Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Right Way to Argue -- Part I

The Right Way to Argue: How Conservatives Can Prevail in Political Debate

I Introduction

Why We Fight

I assume that most of us take part in on-line and other debates for the sheer bloody combative fun of it, the way some people play chess or tennis, presumably responding to ancient Darwinian impulses. To be sure, in none of these contests, if you win, do you get to carry your enemy’s head back to your village, but you can sure feel the hormones surging.

However … perhaps there is a higher purpose we can serve at the same time as we sublimate those primal urges.

The Background

There are now thousands of on-line forums, of which several hundred prominently feature political debate and discussion. It is probably safe to say that, on any given night, tens of thousands of people are looking at them. There is every reason to think these numbers will grow. It is also probably the case that the sort of person who is interested enough in politics to take part in on-line political exchanges tends disproportionately to be the kind of “opinion leader” who influences several others around him.

The Social Context

My working assumption is that in every on-line debate, there is at least one person following it, if not taking part, who can be brought closer to the conservative camp, or, if he or she is already there, can be made a more effective member of it.

This belief, which is based on several decades in argumentative politics, is that behind the appearance of two united, monolithic, unshiftable blocks of enemies, one on the Right, the other on the Left, facing each other like two armies arrayed for battle, is a reality which is much more complicated. I believe it is closer to the truth to see the political spectrum as follows:

(1) Conservatives

A plurality – between thirty and forty percent – of Americans identify themselves as “conservatives”. But not all of these people are highly sophisticated, knowledgeable political activists. On the conservative side may be people with good will, but who are not very knowledgeable about their beliefs. These may be young people who consider themselves conservatives, but are trapped on a liberal college campus; or high school students from a reflexively-conservative home where they have not had the opportunity to be armed intellectually with the ideas and facts which could support their parents’, and their, instinctive conservatism; or older conservatives who are just getting into the on-line world whose conservatism is based on solid personal experience, but who as yet lack the skills and intellectual ammunition for effective argumentation.

Good arguments supported by appropriate references to conservative books and journals and websites can play a role in consolidating all of these people’s beliefs and helping them prepare to take part in arguments themselves.

(2) Liberals

On the liberal side are people who think of themselves as liberals, but who may be conflicted about various aspects of the liberal program, or whose daily experiences don’t match the predictions of liberal theory (such as it is). I did a quick survey of a few dozen forums, asking people who had changed their beliefs – What made you change? I received quite a few replies to the effect, ‘It was when I graduated from college and had to start paying taxes’ or ‘It was when I opened my own business’. It might be possible to help speed such people along the path to Enlightenment by exposing them to the conservative worldview before they have these experiences.

We may have young rebels who thought that the proper target of their rebellious instincts was the white male establishment but who are beginning to find that the real enemies of their liberty are the Leftwing Thought Police.

Or we may even run into liberals who find that the decent liberal values which moved them to get into politics in the first place are actually best secured by the sort of ordered liberty supported by a prosperity-generating free market that conservatives champion, rather than by the ever-growing amorphous state, which liberals seem to want to strengthen in every aspect except that which is its proper function, protecting us from enemies domestic or foreign.

On the few liberal-dominated forums in which I have participated in the last few months, I have encountered (1) liberals who support the war in Iraq, (2) liberals who are vehemently against gun-control, being match target shooting competitors themselves, (3) liberals who are against abortion, (4) liberals who are against gay marriage, (5) liberals who are against Affirmative Action, (6) liberals who recoil at Political Correctness.

We may mock their inconsistency, but it would be foolish to do so. People are not machines for the processing of formal logic, who determine the axiom-set and rules of inference of politics and then proceed to mechanically deduce all the propositions which necessarily follow from them.

Rather, they draw upon their own experiences which are necessarily partial and limited. They are heavily influenced by friends, parents, teachers, professors, newspapers, radio, TV. They are moved by events, filtered through the media which present these events to them.

This is why talk radio has been so important in the growth of conservatism. It is why the phenomenon of ‘South Park Conservatives’ exists. It is why getting a job and getting married and having children is so often cited by people as part of the process of changing their minds in a conservative direction.

No one leaps in a single microsecond from full-blown liberalism to case-hardened conservatism. They proceed in a series of steps, from stage to stage, and they may not even be aware that they are occupying intermediate positions.

Even if a liberal stops in his political progress, and remains a liberal, but with conservative sensibilities on certain issues, that is a victory. Liberals will inevitably wield political influence at all levels of American society into the indefinite future. If we can persuade some of them that, for example, school choice is a good idea, then that alone is worth the effort.

(3) Neither

And then, there are those people – the majority of Americans, by all polls – who think of themselves as neither liberal nor conservative, or perhaps a bit of both. How many of these take part in on-line debates, I don’t know. I suspect they make up a larger part of the ‘lurkers’. But they are surely there for the influencing, and the more of them we can inoculate against the errors of liberalism, and move in our direction, the better.

Coming Next: Part II. Some General Considerations on Political Debate

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Right Way to Argue -- Part II (1) - (10)

Some General Considerations on Political Debate

These apply not only to on-line debate and discussion, but in general.

(1) The way to learn to write well is to read a lot, and to read the writings of good, elegant stylists. I strongly recommend Gibbon, Macaulay, and Churchill. And among living writers, William Buckley.

Also good reading: Trotsky, surprisingly enough, especially his well-reasoned polemics against his political enemies. Shaw said that Trotsky not only cut his opponents' heads off, he then held them up to show there were no brains inside. Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal on the Left [well, Hitch is in motion] are wonderful writers and polemicists, well worth keeping up with. Also Mark Steyn, on the Right. There are a number of other good conservative columnists whom I will list later.

(2) Prepare for the battle.

I hate to get drawn into arguing about a subject where I have not read the main arguments of both sides. I find that when I do, I usually get ambushed by a well-read liberal who bombards me with facts and figures and citations. I may still feel I'm right, but I cannot refute him except using abstract arguments, which are seldom effective against facts and figures. [Of course you can interrupt the fight and go Googling, but how much better to have Googled beforehand, and thus be able to come back immediately. In any case, if you have to fashion a weapon out of hastily-retrieved Google scourings, it may turn out to be a very blunt instrument indeed. What we need is a Conservative Resource Center where such work as has been done for you beforehand, but that’s another topic.]

I know one very effective participant in on-line debates who has his own store of links and quotes, which he spends hours accumulating, and which he can deploy swiftly and effectively to counter his opponents’ claims. I think this should be an example for us all.

In fact, you should consider becoming a specialist on some topic of political interest. No one can know all there is to know about everything, or even about one thing. But you can, with an hour or two of Googling, get signed up on two or three electronic newsletters, which, supplemented by reading a book or two, and downloading a few files, make you a specialist on, say, Cuba, or Affirmative Action, or Gun Control, or the Supreme Court, or … A “specialist” is not necessarily an “expert”. But a specialist will know a lot more about a subject than the rest of us, and can be of great use in a debate. (Of course, we would benefit immensely if the services of specialists could be brought together and made available to all conservatives. See the Appendix for a proposal to do this.)

(3) Win the person, not the argument

I believe that the good conservative debater should always frame his arguments as if they are being read by a sincere, but confused, semi-liberal, who can be won, step by step, over time, by sweet reason supported by debating skills, to become a conservative. This is just a necessary myth, of course.

Thus the best assumption with which to begin a debate is to assume that one’s liberal opponents are honourable people, whose decent goals are actually perverted by their liberal politics.

This is just the opposite of what one must do in actual armed combat, where the last thing you want to do is to dwell on the fact that the boy whose chest floats above your front blade sight is probably a frightened conscript with parents who will be devastated at the result of your trigger-squeeze.

But I now want to pray in aid two much better persuaders than myself:

“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim that 'a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.' So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing him of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause is really a good one.” Abraham Lincoln

"Again I say, don't get involved in foolish arguments which only upset people and make them angry. God's people must not be quarrelsome; they must be gentle, patient teachers of those who are wrong. Be humble when you are trying to teach those who are mixed up concerning the truth. For if you talk meekly and courteously to them they are more likely, with God's help, to turn away from their wrong ideas and believe what is true." 2 Timothy 2:23-25
So, to sum up: realistically, you are not going to find that anyone experiences a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion as a result of your brilliant arguments. Rather, we can raise doubts in the minds of liberals and centrists, which may later, aided by appropriate personal experiences, ripen into full-fledged objections to some critical aspect of the liberal program, leading to the making of another conservative. Our politics helps make sense of the world.

But even if you do not win over anyone who does not agree with you, you may still prevail – if your posts help educate other conservatives.

Lenin said that to be a good Bolshevik, you needed patience and a sense of irony. These are also the qualities of a good anti-Bolshevik.

(4) Avoid personal attacks.

In your arguments, you should try to remain cool, and courteous. I sometimes look for an opportunity to congratulate an opponent on some aspect of his presentation of his case, if I can do so without sounding too condescending. Concede graciously any good point your opponent makes -- it will only strengthen your hand when you attack his bad points, and it also puts you into a subtle position of authority, because you become simultaneously both a partisan and the arbiter of the quality of a debate.

You can see the truth of this by reversing the situation: imagine that you are starting to read a post by a liberal, which begins “All conservatives are sleezy, greedy conmen, and stupid to boot.” No matter how brilliantly that liberal put his following arguments, would you be inclined to listen to them? On the other hand, consider reading a liberal argument which began, “Conservatives deserve credit for being willing to think outside the box, and for their insistence on principles. However, they are mistaken on the question of …” Which approach would be likely to have more influence on you? We must keep this in mind when we present our arguments.

Or to quote the Master, justifying the very proper language in the British declaration of war on Japan, “After all, if you are going to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” [Winston Churchill, History of the Second World War.]

Let me emphasise that I am not saying this from a goody two-shoes point of view, although I do believe that part of being a conservative is being a gentleman – remember that gentlemen once settled their differences with sword or pistol if necessary – and that even conservatives have been affected by the debasement of our culture in the last few decades. So part of winning over people is setting a good personal example. But mainly I want to make the simple point that Lincoln made: get your opponent in a psychological state where he wants to agree with you, to keep your esteem. To get him there, you must be willing, at least to start with, to extend him “provisional esteem”.

(5) Be cool and careful when responding to personal attacks if you respond to them at all.

These cannot always be ignored – although often simply ignoring them is the best thing to do – but your response should not be a simple reflex action. You need to think about what you’re going to say, and frame your answer in such a way that your opponent does not succeed in diverting a political confrontation into a personal one.

Personal attacks from an enemy in a debate are like a feint, designed to draw your fire onto a low-value mock-up target. A very oblique, dry, ironic riposte is okay, occasionally, if you can find an opening. But in general you should just ignore insults and invective, or acknowledge them with the written equivalent of a pitying shrug. It makes the other guy look bad, and it makes you look good, to anyone with a brain.

Consider how your reply will look to a thoughtful non-conservative reading the thread, not how you can most deeply wound the idiot who has attacked you.

There are certain liberal-run boards where the moderators are seeking the opportunity to ban conservatives for alleged bad behaviour. Don’t fall into the trap of giving them the excuse for which they are looking.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that personal attacks from liberal enemies should be seen as victories for us, and mistakes on their part. And as Napoleon said, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

(6) Avoid obvious sarcasm. Never correct an opponent’s grammar or spelling mistakes, except perhaps implicitly, when quoting him. When you catch your opponent in a factual error, don’t be triumphant. Be polite. Be seen to be giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt – he is simply mis-informed, or ignorant, rather than a conscious deceiver. Carried out consistently, this stance will give you unshakable moral authority with those who are following the debate, provided that they are not insanely partisan.

Be ye gentle as doves, but wise as serpents.

(7) Choose your ground

To undermine liberalism and win people to conservatism it is not necessary to systematically win them over on every single question where the two camps differ.

In a real battle, in the days of massed infantry and artillery wars, a skilful general would look for the weak spots in his enemy’s lines, and would concentrate his forces there, hoping for a breakthrough and a rout which would see the enemy line disintegrating without it having to be defeated one-on-one at every point.

Similarly, the psychology of political conversion, I believe, begins with the raising of doubts about one or two pillars of belief – once these crumble, the person concerned will convince himself on other issues.

(8) Avoid issues where your enemy holds a natural advantage

There are issues where the left naturally hold the apparent high ground, and issues where the right does. Although in theory all should be discussed, since I am trying to win people to conservatism, I try to avoid getting involved in extended fights where the other side has the advantage. For instance, I think the American government and armed forces have been unquestionably lax in their attitude on the proper treatment of prisoners in the war on terror. In part this stems from the especially evil, but ambiguous – neither normal criminal nor soldier-- nature of our enemy, in part from the peculiarly democratic nature of the American military, which cannot enforce rigid Wehrmacht-style discipline on its enlisted personnel, and in part from what I believe is an inadequate understanding at all levels on our side of the peculiarly political nature of the war [where we could learn a thing or two from Trotsky and Mao Tse Tung].

The Left of course delight in this issue, because it makes them look pure, and our side look wicked. The best we can do is to affirm that it's not something to be proud of, where it’s true, that much of it is exaggerated, that this happens in every war, that the other guys are incomparably worse, and that even if every story is true, it does not change the nature of the war ... but you start out in the argument with two strikes against you. So it's not an argument where, to be frank, I want to see extended debate, because we have to fight on the defensive, and our enemy appears to hold the high moral ground, to mix military metaphors. When such a debate is unavoidable, I will mainly post links to articles in various conservative magazines condemning the practice, to prove that it's definitely not something we support.But if it becomes an unavoidable issue, it would be better for a conservative to initiate a thread on it, with a substantial post, rather than try to reply to liberal-initiated threads.

(9) Choose topics where facts are important, and you know them

I happen not to hold the most hard-line conservative position on abortion, but even if I did I would not particularly want to get into on-line debates about it. This is not because the Left hold the high moral ground here, the opposite is the case, but because this is not the kind of issue which is especially resolvable by the kind of argumentation involved in debates. The argument is all about when you should consider a fetus a human being, and it’s not an argument where facts have much bearing. Pro-life debaters can appeal, quite properly, to our natural human emotions by showing us with well-chosen images just what it is that abortions kill. Pro-choice debaters can attempt to drive their opponents into an absurd corner by demanding to know if they really believe that a microscopic clump of cells has the same rights as sentient human being, but neither side really can come to grips with the other.

But arguments about Iraq, or Affirmative Action, or Crime, or Welfare, or Chile and the cause of its prosperity, or Israel/Palestine or Illegal Immigration, are all topics where factual information can be of great value.

(10) Avoid topics where facts are important, and you don’t know them

I have had to deliberately hold back from some debates, such as the ones on national health care, or reform of social security, or voting fraud, simply because I didn’t know enough to give a good account of myself, and didn’t have the time to learn. In some cases I wasn’t sure of what my exact position would be anyway, but even where I was morally certain that one side was right, I didn’t know enough to argue well. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.

As a specific application of this rule: know when you’re being beaten in a debate, and don’t keep coming back for more. When you’ve obviously gotten entangled with a Lefty who is very knowledgeable on a subject and is outgunning you, and you can’t holler for reinforcements [but see the Appendix], don’t keep making inane replies whose content boils down to “you’re wrong”.

Back out gracefully with the threat of a return engagement. It does no harm to say, “You obviously are much better prepared than I am to debate this subject. I believe you’re wrong, and are making the worse appear the better cause, but I will think about what you’ve written, do some reading, and return at a later date to continue the argument.” (It is better, of course, never to be in this position, but if history teaches us anything about human conflict, it teaches us to expect the unexpected. Also: at the moment, there is, so far as I know, no place to go for help in a debate, but we may be able to rectify this omission: see the Appendix on Future Projects.