Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Means and Limitations of Argument



An important article appeared in Current Affairs on March 16, 2017 entitled "Debate vs. Persuasion" written by Nathan J. Robinson.  I say important because it reveals important facts about ideological competition that anti-regressive political forces need to be aware of.

The most important thing anybody could ever understand about political debate is contained within the first paragraph.
"A common argument on the left runs as follows: one should not have an excessive confidence in the power of “rational debate” to solve political disagreements. There is, after all, no reasoning with some people. They are beyond argument, and thinking that you can reason with them is delusional. Any attempt to do so is likely to hurt your political fortunes, because it misunderstands how power works. Politics is not a university debating society, in which each side offers its premises and conclusions and the team with the tightest logic wins. It is “war by other means,” a clash of interests that is won by gaining the ability to push your agenda through, not by showing the other side how reasonable you are."
It has been bolded and the font changed for emphasis.  Read that again.  And again.  And again.  The only thing I'll add is that this kind of thinking isn't really unique to the left.  The Tea Party, for instance, was prone to thinking that way.  Obama, the Muslim Nazi communist antichrist that he was, simply could not be reasoned with.  Total obstruction was the only option open to congressional Republicans in the Obama era who had angry and vocal Tea Partiers - convinced that FEMA camps were just around the corner - to answer to back home.  

But it does come naturally to leftists, who have a tendency to see politics in the Manichean terms described in the last sentence of the paragraph.  This has been especially true since Trump's win, who while not a communist or a Muslim (obviously) is also a Nazi, as well as a whole basket of other deplorables besides. One out of four ain't bad, I guess.  And while he's not the antichrist in the minds of his Women's March opponents - all together too Christian and hence Republican and hence white male for the Women's Marchers, the concept of the antichrist is, he is likened to Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter legendary, who I surmise is the next worst thing.

Whichever dark lord happens to sit in the oval office at any given time (I seem to recall frequent comparisons of George W. Bush to Sauron, for example, or Anakin Skywalker after his fall to the dark side) the important thing is that reference to mythological imagery and archetype is indispensable to the creation of a political movement aspiring to long term success.  If the movement does not cast its enemies in the role of evil villains, how can its supporters be, or at least feel, heroic?  The problem with demonizing your opponents, though, is that it becomes harder to reason with them and maintain your credibility.  Hence the perception of politics as a "war by other means" rather than as a "university debating society."

Here it is again, just in case you missed it.
"It is “war by other means,” a clash of interests that is won by gaining the ability to push your agenda through, not by showing the other side how reasonable you are."
This cannot be emphasized enough.  Political factions characterized by a high degree of rationalism, usually indicated by a tendency to not regard their political opponents as fantasy novel villains, and the alt-left is such a movement, too often fail to realize this.  This leads to exchanges between alt-leftists and tea partiers or intersectional feminists being frustrating exercises in futility.  Why won't they listen to reason?

This is where Nathan J. Robinson's excellent article continues to deliver.
"It’s important, in considering these questions, to clear up what “debate” is to begin with. Many of the criticisms of “debating” people seem to assume a narrow definition of debate: they criticize those who think pure logic can successfully counter right-wing [or regressive left] political points. The idea here is that “debate” consists of rational argumentation: I present my points, with evidence, you present counterpoints with evidence, I rebut your counterpoints, you parry my rebuttal with some more evidence, and one of us wins through superior logic."
I hope you're making a note of that.  Because formal logic does have an important place in rhetoric (notice that term), it is be no means the total extent of what debate is.  Believing that logic, facts and reason are all debate comes down to is a very common mistake made by otherwise bright young people who rightly prize reason and factuality as being of crucial importance in deciding political differences.  It's a mistake I've made many times.
"In making the decision as to whether to debate someone, and how, it’s that effect on the audience question that should be crucial. It’s all about the audience; you’re never going to persuade your opponent, your job is to persuade the person watching." [emphasis mine]
This is crucial.  I've all but given up on internet flame wars for this reason.  When engaging in a flame war, ask yourself who are you trying to convince?  I really do hope by now that we're all well past believing that paleo-cons or intersectional feminists can be persuaded.   But sometimes there's an audience - a younger brother or other family member at a family gathering, a friend on Facebook who's kind of on the fence between going SJW and going Alt-Left, an alt-right guy on YouTube who's seriously wondering if social safety nets aren't necessary after all, and in the not too distant future, perhaps, a university auditorium or lecture hall.  It's worth it then.

TIP: The best way to "win" a debate is to have said debate before an audience of your own choosing.  Taking the fight to /pol/ on 4chan or the comments sections on Everyday Feminism's Facebook page is a good way to get dogpiled, no matter how sound your arguments.  Unless it's your intent to troll, of course.  Sometimes it's impossible to resist.  

Robinson then harkens back to Aristotle, who defined successful rhetoric as consisting of three components, of which pure logic was but one, called logos.  There were also pathos and ethos, meaning emotion and character.  Let's consider each briefly.

Logos, as mentioned above, logical soundness.  The law of non-contradiction rules here: a thing cannot both be X and not be X.  Prove that your opponent commits logical flaws that result in this kind of fundamental contradiction, and you should have the argument in the bag.  You'd be surprised at how effective that isn't against dug-in regressive opponents.  But remember, it's not about your opponent, it's about the audience.  Show them that your logic is sound, or at least that opponent's logic is more fundamentally flawed than yours and the battle is one third won.

TIP: It's useful to brush up on your logical fallacies regularly if you wish to be successful at this.  There's a good list of them here, and you an even download a PDF poster of logical fallacies from the site for free!  What are you waiting for?  Wikipedia has a good list also.


Knowledge of logical fallacies is a good way to prevent yourself from being fooled, and if you can score points with your audience by using fallacies successfully (be careful when doing this, mind you), have at 'er.  You don't want to have the wool pulled over your eyes by an SJW or a tea bagger, don't you?  No, you don't.

TIP: logos goes beyond simple logical cohesion.  Word choice is crucial.  Use of language to frame issues in ways that favor your side is an art form worth studying, for it can well pay off.  It is vital that you know your audience and, at least to some degree, speak their language.  Meaning their turns of phrase and, importantly, their values and the words that best capture those values.  Use them, and make damn good and sure that it is you and not your opponent that best embodies those values.

Pathos refers to emotion, and appeals to emotion in rhetoric.  This strikes many as cheating, especially since I just mentioned logos and knowing your logical fallacies, of which appeal to emotion is one.  Don't believe it.  Your opponents are going to make all kinds of emotional appeals, and the audience - remember, it's all about the audience - is much more likely to be moved by appeals to emotion plus otherwise sound logic than they will by sound logic alone.  Rouse sympathy towards yourself by portraying your points as fair and just, while rousing disdain and anger towards your opponent's. 

It's also not easy to do well.  Be too flagrant and obvious in your appeal to emotion and you will come across as maudlin or emotionally manipulative and end up falling flat.  Again, knowing your audience is crucial.  If you don't know your audience at first, stick to logos until you do. Also be aware of external factors that can make an audience more susceptible to emotional appeal.  The mere existence of an audience is one such factor: crowd psychology can augment an emotion aroused by a skilled rhetorician.  Political rallies are full of this, quite intentionally.

Ethos refers to character and reputation.  This is about you appearing to be competent and having integrity.  Or your opponent appearing incompetent and lacking in integrity.  If you can't exactly win, at least try not to lose.  Remember what I've said about knowing your audience, and especially knowing what your audience values?  This is all about portraying your side as being the better exemplar of those values.  Subcategories of ethos include:
  • Decorum: Represent yourself as being in alignment with your audience's expectations of leadership and competence.
  • Virtue:  Represent yourself as being in alignment with your audience's values.
  • Practical Wisdom: Represent yourself as pragmatic, practical, mindful and in possession of common sense.
  • Disinterest:  Important.  Showing yourself as having minimal personal vested interest in your position.  You take the stance you do because it is demonstrably right, not because you will benefit from it personally.

Of course, you will want to do your best to make sure that your opponent's position fails in any or all of the above regards.  Be careful about making personal attacks upon or impugning the character of your opponent, however.  It is usually best to regard your opponent as well meaning but misguided or misinformed.   Most audiences frown upon personal attacks, unless you have smoking-gun evidence to back such attacks up, or your audience actually likes to see people of particular political stripes get a good roasting.  I wouldn't recommend respecting intersectional antifa protesters as well intended but just a tad bit off the mark on an anti SJW page.  

Am I suggesting you fight dirty, so to speak?  I would suggest that you lie and cheat at your peril, and at peril to the cause you represent.  If you feel the need to misrepresent yourself or misrepresent your beliefs in any exchange with a political or ideological opponent, I'd suggest that you reevaluate the stance you're taking.  If it's worth advocating and defending, you won't need to be dishonest to do it.

Do not expect to convince an opponent, though it could happen.

Using ethos and pathos as well as logos to persuade an audience isn't lying or deception of any kind.  Rather, it's appealing to the whole human character of your audience rather than just their minds.  Respecting their intellect through solid, but not overly pretentious reasoning is important.  But human nature is driven much more by values - or by the ego stroking that professing good values gives people - than by pure logic alone.  The conclusion of Robinson's article puts it succinctly, and I present here in slightly altered form for my own ideological purposes:
"The other side understands this. Conservatives and regressive leftists know how to appeal to people’s guts, to their feelings of bitterness, suspicion, and fear. If the alt-left is going to respond, it needs a message of equal power. Not mere facts, though of course we want those. But something that appeals to the nobler emotions: to solidarity, and joy, and the spirit of human kinship. We have effective emotional appeals, we just need to use them. 
There’s nothing inherently shameful about political rhetoric. In fact, it’s essential. You should be appealing to the heart as well as the brain. You should have a character people can trust, not just arguments they can agree with. And it’s the only way you’ll win."
Convince your audience that they are good people who value good things, and that your proposals better represent those good values than your opponent's proposals, "well intended as they are" and you will go far.  



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