Let’s Not Argue

I don’t enjoy arguing as much as I used to. Maybe it’s a consequence of getting older, maybe of getting wiser. I wouldn’t like to say, but it’s definitely a change I’ve noticed in myself.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I would vigorously argue any point, even ones I didn’t agree with, for the pure sport of it. Nowhere were my arguments more passionate and more sincere than in arguing my libertarian political beliefs. I read all the right books and spent countless hours trying to formulate that perfect, irrefutable point with which to crush my opposition. I was convinced that an airtight logical argument would convert others to my way of thinking, so I tried to make my argument as tight as I possibly could.

There’s just one problem with this way of thinking: airtight logical arguments don’t convert anybody, and crushing, irrefutable points don’t accomplish anything except to make others dislike you.

This is a hard truth to accept, especially for people like me who have generally analytical personalities and thought processes. I have personally been swayed into changing my mind a number of times by meticulously demonstrated logical positions, and so it’s natural to assume that this is an effective way to influence others.

But most people are not like me, and even in my own case, logical conversion has been the exception rather than the rule. We are all subject to confirmation bias, the tendency to accept evidence that confirms our worldview and reject evidence that contradicts it, and as humbling as it is to admit, I am just as vulnerable to this type of thinking as the next guy.

In a way, this should be obvious. Brilliant logicians have spent centuries debating important questions such as the existence of God. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and atheists can all boast incredible levels of scholarship and argumentation on behalf of their belief systems. But the fact that all these factions still exist demonstrates the utter inadequacy of logic alone in convincing people of the truth or falsehood of any particular position.

The reason for this is that people generally make up their minds based on a gut check rather than a reasoned argument. Counterintuitively, this is especially true for the really important things in life, like morality, politics, and religion. I may be able to use logic to convince you that the lotto numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are just as likely as any other combination, as counterintuitive as that is, because the answer, while interesting, doesn’t really matter. But try to convince a leftist that deregulation is actually good for poor people, and all the facts and figures in the world will be of no use to you.

I’m not actually complaining about this. While it’s easy to condemn the human race as a hopelessly illogical mess, and decry the stupidity of the average person, I’m not convinced that bringing emotions into the decision making process is such a bad thing. There’s virtually no end to the valuable lessons we can learn from Star Trek, but among the most central is that the pure logic of a Spock is most effective when tempered by the humanity of a McCoy. For better or worse, humans are emotional beings and complaining about it won’t change reality. It does, however, require an adjustment in how we communicate.

It would be easy to conclude from the above that there’s no point in trying to change anyone’s mind; the factions are set, and nothing can move them. Of course, this is obviously untrue. People change their minds all the time, not just about small things, but about everything. Life-changing conversion that require a rethinking of basic premises are not at all uncommon, from the politico who abruptly switches sides, to the rationalist who has a sudden “come to Jesus” moment. The instigation for these dramatic conversions is almost invariably nothing more than life experience. It can be a sudden trauma, or just a gradual awareness that you’ve been looking at the world through the wrong lenses. The question, therefore, is, how do we impact people’s experience in order to convince them of a particular proposition?

Well, we can’t do this directly. If we could, people would have already done it. But I can think of at least two ways you can create conditions conducive to open-mindedness and potential conversion. The first is living your values. Be moral, be honest, be consistent, and be cheerful, and you’ll be surprised at how much of a difference it makes. People will start to think, “he seems like such a good guy, with such a happy life. Maybe he’s onto something.” When I was 15 years old, my family took a vacation to England, and while we were there we stopped at a little windswept monastery on Lindisfarne, a small island that is an ancient and important center for Celtic Christianity. While there, I saw a monk, unspeaking, walking softly, and smiling unobtrusively at the tourists. I can’t explain what it was about him, but he radiated such joy and inner peace that I’ve never been able to forget him, despite not speaking a word to him. While I am not myself a Christian, a few seconds in this man’s presence did more to make me question my beliefs than volumes of Aquinas or Augustine ever could.

Live your values without trying to impose them on people, and you may find others wishing to emulate you.

The second method is through storytelling. We are all influenced by the stories we heard growing up; it’s where much of our basic values come from. It’s impossible to say how much resentment towards the upper classes has been created through children’s programs that depict bankers and landlords as the bad guys, but I would wager the impact has been considerable. Stories resonate because, if they are done well, they are based on an emotional core that creates an identification and empathy with the heroes. They also can make the abstract vivid. I never thought much about the electric chair until I saw its depiction in the film The Green Mile, after which I considered it a horrendous and unforgivable torture device. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a famous example of a story turning public opinion against the practices of meat packing, even though the author took some pretty gross liberties with the truth. A good story can move people in a way that a cold, logical argument never can.

As libertarians who want to see a freer, more prosperous world, we should spend less time on social media, explaining for the hundredth time how the minimum wage hurts the least skilled workers, and more time telling powerful, emotional stories that illustrate our values, while at the same time living the best lives we can. If you disagree with any of this, you can leave your argument in the comments, but good luck convincing me I’m wrong.

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Logan Albright

Logan Albright is the Director of Research at Free the People. He occasionally takes time out from his busy schedule of railing against the evils of government to play the part of musician, amateur novelist, and moustache enthusiast.

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3 comments

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  • Biologist and Harvard Professor Edward O Wilson discusses tribalism while ruminating on the ubiquity of religion. Religion appears throughout history in all cultures. Why, it must have some survival advantage. Among other things, he concludes that people hold to ideologies against all rational evidence NOT because they believe in them, but to protect their place within the group and maintain the integrity/cohesion of the group. So this is true of both religion and political views.

    You read that right: We argue about stuff we don’t actually believe in to get the believer-like benefits.

    Before attempting rational discourse, I have had great success in educating people first on the effects of tribalism (sometimes called the Old Tribal Mentality). Once a person understands why they irrationally cling to ideas, they’re more likely to keep it in check.

    In short, you gotta kill tribalism first.

    Wrote an essay about, happy to share. Email me for more info.

  • I have also found that I can not convince anyone about political ideas: I have some luck with technical, engineering ideas.

    I have also learned that I can’t possibly keep all the different libertarian arguments at the forefront of my thinking.

    I have found that if I always refer to the ‘Non-Aggression Principle’ in political discussions, my argumentative opponent cannot quite beat the argument. They don’t always accept it, but they can’t quite overcome it. It’s very hard to justify why you should be able to force someone to do something if they have not caused any harm to anyone.

    That’s the best I’ve got. I’m always willing to learn more.

  • Logan:

    “As libertarians who want to see a freer, more prosperous world, we should spend less time on social media, explaining for the hundredth time how the minimum wage hurts the least skilled workers, and more time telling powerful, emotional stories that illustrate our values, while at the same time living the best lives we can. If you disagree with any of this, you can leave your argument in the comments, but good luck convincing me I’m wrong”.

    Well said !

    What I feel is missing from the Libertarian effort is TEAM building and a real grass roots effort. What we get for the most part is a few constitutional conservatives giving soap box speeches, knowing that they are going to be ignored by their own congressional body, but “hear the love” of their base.

    Effort, without a desired result, is meaningless, it is also a wasted resource.

    Long winded, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” speeches or stunts on CSPAN about tariffs, the War Powers Act, or system reforms sound great, but it only plays to “US”, who bought tickets.
    “Mr. Smith”? Well, he is just screaming into a Wyoming windstorm.

    Your summation on how to communicate is spot on as far as I am concerned; but look at who we admire in Congress…….They are just argumentative.

    We need team building, or we are just spinning our wheels, and burning resources.

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