-sex marriage is too often advanced not by reason, but merely by branding every opponent of it as a “bigot” – just because they are sticking to an opinion that was shared across the entire political spectrum only a few years ago. Few people like outing themselves as someone’s idea of a bigot, so they keep their opinions to themselves even when speaking to pollsters. That’s just what happened last year in the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, and look where we are now.
If you want to make a winning argument for same-sex marriage, particularly against conservative opponents, make it on a conservative foundation: As a matter of individual freedom, and as an avenue toward moral responsibility and social respectability. The No’s will have a hard time arguing with that. But if you call them morons and Neanderthals, all you’ll get in return is their middle finger or their clenched fist.
When you habitually try to bully people out of ideological conversations, it produces a kind of malignant selection process. A certain number of your targets will, indeed, decide that it’s not worth the headache and stop trying to engage with you. Those that remain undeterred, though, will by definition be the ones who are the most committed diehards – the brash, argumentative partisans who don’t give a fuck if you criticize them because they know they’re right and you’re the one who’s an idiot. Once you’ve chased off all the more moderate people whose fervor is only lukewarm, it creates the conditions for the extremists to thrive, because they’re the only ones left. And as these extremists spew their venom and chase off the more moderate members of your side in turn, it causes the effect to build on itself and escalate. All the reasonable people get fed up and leave, until the only ones left to control each side’s narrative are the unreasonable ones. The more they dominate the narrative, the more they marginalize everyone else who isn’t as fanatical as they are, treating anyone who deviates even the slightest bit from their ideology as a depraved heretic. And they’ll even turn their hostility against members of their own side without a moment’s hesitation, sniffing out and “exposing” ostensible members of their own side simply for disagreeing with them on one point or for making one mistake. There is no margin for error or deviation – anything less than their extreme definition of perfection means that you might as well be one of their enemies. Jay Smooth talks about this absolutist mindset in his discussion of race:
In most […] situations, when the possibility arises that we made a mistake, we are usually able to take a few deep breaths and tell ourselves: “I’m only human, everyone makes mistakes.” But when it comes to conversations involving race and prejudice, for some reason, we tend to make the opposite assumption. We deal with race and prejudice with this all-or-nothing, good person/bad person binary, in which either you are racist or you are not racist. If you’re not batting a thousand, then you’re striking out every time. And this puts us in a situation where we’re striving to meet an impossible standard. [Anything less] than perfection means that you are a racist. That means any suggestion that you’ve made a mistake or you’ve been less than perfect is a suggestion that you’re a bad person, so we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider our thoughts and actions. And it makes it harder for us to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections, and that lets them stagnate and grow. So the belief you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be.
Of course, this mentality isn’t just limited to race issues; it permeates everything from politics to religion. Religion, in particular, has an especially nasty history when it comes to this kind of thing; the whole reason why terms like “holier than thou” and “witch hunt” became household terms in the first place was because of fundamentalist religious campaigns waged not against disbelievers, but against perfectly devout believers who simply weren’t fanatical enough in their belief to meet some extreme standard of piety. Even today, innocent religious people around the world are being killed in mass numbers by members of their own faith because those violent fundamentalists judge anyone less fundamentalist than themselves to be heretical degenerates deserving of death.
The ideological “purity tests” conducted here in the West don’t tend to be nearly as extreme, obviously, but the gradual ratcheting up of what standards a person must meet in order to be considered “clean” takes a very similar form. Here’s Wong again:
I’ve never been around an activist group that didn’t turn into an endless series of petty purity tests. I was raised in a church where everyone was looking for more and more inconsequential things to judge each other by. R-rated movies were of course forbidden, but which prime-time network TV shows were permissible? Any of them? Of course rock music was of the devil, but what about country? Aren’t those songs about faith, kind of?
The natural evolution is toward tighter and tighter criteria for what behavior gets you shunned from the group. The end result is that the central cause, the group’s [reason for existing], can be as pure as the driven snow, and yet the tone will get more and more toxic over time, the members becoming less and less charitable with each other. Here, for example, is what my Twitter timeline looks like:
“Nazis are bad and must be opposed.”
“People who enable or defend Nazis must also be opposed.”
“Unlawful violence is perfectly acceptable when opposing Nazis and their enablers.”
Wait, I’m not sure I’m on board with that …
“Anyone who opposes the use of unlawful violence against Nazis is also a Nazi enabler.”
What? No! I’m one of the good guys!
“Also, if you think about it, all American institutions and capitalism itself help support white supremacy, therefore all are Nazi enablers and eligible for violent retribution.”
Hey, I think you just declared war on literally everyone who isn’t currently in the room with you.
You hear experts talk about how extremists get “radicalized” — how a guy went from a mild-mannered food inspector in San Bernardino to a brainwashed suicide attacker in the course of a year or so. But it really isn’t a mystery, and we all form less-murderous versions of this. All it takes is a closed like-minded social circle in which it’s considered unacceptable to disagree with the group, and then devote that group to hating something. It doesn’t even matter if the thing truly deserves hating — it still turns toxic. In fact, it works better if it does. “How can you criticize any flaw in our group’s behavior when the other side is Nazis! That’s literally saying that both sides are the same! The mere existence of pure evil on the other side mathematically means our side is pure good!”
At that point, no criticism is possible and there is nothing to moderate the rage. The rhetoric ratchets higher and higher as each member tries to top each other (to prove their own righteousness by demonstrating they hate the target most), and there is no method for reining it in. Moderate voices from outside the group are excluded completely, anyone from the inside who takes a moderate tone can be shouted down with accusations of being an enemy sympathizer. Soon, everything from objectively grotesque insults to elaborate torture fantasies are tossed around without a second thought.
When things have escalated to such an intense degree, the more vocal and aggressive ideologues will sometimes even target neutral bystanders, criticizing them specifically because they’re neutral. Just going about your business and trying not to get involved in contentious debates, in their eyes, means that you must be complicit in wanting to maintain the status quo. The fact that you aren’t speaking out against what they perceive as heresy or injustice must mean that you tacitly support it and want it to continue. In this way, then, it’s possible for you to be condemned and labeled an enemy not even because of anything you’ve done, but because of what you haven’t done. The mere absence of an opinion or belief can be a mortal crime, even if all you’re doing is sitting at home tending your garden or whatever. This mentality is grimly reminiscent of a quotation from General Ibérico Saint John, a repressive Argentine governor from the 1970s, who said:
First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then . . . their sympathizers, then . . . those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.
As Baumeister mentioned in his comments on terrorism earlier, the short version of this idea is “Anyone who’s not with us is against us.” (You might also remember George W. Bush saying this at the outset of his war against terrorism, ironically enough.) And although it’s true that sometimes a person remaining silent on a certain topic can in fact be a good indication of where they stand on it – and although it’s true that sometimes remaining neutral in an asymmetrical conflict does in fact favor the more powerful side by default (more on both of these points later) – that doesn’t mean that everyone who keeps themselves uninvolved in a particular conflict is just as bad as those who actively fight on the side of the enemy. And treating them as if they are tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you sort everyone into black-and-white categories of friend or foe and insist that only those whose ideological fervor precisely matches your own can be considered a friend – and that everyone else is considered a foe and must be punished equally harshly without regard for how bad their transgressions are – you shouldn’t be surprised when the category of enemies you’ve created turns against you. Alexander recounts an illuminating story from ancient China:
Chen Sheng was an officer serving the Qin Dynasty, famous for their draconian punishments. He was supposed to lead his army to a rendezvous point, but he got delayed by heavy rains and it became clear he was going to arrive late. The way I always hear the story told is this:
Chen turns to his friend Wu Guang and asks “What’s the penalty for being late?”
“Death,” says Wu.
“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”
“Death,” says Wu.
“Well then…” says Chen Sheng.
And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising, which caused thousands of deaths and helped usher in a period of instability and chaos that resulted in the fall of the Qin Dynasty three years later.
The moral of the story is that if you are maximally mean to innocent people, then eventually bad things will happen to you. First, because you have no room to punish people any more for actually hurting you. Second, because people will figure if they’re doomed anyway, they can at least get the consolation of feeling like they’re doing you some damage on their way down.
This is why antagonistic discourse can be so self-defeating. Once you’ve made it clear that you’re willing to abandon honesty and reason in the pursuit of your goals, it galvanizes popular opinion against you and undermines your cause by driving away would-be allies. The more you indulge in gratuitously combative or condescending behavior toward your opponents, the more you confirm (both in their minds and in the minds of neutral onlookers) that their side must be the persecuted underdog for having to endure such ill treatment from people like you – and the easier you make it for them to recruit opposition against you by portraying your side as vindictive and unreasonable.