The Samovar

Arguing with people
October 17, 2006, 2:54 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics

Any thoughts on the best strategies to use when trying to persuade people of something? I don’t mean rhetorical strategies, I mean ways of getting through to people that allow them to see things in a way they hadn’t seen it before, ways of making them question their current way of seeing things. Personally, I have found myself most convinced by people and arguments that are very confrontational and won’t give up, when I’m told that I have to confront such and such consequences of my beliefs in no uncertain terms. If someone argues passionately, and that shows in their speech or writing, I am more likely to be convinced. But, I’m not sure if that approach would work for everyone. Some people might well be put off by someone pursuing such an aggressive strategy.

Any thoughts? Experiences?

Conversely, what makes people less receptive to an argument or point of view?



This has been on my mind the last couple of days, because I’m in the middle of a tedious anti-Muslim thread.

I try to resist the temptation simply to say ‘Fuck off’ – although it’s difficult when you know you’re working from a starting point of deep seated, irrational prejudice. The symptoms are easy enough to recognise.

I always feel it’s my duty to present rational, factually based counter-arguments. I seldom find that this actually makes a difference. Most people prefer whatever anecdote or quarter-truth fits their preducice, and won’t be shaken by superior knowledge. All the same, I feel it has to be done. It’s like Chris’s pro immigrant march: you have to show that there is intelligent dissent out there.

One thing that I like to do is to stick to my guns and move the argument onto my own ground. I’m not sure how effective it is, but it keeps me sane. More or less. The way it works is something like this:
OK – let’s assume that there’s a genuine problem with crime/immigration/whatever. The question is ‘what are we going to do about it?’ Clearly [right wing solutions of your choice] have problems X, Y and Z and would lead to chaos/ make the problem worse. So here’s a modest proposal: [suggest some fairly obvious, mundane pinko-liberal solutions in such a way that they appear to be the common sense that we clearly believe they are.].
Apart from anything else, there’s nothing that fucks with an opponents mind so much as agreeing with them.

Remember, though, that the aim of a debate might not always be to win. Even the most disgraceful, intractable opponent gives us the opportunity to crystallise our thoughts and rehearse our arguments. Know thine enemy. Granted, low-quality debate with ba’ heids is of only limited value. I prefer the challenge of an intelligent counter-view with which I’m 90% in agreement, but the remaining 10% is massive. Christopher Hitchens is my touchstone in this respect.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

“I always feel it’s my duty to present rational, factually based counter-arguments.”

Yes, me too, but I wonder about this. I’m not suggesting that we should start using rhetorical tricks to convince people, but perhaps there’s a middle ground. I’m thinking something like, you argue in a way that is more informal, but everything you say is informed by an underlying rational approach.

“Apart from anything else, there’s nothing that fucks with an opponents mind so much as agreeing with them.”

Yep, I think this is a good strategy. I also like the strategy of just asking questions rather than telling people what to think, although it’s harder work.

“Remember, though, that the aim of a debate might not always be to win.”

I think most arguments can’t be won, but you can contribute to slowly changing someone’s way of looking at things.

Possibly some of this sounds a bit arrogant, so it’s probably also important to mention that the most important thing is to listen to what the other person has to say and take it seriously (even if you think it’s rubbish).

“Christopher Hitchens”


Comment by Dan Goodman

I’ve got a show on student radio this afternoon – a debate on why drugs should be legalised. I think I’m the only one supporting that (apart from the token ‘user’ they’ve drafted in – joy), which is fairly daunting. As far as preparation goes, i’ve been rehearsing the old ‘agree and turn’ for it – so when they say that cannabis is dangerous because it’s a gateway drug (a valid concern), take the issue of gateways very seriously, and then present various prison reconviction and drug-takeup statistics, and insist (correctly) that prison is a far worse gateway than cannabis.

Comment by Chris

It’s been my experience on h2g2 that even if I am putting forth my arguments in a debate in what I think is a clear and straightforward manner I will sometimes be told I am being ‘aggressive and confrontational’ by those who simply don’t want to read what I’ve written with an open mind. 😕

“Remember, though, that the aim of a debate might not always be to win.”

I seldom take part in a debate thinking it’s something to be ‘won’. Though once on h2g2, on a thread about abortion rights, I went head-to-head for awhile with a guy who was completely anti-abortion (I despise the term ‘pro-life’ used by these people) and rather than just writing off his feelings as nonsense and attacking him for being so narrow-minded – as some others had been doing – I started asking him why he felt that way. And with every response I got I’d again ask him to clarify his feelings, meanwhile giving him some information about my own personal experience and even linked to a guide entry I’d written about the subject. Well, it took a few days of this and other people on the thread who had been being very belligerent towards this guy decided to back off, which I thought was very polite of them.

And then I got up one morning, clicked on the thread and there was a post from him saying that he had never actually considered the issue from the viewpoints I had stated and that he wanted to say he’d had a whole turn-around in his way of thinking about it. And although he still didn’t agree with ‘abortion on demand’ (fair enough) he could see that sometimes it is a necessary procedure. Previously his stance had been that ALL abortion was wrong. And I guess I felt quite chuffed about that. Not thinking I’d ‘won’ the argument, but because I’d helped someone see and accept another important side to an issue that he’d previously refused to even acknowledge.

I also made sure that I acknowledged his public ‘turn-around’ and told him that not many people would be strong enough to admit to a change of heart publicly like he did and that it was quite admirable.

Comment by azahar

So what we’re looking for is a flexible strategy, with a heuristic for matching particular tactics to your opponent.

Asking people questions (and responding to theirs), seeking clarification etc is usually useful. Ultimately if you want a reasonable debate you have to find some common ground from which to start, and to explore its implications. This is also good, as Edward mentioned), for clarifying our own thinking. As Dogster said, people rarely change their minds in the course of an argument, but sometimes when they have time to think it over afterwards they may do, at least in some measure.

Comment by noggin

az, it is wonderful when it works isn’t it? I remember the thread you mentioned. I guess it must happen more often that people do change their mind but you normally never get to find out about it.

Comment by Dan Goodman

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