How to debate people who don't share my rules?
October 13, 2011 9:30 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle debating people who either ignore data-based arguments, or respond to them with anecdotes and opinions?

This question is mostly about my family, immediate and extended.

My family emigrated from Russia to the US when I was around 5 years old, and since I'm the kid in my family, I'm pretty much the only one who isn't culturally Russian. Now, if you're not familiar with the stereotype, it goes like this: Russian people like to sit around a huge table piled high with food, drink vodka, and loudly argue politics - with waved and banged fasts, interrupting, bulging veins, and so on. My family is a bit more subdued and not big on the vodka, but otherwise the stereotype fits.

My family is also more or less on the right-wing/authoritarian/fairly racist side, while I more or less fit the mefi consensus. Naturally, this sets up conflict.

And this is the part that I don't know how to deal with. I mostly keep silent during the debates, but sometimes someone successfully manages to bait me. I'm very good at keeping my cool, and I when I debate I do what I always do - systematically highlight and question the premises of my opponent, and also turn to data. So, for example, when confronted with America's superiority, I tend to bring out wolfram alpha or the google public data explorer, talk about per-capita gdp, gini indexes, actual federal expenditures, and so on.

This is the only way I know how to debate. I'm an engineer, and studied philosophy (and am also the only member of my family with a Western liberal arts education) so I think given my background, this is how its done. Well, my waving around of data is usually met with blank stares and after a minute or two I'm interruped with "your numbers say x but my friend says y so there!" Or they simply wait for me to stop talking and continue on as if I didn't make the point that I'd made.

Clearly, we have different standards of the rules of debate. So, what should I do? I can and usually try to just keep silent, but this is interpreted as superiority (ok, maybe that's how I look), or as ascent, depending on who is talking. Eventually, someone will manage to bait me into entering the fray and then.... repeat.

So, what are my bad assumptions here? What's the right way to react?
posted by tempythethird to Human Relations (40 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
The only way to win the game is not to play.

When they say, "Oh, well my friend says, Y!" you shrug and say, "Huh. What an interesting perspective. Somebody want to pass me the vodka?"
posted by canine epigram at 9:34 AM on October 13, 2011 [14 favorites]


Different standards? How about, you're debating, and they're not.

Don't feel bad, lots of people of the lefty persuasion make the same mistake -- my correspondent is participating in a good faith, curiosity-based discussion in which either one of us might possibly change the other's mind.

Your relatives, and many on the right, might be making debatey noises but what they are doing is expressing their feelings. You will not change their minds. They're barely using their minds. Data won't move them. Flawless logic won't move them. They feel what they feel. The fun for them is in the expression, not the interaction.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:36 AM on October 13, 2011 [32 favorites]


This isn't a debate. It's about who is the funniest, most emotive, the best entertainer. Facts don't come into it. Adding them makes you boring (most of the time) and thus you "lose".

View this as an improv session or as a chance to be a raconteur. It is not about factual rational debate.
posted by bonehead at 9:43 AM on October 13, 2011 [13 favorites]


You know when it's worth it to fight this fight? Never. When they start talking about how X is obviously better than Y, inquire how your niece is doing in high school/college/marriage. Everyone likes to talk about that.
posted by haqspan at 9:44 AM on October 13, 2011


Debate is one of the most pointless exercises engaged in by humanity. Just don't do it.
posted by The World Famous at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Seriously, bonehead's right. This is the arena where you learn not to be an engineer. You're perhaps right, but probably boring. This way, you'll have your stats and philosophical background (and don't misunderstand, I'll bet they're all really proud of you!), but you can also function as part of groups of people who aren't at all like that. And your family will appreciate you more for playing along. They're not debating, they're just, as we say in Texas--where most families sound just like yours--"shootin' the shit."

If someone brings up an anecdote, like how they can't stand that Jew baker or Muslim that wouldn't get off the sidewalk or whatever, just tell them about your nice Jew/Muslim friend from college who couldn't be more different, was kind, generous, etc. They're just talking, not debating.
posted by resurrexit at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or, even more on their level, just say what I say when confronted by generalized racist anecdotes: I don't care what color they are, a piece of shit can be lots of different colors.
posted by resurrexit at 9:52 AM on October 13, 2011


You're debating. They're not. There is no debate.

If they won't debate, then you can't have a debate. The most you can do is be more entertaining if you even want to bother. I'd advise you to stay silent and keep your blood pressure down.
posted by inturnaround at 9:55 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


You give way more of a shit about what they're debating about than they do. Sounds like they just do it for fun.

Like some people play goofy rules in pool, like pulling one of your sunk balls out if you scratch, and free shots after a scratch must go behind the dots. If you want to play the game, you have to play it like the majority of the people at the table want to play it.

Attempting to debate with them seems to stress you out. Maybe you should find a different role for yourself at the dinner table. Maybe you can provide comic relief. Maybe you can ask a question that steers the argument to a different place. Maybe you can try saying things like "Wow, that's an interesting idea, I'll have to think more about that."

Slide into a role that is less stress for you, and doesn't ruin the fun they are trying to have by 'debating' something without taking it seriously enough to research it. Which is not a sin or an indicator of low intelligence or wanting worldliness, it's just something people like to do. It's talking shit, and it's even more fun to do when you have a group willing to do it with you.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:55 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every person who bases their views on science and data has at various points tried many variations on how to share this information who base their views on anecdotes and superstition. Given that most of the world *still* believes in anecdotes and superstition, obviously the efforts of the scientists are largely falling on deaf ears.

The evidence (I don't have a study, but I bet you could do one) seems to point towards your success with this not being statistically likely.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:55 AM on October 13, 2011


Why don't you ask them what it would take to change their mind?

I've realized that it wouldn't matter if gay marriage really would destroy the social fabric of society. It could be scientifically tied to pedophila, the AIDS epidemic, global warming, and the rest of America would turn against gay marriage before I did.

I might have lots of facts to bring up about why gay marriage should be legal. But facts never entered into my formative thoughts when I decided gay marriage should be legal. I was in high school, saw my friends being bullied, and couldn't imagine depriving them of something that I took for granted. Alternatively, I could have been a squirrely kid who feels uncomfortable about sex, and been grossed out about having to think of two dudes doing it. And gathered my facts around that gut feeling.

People don't have political opinions based on facts. It's not facts that made you different. It's your experience being raised in America and having an engineering/philosophy degree. Why would facts change their mind?
posted by politikitty at 9:56 AM on October 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Best answer: So, for example, when confronted with America's superiority, I tend to bring out wolfram alpha or the google public data explorer, talk about per-capita gdp, gini indexes, actual federal expenditures, and so on.

This would be a good tactic if this were an actual high school debate where someone graded you at the end for having the most sound argument with the best supporting data. Here's how this kind of argument actually looks to most people:

Person 1: This is my opinion!
Person 2: Yes, I agree, this is my similar opinion!
You: This is my opinion, with boring numbers included!
Person 1: This is a restatement of my opinion, with personal anecdote!
Person 2: I agree with that anecdote!

Nobody really cares about your data and they are not going to stop the argument to leaf through some charts and graphs to weigh the evidence. The point of the interaction is mostly for everyone to voice their predetermined, immutable opinions. If the argument was about "What should we do on Thursday?" where there is actually some sort of consensus that needs to be reached, then you would probably get something closer to a compromise, but when the argument is about "What should the government do?" there is a lot less room for an honest exchange of ideas.

Other than just not taking part in these discussions, which you mentioned you already try to do, one way to actually change someone's opinion is to explore it rather than try to refute it. When someone makes a blanket statement about something general, try to ask specific questions that you think might cause them to take a more nuanced position. If they take a stance on one topic that you think is the opposite of the stance they take on a similar topic, ask them what makes the two topics different enough that they choose to treat them differently. And if you think they agree with you at some level on a topic, try to get them to acknowledge that shared view (or acknowledge the shared view yourself), and then build from that shared view to similar views that you think they might share if they thought it through. People are generally focused on what they think, and don't really care as much about what you think, so if you spend a lot of time dumping a ton of data and facts on people to prove your point they are just going to ignore it. But if you can get them to look inward at their own opinions and think critically about them (without making them go defensive and completely shut down) then you have a much better chance of having them come out of the conversation with new insights.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:00 AM on October 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


When they say, "Oh, well my friend says, Y!" you shrug and say, "Huh. What an interesting perspective. Somebody want to pass me the vodka?"

Yep. My father likes to debate people like this himself-- think about a third of the passion, but LOTS of factual data -- but when he gets the sense that the person he's debating is more caught up in Being Right than they are in actually playing fair, he lets them have their say, then just shrugs and says, "well, okay then," and changes the subject. It's a verbal judo move that even worked on my borderline-Tea-Party aunt once.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:01 AM on October 13, 2011


Best answer: If someone will not listen to evidence, then appealing to evidence will not help. Therefore, you're debating strategy needs altering. The problem lies deeper.

I assume you care about your family, so you should want to help them improve their thinking. Right now they are operating on lower order thinking (unreflective, low skill level, frequently relies on gut intuition etc...). You seem to operate at a higher order of thinking (explicitly reflective, routing use of critical thinking tools to analyze and assess thinking). You are not going to help them learn how to think better by just hurling data, facts, figures, at them since they cannot (yet) relate to these things.

So, what is one to do? Well, I think a good place to start would be to not state a single proposition. Not one. Do not offer your opinion, advice, or insight. Instead, engrave on your heart questions that can be used to apply universal intellectual standards (such as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, logic, significance etc...)

So for example, if a family member says "Hey Derp, America is land of the free, love it or leave it!" You may...

Test for clarity by asking:

Could you give me an example? What is an example of America being land of the free?
Could you illustrate what you mean? Illustrate why someone should leave a country if they don't love it. What would this look like?

Test for accuracy:

How could we check on that? Is America the land of the free?
How could we find out if that is true? Are loving or leaving the only two options?

Test for Precision:

Could you be more specific? How is America the land of the free?
Could you give me some more details? When you say, "love it". What does that look like?

Test for Relevance:

How does this bear on the question?

Depth

What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with understanding why someone would want to leave a country?
What makes this a difficult problem?

Significance?

Is this the most important problem to consider?
Is this the central idea to focus on?


You see, by cultivating an attitude of humble, critical questioning, you are helping your family understand what they are saying. Most of the time you will find they will come to see that what they are saying has no base at all, but sometimes you may be surprised to learn about why they are saying the things they say.

Much more could be said here, but if you want to help your family move from being unreflective thinkers to practicing thinkers, you must learn to ask them better questions. It's like going to the weight room. If I am lifting weights with a friend, I will do him no good to just tell him he should be squatting 240lbs or worse yet stand idly by as he tries to lift it without proper conditioning. Instead, I have to teach him the form first and start at a light weight.
posted by yoyoceramic at 10:02 AM on October 13, 2011 [27 favorites]


I respectfully submit that the quickest way to make visits with family miserable is to worry about whether or not you're winning when you talk to them about things.
posted by The World Famous at 10:09 AM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


When they say, "Oh, well my friend says, Y!" you shrug and say, "Huh. What an interesting perspective. Somebody want to pass me the vodka?"

interesting
(adj) Something which arouses no interest at all.

Used to politely avoid admitting this, which indirectly expresses your indifference.
Yes, your bottle cap collection is interesting.

+1
posted by yoyoceramic at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


They're not debating, they're having a kind of conversation that they enjoy. By baiting you, it's more an invitation to participate in something they find fun. Facts and figures and sources are not fun, and it's not like you're going to change their minds - I'd say deflect, with a smiling "I don't know about that! Uncle Mike had an idea about that though - Mike, what were you saying about x/y/z ?" And then eat a cookie and have a drink.
posted by mrs. taters at 10:28 AM on October 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


There are a lot of ways of approaching this. Depending on what mood I'm in, I'll generally use one of two.

1. Once baited, I'll say something like "you know that we disagree on this, you know neither of us is going to convince the other, and you know I don't like getting into these arguments. Why are you provoking me?"

2. Take a position farther right-wing than theirs. Absurdly right. Comically right. "Yeah, I know, and what about those illegal Mexicans? Cops should be able to shoot anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien on sight."
posted by adamrice at 11:11 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I once had a discussion with a friend about an email she'd forwarded. After I'd pointed out the snopes article, the falsehoods, etc. she said (in effect), "But I wish it was true. I like the emotion and that makes it true." This is behind the power of anecdote. I think yoyoceramic is on the right track, but I also think you have to make it more personal and hook it into their lives, e.g. try to get them to imagine themselves into other people's situations.
posted by idb at 11:34 AM on October 13, 2011


So, for example, when confronted with America's superiority, I tend to bring out wolfram alpha

Your family emigrated when you were five years old. They decided to come to America, for some reason, even though your data shows it is not the best place ever in the whole world after all. They perhaps (trying to avoid making a definite statement here as I have no actual data -- just something that seems likely to me) had some experiences in their past, in your family history that affected that decision.

Their rules of "debate" are that sitting around talking about these things isn't a debate, but a way to socialize with family and bond over their shared experiences. Your rule of debate is that this is one, and you need to verbalize your views if they are different than theirs.

You could choose to make a different choice about your reaction. At the point where you make a judgement that this conversational situation is a "debate", you could instead choose to view it as a social situation based around strengthening family group ties. Observe and think about why they are talking in the way that they are (If you haven't taken any sociology or anthropology classes, you might find some interesting things in those fields that will give you a framework for your observations).

Think about what you want out of this situation, the reasons why you choose to spend this time with your family. What actions can you take that will support that? That's something you will need to determine for yourself, in the moment.
posted by yohko at 12:34 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


My husband has Russian relatives, and they would argue that the sky is never blue, winter is never cold and anything else. This isn't debate, it's social performance art. Arguing like this is fun, not work! So when Dad brings up a friend with wacky opinions--play along! Invent your own friend who has the opposite view with supporting anecdotes that may or may not be true. It's not about winning or changing hearts and minds--it's about storytelling and verbalizing and performance. If you can burst into an aria that makes your points--you win!
posted by Ideefixe at 12:39 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Perhaps this quote from mefite facetious will be of use:

"this is a beautiful opportunity to practice not giving a shit. try it. it will feel strange at first, and then, gradually, more and more wonderful. a good way to get your foot in the door with not giving a shit is to pretend that what's she's doing isn't rudeness, but is in fact just an oblique way of her telling you that she's hanging on your every word, and that she cares deeply about everything you say. and you know what, that might actually be true. we never really know what other people's intentions are."
posted by wittgenstein at 12:56 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Best answer: You see, by cultivating an attitude of humble, critical questioning, you are helping your family understand what they are saying. Most of the time you will find they will come to see that what they are saying has no base at all, but sometimes you may be surprised to learn about why they are saying the things they say.

Holy dog, how I wish this were true in the context of people who argue like OP's family does.
posted by canine epigram at 1:17 PM on October 13, 2011


I got my best advice about this kind of thing from an archly camp bartender at a South London pub where I was working.

"People here will give you shit. Take their measure, then give it straight back to them."
posted by Sebmojo at 1:46 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thing is, people just like bullshitting. They don't want to unlock universal truths or lose an argument and concede gracefully. They just want to make their points and argue about it. They're not looking for a deep, meaningful rational discussion where people learn things or whatever. Like, I watch baseball and there's a whole gap between people who follow things statistically (where assumptions can be tested) and people that just know suchandsuch a player is gritty and scrappy and clutch and plays the game the right way even if your pointy headed geek numbers say he is objectively terrible. So you can accept they just want to bullshit around or you can keep getting baited and frustrated.

I have a friend who is a pretty hardcore libertarian and I'm pretty much a communist, so nobody's going to resolve anything, but we both enjoy the back and forth sparring when we talk politics. He's actually really good at arguing (former lawyer, go figure) and you'll find yourself saying things like "Yes, I agree that the poor are parasites that should die in the street, that's an eminently reasonable conclu...hey wait a sec." Point is, it's more for love of the sparring than it is for reaching an objective point.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:58 PM on October 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


They're not looking for a deep, meaningful rational discussion where people learn things or whatever.

This. Nobody goes home for the holidays thinking "this Thanksgiving, as a family, we are going to finally resolve the question of whether God exists / which political party is best / etc. once and for all!"
posted by The World Famous at 2:12 PM on October 13, 2011


Response by poster: Responses here seem to be divided along the following lines:

Ignore/smile-and-nod/don't give a shit/drink some vodka: That's mostly what I do. Sometimes I'm baited successfully, sometimes I successfully tune it out. Downside to this - its also no fun to sit there quietly (and inadvertently drinking too much), and can be interpreted as being condescending or antisocial or both.

Be the raconteur, this is argument-as-performance: Firstly - I'm really really not a bore or a well, actually style smarmy socially clueless nerd. I can be funny and witty! However, these conversations are usually in Russian, which I can speak but is not my mother tongue, so its hard to be totally witty and entertaining. More importantly, if I'm ever baited into participation its usually with something completely apalling: the advocacy of mass murder via nuclear weapons of some unfavored nation/people, racist stereotypes that are late 19th century-KKK level vicious, etc. I can tune this out, or I can engage it, but I'm sorry - after hearing stuff like this I simply cannot keep my good humor, its just not in me.


Why don't you ask them what it would take to change their mind?

Predictable answer: "Why would I change my mind?"

People don't have political opinions based on facts. It's not facts that made you different. It's your experience being raised in America and having an engineering/philosophy degree. Why would facts change their mind?

Sorry to digress, but I have to disagree here. I've thought long and hard about this, and realized that if you're careful, this is possible. I suppose my very core ethics - equality, human rights, compassion, etc. aren't based on quantifiable facts. But many other positions really don't need to be based on ideology or emotion. Based on arguments with several friends and my own reading, I've really gone back and forth on whether continued European integration is desirable or not, whether free or more restrictive trade policy is more desirable, if removing boundaries to labor and migration is good, and on and on. So much stuff that is "politicized" today should just be looked at empirically.

What yoyoceramic and burnmp3s said
This is kind of what I meant by "systematically highlighting and questioning premises." But what you guys both urge goes much further than I do, and I will definitely keep these comments in mind next time I get into such a conversation with any of the family members that I particularly care about. However, in the big family dinner fist-poundy hand-wavey situation, the sort of thing you guys are encouraging has about a zero chance of being paid attention to. In particular, what really gets my goat is what yoyoceramic articulated much better than I could. Clarity, accuracy, and precision are all low, sure but what is REALLY lacking is relevance. Everyone is talking past each other, and not even noticing!

Your family emigrated when you were five years old. They decided to come to America, for some reason... They perhaps ...had some experiences in their past, in your family history that affected that decision.... You could choose to make a different choice about your reaction. At the point where you make a judgement that this conversational situation is a "debate", you could instead choose to view it as a social situation based around strengthening family group ties.

I'm sorry, but you're totally wrong. Firstly, I resent the implication that I'm somehow being insensitive to the special place that America holds for my poor persecuted-refugee family. Its not grattitude and love to the country that saved them that they're expressing, its the same macho "force is all that matters" nationalism and jingoism that is unfortunately the hallmark of Russian politics. This is the same attitude that makes Putin wildly popular. And calling it a "social situation for strengthening group ties..." wow, that is hilariously off the mark. Do you think I'm kidding about the table pounding and hand waving?
posted by tempythethird at 2:44 PM on October 13, 2011


Why don't you ask them what it would take to change their mind?

Predictable answer: "Why would I change my mind?"


Predictable reply: That's what I just asked you.
posted by The World Famous at 3:21 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think the problem is you're taking things personally that are not personal. We all have racist old grandparents or uncles or aunts that say dumb things or have ridiculous political convictions. So you can keep trying to engage them and fight the good fight, but honestly, after 50, 60, 70 years, they're not going to change because you make a good argument. They're not rejecting you, personally, they're just old and set in their ways and you can roll your eyes and change the subject or you can try and argue and get mad when they reject you for the hundredth time.

It's not a debate, which is the biggest thing you need to realize. They're not hashing out deep, meaningful truths in search of a better conclusion and more knowledge gained and they're not following the formal rules of logic and debate. It's a social ritual where they probably know the arguments and the back and forth and they just want to go through it again and again because it's amusing or fun and something they like doing. It's not that they don't understand your empirical points. It's that they don't care about them.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:51 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


But many other positions really don't need to be based on ideology or emotion.

But they easily can be. If a person doesn't want to be swayed by facts, you can't force them into it. You respect facts and place a high premium on them. You may even let those facts sway some values you hold. But that willingness is a trait that you gained through experience.

You are trying to say that they should accept your method for arriving at decisions because you think it's better. If they told you to pray on it, because praying has worked for them, would you?

I don't debate if my position isn't up for negotiation. If I can't think of a set of facts that will sway me, how can I expect their position to be more pliable? I might be right, but demanding they accept that I'm right is condescending. That's not how relationships work.

My family is a great mix of people who have campaigned for Ike, women's rights, gay rights and the tea party. Political discussion is always on the table, and learning to avoid the quicksand where nothing can be gained but hard feelings and resentment is the key to getting out of that angry teenage stage alive.
posted by politikitty at 4:08 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm searching my brain for a good anecdote to illustrate why you would end up annoying me if you tried to bring in things like "wolfram alpha or the google public data explorer".

Usually when I go on about America's superiority people shut me up with 'slavery'. Maybe try boiling down those facts into short points? It's not like MeFi is short on 'America sucks' anecdotes.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:10 PM on October 13, 2011


It's not a debate, which is the biggest thing you need to realize. They're not hashing out deep, meaningful truths in search of a better conclusion and more knowledge gained and they're not following the formal rules of logic and debate. It's a social ritual where they probably know the arguments and the back and forth and they just want to go through it again and again because it's amusing or fun and something they like doing. It's not that they don't understand your empirical points. It's that they don't care about them

EXACTLY!

I can be intelligent, but its much more FUN to yell about how America can nuke your puny country or how Putin can beat up the weak willed coward Rudd.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:11 PM on October 13, 2011


"Debates" like this tend to play fast and loose with the meanings of words. You could probably kill an entire evening just trying to get anyone to agree on what "freedom" means in practice.

That might be more tolerable than the type of "debate" you've got right now.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:08 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not Russian-American, but a number of my Chinese-American relatives emigrated just ahead of the Communist takeover and are still around. At least one of these is quite right-wing (he and his father lived in Taiwan for awhile). It is futile to discuss politics with him. Since he's the kindest guy otherwise, I learned not to discuss such things with him.

Emigrants from such revolutions, and even their descendants, have been deeply influenced by that which they fled from and they aren't going to change their minds. It won't help you to argue that social democracy in the U.S. wouldn't take the course that socialism did in the Soviet Union or Maoist China. They don't want to hear about it, it may be painful to them.
posted by bad grammar at 5:20 PM on October 13, 2011


Best answer: For some people, arguing loudly is a sport. I am not one of those people. My family is much like yours. I just keep my mouth shut, and practice my active listening skills so it doesn't look like I've completely checked out of the conversation.

If questioned directly, I have perfected a movement which is like a half head tilt and a shrug. A "such is life" sort of gesture.

When there really is no way to get out of being baited, I stick to "I statements." As in, "I think that ____ is probably better off ______ if we can't manage to ______."

If they argue with that (as they always do), I shrug again as if to say, "I understand you feel differently, but what can you do?"

The problem is that you have let yourself become a reliable entertainment. You are the bear they keep in the wings for when their own gladiatorial battles become dull. They know they can dump you out onto the playing field and if they poke you with their spears enough, you will roar and smash with your paws, and it will be great fun for everyone (but you).

Do not be that bear. Be the bear that huffs and rolls its eyes and sits patiently waiting for the games to be over. Soon they will grow bored of you and choose another target.

As far as your debating style, it's fine. But you will find that some - maybe most - people are fact-proof. And as you already know, these dinnertime conversations are not about changing minds or exchanging information. They share more in common with professional wrestling.
posted by ErikaB at 5:38 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm one of those right-wingers, and while I get along with the family, for the most part (we all know where the lines are drawn, and we hate arguing enough not the cross them), but I don't listen to conservative media and don't watch cable "news," so I don't usually get drawn in to the article of the day. What I do know is that when I'm having a pleasant time talking with someone, even about politics, I don't want it to turn into a bad episode by virtue of pig-headed disagreement on either side. It's better to lose than get ugly. Seriously. Your family loves you, and maybe they tut and think you've got a liberal phase because you don't own enough for the government to take away. But you know what you know and have the confidence of that, so it's nothing off your back to have family think you're wrong.

I do have the occasional political debate, and I don't think I have a single right-wing friend around here (Seattle, go figure), so I know the feeling of sitting over a beer while listening as the left-wing/collectivism-choir tells itself how damn great its views are, facts be damned. The right isn't the only side that resorts to feelings, anecdotes, and superstition.

Ask a person, and don't leave yourself out of the pool of people, what it would take to change their mind about something. If they-- and if you-- don't have an answer, then lay down your arms, because you're up against dogma. Overcoming dogma usually takes an internal, personal experience. (You know the one about how a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged-- it happens, and happens both ways.)

Find some common ground and work out your differences from there. I can tell you from my experience (ANECDOTE GOES HERE), that maybe you need to disregard the left/right and break it down to first principles: where do freedoms come from, and who deserves them, what do you want from foreign policy, who should be feeding the needy?
posted by Sunburnt at 5:59 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


More importantly, if I'm ever baited into participation its usually with something completely apalling: the advocacy of mass murder via nuclear weapons of some unfavored nation/people, racist stereotypes that are late 19th century-KKK level vicious, etc. I can tune this out, or I can engage it, but I'm sorry - after hearing stuff like this I simply cannot keep my good humor, its just not in me.

Then leave. Seriously, if you can't help reacting, leave. Otherwise, your options are either drink more vodka, or jump into the fray with the aim to take the "discussion" to truly ridiculous levels. I'm not really sure there is anything else you can do.
posted by canine epigram at 6:25 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


More importantly, if I'm ever baited into participation its usually with something completely apalling: the advocacy of mass murder via nuclear weapons of some unfavored nation/people, racist stereotypes that are late 19th century-KKK level vicious, etc. I can tune this out, or I can engage it, but I'm sorry - after hearing stuff like this I simply cannot keep my good humor, its just not in me.

My usual tactic would be to turn up the volume.

'Why limit yourself to nuking just one group of people. All people are scum, and should die. Don't you agree?'
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:27 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rhetoric discovers truth when its engaged between two people well-trained in rhetoric, who are honest in their search for truth.

Outside of there, it doesn't work well. And, as you discovered, it doesn't work as a one-size-fit-all tool for changing other people's mind.

You'll need other tools.

First read on the backfire effect, which says that, unless you have extensive training in rhetoric and the scientific method, the ego is stronger than the eyes. The backfire effect says:
When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
I don't have a definite recommendation for you on where to go from there. Perhaps read a lot of cognitive psychology.
posted by gmarceau at 6:37 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


They are not rationally oriented, they are emotional thinkers, as most people are. That is to say, if they feel like something is true, they believe it is true.

Reason is useless against emotional thinking. Reason is for people who are already convinced that reason is useful. Instead you must appeal to their emotions. You say they're right-wing authoritarians, so maybe they look up to a guy that's made some anti-immigrant rhetoric that would bother them if you pointed it out. When they talk about American superiority, find something you know bothers them about America and point out how another country does it better, not with facts or figures, but with a story or explanation that will resonate.

Think about how advertizing works. Consider Apple. (Steve Jobs talking about marketing.) They don't list all the specs of their products versus their competitors or even about why their products provide a better user experience. They go after the consumer's emotion.
posted by callmejay at 7:14 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


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