Stop changing the subject

I’ve reflected a few times, here, on the conversations I had about conspiracy theories with a very rightwing friend who no longer deigns to communicate with me. I find myself wondering, every so often, how we might have conducted our conversations differently and more productively, mainly so that if I end up in a similar situation again in the future with someone else or even with the same friend if we ever reestablish contact (and I feel quite sure that sooner or later I will indeed end up back in the same situation) I might be better prepared to handle my side as well as I can.

One thing that I found with him, and that I’ve found speaking with many others on a variety of topics (both on the right and on the left) is that if there is freedom to leap from one argument to another to another, without ever dealing properly with any one of them, it tends to end badly. When someone is trying to convince me of something, using arguments that are easily shown to be unconvincing, it seems to be instinctive to take up a strategy of bounding across innumerable arguments so that the weakness of each never has a chance to be fully manifest, and so that the sheer quantity may appear to be its own kind of proof (as if a mountain of garbage were any less putrid than a single item).

Arguing by constantly changing the subject is the last refuge of people who refuse to admit their ignorance and errors.

As soon as I notice this happening, I should insist on putting a stop to it. My zealous and proselytizing friend may choose the topics we will discuss, that’s no problem, but each topic must be dealt with adequately, and we must both agree that it is dealt with adequately one way or another, before the next one is broached.

Perhaps one consequence of this is that the person on the other side will attempt to choose only the strongest arguments to focus on first, rather than choosing topics which will most clearly show the weakness of the position and which will be most painful for the other person to see explored at length.

And if the strongest arguments are agreed to be unconvincing, perhaps the other person will have a glimmer of a hope of recognizing that the belief that is based on those arguments is unsupported and not worthwhile. I do not hold out much hope of the conspiratorial person being able to recognize the error of their ways by means of rational discussion, but at least it will be a small possibility, rather than no possibility at all.

If, at the end of our discussion of a topic, I have in good faith shown the reasons why I don’t find the argument convincing, and if the other person can agree that in fact it wasn’t, in itself, adequate to the task of convincing me (and we will have to do this, or else find ourselves at an impasse and unable to move to the next topic), this will also be less frustrating for the other person. The alternative, of telling me constantly, “Well you’re clearly wrong but enough of that, let’s talk about this other thing” without adequately answering my objections, will lead the other person to feel I have been obstinate in rejecting all the good arguments I have heard, which is not true but is an understandable feeling.

And if there are indeed merits to the argument, then sticking with it will enable me to see why my objections might have been misplaced, which is surely desirable for both of us.

To refuse to agree to this shows nothing but a lack of faith in one’s own evidence. Thus, whether they agree to this rule or not, I will have learned all that I need to know about what they have to say, one way or another.

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