Having productive internet conversations

Anyone who’s frequented this blog knows I love having discussions, and can pontificate all day on subjects I’m interested in.  I’ve actually been participating in online discussions, on and off, for decades.

My earliest conversations were on dial up bulletin boards.  Those were usually tightly focused discussions about technology and gaming.  With the rise of services like CompuServe, AOL, and eventually the web, the conversations broadened to include other topics.

BBS signon screen. Image credit: massacre via Wikipedia

A lot has changed since the old bulletin board chat rooms, but much of the interpersonal dynamics haven’t.  There have always been a mix of different types of people: those looking for cogent conversation, others wanting to sell an agenda of some sort (technical, political, religious, etc), or trolls simply looking to rile everyone up under the cover of anonymity.

Debates have always been there.  The earliest I recall were about which programming languages were the best.  (Anyone remember 8088 assembler, BASIC, Pascal, Pilot?)  Or about which computing platform was superior (think Apple II vs Atari vs Commodore).  It’s interesting how often time renders old debates moot.

One thing I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, is that you can virtually never change anyone’s mind about anything during a debate.  I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen it happen, and in that small number of cases, it was always someone who wasn’t particularly committed to the point of view they started the conversation with.

That’s not to say that I haven’t seen people change their mind on even the most dug in subject, but it’s almost always been over a period of weeks, months, or years.  If a conversation I participated in contributed to that change, I generally only heard about it long after the change had happened, and then only if the conversation ended on cordial terms.

Why then participate in these conversations?  For me personally, a big part of the draw is testing my own ideas by seeing what faults others can find in them.  It’s one of the things that brought me back to online discussions, including blogging, after a break of several years.

But I’ll admit persuasion remains part of the motivation, although I’ve known for a long time that persuasion is by necessity a long term game.  The best we can hope to do in any one conversation is to lay the seeds of change.  Whether those seeds take root is completely up to the recipient.  Of course, to have any hope of changing someone else’s mind, they have to get the sense that we’re at least open to changing our own.

All of which is why I generally try to avoid getting into acrimonious debates, at least in recent years.  (Not that I always succeed.)  In my view, Dale Carnegie was right, you can’t win an argument.  Trying to win only causes people to dig in deeper and, if the argument goes on too long, causes hard feelings and wounded relationships.  Even if your argument is unassailable, people won’t recognize it in their urge to save face.

This is why my approach is usually to lay out a position, explain the reasons for that position, and then address any questions someone may ask.  If someone lays out their position, I try to ask for their reasons (if they haven’t already given them), and if I disagree, lay out my reasons for disagreeing.  As long as that’s happening in the conversation, an exchange of viewpoints and the reasons for them, I think it’s a productive one, one that I, the other person, or maybe some third party reader might learn from.

One of the things I try to watch out for is when points previously made start getting repeated.  This is easy to miss when a discussion has been going on for days or weeks.  But when we reach that point, the discussion is in danger of, or has already morphed into an argument.  Long experience has taught me that continuing the conversation further is unlikely to be productive.  (There are exceptions, but they’re rare ones.)

For a long time, I tended to end the conversation by announcing we were starting to loop and that I thought it was time to stop.  This seemed like the polite thing to do.  But just in the last year or so, I’ve concluded something many of you already knew, that the last announcement message is also counter-productive, particularly if the debate has become intense.  It’s far better to let the other person have the last word and move on.

This raises an important point, one that also took me a long time to learn and internalize.  Just because someone says something, I’m not necessarily obligated to respond.  This is particularly true if the other person is being nasty.  I always have the option of just moving on.

If I do choose to respond, I’m also not obligated to respond to every point the other person made.  Maybe the point has already been addressed earlier in the thread, or it might be a subject matter I’m not particularly knowledgeable about, or responding to it might involve a lot of effort I don’t feel like putting in right then.  Sometimes it’s a point I’m simply not interested in discussing.

Discussions about science and philosophy have a special burden, because often the topic is difficult to describe, to put into language.  That means for the discussions to be productive, everyone has to exercise at least a degree of interpretational charity.  Just about every philosophical proposition can be interpreted in a strawman fashion, in a way that’s obviously wrong and easy to knock down.  Doing so is easy but it has a tendency to rush a discussion into the argument phase.   A rewarding philosophical or scientific discussion requires that both parties try to find the intelligent interpretation of the other person’s words, and respond to that rather than the strawman version.

When I’m in doubt about how to interpret someone’s statement, I usually either ask for clarification or restate what I think their thesis is before addressing it.  A lot of misunderstandings have been cleared up with those restatements.

If science and philosophy can be difficult, political discussions are often impossible, especially these days.  But again, I find value in stating a position and then laying out the reasons for it.  When people disagree, it again helps to have them explain why.  Often what we take to be a hopelessly uninformed or selfish outlook has more substantive grounds than we might want to admit.  Even when it doesn’t, treating the other person as though they’re immoral or an idiot is pretty much surrendering any chance of changing their mind.

Not that I’m a saint about any of this, as anyone who goes through the archive of this blog or my Twitter or Facebook feeds can attest.  Much of what I’ve described here is aspirational.  Still, since I’ve been striving to meet these standards, my online conversations have become much richer.

All that said, there are undeniably a lot of trolls out there who have no interest in having real conversation.  I think one important aspect of enjoying an online life is knowing how to block jerks.  Every major platform has mechanisms for doing this, and they’re well worth learning about.  I’ve personally never had to resort to these measures, but it’s  nice to know they’re there.

What do you think?  Is my way too mamby pamby?  Too unwilling to reap the benefits of gladiatorial discussion?   Or are there other techniques I’m missing that could make for better conversations?

55 thoughts on “Having productive internet conversations

  1. Great post, very interesting. I used to discuss a lot of stuff on a forum on the Norwegian state television (NRK), and I recognize several things you mention here. I also agree with you, often the best thing is to just let it go, but oh-how-difficult that can be. Probably something I should work on. It’s easier on the internet, though. Face to face I sometimes have a hard time ending it, even if the discussion obviously is not going anywhere… especially after a few beers 😀 Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Definitely letting it go can be hard. When I first tried it, the urge to return to the thread and nail my interlocutor was overwhelming. But it’s gotten easier with practice. Not that I don’t still sometimes give in engage in the debate.

      What I try to remember is that a third party reading the thread, probably won’t reach the end of the conversation anyway, or care who had the last word. They’ll only care about the points that were made. Or at least that’s been my inclination when reading one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are spot on. Communication begins when you look at things the way the other fellow does. It doesn’t mean you have to subscribe to those ideas but you at least have to examine them. This is why I find Christian apologetics so appalling; most of the time the people engaging just make things up or take things out of context. I guess that is why the adage goes “Never argue with a pig, people looking on won’t understand and it only irritates the pig.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There have always been a mix of different types of people: those looking for cogent conversation, others wanting to sell an agenda of some sort (technical, political, religious, etc), or trolls simply looking to rile everyone up under the cover of anonymity.

    Sometimes, these 3 types are mixed in a single person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too true. I have a few people I interact with that I have to take on a conversation by conversation basis. Often times the beginning of the conversation is good, but tends to devolve as it goes on.


  4. I’m 50% in total agreement with you and 50% violently opposed. Just kidding. Changing people’s mind does seem like an impossibility. Usually the reasons why people believe certain things go very deep and are impossible to unearth, let alone influence. One cautionary note though – silence can be interpreted as tacit agreement, and I believe we have a duty to speak up against what is often called “evil” even if its just to say that we don’t support what is being said.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The silence as tacit agreement thing is one reason why I’ve historically had a hard time walking away. And some people are so eager to find validation that they’ll take lack of disagreement in the last response as vindication, even if the point was contested earlier. But I’ve decided I can live with that.

      I do feel a higher responsibility to respond here on my own blog, particularly if the person is attacking me or someone else. Luckily, I’ve only had a couple of those situations crop up over the years.


  5. I’ve read a few of your discussions on Aeon, Mike, and you always come across as being measured, open and fair-minded in your approach. Generally, the commenters I’m a little wary of are those who display their certainties with a slight edge of abruptness that tells everyone they’d be stupid to disagree — “Can’t you see what’s obvious, you idiot?” I’m far more likely to heed the interlocutor who expresses a degree of uncertainty, not least in discussions on consciousness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. While I’m at quoting the Bible, these two verses from Proverbs 26 are interesting:

      4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
      or you yourself will be just like him.
      5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
      or he will be wise in his own eyes.

      It’s an art to figure out which one applies in each situation.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hariod, I want you to know that flattery will get you everywhere with me 🙂
      In reality, I can remember a few Aeon posts that I’m embarrassed to think about now, where I could have been a bit more measured. But it’s nothing compared to the mess I once left on the old HuffPost threads, which mercifully appear to be consigned to oblivion now.

      Part of the problem with Aeon, is that while it lets you type long comments, only the first few lines show, which doesn’t leave a lot of space to make your point. It’s not as bad as Twitter, but brevity is rewarded, and the line between brevity and abruptness can be a difficult one.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “One thing I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, is that you can virtually never change anyone’s mind about anything during a debate.”
    Excellent article, but it is very shallow. You are discussing the contents and the manners of debating but not the stage (the foundation) of itself.
    For ‘opinion’, it is as an ass-hole, everyone has one. There is no point of debating over any kind for ‘opinion’.
    Science by definition is a fact-based discipline, and it should be debatable in accordance to facts. So, when you talks about arguments or debating, science should be the example for the issue.
    Is science a truly fact-based discipline? Of course, it is not. And, this is a center issue in philosophy of science. Of course, philosophy can never get a yes/no conclusion, as even Solipsism is a great philosophy.
    On the other hand, we do able to establish some ‘knowledge’ in science. When we find one example, there is an ‘existential introduction’.
    When we find the second example, there is the ‘existential generalization’.
    When we find the third example in a random manner (arbitrarily), it hints the ‘existential universality’.

    Now, I want to show you that science is totally ‘paradigm-biased’, far from a fact-based discipline.

    ‘Paradigm’ is formed by consensus, especially is led by authorities. When a ‘fact’ is against the ‘paradigm’, paradigm will and can weasel in and out to swallow that fact. ‘Paradigm’ can only be changed by avalanche of factS.

    I will show three examples here.
    One, ‘Inflation theory’ is the paradigm in Cosmology. The FACT (a pseudo-science) about it was pointed out 30 years ago, but it (inflation) is only recently under fire after the avalanche of new data came out, see https://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/the-end-of-the-inflation-war/ .
    One example is existential introduction.

    Two, the three sets of NUMBERS below are established (measured) facts.
    (1/Alpha) = 137.0359…
    Cosmological Constant = 3 x 10^ (-122)
    Planck CNB data (2013 and 2015) = {Dark energy (69.2%); Dark mass (25.8%); visible mass (4.82)}
    The PARADIGM is that they are not derivable (calculable) from the paradigm. So, any equation which can derive these numbers are ignored.
    Yet, how can (8 ≠ 8)?
    They are simple numbers? See, (http://prebabel.blogspot.com/2016/08/mainstreamphysics-rescued-from-hellfire.html ).
    These above should be accounted as three examples. They at least are existential generalization.

    Three, if the Cosmology and particle physics is beyond the internet-laymen, I am showing a common sense example.
    In Wikipedia, it states the CERN invented WWW (World Wide Web), and this was used as a very important argument (the spin-off argument) for promoting the construction of China Super Collider (cost over 100 billion dollars).
    Did CERN (a particle physics institution) invented WWW? Of course NOT, see https://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/china-super-collider-part-three-a-misled-hype-or-dishonesty/
    This is an issue of DISHONESTY. Fortunately, the China Super Collider project is now officially killed. The dishonesty dispelled.

    ‘Paradigm’ is the foundation of DISHONESTY. Debate under dishonesty, it is meaningless. Debate over opinion, it is wasting of time.

    But by all means, you article is a small step to the right direction. After all, all dishonesties will eventually go into the trash can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tienzen. Certainly the epistemology of science is more complicated than a lot of people think.

      I don’t have your knowledge of physics, but I’d agree that implying that the web was a result of the physics research at CERN would be misleading. Tim Berners-Lee was a computer engineer solving a problem that might easily have been solved in a lot of other places.

      I didn’t know the China Super Collider had been cancelled. You don’t think a more powerful accelerator couldn’t have made new discoveries?


      1. “I don’t have your knowledge of physics,…”
        But, the true debate often does not need to know the detailed knowledge involved. It is more about the honesty and the courage.
        For example: “You don’t think a more powerful accelerator couldn’t have made new discoveries?”
        Yes, most of particle physicists know about the ‘dessert scenario’ (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_(particle_physics) ), that is, NOTHING exists between LHC and GUT scale (trillion times higher than LHC energy). If you are interested in more technical points (totally understandable by laymen), you can read this https://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/nowhere-to-run/ .

        However, China Super Collider is killed not by the physics but by common sense. The SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) was aborted in 1993 while the main tunnel was 100% complete. If that cancellation was a mistake, it must be a right thing to do for USA to right that wrong, especially 70% of the construction cost was already paid. The other 30% can be easily secured from other collaborating countries (could be over 50, including China). Why USA does not planning a 100 Tev p-p collider, which should provide thousands additional high pay jobs too.

        No, one does not need to know the detailed knowledge to engage in debate. The pushing for Chinese Super Collider was from a dishonest motivation, thinking easily making China as an idiot. Fortunately, that dishonesty failed.

        Does anyone need to know the detailed knowledge on Cosmology and particle physics to judge the ‘inflation’ and SUSY debate?
        Again, a big NO.
        The simple (very, very simple) question is {how did this universe come about?} This question was answered thousandS years ago, by many schools, Jesus, Buddha, and all others.
        Are they all wrong? Of course NOT, as it is (was) definitely not created by you or me (or any physicist). So, how can we say that they are wrong?

        Regardless of who created this universe, I (perhaps most of other physicist) care about only two issues.
        One, the acts (not who) of creation.
        Two, the product of creation (not who again).

        The ‘two’ is simple, and we do have a Standard Model (SM) about the structure of this product. However, the SM is KNOWN to be incomplete (not stable); that is, it needs be stabilized by something ELSE. For the mainstream physics, it tries to stabilize it horizontally with another STRUSTURE (such as SUSY) to hold it down. In order to accomplish this stabilizing task, SUSY must contact SM at LHC energy. Now, LHC has firmly ruled out SUSY. Even if SUSY were existing beyond the desert, it is no longer doing it assigned job.
        Of course, there is another way to stabilize the SM, vertically by having a base (root), such as prequarks.

        But, SUSY is the paradigm, that is, many facts (LHC data) can still not crash it. Paradigm means the reputations of many, many authorities. Facts and honesty does not mean too much for paradigm.

        The ‘one’ is quite difficult for physics. At this point, the paradigm cannot truly address the issue ‘one’. But, physics can address the evolution (processes) after ‘one’. The analogy is that we do not truly know the SOURCE of a human baby, but we do know about the PROCESS of making one and its growth after birth.
        But if a HUMAN (process) theory can explain all evolutions about Marians, ETs (which are non-verifiable), but not human (which is here and verifiable). Can that HUMAN-theory be correct?
        No, we don’t need to know the content of that HUMAN theory and can easily judge it being nonsense.
        This is all about the multiverse debate. It (multiverse) can explain all other (zillions) universe (out of contact, non-testable) but is unable to calculate the ‘structure constants’ of THIS universe (right here and testable).

        How can any layman excuse himself from this debate by saying lacking the detailed knowledge of the issue? No, there is no knowledge needed for this kind of debate. The only thing needed is honesty and courage.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. In the things I can’t do, I have at the top changing a person’s mind. I can try to persuade, convince but the changing is personal initiative. I am just part of the process. Knowing this, I try to lay down my reasons for a particular position, expound on what a person says is not clear and end it there.
    I also learnt to pick my battles carefully. I don’t comment where I am ignorant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On choosing battles, absolutely. I rarely comment on political articles (the blog posts of friends excepted), even when I do think I know something about it. It’s just not worth it. And I’ve learned to keep quiet when experts in a field start arguing with each other and just try to learn what I can from the debate.


  8. Some time ago, I figured out that before discussing a point of disagreement, people should find a “common ground” — what they agree on. This allows to quickly find the root of the disagreement. Sometimes, the disagreement stems from the difference in fundamental values or a fundamental worldview or comes down to something completely irrational (e.g. physical disgust to homosexuality) which is useless to argue. If such common ground cannot be found, the discussion is meaningless. An agreement can only be built on an agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a lot to be said for that outlook, particularly in political discussions. Often people are arguing past each other from different value propositions.

      On the other hand, with disgust of homosexuality specifically, I think I’d confide in the person that I grew up having the same reaction (common ground) due to my cultural upbringing, and will probably always be a little uneasy with it, but that I override that unease based on what I now know about it scientifically, historically, and anthropologically.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I wanted to make a comment on this interesting post but after reading all the above comments, I found that what I wanted to write has already been said by someone or the other! But then I thought that I can still say that at least.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. A great post, Mike. I’ve always found you polite, reasoned and articulate in the exchanges we’ve had, which has always made them enjoyable. Your post seems to focus on debate/argument and it got me thinking another value in cogent conversation is learning. Examples might be that in an exchange between two people who share an interest in a particular subject, they may each round out the other’s knowledge, and mutual awareness and respect of the subject deepens. This seems equally rewarding as a way of adding depth and richness to our views on subjects we love. Sometimes we find we’re right, for the wrong reasons. Or that we didn’t understand all the factors involved. And I suspect that in conversations where there is this common beginning, both parties may shift their thinking fairly frequently when a person they respect supplies them with new information. In contrast to these exploratory discussions I interpreted your post to largely focus on debates concerning opinions of which system is best, which strategy is best, which worldview is best.

    One of my favorite ideas is that transformation is possible through dialogue. This sort of dialogue occurs when two or more parties are comfortable enough to express and share how they feel without pretense or agenda, without fear of reprisal or judgment, and also comfortable enough in their own skins to know that a conversation isn’t a rebuttal on the meaning of their existence. It is the sort of exchange that can result in unexpected revelations, discoveries, etc. We literally discover something about ourselves. This sort of dialogue is not rooted in winning or losing, influencing or being influenced by, or even in being correct–but is rooted in the desire to share, and to discover and come to know through that sharing. I think we (humans collectively) have far too little of this, and too often our exchanges are merely intellectual fencing, or emotional attacks, or bids to demonstrate superiority.

    I think in either case–whether in the transformational dialogue I’ve attempted to describe or in the fierce debates we love to engage in at times–we are always and only discovering ourselves. So while we experience this desire to convince, to influence, to make clear our position–we do so because the experience of it reinforces the models we have of one another, to borrow some of your favored terminology. We do so to test these models, in essence, as you mentioned in your post. And discovery occurs when we find gaps in our own models, not gaps in a structure of logic alone, but openings which lead to new experiences and dimensions of being.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Michael! Very much appreciate your kind words. And well said.

      I think we have pretty different worldviews, but we’ve always managed to have very rewarding conversations (at least from my viewpoint). I think part of that is your willingness to explore a viewpoint that isn’t your own, something I’m grateful for.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I grew up (early 20’s) on BBS chat at 300 baud. I still use the same signature as I did then. My handle was Spydyr, which got shortened to *.

    And I agree that you pontificate, but in the original Latin sense. Keep it up.

    (“Bridge building”, for the non-classically educated)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah 300 baud modems. I was in my lower teenage years when using those. Memories.

      That’s a pretty cool handle. I really never had a decent consistent handle back then. Often time I was coming to the BBS of someone I’d met in real life (I wasn’t allowed to rack up long distance phone charges) and wanted the owner to recognize me when I asked for entrance.


  12. I disagree with Dale Carnegie. Two reasons. First, often for every arguer there are a dozen fence sitters. If you can persuade a few fence sitters, that can be worthwhile. Second, there is a very easy way to win an argument – by “losing” it (for good reasons).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot depends here on what we mean by “winning.” Carnegie was talking in terms of persuading the other person. Certainly fence sitting third parties might be swayed by superior reasoning. But think about the times you’ve been a fence sitter reading a thread of two people going at each other? Did you read it until the end? And if you did, did you find the second half of that debate provided information that wasn’t in the first half?

      On losing for the right reasons, do you mean losing an argument prior to a bad decision? If so, I definitely agree with that. Sometimes it’s important to take a stand even if it doesn’t affect the outcome, with the real victory coming with the “I told you so”, whether explicit or implicit.


  13. I tend to find statements like ‘If X were the case, I would agree with you’ at least make things more interesting. Try and find an example situation where you would agree with the other person. They have a hard time trying to play the ‘you’re not really trying to listen/engage!’ card at that point.

    Otherwise what I find is you ask questions and then the other person gives an answer which they are absolutely certain answers it rather than raises new claims which raise new questions. It’s really odd how people seem unable to let a question go unattended – sometimes I think they aren’t trying to answer the questioner, but answer something in themselves that suddenly cropped up.

    Anyway, it’s hard to get out of those ‘But how does X make sense, given Y?’ ‘Well, that’s because [adds an entirely new claim to the conversation which itself seems pretty flimsy]’ loops. Can oneself just ask some questions and leave the questions to think about – the other person can have the last word, but then they add a whole new claim on top.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good idea. I’ll have to remember it. I think I’ve sporadically done something like it before, but it wasn’t a conscious strategy for bridge building. Thank you!

      I actually have a hard time not answering questions. Part of it is it sometimes feel rude not too. But questions are sometimes asked in a manner where the questioner seems to think that the question itself is unanswerable, which often feels like a challenge that’s hard to walk away from, unless of course I have no idea what the answer might be.

      Often those answers are speculative, and I try to be honest about it when they are, but sometimes just supplying possible answers makes the point that the question itself isn’t really unanswerable, even if we don’t currently know yet which answer is correct.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would think an unanswerable question is supposed to demonstrate how the questioned position doesn’t seem to make sense. I mean, it could go two ways A: It can be answered, if speculatively, so it could make sense or B: The question is unanswerable because the position doesn’t make sense and answering the question is rationalization.

        If favouring A, one aught to consider that possibly oneself is actually favouring B. It’s possible to answer any question and if one really wants to answer it, it’s possible to overlook the new contradictions the answer gives by not thinking very much about what contradictions it generates. Ie, B will feel like is is actually A, because of that overlooking. And that overlooking comes from a desire to answer it. Which is a lot like the desire that drives A.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Definitely. That’s one of the benefits of these types of conversations. If it is B but due to my blind spots, I think it’s A, hopefully someone will point out why it’s more B than A. Of course, I can always come up with additional rationalizations, but if my position really is untenable, the rationalizations will become increasingly strained.


  14. I don’t think your style is mamby pamby at all, and I think you’re right that gladiatorial discussions tend to be fruitless when it comes to changing minds. It wasn’t too long ago when I had a discussion with one of my conservative friends about living wage and we came to agreement within the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Not that we hashed out policy details or anything, but it was surprising to hear her agree that living wage is not in every situation a terrible idea. The reason? We’re friends. We want to stay friends, so we interpreted each other’s points as charitably as possible.

    As a philosophy student, I found the classroom fighting really irritating. Many of these debates were entirely based on emotion, not reason…and yet they were disguised as reason. That’s what made it all so irritating. Sometimes things get so ugly that we’re not speaking to the point at all when we look for justifications for our own point of view. It’s like a married couple nagging at each over things that have nothing to do with what they’re really mad about. Sometimes I think it would be better to explain our emotional biases first, to make it clear what it is that’s at stake. This might be easier for politics than for philosophy or science. I never hear people say, “I’m really committed to the idea of the soul as an entity distinct from the body because I don’t want to believe that death is really the end.” That might be the heart of the matter, but many philosophers wouldn’t want to admit that. On the other hand, in that conversation about minimum wage, I recall saying, “But don’t you feel sorry for those people who can barely survive on what they earn, even though they work very hard?” I ended up having to explain how this might really be the case for someone in real life, but once I painted the picture, she understood what I was getting at and did feel sorry for them. The key point in the entire discussion turned out to be whether businesses or individual employees should be sympathized with. The answer turned out to be both, depending on the circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I don’t think your style is mamby pamby at all, and I think you’re right that gladiatorial discussions tend to be fruitless when it comes to changing minds. ”
      And you’ve seen some of my discussions devolve into gladiatorial matches, so you know what I mean when I say my own record on this isn’t problem free 🙂

      “Many of these debates were entirely based on emotion, not reason…and yet they were disguised as reason.”
      I think you’ve nailed a large chunk of philosophical debate…

      “I never hear people say, “I’m really committed to the idea of the soul as an entity distinct from the body because I don’t want to believe that death is really the end.””
      …and a large chunk of the philosophy of mind debate.

      Of course, the problem is pointing this out to be people is usually taken as a grave offense. No one likes to be accused of arguing their emotionally comforting position, even if that’s what they’re doing. The closest I’ve ever been able to come to addressing it is doing so generically and well away from any specific person’s arguments.

      Sometimes we can supply reasons why moving off that position isn’t the emotional cliff they may fear, but not always. Often all we can do is supply logical reasons for our position, logical issues we can see with theirs, be careful to accept any valid logic they may have, and end the discussion when all of the reasoning has been exhausted.

      Your debate with your friend is interesting. It sounds similar to debates I’ve had with my cousin (a conservative). When we go into the reasons for our stances, we still may disagree, but at least we know where each other is coming from. He’ll agree that a social safety net of some kind is necessary and I’ll agree that government regulation can go overboard. The real disagreement on both is usually in extent rather than a sharp break, and that’s worth remembering from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “The closest I’ve ever been able to come to addressing it is doing so generically and well away from any specific person’s arguments.”

        That’s a good method for many criticisms, actually. Sometimes people don’t connect the dots, but at least they’re aware of the position generally.

        I imagine you have a lot of discussions with conservatives where you live? It’s interesting living in AZ, especially Tucson, since you never know what people are politically and you can’t presume much (unless you see a car covered in political bumper stickers).

        On policy, I seem to be able to get much further in discussions than I do on specific politicians. That really gets infuriating because we end up making the same exact criticisms of opposing candidates, and no amount of evidence can change things, apparently.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “Sometimes people don’t connect the dots, but at least they’re aware of the position generally.”

          Actually, I think the goal is for them to not connect those dots. If they do, they usually end up perceiving it as an attack on their position, and stop considering the idea.

          On where I live, it’s an interesting dichotomy. I live in south Louisiana, which is definitely a conservative bastion. Most of the white people you run into are Republicans. But working at a university, I encounter enough moderates and liberals to not feel totally isolated. Usually. But it does allow me to see people in other political tribes as people, rather than the caricatures I often see both sides imagine.

          I think polling has shown that people actually do agree on a surprising number of individual issues, as long as they’re not labeled “conservative” or “liberal”. But as soon as you apply that labeling, or start discussing specific conservatives or liberals, people retreat to their particular political tribe and take up that tribe’s position. I wish I knew the solution.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. On connecting the dots, I just mean that the other person recognizes that the position you’re speaking of generally is the one they themselves hold, and that you’re attacking the position rather than them. Specifically I was actually thinking of a different sort of situation involving calling someone out for bad grammar. I realize now that the two might not be analogous.

            I think you’re onto something in your point about issues. Once something gets labeled, people just stick to their party’s positions. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to get them to change their minds on those issues. On the issue of gun safety, I think I’ve heard somewhere that most conservatives aren’t against a bit more regulation, but conservative politicians don’t seem to be on board with the majority.

            I think we’re in a similar political boat, but I wonder how many conservatives out there are Christian conservatives vs. purely fiscal (agnostic/atheist)? There’s a big difference, at least for me, especially since I grew up in OK where most were Christian. I think it probably mattered less when Bush was president, but now that it’s Trump, it would be interesting to hear what Christians think of him. In AZ, most of the conservatives I know aren’t at all religious and Trump is perfectly in line with their positions. I can’t point out inconsistencies between his positions and their religious beliefs, which makes it hard for me to get a foothold in arguing against him. Plus, the border wall is a huge topic in AZ, as you can imagine, and many of them find that to be a very important issue even when it doesn’t affect them in any material sense at all. They have a misguided prioritization of getting rid of illegals over other issues. They aren’t exactly racist, not all of them anyway, and yet this idea of not upholding the law bothers them to the degree that millions of people losing healthcare bothers me. I can’t wrap my mind around it. Plus I have yet to hear anyone complain that Mexicans are taking away jobs, even though I hear the liberal media citing that as their argument. The ones I encounter usually just say that the law is the law.

            When I lived in VT, it was fairly normal to assume everyone was a liberal. I found that sort of annoying, although there are times now when I miss that uniformity. Back then I would play devil’s advocate just to get some relief from the homogeneity, but that can give people the wrong impression and make them lose their trust in you, sometimes to the point of losing their friendship. In a way, it was infuriatingly intolerant, which is ironic because these were the same people to raise the banner of tolerance and give lip service to hearing the other side in a cool, rational manner. Now that I’m in Tucson there are many times when I don’t know the political beliefs my acquaintances hold, and we even make comments to each other about avoiding the topic, agreeing that we’re all sick of politics. It’s a bit awkward and a bit of a relief at the same time. With my closest friends, we avoid politics for the most part, but I do slip up sometimes, sometimes in really awful ways. I once made some nasty comment about Republicans to my very close conservative friend, and the second it came out of my mouth I realized my mistake, but it was too late. And that’s just one of the consequences of avoiding a topic with a close friend; you forget their position. With another friend I stopped by while she was watching the inauguration, and she made some comment about how “classy” Trump was, and it took a lot for me to bite my tongue. Of course, I wanted to say something really snarky like, “‘Classy’ is about the last word I’d use to describe him.” To her credit, she had no idea which side I was on. She probably does now.

            Do you avoid politics with certain close friends on the other side, or can you talk about it? If so, have you ever been able to change anyone’s mind?

            Liked by 1 person

    2. The grammar thing actually does sound analogous. I actually rarely care about grammar (unless it’s really bad), but I could imagine making a point about a certain rule and hoping that someone who routinely violated the rule would take note. You have to be careful with this sort of thing. The line between indirectly and diplomatically calling attention to something and being passive-aggressive can be a bit blurry.

      My cousin is a passionate gun nut and 2nd amendment enthusiast, but he often says he thinks people should be required to have training and a license before owning them, or at least before being allowed to carry them. But he thinks most gun laws are incoherent and ineffective. I have to agree with him about at least some of them. Making laws based on how a weapon looks (rather than its capabilities) does little more than piss off gun enthusiasts and give the illusion of action to people who know little about it.

      The vast majority of people in Louisiana would say they are Christian, although many are in name only. But there are a lot of devout people in the state. (Even the Democrats here are anti-abortion.) I’d say about half of the whites I know (off campus) were enthusiastic for Trump, and about half held their nose when they voted for him. Naming Neil Gorsuch to the supreme court carried a lot of weight with evangelicals. They seem inclined to put up with a lot for that.

      Just at you could assume liberalism in VT, you can usually assume conservatism in Louisiana, at least among whites. (Blacks here tend to be Democrats, but even they are usually socially conservative.) People here do often talk politics, but they really just want to reinforce each other’s views. If I introduce a liberal viewpoint, they usually seem stunned, and then quickly change the subject.

      As a result, I usually keep my views to myself, except for a few friends and family that either agree or have shown some openness to other viewpoints. I have changed minds, but as I mentioned in the post, very slowly. And virtually all of the change happened between the conversations. It’s like laying seeds, most of which will die, but a few may sprout over the months and years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. On the grammar thing, I agree. It’s annoying when someone goes around correcting grammar. I usually don’t, especially since I’m not willing to put myself in that position of grammar authority, but this time it was driving me nuts. And it wasn’t just my friend’s idiosyncrasy, but the Okie, “Him and I went to the store…” or “Her and I hung out last night.” I was able to point out that I heard this everywhere and had never noticed it before I moved away, which was true. My friend never connected the dots. Do they say this where you live? I don’t get the origins of this bizarre construction. Maybe something like: “Tammy, you know her? Her and I went to the store…” Just a guess, and probably wrong.

        On gun laws, I’m one of those liberals who’s never touched a gun and really don’t know a thing about them, except that I don’t want them to be very easy to acquire. For me personally it’s not an issue that’s high on my list of things to worry about, but I know it’s a big deal for others. I’d be soooo willing to compromise with someone who’s also willing to compromise, and very eager to hear why some laws are incoherent or ineffective. The main one that would concern me is doing a background check to make sure we don’t have someone with a violent past or history of serious mental illness buying a gun, and closing loopholes that allow people to buy them easily at gun shows without such safeguards. It doesn’t seem like it should be easy to buy a serious weapon, and responsible people would, I think, find that understandable. I can see why background checks on mental health would be a sticky issue too, which is why I’d be very willing to hear the concerns from the other side. It seems like we can all agree that nut jobs shouldn’t be able to legally acquire a gun, but writing a law that doesn’t exclude someone who’s basically sane seems tricky, and perhaps something to be handled by professionals on both sides.

        On Christian conservatives, I’m not surprised that they’re happy about Gorsuch, since that’s a big win for them. (Ooooh, I’m still mad about that. And it’s really pouring gasoline over the fire when Republicans try to point the finger at Democrats for being obstructionist…who do they think started this? Did they really think there’d be no payback? And can they really complain now that they have the majority? Gimme a break!)

        Anyway, back to the point. 🙂

        Do the Christian conservatives around you ever express concern that Trump isn’t predictable? Or are they just happy about his choice of Pence? Or do they avoid talking about such concerns in the cause of solidarity with Republicans?

        I like your metaphor of laying seeds. I think that’s the way it goes for the most part, except for what we talked about on specific policy issues where there’s already some agreement. I imagine that would be alienating having other people around you talking about politics and feeling that you can’t join the conversation. At least in Tucson we know to feel each other out before spouting off, for the most part. (On the other hand, the conversation tends toward the weather, rattlesnakes, and javelinas, which gets old.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. On “him and I”, not so much. It’s usually more “me and him” or something along those lines. It seems like every region has its idioms. One I notice around here is use of “ya’ll” instead of “you all” or “yaw” for group possessive, such as “Or y’all going to the show?” or “How was yaw party?” An old girlfriend from up north once complained about people talking about putting something “up” to mean storing it in its place. She asked, “Put it up to where?” It was something I never noticed before then.

          I’m totally on board with background checks. I’m even okay with coherent restrictions on capabilities. For instance, under a 1930s law, you can’t buy a fully automatic rifle without an expensive license that requires training and a background check. As a result, very few crimes are committed with them since the 30s. (Remember the old gangster tommy guns?) I’d be on board with escalating requirements as the capabilities of the weapon increases, although the NRA would fight it tooth and nail.

          What most gun enthusiasts will point out though, is that the old assault weapons ban actually banned weapons with a military appearance. It didn’t ban based on what the weapon could do. So a semi-automatic rifle with a wood stock was fine, but one using the same caliber but with a black rubber stock was right out. (It did restrict high capacity magazines, which despite gun enthusiast protest, did make some sense. Someone can carry extra magazines, but it still takes a few seconds to switch them out, which might be critical in an active shooter scenario.)

          But it ignores the fact that most gun injuries and fatalities happen from garden variety pistols. To have any effect on those statistics, we have to be willing to make those standard handguns harder to get. Requiring background checks certainly can’t hurt. A license and required training would be better. But again, the NRA (read gun industry) would fight it tooth and nail.

          I know what you mean about Gorsuch. I saw something this morning pointing out that if liberals would only vote to the same extent conservatives do, Hillary Clinton would be President, the Democrats would control the senate, and a liberal, or at least moderate judge would have been appointed. Maddening.

          Most of the devout Christian conservatives I know are embarrassed by Trump. They voted for him because he promised conservative judges, and in hopes that he’d cooperate with the Republican congress. They generally won’t try very hard to defend him, accept to note that they think he’s a less worse option than Clinton would have been. Bring him up, and they usually want to change the subject.

          The people I know who are enthusiastic for Trump generally aren’t very religious (although Christian identity is very important to them), are older, and, except for one person, don’t have any higher education. They also barely pay any attention to the news, and when they do, it’s usually to Fox or conservative talk radio. That said, even most of them seem reluctant to discuss Trump these days. They haven’t abandoned him, but they seem far less optimistic about him than a few months ago.

          It seems like the concern of both groups is the changing culture in America. They see Christianity and white anglo-saxon demographics in decline, and they don’t like it. They don’t perceive any benefits from globalization. They want all of it somehow arrested or reversed. There’s this feeling that the world is falling apart and if they could just get the right people in charge, it might be averted. I worry about what this segment of society might try to do as the changes continue. Hopefully Trump is the crest of the backlash and not a harbinger.

          On being alienated, it used to bother me a lot more than it does now. I think commenting and blogging online has helped a lot in that regard, in the sense of being a release valve of sorts. I no longer feel the need to shove my contrarian views (religious, political, etc) in front of people in person, which is probably for the best.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You mean other people don’t ‘put things up’? I thought that was universal! Well, apparently that’s an Okie thing too.

            Interesting that a gun with a military appearance mattered more than capability. I guess I can see it mattering, but not more.

            I’m totally with you on required training. I’m actually surprised that’s not already required. In order to drive my 49cc motor scooter, I had to pass a motorcycle driver’s test which included a written and driving exam. Kind of involved for what it was, especially considering virtually everyone thought my scooter looked more like a toy than a real vehicle. It doesn’t seem too much to ask gun owners to take a class and get a license.

            I’m glad to hear that at least some Christians are embarrassed by Trump.

            On the changing culture, I think the Republican perception of the liberal’s agenda might be distorted and exaggerated, mostly focused on the really nutty stuff coming out of elite college campuses. Hilary played to their worst fears in a way by highlighting political correctness and a very superficial diversity in her campaign. While this stuff gets on my nerves, I know it doesn’t represent liberals on the whole, but maybe they don’t?

            Liked by 1 person

    3. Hmmm. Well, apparently “putting something up” ranges further north than the extreme south. I think this girl was from Wyoming, or one of the states around there.

      On conservative views of liberals, most that I know don’t know very many liberals. (People around here are often shocked when they find out my political views, at least until they hear I work at a university.) And being liberal in Louisiana is inescapably a contrarian position, so a lot of local conservatives see liberals as congenital trouble makers.

      What drives me nuts at times is that conservatives often don’t oppose liberal policies, they oppose the conservative caricature of those policies. Most approve of Obamacare’s individual provisions, but see Obamacare overall as a government takeover of medicine. Many gun owners are open to background checks but see any legislation about it as an attempt to take their guns. Many wouldn’t dream of hurting LGBT people, but see any legislation protecting them as part of the “gay agenda”.

      I think Clinton’s political skills were lacking. It was unfortunate because I thought she knew more about policy than any candidate we’ve had or are likely to have for a long time. But the same dynamic above was also at play in the election. Bill was right when he said that most people who hated Hillary, actually hated the caricature, not the woman herself. (And, of course, Hillary suffered from the burden all women seeking leadership positions in America suffer: if they’re too nice, they’re weak, and if they’re too strong, they’re bitchy. )

      None of this is to say that liberals don’t sometimes have similar issues, but the problem seems far worse on the right. I wish I knew the solution.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s not too surprising that the conservatives there don’t know many liberals. I know the opposite of that fairly well from living in VT, and that lack of diversity gets on my nerves even when everyone’s basically on my side. I think that part of the solution to conservative caricatures would be meeting you and people like you, intelligent moderates.

        Since Trump’s election I’ve been seeking out Republican news media (including Breitbart) to see what they’re seeing. It’s both illuminating and troublesome, but troublesome not for the reasons the liberal media assumes. It’s not that Republicans are looking at factually-incorrect opinionated editorial news—they are, of course—but as you said, it’s that they see the caricature of liberal policies as the talking heads draw them, and assume that’s the way we all think. On the other hand, I watch the mainstream news virtually every day and I’m finding that it’s becoming extremely biased against Trump. It worries me because it’s now getting to be unabashedly biased in the way of Fox news, and I’m finding it harder and harder to get a clear understanding of the facts without resorting to internet searches…and I don’t think most people are willing to dig that deep, and I don’t blame them. I know this is nothing new, but it just seems a bit worse lately. Also, the talking heads on the left keep saying the same things about Trump and it’s getting to be vacuous and mind-numbing…and frightfully out of touch with reality, as this recent election in Georgia showed. (I don’t know if you’ve been following that, but the talking heads made such a big deal out of it being a referendum on Trump, and now that the liberal lost, suddenly virtually all is quiet on that front.) In other words, they have a straw man to knock down, and perhaps so do we. I get a nagging sense that we liberals don’t understand what’s really making the conservative heart tick. For instance, I read some comments on an article in Brietbart and was surprised to find that many Trump supporters really hate Paul Ryan. I don’t get it. To me, he seems really extreme, but to them he seems mainstream. Actually, I see him as perhaps more extreme than Trump on policy issues like healthcare and what Republicans like to call entitlements.

        On Clinton, I think the time for her sort is over, but that does have more to do with her style than her policies. Consider how secretive she is compared to Trump, who Tweets and spills the beans to the public before he tells the people around him what he’s thinking. He’s not transparent per se (still no tax disclosure, Russia, and very sheisty stuff going on with the healthcare bill, etc.) but he gives the appearance of transparency. Paradoxical, I know. But style is everything now. I think Trump has shown that, and I think liberals had better find someone like Bernie if we want to gain back some power, and drop this PC rhetoric we keep clinging to. That said, I don’t see it happening. The PC rhetoric really does seem to be ingrained in the liberal psyche, but I think any time a Republican hears about it, even in watered-down form, they think of the caricature coming from universities—call-out culture, safe spaces, etc.—and stop listening to the actual policies being proposed. And really, this PC stuff isn’t terribly important. It just doesn’t matter as much as we think.

        If the Republicans screw up healthcare, liberals might have a chance. I’m not sure what I want to happen there to be honest because if things get really screwed up it might be hard (or impossible) to fix. And same goes for the Russia thing. Suppose liberals get what they want—Trump impeached—then we’re stuck with Pence! And he might be more effective than Trump!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I know what you mean about lack of diversity. But most people seem to want to have their views reinforced rather than challenged, and that I can comfortably say happens on both the right and the left.

          I actually try to avoid or minimize my exposure to partisan news sources. I know what I’m going to hear on Fox, and I pretty much know what I’m going to hear on MSNBC after 6pm. Same for Vox.com, Brietbart, or HuffPost. (Although I do have to admit that at times I check foxnews.com to see how conservative media is covering a story. I can’t abide the Brietbart site; it feels like visiting a wrestling mania channel or a porn site.)

          I’m forced to agree that a lot of the coverage of Trump in mainstream media probably is biased. This is difficult because Trump really is terrible, lies constantly, is incompetent, morally bankrupt, and needs to be held accountable. But when the media freaks out about misspelled tweets or something, it weakens their credibility and simply increases the sentiment among Trump’s supporters that they are out to get him.

          I keep coming back to the NY Times article I linked to back in November that looked at the Italian experience with Silvio Berlusconi, and urged that the left not resist Trump by focusing on his personality, but focus on what he’s doing that hurts voters. Under that philosophy, Democrats would be a lot better off pointing out how evil the Republican healthcare effort is rather than beating the impeachment drum, at least until there is incontrovertible evidence of criminal or nefarious activity. The leadership seems to understand this, but the rank and file can’t seem to resist.

          I think you’re right about Clinton’s and Trump’s styles. Clinton was far too scripted, and it gave the impression she wasn’t honest. Trump lies constantly and casually, but with apparent conviction, and people come away thinking he’s the honest one. I could rant about needing to look past shallow impressions, but I’d be wasting my time preaching the choir about something that’s not going to change.

          On the Georgia election, I think everyone is overreacting and over-interpreting. Democrats have been consistently over-performing their historical numbers, but the spate of special elections have all been in deeply red territories. If Democrats over perform nationally by the same margins next year, they’ll take the house. The problem is that’s still 16 months away, which is a very long time to keep the momentum up. A momentum that is easy to lose while freaking out about one house seat election and engaging in fractious finger pointing.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “But when the media freaks out about misspelled tweets or something, it weakens their credibility and simply increases the sentiment among Trump’s supporters that they are out to get him.”

            Yes, exactly! I’m actually working on an article about Trump’s rhetoric right now, and this is a point I made (covfeve…puh-leese. Who cares?)

            On partisan news, I know what you mean. I don’t watch much of it, especially since we don’t get much on TV, but I just take a look at that stuff from time to time to get a sense of what other people are watching. It does leave a dirty feeling, as you say.

            On the Dem overreaction to Georgia, I hope we aren’t changing the reality of the situation by overreacting. As you say, we still have a long way to go and we’ve been known to get things wrong concerning our performance.

            Liked by 1 person

  15. Re “One thing I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, is that you can virtually never change anyone’s mind about anything during a debate.” I am reminded of one of my intellectual heroes, Clarence Darrow, regarding his upbringing. In the rural communities he grew up in, people would often meet socially in a barn on weekends and one of the things they would do to amuse themselves is have debates. Darrow, even as a youngster loved these debates and participated often. He would even change “sides” in a debate if many people wanted one side and no one wanted the other, he would take the unpopular one.

    So, debates are for entertainment alone? I don’t think so. I think debates do not change minds . . . but they do plant seeds which, if nourished, can result in a changed mind well down the road. Debates expose us to ways of thought we did not consider or could not conceive of. This is why I do not watch presidential campaign debates as they are not debates at all. They are more like joint press conferences. I am not sure that we could have an actual debate between candidates unless they were all members of the debate club in college.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Re “What do you think? Is my way too mamby pamby? Too unwilling to reap the benefits of gladiatorial discussion?” If it is, mine is even more so. I find many debates tedious and so turn away from most conversation. I throw my argument into play and then go about my business because otherwise I am on the brink of a GWOT (Giant Waste of Time).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know where you’re coming from. My approach is to engage as long as there seems to be information being exchanged. Sometimes I participate because the discussion is simply giving me an opportunity to go over my reasoning. But I do watch for the point where new information is no longer being exchanged, and usually move on at that point. I also tend to move on if the other person makes clear they’re not open to actually exploring the topic, just opining. But it’s definitely a matter of judgment, one I don’t always get right.


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