What is your goal in writing, whether blog posting or commenting, or in face-to-face meetings? It could be one of several:
- Education – describing something that the reader might like to learn more about
- Debate – presenting an argument to counter a competing argument
- Insult – a putdown, the wittier the better
- Expression – translating the thoughts in your head into words
What if your goal is to persuade? How many are willing or capable of being persuaded?
I think there is a hierarchy of beliefs. At the top is the general outlook of the person: optimist/pessimist, in favor of limited government or in favor of a large government, views on business: generally helping us or are they trying to screw us at every chance, etc. At a lower level are beliefs in the virtue of large projects: healthcare reform, stimulus. At the bottom are judgements about specific situations: was the food good, what is the weather like outside.
It is very difficult to persuade a person to change his or her topmost beliefs, although it does happen, sometimes through experience or reflection. When I was in high school I believed that society could be run much better if smart people were in charge of it (basically, the progressive outlook). In college, I read Karl Marx and marveled at his analysis of society in economic forces (although I would never have considered myself a Marxist). But I was exposed to classical liberalism in college through the works of Hayek, von Mises, Rothbard and Milton Friedman, and became a libertarian. My views have changed only slightly since then.
In college, I was attracted to the logic of the libertarian position: no initiation of force. Now, I realize that few will be persuaded on that basis – in the end the case for liberty must be made by showing how illiberal approaches are harmful and how limited government reduces tension in society by reducing the scope of all-or-nothing choices.
What is the persuasive style? A few characteristics come to mind:
- Avoidance of ad hominem attacks
- Make arguments based on specifics – avoid generalities (Bush is bad, Obama is bad) in favor of concrete examples. Highlight a specific policy or action and enumerate the reasons why it is bad.
- Do not respond to an attack with an attack
- Keep a cool head
- Be of good humor
- Do not argue with those who are unpersuadable – remember - “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”
― Jonathan Swift
If you deflect heated words and parry with a temperate reply you will confuse your adversary and possibly open him or her up to the smallest particle of mind-changing. Or not, but at least you will not be sucked in. When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty. Stay away from arguments with fools, lest you look like one.