On Having Rational Arguments With People Who Don’t Want To Be Rational

Guest post by Null Pointer

I’m especially grateful for re-postable comment right now, as I still am in searing pain from an oral surgery procedure too disgusting to describe, and drugged to the gills. But ethics moves on, mindful of no man. This one is nicely appropriate, since I am still losing respect for Facebook friends at a breakneck pace, as they have attacked me for suggesting that reasonable doubt existed in the Chauvin trial and that the trial was unfair by any rational standard. It’s like a clinical example of how mobs make themselves stupid and crazy. For example, a lawyer—a lawyer!—wrote this: “Doesn’t “fair” mean fair to both parties?” No! Nothing in the Constitution requires a “fair trial” for the State. Incredible. A progressive lawyer actually thinks it does..or what is ore likely the case, was grasping at straws and got a really stupid one.

I will dedicate this Guest Post (since it arrived in an open forum) by Null Pointer to the sadly MIA (since January) commenter Extradimensional Cephalopod. This is one of his favorite subjects.

It is difficult to engage with someone who is making emotional arguments, but not impossible. You first have to understand person you are engaging with, how they think and why they think the way they do. Throwing facts at brainwashed people isn’t going to do anything, because most people have been taught to ignore facts that don’t align with their viewpoints. Younger people have been increasingly taught in school that feelings out weigh facts. Often the way to reach them is to start with feelings, and move slowly outward from the feelings to the facts. Acknowledge the correctness of their feelings, then explore the way they feel about all the feeder issues around whatever issue you are discussing. Usually you will find that even though they are very dogmatic about some major political issue, they have doubts about some of the related issues. It’s a process, and it takes time. Trying to simply change someone’s mind to your position isn’t going to work, but getting them to think more deeply about their own position will.

There is a lot of discussion about polarization in the United States, but very little of that discussion centers on how people feel. The discussion tends to focus on what the media and politicians are doing to cause the polarization, but not much time is spent on the effect of the polarization on regular people.

People on the right have been bullied, threatened and abused. You are not going to get anywhere with them unless you are willing to admit that they have been demonized, pushed around, bullied and treated horribly for the last decade or so. If you cannot even acknowledge those basic facts, the right isn’t going to listen to you because they are angry and hurt, they feel unheard, and they are tired of being pushed around.

People on the left are scared, and many of them feel hurt and angry as well, because they have been led to believe a lot of very untrue things, and listened to propaganda for years. They think people on the right are evil, and are both afraid of them and hate them. It is actually much easier to change their minds, though, because most of them do not realize how much they have been lied to. Many people on the left become extremely disillusioned, disgusted and horrified if you can show them how badly they have been lied to on any issue. Sometimes simply showing them that people on the right are not evil and have good reasons for disagreeing with left is enough to completely change the outlook of people on the left. I’ve watched the blinkers fall off of some of my friends eyes before, and it is astonishing to watch. It takes time and effort, patience, understanding and willingness to listen. You also have to tailor your approach to the person you are talking to, and it helps to know them fairly well.

I have one friend who could not understand my consternation over global warming (or climate change, climate emergency, whatever) and he used to argue with me over it constantly. He was a very smart, very analytical person, and I had trouble talking to him about it because he was just spouting propaganda every time we discussed it, which was unlike him. After several months of arguments over whether most climate change propaganda was in fact propaganda, I told him I would change my position on the subject if he could find me two peer reviewed journal articles covering scientific studies on climate change that did not have major methodological flaws in them. We were in college at the time, and had free access to the entirety of Lexus Nexus and other databases of science journals. He was very eager to prove me wrong, and dove into the search. First he brought me webpages of propaganda that said climate change was a settled science, and all the scientists agreed. I gently pointed out that those pages had no scientific studies on them, and reiterated my criteria. So he dove back in, this time into Lexus Nexus to find journal articles. Hours later he was sputtering like drowning horse over the methodological flaws in the studies he found. “How can they just change the data?!” Arguing with him did no good. Letting him try to “educate” me on the subject changed his own mind.

To be fair, I have never taken the position that climate change doesn’t exist, I simply deny it’s been proven. I was willing to have my mind changed. I think that is what makes a difference.

In another case, I was talking to a coworker who is from Cuba about socialism. We were discussing the end results of socialism on people’s behavior and the psychology behind it, mostly operant conditioning. One of our other coworkers was listening to us, a devout progressive, and she started asking questions. She asked my Cuban coworker about something she had read in some lefty paper about the people in Cuba making money selling sandwiches to tourists and seemed to be operating under the mistaken impression that Cubans were getting rich this way. He told her that that was capitalism, it was illegal in Cuba, people would get arrested for doing things like that, and that it wouldn’t actually be profitable because the ingredients in sandwiches were controlled by the government. After a lengthy discussion during which he explained that the only way to make a living in Cuba was to do things that made you a criminal, and all of those things were capitalism, she suddenly exclaimed “how do you guys know all this stuff?!”. She wanted to know what media outlets we were reading and how we came to understand the things we did. Her mind had been opened to the possibility she was wrong about capitalism. She previously had no idea how things actually worked in a communist country, or what capitalism actually was. It was the emotional arguments about the horrors of actually living in a communist country that drew her in.

People are willing to listen, but you have to be very careful about how you approach things. Acknowledge their feelings, understand why they feel the way they do, be willing to make concessions, and be willing to make emotional arguments about why people should engage with you on a subject. Be willing to change your mind if the other person can make a valid, convincing argument on their points.

8 thoughts on “On Having Rational Arguments With People Who Don’t Want To Be Rational

  1. And listen to yourself and your arguments. For instance having asserted that the ‘trial was unfair’, (you brought ‘fairness’ up), don’t just a few sentences later dismiss the question of ‘unfairness’ of the process as being irrelevant because the Constitution doesn’t require it. Yes, proceed this way, loudly and aggressively, if you simply want a technical ‘win’, but it is unlikely to change any ‘hearts and minds’, assuming that is your aim.

    And yes, those on the ‘right’ may well have been unfairly demonised and all should be prepared to recognise this. But the post civil war unfairness of Jim Crow, lynch mobs, KKK, Selma etc. also figures somewhere and might at times be more obviously acknowledged. (?)

    • Now, if I were unfair, I would mock you mercilessly for the elemental error your comment is based upon. But since I am fair, and since you are not native to these fruited plains, there is no reason for you to know that the Bill of Rights and guarantees of a fair trial only applies to citizens, not the government, and not the state or prosecution. It’s up to judges to stop unfair defense tactics, and the bar to sanction unethical attorneys. But if the State loses because unfair tactics work and aren’t stopped before the jury deliberates, there’s no constitutional remedy.

      My point, which I should have been clearer about for readers in your position, is that nothing guarantees a fair trial for the prosecution, but the most guilt defendant imaginable cannot be convicted if the trial isn’t fair to HIM.

      • Well, I probably made the mistake Andrew Wakeling made.

        Of course the prosecution is entitled to a “fair” trial. Your quote of the other lawyer was right.

        But, you’re right. The Constitution does not guarantee it.

        Your quotes make it look like you were talking past each other.

        That was not clear at first.

        Of course, “fairness” is also relative. The State has the highest burden. The Defense is not even required to mount a defense. The Defense gets more peremptory strikes. The State has no right to appeal an acquittal. Both sides know the rules in advance and can expect them to be evenly applied. Of course, the State has a couple advantages, but those are also defined in advance and known to both sides. Fairness is not a matter of equal advantages like you have in a typical civil trial.


        • We need better words here. “Entitled” implies “has a right to.” There is no such right. The so-called Berger standard, for example, holds that federal lawyers can’t engage in the kind of sharp practice that private attorneys can. It’s not only an uneven playing field, it’s designed to be.My lawyer friend’s suggestion that there is some kind of equivalence is shocking.

    • Andrew
      When exactly will we stop using events from the past to excuse current behaviors. I was born in 1956 in Baltimore and never did I see a whites only facility. Not once do I recall a colored’s only water fountain. I played with black kids who had fathers in the home an who worked just like my dad.

      I went to the same schools as black kids. Any difference in outcome had nothing to do with systemic anything. My brother was a straight A student. I was never meeting my potential. That means I would not simply parrot what they wanted me to say and I learn by doing and not by studying. I use reference books to aid my learning by doing. I can assemble a short block engine but don’t ask me to recite the torque specs on the head bolts of a Chevy V8. Some people are adept at reading and regurgitating names and dates – not me. I prefer to understand the why and how things work or events took place.

      My brother had his pick of colleges. I was never deemed college material. Achievement is fundamentally a personal choice. None of us had computers but we learned anyway. All big cities have free public libraries if you want to read up on a subject.

      Jim Crow is a relic of a long past culture that none under 70 could have experienced. Sure the Klan existed but the likelihood that anyone today ever saw a cross buring on their lawn or has had a friend or loved one lynched is virtually nil. So why do some want to believe that prejudice and racism is prevalent? Because it gives them power.

      Throughout history one group or another has been persecuted. People need to move on and discard these notions that any one who is different is a threat or who are the descendants of a group who persecuted their ancestors and thus are inherently evil is just as racist as those who persecuted their ancestors.

      Well meaning people who allow such reasoning are actually hindering that group’s overall socioeconomic development. When we expect much more from people they typically rise to the occasion. We we give them excuses for a lack of achievement they will begin to believe that all is hopeless.

  2. Well, as we are not in the business of mocking each other, thank you, and we may well be separated by a common language, I just point out a view that ‘fairness’ applies to the contest as a whole. If I have a knife and you have a hidden gun our fight is likely to be ‘unfair’.

    But I didn’t want to get sucked into semantics. My point, as I guess you understand, is that your aggressive style, with regular accusations of your opponent’s ‘stupidity’, is maybe not best suited to persuasion.

    To my view the appropriate discussion re Chauvin should simply be whether his trial was conducted according to the appropriate laws, rules and regulations. Whether those laws, rules and regulations constitute a ‘fair’ process is quite another matter.

    • Well, “fair” trial is a term of art, and that’s how I employ it here. For example, in the OJ Simpson trial, the defense was allowed to redecorate Simpson’s home to misrepresent him as an honorable individual devoted to African culture before the jury toured his home. That was unfair to the state, and extremely so. But there is no way for the state for appeal such unfairness.

  3. I’ve got a hypothetical. Let’s step back a few years to Match 17, 2017. At 10:30 p.m. a bomb goes off in Lafayette square, Savannah. Because by this time all but the hardcore revelers have headed home, it does not cause a mass casualty event, but it does start a fire in one of the buildings and a subsequent roof collapse kills one of the responding firemen. He leaves a wife and two kids.

    The FBI and ATF investigate as soon as the fire is out, pull all the nearby surveillance footage, and get clear footage of someone planting the bomb early that morning. They run the footage through facial recognition software and get a hit. The guy’s no terror master, he’s just a bin Laden wannabe from Syria.

    They pick him up, not too much trouble. Turns out he rigged the bomb wrong and it was supposed to go off at 10:30 a.m., when the square would have been full of St. Patrick’s Day marchers and attendees.
    Needless to say the reaction of the US is poor. However, no riots, just a few bias incidents follow. Trial is set very quickly, no plea deal is offered because the U.S. Attorney has the guy dead to rights, and because of the loss of life he can go for the federal death penalty. The district judge denies a change of venue and does not sequester the jury.

    As the end of the trial approaches President Trump tweets that he hopes the jury does the right thing and gets justice for this hero who gave his life for his community, and Congressional conservative firebrand Matt Gaetz shows up to rant to trial-watchers that everyone knows this guy is guilty as sin, so why waste time. Grounds for a mistrial or appeal, or no?

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