ON DISCOURSE IN THE POLITICAL RABBIT HOLE
If you care about politics and believe that a reasonable, rational debate on the issues makes for a healthy democracy…well, you’re out of luck.
If your experiences have been anything like mine…and they probably have…your attempts at rational discussion with conservatives have rapidly devolved into something resembling trying to have a reasonable discussion with an Alice in Wonderland character. It doesn’t take long before you were pulled into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory, innuendo, and meme based reasoning. Alternative facts were placed against real facts as if there were an equivalence. Eventually, your mouth-frothing interlocutor accused YOU of being brainwashed.
And the quality of your argument does not matter in the least. You have all of your facts in order. Research confirmed and reconfirmed by reputable sources. You have pointed out every possible contradiction of the conservative argument. You’ve highlighted every instance in which that person made exactly the opposite claims about Obama. You’ve shared links from reputable fact checkers. You’ve used every rhetorical device in the philosophical arsenal and have made your case so airtight that any discerning mind must see the strength of your argument.
And yet, you’re wrong because…you know…Obama!
This is intended to be a quick post, so I’m not going to delve into the long litany of psychological, neurological and even sociological research explaining why it is virtually impossible to get someone to change his mind once he’s decided upon an issue. From a sociological perspective, the individual has incorporated their ideas into their social construction of self. As an integral part of his personal identity, the idea becomes an incorrigible proposition, an idea that is not subject to change. By challenging their ideas, you are, in essence, challenging their very concepts of self.
Good luck with that. The person you are arguing with will not only reject your thesis out of hand but will actually become more entrenched in their misguided beliefs.
So why should you spend so much time arguing with someone who will never change their mind, regardless of the data?
Well, there are a couple of arguments for spending at least some time arguing with your crazy uncle, or your right-wing friend of Facebook.
The most important reason is that you are not really arguing with them. If it is your goal to make them change their minds, then you might want to rethink your endeavor. Your goal should be to offer a counter-discourse, or an alternative proposition, to those who may be listening in on the discussion who have not yet become bound by a particular incorrigible proposition. Sometimes, when people are looking for an explanation for what is going on in the world, they will accept what they can find. If there is only one song and dance in town, that’s the one that will be appreciated.
This is the “marketplace of ideas” model. We cannot allow the regressives to dominate the market with their medieval concepts. There must be an alternative.
Secondly, we cannot rule out the prospect that a good argument on your part might just change a mind. This is especially true if you can frame the argument in the values already accepted by your interlocutor. At the very least, you may be able to plant a seed of doubt into the incorrigibility of their proposition that might, ultimately, lead to change. It might not happen overnight, but over time, with enough cracks in the construct, the illusion collapses.
Thirdly, it is through argument that you submit your own ideas to pressure. It is under this pressure that the weaknesses of your own incorrigible propositions–yes, you have them, too–become cracks in your own construct. You have to be ready to accept the reality that you are the one who might be wrong. You may be wrong in toto, or in part. Either way, if you are honest with yourself, if you are supporting your claims with data and sound, logical reasoning, you should be able to identify the zones of your own worldview that are fuzzy and dedicate yourself to clarifying them.
This latter element takes significant discipline and a greater dedication to discernment than you have for your own discoveries. We all fall far short of this at times, but you must accept the possibility that you are on the wrong side of the argument. After all, this is what you are expecting from whoever you are arguing with.
At the same time, here are some suggestions that might minimize your stress and disillusionment in the human condition when you are arguing with the intransigent.
The first is a brilliant suggestion that was made by Trevor Noah from The Daily Show. His suggestion is to simply continue to ask questions until the substance of the argument falls apart. You see, for the most part, conservatives really don’t have “data” or “reasons” to make the claims that they offer. They are often responding to how they feel about a particular issue, or to what “seems right.” Once they actually have to start answering concrete questions, it doesn’t take long for the facade to become obvious to any discerning observer. And you don’t have to actually argue. When they get mad, you can say, “hey, I’m just asking questions.” However, you must know the facts in order to formulate good questions.
This method also gives you an opportunity to address the third reason for arguing given above. If your opponent can actually give good, data supported, reasonable answers, she may have a point that you want to look into further. Asking questions and really paying attention to the answers is a good test for your own incorrigible propositions.
It’s also a good way to understand that the person you are arguing with is probably not evil. She probably has perfectly good values behind her assumptions, but they may be misplaced or misdirected by her reference group and prevailing rhetoric. You and she may never agree on the issues, but you can at least acknowledge that her errors are human.
Another piece of advice is to limit the amount of time you dedicate to an argument. On social media, this is easy. Limit yourself to a certain number of replies (I max at two or three) and then be done. You can simply just stop. Sometimes this takes a bit of discipline on your part because, if you care about a matter, you really want to respond. But if your audience is not the person you are arguing with, but rather anyone else who might be on the string, then you must understand that most people have already moved on from the argument by the third comment. Say your piece and be done.
In face to face conversation, this is a bit more complicated. You can do the good ol’ “hey, look at the time…” thing. I will usually continue the discussion until the argument becomes circular. When you find yourself repeating points you’ve already made, you’re done. Simply say, “this is becoming a circular argument, so maybe we should just agree to disagree at this point. Hey, how do you think the Yanks’ll do this season?”
My final piece of advice: never, ever, lose your temper. Arguing out of anger never ends well. Also, hurt feelings over something as inane as Trump doesn’t make any sense at all. Furthermore, remaining calm and reasonable demonstrates to others that you are confident in your beliefs, which is an attractive quality. Staying reasonable is also good for your blood pressure. If it does become personal, time to end the conversation by saying, “this is no longer a discussion, and I don’t get into personal attacks. When you would like to continue a rational discussion, let me know.”
Political argumentation is a necessary dynamic if we are going to have a healthy democracy. Avoiding the argument means that weak, insubstantial ideas never get challenged and thus become incorporated into weak, insubstantial policies. The challenges of our time require vibrant, robust answers that address the underlying realities of the human condition. We cannot just throw our hands up in the air and say, “I just can’t talk to these people.”