Uninteresting People, version 2: A Guide to Arguing with Strangers
“Beliefs, including mine and yours, are fundamentally driven by prior biases. It takes deliberate effort to change that.” — Mathew Crawford
The first piece of advice for anyone considering arguing with a stranger is to resist. Don’t do it. It’s not worth your time.
In fact, you’re probably just wasting time, both theirs and yours. Nobody wants you to convince them of something, and the number of people who changed their minds from a mere conversation are astonishingly few. Some minor thing you don’t care about? Probably. The capital of Honduras? Sure. Any piece of contested facts, infected arguments or larger systematic-ideological arguments? Hardly ever.
Instead, as Michael Malice gracefully ends his great collection of anarchist essays in The Anarchist Handbook, you ought to just gladly salute people:
“I will smile and nod as my friends go to their places of worship [i.e. ballot boxes], wishing them well while I simply pray to be left alone.”
Brutal confrontation is a conversational entertainment that few of us truly enjoy. And curious minds — those willing to examine hard-held beliefs and separate arguments against a position from arguments against a person— are few and far between.
“Nobody changes their mind from polite or not-so-polite shallow conversations; your instinct (and mine!) to argue with them over what we think is right is more likely to entrench their predisposition than to win them over. Just leave it alone.”
What I’ve Learnt This Year
Strange years provide strange lessons. Break more rules; endure hardship; work your body — go outside! — and beware…
So why bother?
I was first exposed to that position years ago, but it didn’t resonate with me at the time. It bugged me, and set into motion the long subconscious mental process of reconciling contradictory beliefs: I couldn’t shake the feeling that only some people fall prey to biased assessments and motivated reasoning — surely us learned others are above such nonsense? Our beliefs are are held with reason and logic, right, but theirs?
Besides, because we hold some beliefs at any given time, those beliefs must have come from somewhere…? What conversation or piece of writing convinced us of them?
We learn some fact or relationship about the world; we put something together; we experienced something that makes us inclined to think some way — and above all, we have the genetic predisposition and personality trait that inches us towards one side or another. Thus, saying “nobody can be convinced of anything” is too strong a conclusion.
A more reasonable one — clearly on display in our Cuckoo-19 world — is that people aren’t having the conversations you think you’re having. Especially in public, before an audience judging you on behaviour and social desirability more so than the accuracy of your facts or consistency of your argument. To invoke Dave Smith’s analogy: if you’re playing basketball and get punched in the face, the response isn’t to go “ah, I just need to dunk better!” or aim for a three-pointer. If you get punched in the face on the court, you’re not playing basketball anymore.
Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying said in ‘On Dying, Lying and Testifying’: Dr. Fauci might actually be really, really good at his job — it’s just not clear what that job is. Lots and lots of lots of (even powerful) people’s silly arguments and stupid reasoning is posturing.
“Daily experience,” writes Bryan Caplan in his superb Myth of the Rational Voter— the book that finally dissuaded me that state democracy was a viable vehicle for social organisation— “tells us that one of the goods people care about is their worldview. Few of us relish finding out that our religious or political convictions are in error”.
“Democracy lets the individual enjoy the psychological benefits of irrational beliefs at no cost to himself.”
Malice and Smith, not two public persona with high regards for the political establishment or its processes, laid this out very clearly: “people start with their conclusion and reason their way to it”.
What informs Malice’s political analysis is that “The arguments that people have don’t matter”. Hear-hear.
So, how to make progress? Well, you don’t. Not really.
Can Enemies Be Our Friends?
"Most of the things that divide us are none of anyone else's business - what we eat, what we drive, what we wear, what…
At best, you find people who share the meta-views of intellectual discourse (honesty, thick skin, capacity to admit flaws and correct course, who aren’t afraid to examine even the deepest-held idea). If not, somebody aggressively arguing in your face triggers your “F*ck off” response. To hear what another is arguing — truly hearing it — you must like the person with whom you’re conversing. At least be positively predisposed to them. That’s generally not the case for some family acquaintance you met five minutes ago, or some Twitter profile who followed you five seconds ago.
Once there, it still takes a lot of effort, on your own part and on others, exposure to contradictory evidence (Jonathan Haidt’s “Must I believe it” vs “Can I believe it?” — an area big enough to fit an oversized Boeing of ideological positions).
Above all, you need time. If — and that’s a big if — another can be persuaded to change one’s mind on some deeply (or shallowly) held position, that’s a gradual and painful process.
Aren’t I a hypocrite, then?
I mean: I do write for a living. I do concern myself with taking other’s attention and directing it towards what I find interesting and valuable. Is my aim not to convince my readers of something, big or small?
True. It is.
John Tamny, sharing my somewhat uncomfortable seat, stumbled on the same insight in a recent book review:
“How do you critique an expert investor who has written a book on investing? More challenging is how to do this as a commentator when the author makes plain in the opening chapter that ‘Talk is cheap,’ and ‘Ideas and commentary are just that.’ Ok, but your reviewer writes commentary for a living, and communicates those ideas for a living. What to do?”
Are I and Tamny special? We talk, and talk is cheap, and reality decides. What gives? Are our readers a higher degree of smarts than most others? Most people are uninteresting, maybe, but we — and you, dear reader — are the select crowd of interesting…?
Perhaps. But again and again, I return to another vital difference: you can click away any time your attention strays even an iota. When my words no longer pass the opportunity cost test of your time, you can ctrl-w them. No hard feelings. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even know.
We don’t have that same luxury in spoken conversation — at least not among friends or families where certain behaviour are required and expected of you. We can’t just mute that obnoxious uncle, and it takes a rare kind of open and direct friendship to withstand hyper-honest comments like “mate, this is uninteresting, and I’d rather not hear it — move on!”
But we should probably say it more often; and take that ruthless comment to heart. Nobody said communication was easy.
You don’t argue with strangers. And you most certainly don’t argue with friends, unless that friendship is strong enough to withstand the pressure, the pair of you are intellectually curious and open-minded enough to consider honestly the exchange you might bring forth.
Don’t argue with strangers: They don’t want to hear it, you don’t want to do it. And it’s not going to shift anyone’s position.
Too nihilistic and rude? Sure, whatever. Do I look like I care?