by Ethan Glover, Sun, Nov 10, 2013 - (Edited) Sun, Nov 10, 2013
Note: In using the word “opponent” and things like “argument” or “debate” throughout this article I only mean a conversation between two individuals of opposing views. This article is not based on formal stage debate or back and forth structured arguments. The ideas are meant for everyday use in normal conversation.
I’ve previously written on why you should never assign people homework when debating or arguing. Or why you should never tell someone who disagrees with you to just read a book or look at a web page as a way to get them to see your point of view. This was covered in “Don’t Give Me Homework”. With this article I’d like to expand on that idea and try and create a final viewpoint on how I think debates should be handled, especially when it concerns online debates, which are usually of the lowest and most despicable quality. I’m not pushing for everyone to play nice and agree to disagree. I’m all for passionate and assertive arguments, but even with that, if a person plans on getting anywhere within their conversations there are a few principles it helps to follow. I’m no stranger to letting myself falling into throwing insults and telling people what they do and do not know. Hopefully by the end of this article I’ll have established a grander and more intuitive overview of how to act online. I’ve got a lot of sources and ideas to go through, and at times things may seem unrelated and chaotic, but I believe it should all tie together nicely in the end, so please bear with me. First, let’s go over some of the basics covered in “Don’t Give Me Homework”. It’s worth a read on its own, but I’d like to establish this foundation before expanding.
The crux of the argument comes down to being willing to adapt yourself to the situation at hand. Books are great. They’re a great source of information. Videos on YouTube can really help explain and solidify particular topics. However, they’re generally written for and made for, people who already have an interest in the matter. If you don’t care about a subject, why would you spend hours or weeks learning the specifics? Why would you expect someone else to do the same? This is exactly what happens when you assign people homework by giving them links to articles, videos and books. The chances of somebody taking that seriously is very low. The chances of it having any influence on them may as well be zero. I’ll get back to this concept and the “backfire effect” later. For now, what needs to be known about developing arguments is that assigning homework and sources is not helpful. Sources are for giving credit and those rare few who want to know more. Before they get to the point of wanting to learn more, they must be persuaded first. There’s a saying that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. This is especially true when you make no attempt to lead it to water in the first place. Leading people to sources involves a good deal of persuasion, and adapting your arguments to fit that particular person. If you don’t know the person you’re talking to or arguing with, that’s the first step. Get to know them, show a little curiosity, ask why they believe what they believe and learn a little about it. Quoting Rothbard doesn’t work against a socialist who can quote Proudhon right back. Every individual has different concerns and beliefs. You must be flexible enough to adapt your arguments and change them according to each individual. Not being able to do this is probably a good signal that you don’t know what your preaching well enough to be arguing for it with opponents of the belief. (More on how to improve later.) Even if you’re well read on the subject, it needs to be realized that old books like For A New Liberty are never going to fully apply to your present day conversations. They are written in a different context, by a different mind, and present static ideas. They’re good to learn from, but they will not apply to everything, and if you just quote and link, the lack of relevancy will turn off your opponent and make you look desperate and unsure of yourself. Instead, it is better to personalize the conversation to the person in front of you and the topic at hand. Break your arguments down into a digestible form and in a way that you know this other person will fully understand. If you ask about where their worries lie, this shouldn’t be a problem. You can address those issues specifically and take things step by step rather than regurgitating broad and sweeping statements about your general overview of the world. Always remember, you are the foundation of your philosophy. You are its representative, no one else. Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul, Stefan Molyneux, it doesn’t matter. They can’t help you when it comes to personal conversation and ultimately you must be willing to do what they do and create new and original arguments according to the world around you.
Of course, adaptability means changing your arguments and accepting where faults lay. It doesn’t mean changing other peoples arguments as a way to misrepresent them. Specifically, I’m talking about my number one pet peeve, changing definitions. As I have mentioned before, the first thing I often do with many articles is to establish the definitions of key words based on the Oxford English Dictionary. The reason I have to do this is because I often get arguments that are based on a misunderstanding of common words. This is why I maintain my “Commonly Confused Words List”. [List Deleted] If you and the person you’re talking to aren’t speaking the same language, there’s no way it can go anywhere. Libertarians and anarchists should be able to sympathize with this well. Government often misrepresents things like “monopoly”, “violence”, “law”, “force”, “social contracts”, “taxation”, “theft”, “counterfeiting”, “kidnapping”, “democracy” and many other words. Anarcho-capitalists must often hear the arguments against capitalism by people who can’t bother to look the word up in the dictionary, let alone understand the philosophy. The misuse of words and the English language is usually a result of laziness or hatred. Words are the greatest weapon of the state and many philosophies for that matter. Does that mean you should cave in and accept the colloquial use of anyone you’re talking to? Of course not. Establishing definitions from a neutral and well respected source such as OED is the first step to finding common ground, which is necessary for any successful debate. I don’t choose OED because it agrees with me. It has corrected me on many occasions. I choose it because it has become the most respected source for definitions. If someone insists on mixing up capitalism with things like imperialism and corporatism, throw them to the side and move on. The unwillingness to accept basic English in the interest of putting down a philosophy is the first and most important red flag that tells you a person is not willing to listen, learn or even participate in a conversation. Many people have argued that language is a flexible and subjective thing. While I agree it is and should be flexible, it is certainly not subjective. An Austrian economist who recognizes the subjectivity of value must recognize that economics is still an objective science. When debating politics, philosophy and anything, it must be known that beliefs on these things are subjective, but the language you use to communicate it is objective. Sometimes even the most stark of individualists need to realize that there is such thing as normal. Many philosophies such as statism and centralization are held together only by the rickety boards of irrational and inconsistent definitions. If a philosophy is dependent upon redefining certain words and ideas, it is probably pretty safe to guess that it can not stand on its own merits. Ideas should transcend language, otherwise it shows its isolated nature and that it can not work on a mass scale.
Getting back to some of the points made in “Don’t Give Me Homework”, I mentioned that “infighting” is a good thing. This is something that gets a bad rap by people who believe that if we all just stop arguing and go our own way, things will work out. This is only true in limited cases. On the subject of politics, philosophy, beliefs and much more, it doesn’t work. It’s OK for people to go their own way and believe what they want to believe so long as it doesn’t affect others. On the other hand, “infighting” is how the specifics of any given idea system is hashed out. It is how people within the community learn and sharpen or solidify their beliefs. I mentioned before that if you find yourself unable to adapt your beliefs to the individual in front of you and instead must resort to quotes, quips and links, you probably shouldn’t be arguing with opponents of the ideals. If you want to be able to argue with opponents, you must first learn to argue with people who agree. It is not uncommon for people who are unsure about anarcho-capitalism to find an AnCap forum and ask questions on what they are unsure of. When answers are received that they feel don’t cover the subject enough, they may make a few arguments, demonstrate some situations in which the example doesn’t work and so on. This is great, debating people who are more familiar with arguments is the perfect way to learn the arguments and learn enough to become flexible in your own arguments. If you really want to perfect your arguments, continue to play devils advocate, push people to their limits, see how far they can take their philosophy. Ask the tough questions and expect to get some resistance. Debating should feel like recreational boxing. If you get in the ring, you must be willing to take a hit. If you’re going to fall apart because of one punch to the head, you may have to either learn to get into the mentality of accepting it, or go back to the books until you are ready for it. This “boxing” or “infighting” is what can help you establish your core values and the foundation of how you look at your philosophy and the world around you. Without your own core values, you’re living through the values of others and what you have been told, basing what you know on memorization rather that understanding. As the Art of Manliness puts it:
“Trying to be someone else and living without core values is down right exhausting and leaves you feeling empty and shiftless. Conversely, living a life with your core values brings purpose, direction, happiness, and wholeness.”
Without core values, without a clear understanding of your philosophy to the extent that it shapes who you are, your decisions become based on past traumas, unconscious bias, and irrational thought processes. Politics and beliefs are more than just something you argue about because its fun. This assumption is why the idea of good debate has gotten away from our culture. We have adapted mantras like, “Never discuss politics or religion.”, without considering the repercussions of avoiding them altogether. Sure, there’s a time and place for everything, but if you don’t take things like politics and philosophy seriously and develop your internal compass and values, you tend to wander through life aimless and unsure. Making decisions in the moment without any clear understanding of what that decision in itself means. If you go into a real debate without these foundations, anybody can sweep your feet right out from under you in a matter of seconds if they have taken the time to understand what they are talking about. They may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean you’ll “win”. Without this most important foundation and without a bit of training in the ring, you’ll be the one leading the conversation into an immature sand throwing match. Or, you may be the one having to disgracefully resort to links and authors, unable to explain what you already know.
Turning this idea of infighting around to those who are more experienced, it must also be mentioned that you should never deny someone their feelings. In interpersonal communication this may be something like not telling someone, “You’ll be fine.”, when they’ve just told you they’re upset about a co-worker. Similarly, if someone asks you a difficult question, such as what an anarcho-capitalist does about nuclear weapon ownership, saying that nuclear weapons are too expensive is not an acceptable answer. This is a denial of not only a legitimate question, but a fear. If somebody has a bad feeling or a fear about your philosophy, telling them everything will be fine is no way to reassure them that the situation has been thought of and considered. Never reject the tough questions out right, if you have no answer, say so. It is of course OK to say that the probability of such a thing happening is very low, but if that is your only argument, you’ve fully admitted that you don’t know how to handle such a situation or you don’t know enough to answer it. Again, take the hit and look for an answer. Generally anarcho-capitalists don’t like weapons of mass destruction because they can not be pinpointed to a specific target. I know this because I’ve participated in conversations about such things and worked through all the different thoughts, fears and beliefs of others. Recognizing peoples feelings on certain topics is a great way to get an understanding of different perspectives on the matter. Just because you don’t fear a certain situation, that doesn’t mean you can tell others not to do so. Emotion is subjective, what you think is insignificant may very well be a big deal to others. If you can’t help them to find your perspective and if you can’t take the time to understand theirs, you’re not going to have a successful conversation and the other person is probably going to leave thinking that you’re either crazy or ignorant. Never leave anything on the table, keep the air clear, consider everything and be willing to use criticisms as an excuse to grow and learn.
Wrapping all of this up, I’ve already mentioned that you should always be ready to take a hit. It’s perfectly OK to be wrong once and right twice. If you find yourself to be consistently wrong no matter how much effort you put into using infighting for clarification and no matter how much you read particular texts, don’t be afraid to reconsider your beliefs. In the world of anarchy and libertarianism, nobody gets to where they are right off the bat. Thanks to things like public schools and paid for media, we all start out as statists. It takes a lot of healthy criticism to fight off decades worth of indoctrination. Yet, I often find my peers being stubborn and immature about basic facts. One look at comments on places like Reddit and you will see a very disappointing level of bad arguments, whining and resorting to quotes, quips and hyperlinks. This is not just true for my peers either. You can find it in just about every comment section and forum on the internet. They say it’s impossible to win an argument on the internet. I say its impossible to find an argument. What people are really finding is a bunch of people who use the internet to release all their pent up anger and be generally disgusting people. Many people are living double lives and releasing their anger in unhealthy ways rather than using things like meditation and exercise. Keep your arguments calm and well thought out, don’t exaggerate and be realistic. Telling somebody the world is going to end if they don’t agree with you won’t help them agree with you. And if you don’t use specific real world examples to illustrate how your philosophy could work you’ll come off as a simple theorist who just enjoys thinking. Communists have told me this is the case for them and that they don’t really care if the philosophy works or not, it’s more of a thought experiment, like something to dream about. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for those of you considering real world value, you have to be willing to apply theory to reality. It is often the weaker philosophies that depend on promises and grand dreams of somebody taking care of you that fail. “Campaign promises” may help to get a few mindless zombies into your congregation but what happens when your ideas come to fruition? People start to realize that you can’t keep your promises, and you start to lose respect. Don’t try to make a ponzi scheme out of your ideas, just be honest and try to explain why certain things work over others. Help people understand, don’t bribe them.
Alright, so we’ve got the points made in “Don’t Give Me Homework” summed up. By now you’re realizing that this article is going to be fairly long. The last time I went to this length to explain something was in “Anarcho-Communism Criticism”, which was split into three parts. This will not be split up, and I apologize for that, but I want this to be one source and one consistent stream of thought. As we progress into these ideas of proper debate and discussion, we’ll get into some more advanced stuff that goes beyond respect and empathy. That being said, empathy will be a nice place to start this second section.
Humans are unique in the ability to recognize the personhood within others. The fact that we can recognize that other humans have their own minds is a very rare thing and one of our greatest strengths as a species. This ability is not apparent online. It’s easy to forget that when you’re talking to someone online that there is another human being on the other end of those comments. This leads to a separation from reality, and without emotional feedback from the other person our own emotions can get away from us. People can say the nastiest things to others when they’re not standing right in front of them. In your debates and online actions it is always good to remind yourself that you are talking to real people. Your words have an effect on them, no matter what they say. People may get bad comments on the internet and say it’s OK, they can separate themselves from it, but they don’t consider the subconscious effects. Anger on the internet is self-perpetuating. As someone speaks down to people, others tend to take in that anger and mirror it themselves. Often without even realizing it’s happening. Instead of trying to remove yourself from online comments and just assuming that’s the way things are. It’s probably better to never say anything to anybody online that you wouldn’t say in real life. Set the example and stay consistent, eventually you’ll start to spread the respect and soon you’ll be able to easily pick out people you enjoy speaking with and arguing with. As you find more of these people, you’ll be able to easily identify the initiators, the professional trolls and sociopaths who really do enjoy making other people angry. By simply considering others, you can help develop a better and more enjoyable online community by weeding out those who are not welcome at any time. The anarcho-capitalist and libertarian society puts importance on reputation, and if you want to spread these ideals, you’ll be more believable if you live them.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Sometimes when you see a blatantly wrong statement you react in the moment, type something out and hit submit without even thinking about it. In real life, it is often hard not to just blurt something out, and if you get mad, it can be hard not to say something hateful. It takes practice and a lot of self-conscious exploration to be able to recognize your triggers and avoid knee jerk reactions. AnCaps and libertarians are usually logical people, not super emotional ones, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to mistakes. If you're quick to say something bad on the internet, delete it if you can. Take it back and apologize if you say it out loud. Recognize these faults for what they are and improve yourself. Don’t just assume you’re always in the right and try to cover up your immoral actions with excuses, leave that for the politicians. With practice, you should learn when to walk away and give yourself some time. Write out your online comments and save them, take some time doing something else and come back. Nine times out of ten, those passionate arguments will go from, “I must respond!”, to “Who cares?” What you thought was important 15 minutes ago may become a funny joke. From there, you may choose to change your comment or you may even choose not to comment at all. You know what they say if you can’t say something nice… If someone is being stubbornly irrational, why bother? Choose your battles and don’t waste time with people who aren’t interested in what you have to say. Nobody stands around talking to trees, so why should you stand around talking to trolls? At least trees don’t insult you.
As another perspective, I’ve often asked people to submit articles to be published here on the site. I have been presented opposing viewpoints with links, books, quotes, interviews, documentaries, etc. People have obviously done a lot of research, and I don’t want to dismiss those arguments entirely. Instead, I ask people to write up standalone articles that put it all together in the way that they see it. If I simply took a few months to go through all the material people show me on a particular subject, I can guarantee with 100% certainty that I will still come out with a different point of view. This goes back to not giving others homework. What good does all your research do if you can’t connect it properly? Despite many promises, I have never seen one article submission to this site. I believe this is because when people go into making the effort they realize they don’t know as much as they think. It’s just a theory, and this is something I’ve never experienced myself, but I think people get so used to referencing things that they forget what they’re referencing. They develop habits and reflexes where they simply post saved links to particular things they disagree with. Or maybe they’re just googling things and copy/pasting the first thing they come across. These people never really get called out because nobody is looking through all their sources. The strategy utilized by these “hyperlinkers” is one of overwhelming their opponent with spam. Instead of arguing anything, they simply post a few links and claim, “You obviously didn’t read that 400 page PDF I just posted, you don’t know anything.” The other person then feels like they should have read it and says, “I did and…” (lying) or says, “I don’t care about your source…” This doesn’t go anywhere and is embarrassing to watch from an outside perspective. Anyways, the point that I’m trying to get at, is that if you have a lot of sources and you have read through them and know them well, just try presenting your case. Don’t target anyone else’s beliefs, don’t even bother referencing others. Of course give opposing views a read, but try to make sure your comments stand on their own. Instead of saying, “Of course roads don’t necessarily have to be built by the state! Read this book!”, try “Roads have been built privately in the past and done successfully. Tolls are one possibility of payment here are some others…” Consider what your opponent is saying but present your opposing ideas as something that can be read by others without any context and without even reading the entire previous conversation. To the programmer this would be like treating your arguments as separate classes or functions. Make sure they address the issue at hand but are universally usable. By employing this strategy, you may find the responses you get more positive and less directed at you and more towards the issue at hand.
With that, we can finish this section with a note on positivity. All to often people will only leave a comment when they want to criticize something or say something sarcastic. If you took a few seconds to tell an author that you like a post, you’ll probably find that you enjoy online interaction more often. If you like a post take a second to say so or to say thanks. This site is only a creative outlet for me, but I go through a lot of effort to write these things out. I’m not just typing stuff into a WordPress editor. I take notes on just about everything. I consider all research and I will soon be bringing back my “Liberty Resource Directory” which acts as a resource forum for building arguments. I have to read a lot of information to come up with ideas to post here, and I only have time to write on weekends leaving me with a very long queue of topics. Not only that but editing these things can be a real bitch. It’s not fun to write out 10 pages every week (or in the case of this article 25 in one day) and reading through the same stuff five times before publishing only to find a hundred more mistakes as soon as it goes live. I’m not bragging, but I just want you to consider that a lot of work goes into even the small 400 word articles. If you simply agree with the post and don’t have much to say, say you like it, say something, anything. With more positivity, you’ll develop a broader perspective on your own commenting, and you’ll find you have more worthwhile things to say when 100% of what you put out there is not negativity and hatred.
If there’s anything I don’t want to do with this article, it's that I don't want to make it longer than it needs to be. I’m really trying to stick to the specifics here. That being said, I may have to repeat myself a few times as I progress forward. I’m hoping that there is a clear distinction between each section that shows that we are progressing from basic ideas into understanding better and more general ideas. We should be making a march from what to do and what not to do into general theories on how to think about everyday interactions on the internet. I am no writer, but I do have a major concern for the reader, and I’m hoping my train of thought and direction is clear. Without further commentary, let’s continue our march to more fulfilling conversation.
It was already mentioned that our culture has come to reject proper political debate. What we see on TV every four years with “presidential debates” is nothing more than a circus. Candidates are thrown classic and irrelevant questions, and they give what they believe is the best answer. It’s like playing SimCity to them. They give no true consideration to the lives they’re destroying by utilizing theft and force to develop what they think will be their ideal utopia. This is something we definitely need to get away from. Not only the dog and pony show debates, but the idea that personal and private debates are bad. History is scattered with real debate forums that built the society we live in today. The Grecian Assemblies, the Roman Forum, the salons of France and the mutual improvement societies of colonial America. Debate, argument and the hashing out of ideas is how we grow and learn. If it weren’t for passion and the willingness to go against the grain by men with great ideas, we’d still be more oppressed than we are now. If people are afraid of each others thoughts and what other people will think about their ideas, they deserve to live under the control of others. As mean as that sounds it illustrates an important point. If it weren’t for people like Galileo going against the church and state or the U.S. founding fathers simply telling King George no more, we wouldn’t have made the progress we have made. The longer we refuse to engage each other and stop fearing what might happen if someone disagrees, the quicker we drive ourselves into collapse and total tyranny. Participating in the long tradition of civil debate not only helps to build a better and more well-rounded society, it helps to build a better and more well-rounded you.
At the risk of repeating myself but in the hopes of expanding further, I should say that when participating in debates, you need to consider that people feel differently than you do on any given subject. This is something you can’t change, the best you can hope for is to clearly present a different way of thinking about things and allow this other person to see your point of view. Everyone was raised by different parents in a different environment and has had different experiences. Everyone is shaped and formed by an unimaginable amount of factors to become a unique and individual person. The first law of Austrian economics says that action implies individual actors. Mirroring that we could say that the first law of civil debates is that viewpoints implies individual minds. When discussing politics and philosophy there is no wrong in the sense that 2+2=5 is wrong. Logic is subjective and dependent on individual minds.
From there, we can further establish the benefits of being curious and learning from the person you’re talking to. If you want to be able to develop your arguments and apply them to your current topic and opponent, you have to be willing to learn from him/her. Ask the person you’re talking to what led them to their beliefs. Dig and ask as many questions as possible. Apply the same principles that you would use in infighting to learn about your own philosophy to learn about the other persons philosophy. Remember, infighting was the practice, and when you get into actual debates it’s just a matter of applying what you learned. Don’t just assume people believe what they do because they are ignorant of your beliefs. That’s a ridiculous notion anyways. Ask questions like, “What makes you feel that way?” or “What has led you to come to that conclusion?” In an argument against UPB, which I only know the basics of, someone told me that you can’t expect people to be so direct. In the context of that conversation, he said that if someone is frustrated with another it is unrealistic for them to say, “You frustrate me.” I agree that this kind of bluntness is a little weird, but it is not unrealistic. That being said, these guideline questions like, “What makes you feel that way?”, is just that, guidelines. You don’t have to repeat them exactly, they provide for a base. Like reading books and understanding fallacies, these questions are not necessarily to be used in actual conversation, they are something to learn from.
Adapt the question to the situation, “How did you come to be a Republican, what influenced you?” There are no magic words that will help you in every conversation, it takes practice and purposeful behavior. You can’t expect to follow guides forever. You have to be willing to learn and create. Of course, what good is a few guide questions if I didn’t give you a few bad questions? Some examples would be, “How could you possibly believe that?”, and “Why can’t you see how wrong you are?” It should be obvious why these aren’t going to be productive, but from there you should be able to analyze your own questions and work to make sure you are not being too combative or presumptuous. It is best to simply be interested and show curiosity rather than diligently looking for targets to attack.
The best way to develop an understanding of your opponent and, therefore, develop better arguments against him is to read, listen to and consume things that you disagree with. Now, this may seem a little hypocritical considering I started this article with not giving people homework. Except, giving people homework is not the same thing as taking an initiative to learn. It takes a lot of effort for libertarians and anarchists to get a good grip of their philosophy, but they will still become more stubborn as they learn more about the ideals. I believe this is because that once somebody understands the idea of liberty, things start to make more sense. The world becomes clearer, and things like morality and value tend to reemerge from within. The indoctrination starts to go away. This is good to an extent, but that doesn’t mean you should stop looking at opposing views and trying to learn. I’ve found that the more I ask about and learn about philosophies that depend on central planning, the more I learn about anarcho-capitalism and the more solidified I become in my beliefs. I have slowly begun to give people like anarcho-communists and anarcho-socialists more slack too. While I still believe that they have an immense misunderstanding of basic economics and human action, I understand their views a little better, and I don’t break a sweat in arguing against them. Don’t let all of your politics and philosophy be a matter of standing in a choir in an empty church. Join the audience of other “churches” and make an effort to understand. Don’t be afraid to give credit where credit is due and just agree with all points you agree with. Don’t let good points pass you by, doing so will result in the missing out of solidifying and learning more about your own beliefs and the beliefs of others. Let the person you’re talking to know where you’re at and what you agree with in order to help them get closer to your train of thought. If you insist on saying all their claims are false, you’re going to bore yourself with basic details you already know and can already refute. Allow the conversation to grow. If there really is nothing you agree with, which is rarely the case, just let them know what you understand. Throw in a, “I understand why you feel that way.”, and “I can see that.”, every now and then. All of this goes back to my original point on establishing common definitions. By looking for what you agree on, and finding common ground as early as possible, you can focus on the differences and properly present your ideas. Arguing about semantics and small details that anyone can agree on is a total waste of everybody’s time and does not make you or the other person look very good.
Finally, and maybe most obviously, don’t use insults. If you’re so insecure in your own thoughts and philosophies that you have to resort to such things, you're not ready to represent yourself, and it’s probably a good idea to avoid speaking up in the first place. Insults will never help your case. Just stick to the facts, listen, make an effort and respond to the ideas, not the person.
OK, now we get to the fun stuff. Hopefully somebody is still reading this and hasn’t fallen asleep with the “be respectful” beating of the dead horse. There is a method to the madness here. Scattered throughout this long article are very basic and important principles, and I’m hoping you as the reader are picking them up. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. From here on out, I hope to wow you by taking a few unrelated ideas and tying them into a greater understanding of what has been said. Much like learning more about opposing viewpoints will help you learn more about your own, there are a lot of things that will collide and help you understand the world around you.
So, what’s this part of the article all about? A book on human evolution called “Denial” by Danny Brower. Danny Brower died before he could finish the book, and it was finished by another author whom I care not to name. Even though the book presents some really good ideas, it seems the second author trashed the work by throwing in environmentalists rants. This brings up an important point. The ideas brought up in the book (which I will get to later) are really thoughtful. They are based on how humans deny reality. This is certainly true to a devastating extent. Where the second author goes wrong, is by using this fact to say that anyone who disagrees with him is in denial themselves. He is missing the entire point and is subject to the denial he writes about. This is like trying to weaken peoples arguments by claiming everything they say is a straw man. It’s OK to establish clear guidelines for yourself to make sure you can get your point across. But to use those guidelines as a weapon against others is cowardly. Telling people they are committing logical fallacies will only piss them off. A proper alternative would be to stay on topic and keep trying to explain your viewpoint. If the other person doesn’t accept it, move on. You can’t convert everybody.
So, the first half of the book “Denial” is where the argument lies. I can’t say it’d be a good idea to buy the book but if you’ve got some time and its in the library it may be interesting. Or you can just read this “review” and get the gist of the matter. That being said, the argument of the book tries to explain why humans are the only species on earth who have achieved full theory of mind despite other animals having millions of years worth of opportunities to do so. Theory of Mind, or ToM, is defined as such:
“The ability to attribute mental states - beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. - to oneself and others to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”
This definition is according to Wikipedia (because OEM did not provide). The book describes “full theory of mind” as the ability to not only recognize that other beings are independently acting and thinking but will eventually die. Through that, one can decipher ones own mortality. Humans, according to the book, developed full ToM at about the same time they developed the ability to deny reality. Otherwise, the act of thinking about one's death should be as terrifying as having a loaded gun pointed at your head. The original author believes that this unconscious denial is what has lead humans to becoming smarter. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but as more info is added to the pile it begins to become a little more clear.
The ability of denial was developed naturally as a way to reduce anxiety in our increasingly calculating minds throughout the history of human evolution. It is a defense mechanism against anything that we find consciously intolerable. It can easily be said and demonstrated that those who still believe in religions are in denial about science. There’s nothing wrong with religion. It generally doesn’t harm people, and nobody is forced to go to church. The point is, as an anarcho-capitalist I look at statism in the same way a scientist look at religion. I study it like a science and aim to understand why it exists and why people believe in it. I can understand why people choose it, but I wish I had the freedom to refrain from it and its “benefits”. Religion was once required by the state, and hopefully humans will soon have the ability to choose anarchy like they can now choose atheism. This studying and attempt to understand others is exactly why I bring up the book Denial. If you look at opposing viewpoints like a religion, or gay marriage, or strange tribal traditions you will find yourself learning more and having better conversations. If you were talking to a tribesman who lives in a society that has not changed for thousands of years, would you be angry at his lifestyle? Or would you be curious? Maybe you don’t care. It’s OK not to care, but it’s irrational to be angry, especially vocally and publicly angry.
Moving on with elements from the book, it notes that all animals who travel in groups develop hierarchies and leaders. Within these systems, especially within the great apes family, it is usually the smarter individuals who can win the most mates. It’s hard not to point towards the movie “Idiocracy” here, and maybe it has a legitimate point, or it is just another “Just So” story. However, I’d like to strategically avoid the topic of an intelligence decline within the human race for now because the liberty movement is growing. It may not be true after all. Instead, I’d like to point out that this biological development of leadership is all too often ignored by those who support leaderless societies. There will always inevitably be that person or group who can gain great influence from others. Even the communists look up to Karl Marx as a leader even if they wouldn’t call him as such. If you're someone looking to spread your own ideals, and create proper influential debate, it can be helpful to look at yourself as a leader. This helps you take full responsibility of your own ideas and philosophy, and it allows you to see the faults in your own ideas, not the ideas that you read out of a book and believed. In Denial, it is denoted that when full ToM was being developed in humans there would have been a period in which this phenomenon was rare. In those cases there were single individuals who had to witness the deaths of others and recognize what was truly happening, denial was a matter of survival.
Today, the basic denial of what death really means is not something we have to worry about. In the early days, humans created religion to help them deal with the idea of death and create an alternative. This is still true today, but atheists choose rational justifications to ignore the reality of death. If this all still seems counterintuitive, consider that suicide does not happen without full ToM. If you’re thinking instead, “What’s the point? Where’s the relevancy?” The point is that, within debates, you must remember that denial of facts is a natural reaction. Just like you shouldn’t be angry at the tribesman for living his life, there’s no reason to be angry at people who can’t think logically. You can do your best to teach and lead them to water, but the final conclusions must be settled by them. 99.9% of the time you will never get a thank you for changing someone's viewpoints because by the time what you tell them kicks in, they’ll probably have forgotten all about the conversation. As the Libertarians would say, plant the seeds of knowledge. Don’t worry about standing around waiting for trees to grow, you won’t get a lot done that way.
Further highlighting why we need teachers willing to talk through their ideas and debate them we can consider a few more points from the book. It says that human babies are totally defenseless and dependent upon birth. They go through a very lengthy period of immaturity compared to other animals. To add on top of that, females of the great ape family (to include humans) have no real maternal instincts. They must watch other mothers and learn from them. We humans are born empty vessels and almost entirely void of survival instincts and skills. Everything we know is taught to us by others and their shared experiences. Think of it this way. If you’re unable to teach your ideas and must instead just point to the source you’re copying, are you really any better than the now extinct Neanderthal? Does your maturity really extend beyond that of a baby? Sure, maybe you can tie your shoes and do a job, but what are you really if you’re not learning and passing down knowledge? That’s the entire structure of the human race and how it survives. Teaching and correcting others goes hand and hand with debate and arguments and this all illustrates why it is so important to our survival.
From the ability of Denial, we move into what David McRaney calls the “Backfire Effect”. This says that when your beliefs are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger. Instead of people learning and changing their minds they see what they expect to see and conclude what they expect to conclude. Of course, the article ignores that this is no reason to not participate in debates. Instead, it’s just a fancy way of saying that you shouldn’t go into things with preconceived notions. Go in with a good attitude and be willing to learn. With a good attitude and an open mind, you will still see what you expect to see and conclude what you expect to conclude. If you expect to see some good points and expect to learn a few things, you will probably do so. You just have to allow it for yourself. This “Backfire Effect” shows the importance of not giving people homework, developing common ground, and focusing on those agreements first and disagreements second. If you don’t give people homework, you instead must adapt the conversation and answer to the preconceptions the other person already has. If you develop a common ground and focus on sifting out the agreements first, you will find enough positivity to continue and for you to realize that you don’t have as much to reject as you may have originally thought. If you then take on disagreements with a layer by layer approach, and settle one issue at a time, your arguments won’t be so scatterbrained and targeted towards sweeping and irrelevant statements. Your opponent will understand you better and be better able to see your point of view. That being said, if you are proven wrong, don’t try to spend a bunch of time trying to reconfirm your views. With that, you’re only initiating the backfire effect by your own choice and on your own self. Again, take the hit and move on. You can try to look for better arguments down the road but don’t just make excuses. Look for solutions.
Both authors of Denial and The Backfire Effect are, unfortunately, subject to their own theories. With this, it’s best to just take them with a grain of salt. In Denial, the unnamed author tries to say that those who disagree with him on global warming are in denial, except he is in denial over the science that says humans have little to no effect on global climates. In The Backfire Effect, David tries to use his article to downplay the effects of spanking on children. While there is science that disproves his science, it is probably more important to look at the morality of such things and look for alternatives rather than justifications for the behavior. And I suppose here I am trying to say spanking is wrong after making a long article on how to handle debates. I’m not against having a bias, everyone has biases. They’re unavoidable. There is no person on earth that doesn’t have them. The point I’m trying to get at is that you should ignore the people who try to use these concepts as a way to attack you rather than a simple behind the scenes guide for themselves. Take these ideas into consideration, but do not use them as a weapon. Both of these authors use their respective concepts as a tool to sway their audience into their way of thinking. This is bad practice, and it shows their own misunderstandings of their own theories. If they can not make their point without resorting to technicalities and trying to make themselves immune from things like denial and the backfire effect by speaking of them, they probably shouldn’t be talking about the subject. Instead, they may need to spend a little more time around like minded scientists developing their arguments in a way that they can maintain focus.
With one final paragraph to this part, I’d like to throw in just two more points. I’ve already said that using fallacies within conversation is bad practice. This is for the same reason that it is so ineffective and telling of these two authors that they need these concepts as a weapon in order to prove their point. It shows those points don’t stand on their own. Much like centralized philosophies don’t stand on their own but instead lean on bad definitions. There is still one other thing that I think falls under this category. That is when people psychoanalyze others and tell them their history and try to invent past traumas as a way to explain others beliefs. This is most common within the Stefan Molyneux crowd. I’m of course a fan of Molyneux but, unfortunately, despite heavy moderation his forums are not immune to the immaturity found on other internet forums. To their credit, the people there do seem to be much sneakier with their passive aggressive behavior. Again, if your ideas can not stand on their own and if you can not answer somebodies arguments without resorting to anything that goes beyond the subject at hand, you are not ready to be arguing for it. If you feel the need to throw insults, throw out logical fallacies, or invent past traumas in others, you are doing something wrong. This is an avoidance of the fact that you have nothing else to say, a denial of the fact that you’ve lost the debate and have been rendered effectively silent. Take the punch, get a little more practice, change your mind if you have to, but don’t embarrass yourself by turning a conversation into a sand throwing match. It’s over when it’s over.
We’re almost done. We’re finally to the conclusion. If you’ve read everything so far, thank you so much for showing so much interest. Personally I hate reading things on computer screens and can only do so much at a time. You, my dear reader, are strong, and I hope that I may become as patient and curious as you are in the near future. I think I’ve gone through the basics enough and have created enough examples. You probably don’t need any final summary. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to one last thing. It’s not much, just an acronym. SCE, it stands for Sarcasm, Cynicism, Exaggeration. Long ago I gave myself a challenge to see if I could go one week without these three things. It was kind of a nerdy joke at the time. The result was that my laugh became heartier. I began to appreciate little things better, I kicked my addiction to video games and the video game culture, and my path to non-apathy was accelerated. Without those three things, I am able to take life more seriously and live more purposely. That’s not to say without sarcasm there is no humor. I find it very sad that people think sarcasm is the only form of humor. It’s like someone being born a slave and never being exposed to the idea of freedom. Without sarcasm, you will probably find more humor and more happiness in the life around you. I am not perfect in the avoidance of these three things. I am still subject to my environment, but it does help to avoid them when possible.
So, why bring up SCE? This is what I want you to think of when commenting on the internet. Don’t throw out sarcastic quips of no value, not everyone thinks your immature sentences are funny. Some will find it stupid and infuriating. In fact, a lot of such things are. Cynicism has a few definitions but here I mean not to look at everything with a jaded negativity. Make an attempt to look at things with a good attitude and don’t just criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. Make your corrections, state your opinion, but don’t do it because you like to be mean or you like to get a rise out of people. That’s sociopathic and especially unbecoming of anarcho-capitalists and libertarians. Finally, avoid the exaggeration. Good or bad, stick to the facts. Obama is a criminal yes, but a super duper criminal? Unless he shrinks the moon and steals it, I don’t think so. With constant exaggeration, it is hard for people to take you seriously. They get into the habit of interpreting everything you say as fear mongering or hateful or just plain exaggeration. If you cry wolf too many times, people aren’t going to believe you when you’re getting your legs chewed on by the real thing.
With the points laid out above, and the addition of SCE, I think I’ve successfully established my thoughts on how to handle civility online and how to handle disagreements. Maybe you disagree with something, and this is obviously OK. Please leave a comment no matter how you feel and tell me your opinions. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I will always get back to you. If I’ve left something out, first of all, nice catch, second, please let me know so that I may make proper corrections. Thank you for reading this terribly long article and sticking through it, I admire you for doing so. I look forward to hearing what you’ve got to say.