Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Right Way to Argue -- Part II (11) -(20)

(11) Work with events.

People are not influenced by arguments, so much as they are by events in the world, especially those which they experience personally. Or rather – you can give someone some incomparably wonderful arguments, but they may not take hold, and will just lie passively in the back of his mind – until he suddenly experiences for himself some reality that your facts and arguments allow him to make sense of.

Young liberals are often naïve, with little experience of the real world. For instance, they tend to see all poor people as basically like themselves, only somehow deprived of money by an unfair system. A visit to a public housing project might open their eyes. If they have also been exposed to the conservative argument about the nature of poverty, and in particular our refutation of the liberal idea that all poor people are, are middle class people unfairly deprived of money, then the experiences is likely to be a fruitful.

Thus the old saying, “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged”.

After the successful 30 January elections in Iraq, and the subsequent creaking of the state machinery around the Arab world as various people began to say, “Hey, something’s starting to happen, and believe it or not, it’s that bastard Bush who should get the credit …” I could feel various liberals with whom I’d been fencing go on the defensive. That was the time to push hard on Iraq.

At the moment, when the insurgency appears undefeated, the converse is true – wise liberals will be pushing hard on Iraq at the moment, because events are working for them right now [Summer of 2005]. People who have been around a while will know that this sort of see-sawing of events is absolutely normal in any struggle where neither side has an overwhelming advantage on all fronts.

Immediately after the horrible bombings in London, I posted something (two things in fact) to over a hundred boards, of all political persuasions, to try to take advantage of the natural revulsion all decent people would feel at the events to focus their attention on the irrational and un-negotiable nature of our Islamic enemies, and to mock naïve liberals who want to make the main enemy our own security services.

On some English boards I posted a mock argument for surrender, to try to head off real arguments in favor of it, or at least to force the proponents of surrender to argue on my terms. [My argument: if we would just withdraw our [UK] troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and let the Islamists come to power all over the Middle East, and develop anthrax and nuclear weapons without hindrance, we could ride the buses in peace.]

So we need to be prepared to take advantage of events and move quickly to dominate and frame the debates that they will spark off. You may have prepared a good post on the question of crime, and leniency on criminals, but you will find that your argumentation will be doubly powerful if you wait to post it until some recently released criminal has just committed a horrible crime.

(12) Watch your language.

By which, I don’t mean avoid cuss words. I mean be careful to qualify your sentences so that your opponent cannot turn the argument into a quibble over whether ‘all’ or only ‘most’ And watch those (implied) quantifiers. I stupidly didn't do this a few weeks ago in a debate and got nailed down apparently saying [all] “ Black Studies courses are bogus”. When you leave out the quantifier you imply the universal quantifier, which is almost never a good idea in an argument. "Many" would have had the same force and wouldn't have given my enemies an easy target to shoot at. As it was all they had to do was find one Black Studies course which was not bogus, and that would trump my (hypothetical) presentation of 3000 which were.

There are links listing logical fallacies which, I suppose, mention this sort of thing. I have never found such lists of fallacies terribly useful, because they are either obvious, or not actually applicable to real reasoning, which is seldom aiming at perfect logical validity but at useful empirically-true generalizations. Thus it is a logical fallacy to dispute the conclusion of a chain of reasoning on the basis of some moral defect in the person making it – the so-called ad hominem argument – but in practice we use ad hominem thinking all the time. If I am ill I want to be diagnosed by a doctor who has proven in the past that he can make correct diagnoses, for example. Or, turning it around, I may find a useful and true fact on the website of the American Nazi Party, but I would be a fool to give that reference for it, even if it’s true. On the other hand, if you can source a useful fact to a known liberal site, it will have added force in the eyes of my liberal opponents.

(13) Don’t overlook the role of emotion

The inclination of most of us is, I suspect, to put our case using logic and evidence. We probably scorn appeals to emotion as a natural trait of fuzzy-minded liberals.

We would be wrong to do so.

Every debate has an emotional side, and to win a debate you cannot afford to neglect it. For instance, if a liberal opponent of the war in Iraq makes the argument, “Look, children are being killed by American bombs,” it is necessary to refute that argument with reason – more children will die if we do not fight, we do not deliberately target civilians, etc. – but those correct arguments have their natural complement in graphic tales and photos of children killed and maimed deliberately by terrorist bombs, and of stories and photos of American soldiers opening schools and rescuing children while risking their own lives to do so.

This point is closely related to the next point.

(14) Take the high ground and hold it.

This, one of the most fundamental rules of infantry manuever tactics, applies also to debate. Take and hold the moral high ground. Don’t let debates always center around liberal accusations of torture at Guantanamo, or carelessness in targeting in Fallujah, or corporate rape of the environment, with our side limited to refuting or explaining or putting in context.

We should start threads highlighting atrocities by our enemies, or showing the terrible results of statist control of Third World economies. Comrade Robert Mugabe should be rubbed in the liberals’ faces every week. Make them have to assert either that they agree with fighting terrorist atrocity-makers, or explain why they oppose doing so.

Liberalism and leftism is state-mandated “compassion,” which results in hellish public housing projects, communal-farm starvation agriculture, general debasement of popular culture, schools which are holding pens rather than centers of learning, released violent criminals claiming new victims, and military weakness in the face of pitiless enemies.

Conservatives are the truly compassionate people, because it is our programme and world-view which has resulted in societies where the age-old evils of poverty and oppression have been driven nearly to extinction. We must never let the liberals get away with claiming to be more compassionate and caring than we are (It is necessary to emphasize this because many conservatives – ask me how I know! – probably take a secret delight in shocking our sensitive liberal friends with robust formulations of our solutions to various social evils. We would be more than human always to deny ourselves these pleasures, but in debates, we are trying to win people to our point of view. So we should not only show our Ann Coulter face to them.)

We want to make them uneasy. We want them to go to sleep pondering the possibility that they oppose school choice because they are beholden to the teachers unions, unlike us caring, moral conservatives.

(15) Be positive.

There is a tendency for conservatives to criticize modern society, and its undoubted decline since the 1960s, and to take a tone of gloom and doom. This is generally not an attractive stance. We must project a positive, optimistic outlook – yes, things are bad, but they can be turned around, and are being turned around. People are waking up to the anti-civilizational nature of liberal relativism, and the future is a conservative one.

In particular, we must avoid the “I’ve got mine, Jack” argument: I made it, so anyone can, or, “Conservatism as a defense of my bank account”. Young people, who should be a special target for us, are idealistic. They want to do something to help bring about a better world. We need to show that the something they can do is to become conservatives, and help the consolidation and growth of the social and poltical system which uniquely can bring prosperity and liberty to everyone.

(16) Use Personal Experiences

To be a good debater, you need to be able to quote facts from books and articles, and to cite statistics. You need, in other words, to be able to draw upon the distilled experiences of mankind. But there is no doubt that personal testimony has a power and legitimacy that no abstract fact can match. Thus when I argue with lefties about the welfare system in Britain, where I live, of course I need to know the letter of the law on who is eligible for welfare, plus statistics about how many people are on it, and for how long, perhaps quotes from Theodore Dalrymple’s graphic Life at the Bottom.. But nothing can trump my direct personal witnessing of the welfare families who live in my village, and the several strong young men who draw welfare benefits but whose only work is jimmying open the windows of their neighbors, lifting pints of ale in the local pub, and fathering yet more illegitimate children to make sure that the system continues forever. Thus from direct eyewitness testimony I can refute Lefty apologists for the system who claim that it is only for those who are unable to work.

Thus you should always try, if it is possible, to use your personal experiences to back up your arguments. Leftists tell us that most American soldiers are baby-killers and that all leftist college professors are scrupulously fair. The only way to answer these arguments convincingly is through personal testimony of the opposite case.

(17) Seek out and exploit contradictions in the enemy camp.

In the just-passed days of massed infantry warfare, one standard tactic was to concentrate an attack at the boundary of two large enemy units. This would automatically activate two enemy command centers, causing (hopefully) confusion and contradictory orders.

Unlike conservatism, liberalism does not have well-grounded intellectual foundations. Liberalism is basically the desire to be kind and to do good, plus a strong preference for equality over liberty, with the means for achieving liberal ends chosen according to the fads of the moment, but almost always involving an increase in the power of the state. This is why liberalism has always been so easy to manipulate by distinctly alien political currents who have a much more well-worked out political ideology, like communism, and why its opposition to Islamist fundamentalism is often so half-hearted and weak. (Irving Kristol, writing in the late 1960s, noted that liberals were incapable of opposing any political movement if it was supported by large numbers of poor people. This was before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but he was right on the money.)

Although conservatives are divided into several currents, such as traditionalists, the neos, the paleos, the libertarians, etc, we are aware of our differences with each other. Liberals are often unaware that their camp contains, for instance, ardent admirers of the North Korean regime. They themselves may not know what they really think about such systems, as witness the typical liberal ambiguity about Cuba (“At least they have good health care,” is a typical liberal observation. “And really good gun control,”should be our riposte!)

A typical liberal group on an on-line Forum may contain liberals who consider themselves patriotic Americans, who oppose the Iraq war because it prevents us from concentrating resources in Afghanistan, and who are concerned that our troops are not getting the very best equipment, that the re-enlistment rate is falling, etc.

At the same time, they may find that they have ‘allies’ in the debate who oppose intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan equally; who see “Amerikkka” as the source of all the world’s evils, and who could care less what happens to the American military.

In a debate, we should attempt to drive these two sets of people apart. “So Karl Rove exposed a CIA agent? And you say this is bad? But I thought you believed the CIA was evil.” The hard-core opponents of the war in Iraq also oppose our actions in Afghanistan, whereas many liberals support the latter, or claim to. In a debate on Iraq a natural tactic for us should be to force our opponents to differentiate themselves – and hopefully to start quarrelling among themselves – over this difference.

At any rate, we must not let hard Leftists cloak their aims in spurious patriotism (“our poor soldiers”) nor let ostensibly realistic liberals [Iraq No, Afghanistan Yes] get a free ride by appealing to pacifist sentiments in which they supposedly don’t believe.

In short: divide and conquer.

(18) Don’t get hung up on words.

An enormous amount of time is wasted debating whether or not Hitler “was” a Leftist, or arguing about what socialism “is”. Almost all such debates are a great waste of time, because they assume that words have inherent meanings, like the contents of a box. They do not. Even the “dictionary definition” of a word just tells you how a particular – supposedly authoritative – person thinks the word is used. Words don’t “have” meanings, but rather we use them in certain ways. And we may use them in contradictory ways, we may use them vaguely, the use may change over time, and so on.

Usually such debates would be much more clear if the argument was about (1) how is a particular word used, with the understanding that it may be used in several mutually-contradictory ways, and (2) how should it be used, for maximum political clarity. You can often expose an opponent’s sloppy thinking by forcing a clear definition of terms, remembering that words do not “have” unchanging, crystal-clear meanings.

(19) Expose your opponent’s hidden assumptions.

Although all of us probably do a lot of thinking and speaking without being explicit about our ideas, liberals and leftists seem to be particularly guilty of fuzzy thinking. Perhaps this is because liberalism is not a well-worked out and historically-grounded body of thought, or perhaps it is due to some other reason.

In any case, you can often gain traction in a debate if you force your liberal opponent to state clearly his beliefs. An example, admittedly somewhat contrived: suppose your opponent says that he opposes the war in Iraq, because a lot of people were killed for what turned out to be a false belief, namely, that Saddam Hussein had WMD.

You might ask him: suppose WMD had been found – would he have supported the war, despite the fact that a lot of innocent people were killed? If he says “yes,” he has lost some moral high ground: he has admitted that there are circumstances under which he would support the killing of innocent people. You may have to force him to admit this. If he says “No” then you can push further, to see if there are any goals for which he would support a war, with its inevitable killing of innocent people. If you then expose him as an unrealistic pacifist, you have won the debate.

Or, you could ask him if he would have supported the war, had the intelligence reports on WMD been less ambiguous. Suppose they had returned some strong evidence of WMD, but not conclusive evidence. Would he have supported the war then, or would he have gambled on the reports not being true, or taken a chance that the WMD would have remained within Iraq.

The point is, to get your liberal opponent to propound some far-out unrealistic position, like pacifism, or to admit that his differences with you are tactical – i.e. he too would be a baby-killer under different circumstances. This destroys his sense of moral superiority, which many liberals find necessary to their well-being.

Your opponent is likely to respond by refusing to argue hypotheticals – but all you are doing is the kind of thinking that scientists do, when they abstract from irrelevant details. Anyone who has taken a physics course where the nature of forces is studied will be familiar with the concept of the frictionless surface. There is no such thing, but it is a very useful mental tool which allows us to focus on one particular aspect of reality and reach clarity concerning it.

In debate it can be a very powerful technique to create a “frictionless surface” via hypothetical cases.

A similar approach is to ask your opponent, what evidence would convince you that your stand is wrong? For example, in a debate about capital punishment, an opponent of capital punishment should be asked, if it could be shown that just one execution of a definitely-guilty criminal could lower the murder rate dramatically, would you support it? Since many opponents of capital punishment oppose it on non-rational grounds, such a question will make them very uneasy: either they admit that there are some circumstances under which they would support it – thus losing their moral high ground – or they look foolish and rigidly unrealistic.

Of course, you will run into liberal opponents who will stake out a position on tactical grounds alone, in which case you must shift to a debate around the facts.

(20) Know your enemy.

Being able to read the enemy’s plans in war, and/or knowing the Enemy Order of Battle, is the dream of every military commander. In political combat, you can do this.

There are hundreds of liberal and leftwing websites, and dozens of associated electronic newsletters, which you can access for free. You should sign up for two or three, and read them regularly. Reading liberal arguments is sometimes not easy, and this is especially true when you feel you cannot answer them. But knowing the playbook from which your opponent is reading will more than make up for any cognitive dissonance you feel from regularly reading liberal argumentation.

I regularly read The Nation magazine’s, and get news updates from the following leftwing sources, and I don’t read every word of every dispatch, but I make sure that I look at all of the titles, and read the articles which I think my liberal opponents are likely to read. Forewarned is forearmed.

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