The Limits of Argument

Man, do I love a good argument. Seriously, ask anyone who’s known me at any point in the last forty years and they’ll tell you. It’s like my brain’s factory wiring was optimized for it. It’s such a rush, when I’ve got a really good one going with a smart, well-informed person whose positions and beliefs are different from my own. It does for my brain what playing soccer does for my body.

I’ve spent decades doing it, in all kinds of situations, with all manner of people. It’s honed my critical faculties and made me question the assumptions at the foundation of my worldview. I’ve learned many valuable lessons as a result.

The most valuable lesson I learned? If you actually want to change or even open someone’s mind, arguing almost never works.

Here’s something that’s happened to me more times than I can count. Maybe it’s happened to you, too. You get into it with somebody. Things get heated. You’re going back and forth, back and forth, and you realize you’re both making the same argument in different words. And if you’re like me, it’s kind of frustrating, because you’re all het up and there’s nothing to argue about anymore.

After the nth time that happened, I started to realize that, at least for me, the contentiousness was the pay-off. The heated back and forth. A chance to let my rage nugget vent a little steam so it doesn’t boil over some inappropriate time. Like when I play soccer.

And I’ve come to think of argument in the same way as soccer. For me, at least, it’s best approached as a sport, a competition I engage in with fellow enthusiasts whom I cultivate online and IRL, who approach it with the same understanding. It won’t surprise you that most of them are lawyers and academics.

But if I want to get through to someone, and actually change the way they see the world (or at least get them to take a look at how I see it), getting all het up and marshalling facts and arguments and statistics and memes isn’t how I go about it anymore.

Nobody, but nobody, likes being told they’re wrong, and they like it even less if you can prove it.

In my experience, if you want to change someone’s mind, the best you can do is plant a seed and hope it takes root. And to do that, you have to find common ground to plant it in. It’s surprisingly easy to do if you start from a position of respect. If you frame what you have to say in such a way that it’s taken for granted that the person or people you’re dealing with have reasons for their views that they find genuinely convincing and good. If you ask them to explain, make the positive case, nine times out of ten you’ll find something in there you can both agree on.

Once you’ve established a rapport by genuinely engaging, and built goodwill by finding some point of agreement, you can show them the way to where you’re at from where you’re both standing. Connect the dots, make the positive case. Let them decide for themselves.

Will it work? Sometimes. And almost never right away. That’s why I use planting a seed as a metaphor. If you want a plant to grow or an idea to take hold, you have to find that common ground, and prepare it. Then you can plant the seed and, if conditions are favorable, the seed will sprout. It will grow roots, and when enough time has passed it will break ground into the light, and grow organically on its own.

Changing people’s minds is a really hard thing to do. But even if you just open them up a little bit more, that’s a good thing. A net gain for the ideas and ideals that you’re passionate about. And in my experience it’s a hell of a lot more effective at spreading them than browbeating people til they submit or defriend you out of exasperation.

Arguing and debating is a really fun sport, with the right people. But when the chips are down and the stakes are real, I think I owe what I believe in its best possible chance of spreading and taking root. Because the more of us there are, the better the chances of making it happen. Which I think will be good for everybody.

Even the people who disagree with me.

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