Wednesday, December 27, 2017

On Political Argument

     In most instances, to ask a negotiator “who’s winning” is as inappropriate as to ask who’s winning a marriage. If you ask that question about your marriage, you have already lost the most important negotiation – the one about what kind of game to play, about the way you deal with each other and your shared and differing interests. – Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

     Please keep the above in mind as you read the following, which first appeared at the late, deeply lamented Palace of Reason.

Part One: What is required to conduct an argument?

     Argument presupposes a few things, such as a common language and a respect for the public meanings of its words. You have to think about it for a while before you come upon the most important commonalities it requires.

     The first is that the arguers -- the participants in whatever debate is taking place -- have a right to be there, and to argue. To some this seems a trivial matter, but I've seen several discussions over public policy and such where one side claimed the other had no right to put forth its position, for one reason or another. For some chilling examples, try Jean-Francois Revel's book, The Flight From Truth.

     Argument also presupposes that the participants share a moral basis. Imagine the following: You've managed to conjure the ghost of Adolf Hitler, and you ask him: “Herr Hitler, why did you murder all those Jews?”, and he replies, “Because it was intrinsically right.” What argument could you make to him then?

     Argument presupposes that the arguers are honest about their priorities. One of the Left's nastiest tricks is changing their statement of priorities when it's shot out from under them. For example: Marx's original argument for socialism was that it was the only way to insure that the fruits of the Industrial Revolution were made accessible to all men, and not just to the few who controlled the “means of production.” When modern day socialists were forced to admit that socialism guarantees uniform poverty, with the exception of a ruling class that gets to live like kings, they changed their stated priorities to goals that had not yet been proved impossible of achievement by socialist means. As each new priority fell, they shifted to a fresh one. They're still doing it today.

     Star political polemicist Michael Emerling emphasizes the importance of isolating the issue -- that is, of finding out what's really the top priority for your argumentative opponent. His technique gives rise to questions such as this: “You say we can't allow citizens to carry guns because it would increase the murder rate. Suppose for a moment that I could prove that that was not that case -- that murder rates would FALL as a result of widespread concealed weapons possession. Would you still be against it?”

     Thoughts, anyone? What special asymmetries have YOU encountered during argument, which blasted a hole in your attempt to pursue a controversy by reasonable means?

     Part Two: How to argue without damaging yourself.

     Argument has costs, sometimes considerable ones. There's a terrible frustration, and an accompanying weariness, that comes with fruitless argument endlessly repeated. It can make one lapse into quietism, even solitude, in the conviction that they who populate the world beyond one's door are not reachable by rational means.

     Edmund Burke's famous statement that “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is probably the best known of all moral exhortations. Few would disagree. Yet many do nothing. Why?

     Because they're too worn out, or too frightened, to carry on. Because the process of trying to argue for their convictions has laid a new conviction atop the others: that rational processes cannot affect human opinions or human behavior.

     Don't be one of these unfortunates. Here's some armor for the soul, so that you can carry on the struggle and endure its frustrations without taking a mortal wound:

  1. Know when to walk away. He who will not agree on the meanings of words, who will not stand fast to his stated priorities, or who doesn't share a common morality with you is a hopeless case, as far as argument goes. Cut your losses -- courteously! -- and move on. “Live to fight another day.”
  2. Think of yourself as a sales representative for your convictions, not the embodiment of them. When someone assails your beliefs, it hurts less if you don't take the assault as an assault upon you personally... especially if that's what it really is.
  3. Give yourself credit for everything you do right, and for everything you do well. If you fail to persuade your argumentative partner, nevertheless you can congratulate yourself on having argued well and courteously, on having been intellectually honest, and on having granted the other person the presumption of integrity.
  4. Don't dwell on your failures. It's possible that nothing you could have said or done would have made a difference in how a particular debate turned out. People are ornery.
  5. Remember that your personal moral standing depends entirely and only on what you do. You don't need to persuade others to your views to be able to face yourself in the mirror; you just have to live right.

     Part Three: The major metaphors for argument, and when they apply.

     There are two metaphors for an argument, drawn from opposed spheres of human conduct: the combat metaphor and the seduction metaphor.

     In the combat metaphor, each contestant sees the other as the enemy, whose position is something to be overrun and destroyed. Obviously, there is no room for “converting” the enemy, for transforming him into an ally. Nor do we make room for what the enemy wants in our list of priorities.

     In the seduction metaphor, each contestant sees the other as a potential asset, a proponent to be gained for one's own views. Seduction is persuasion, and you can only persuade another human being with what he desires as the bait. Therefore, the other's position is acknowledged, accommodated when possible, and used as part of the persuasive strategy. The last thing we contemplate in this case is doing harm to the other, or destroying his position wholesale.

     If you think you know where I'm going after this, you're almost certainly wrong, so keep reading.

     Most people don't come to their political opinions by reasoning them out. Most political opinions are consequences of other decisions and relationships. Sometimes we inherit our politics from our parents. Sometimes we adopt them as part of the price of entry to a certain social circle. And sometimes we choose them because they'll get us positions of power and privilege.

     In the cases above, “pure” political argument will likely fail to produce changes. When your opponent holds his “opinions” not because he really believes them, but because they'll lead him to something else he values, you're not really arguing politics. To persuade him, you'll have to find out what he really wants, and deal with that.

     What if what he really wants is power? Over you and yours? Can you still hope to persuade him? If your answer is “no,” as is mine, then the combat metaphor is appropriate, because you're much less concerned with persuading him (impossible) than with nullifying the threat he represents. Keep firmly in mind what you hope to gain. That will usually be the good opinion of third parties who are listening to the argument, not the good opinion of your adversary.

     Other things being equal, I'd rather seduce than destroy. So I always look first for what my argumentative partner really wants, and I look to see if I can offer it to him. If I can, subject to moral and economic constraints, then I try to persuade him. If I can't, then I evaluate the threat he represents. Unless he's a power-seeker with real prospects, I usually walk away.

     This is the key to effective political argument: If you can offer your opponent what he wants, you have the prospect of a win-win outcome, a successful seduction. If what he wants and what you want are absolutely antithetical, this is impossible, and you'd better be carrying your saber... just in case he draws his, of course.

     With the above essay as a foundation, please consider the following questions:

  • On Part One: Which of the conditions cited in this section are currently being observed today, and which ones are currently being violated?
  • On Part Two: Have you ever felt yourself to be damaged by virtue of participating in a political argument? If so, what was the mechanism that damaged you?
  • On Part Three: In this section, consider seduction to be a rough synonym for negotiation. Is it possible, in your opinion, to conduct a negotiation-style argument with an advocate for the Left at this time? If not, why not?

     I’ll return to these subjects tomorrow.

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