Combating Nonsense

When thrust into a conversation with someone who sees reality in a different way, “progress” or, rather, not-ending-up-hating-this-person can feel impossible. If basic facts can’t even be agreed upon, how can anything positive occur? What this question incorrectly implies, though, is that no basic facts of agreement exist when they do. Or at least agreement on something should exist if you are the open-minded, just calling balls and strikes person you surely claim to be.

First, step back from the toxic issue (TI) and pivot to a place of shared condemnation. How to find such a place? Well, apprehend the reasoning error your counterpart is making re: TI. A quite common one is making an unfalsifiable claim1 or making a claim that seems falsifiable only to perpetually change the falsifying metric whenever the thesis appears falsified,2 but any error will do. It’s important to appreciate that your counterpart almost certainly agrees that reasoning errors are, in fact, errors, but that his own biases will prevent him from easily witnessing his mistake re: TI.

Dancing quickly and smoothly (in your own mind), you must now (a) determine your counterpart’s “enemy” (i.e., another political party, another religion, another sports team, etc.) and (b) display an embarrassing case when said enemy made the identical reasoning error your counterpart is currently making. This process must be free from smugness/condescension or it will not work. Furthermore, the display cannot merely be academic: you must honestly agree that the enemy is being idiotic. Failure at this most vital step is probably because you happen to be a teammate of the enemy, and this comradery condemns you to aborted reasoning à la your counterpart re: TI. Summary: you are most certainly not the thoughtful, unbiased person you so adoringly title yourself, and while your counterpart may believe stupider things, you and him are not dissimilar.

But you don’t fail. You are what you thought you were.3 You genuinely express indignation and voila! there’s harmony with your counterpart. Go ahead and have him lay out the ridiculousness of the enemy. Add juice here and there where appropriate. Really hammer home why the enemy’s thinking is so flawed with a keen sense of how these same whys are also applicable re: TI. Don’t go there yet, though. Make sure all the tension from the initial disagreement has dissolved. Check (a) are you both relaxed? (b) are you truly on the same side regarding the moronic enemy? (c) have you avoided all urges to point out “false equivalency” or anything else that amounts to going too early?

If you hit a/b/c, you can proceed to gently turn the conversation back to TI, but you don’t have to. You can – perhaps more optimally for long-term success – spend the rest of this session proving your trustworthiness by coming up with additional examples of your counterpart’s enemy sinning. If you are generally on the enemy’s side, then, yes, you should take this path. The temptation to counterattack will emerge when your counterpart gets something wrong4 in bashing his enemy. Do NOT give in to temptation. You can correct off-base attacks, but only with a different, accurate attack. I don’t think that figure is right. But, I do know they totally didn’t understand the consequences of shifting the marginal tax rate for middle-income earners. 

At some point, you’ll want to return to TI. OK. Be careful. First, your goal is NOT to change someone’s mind. If that desire is guiding you, you’ll almost certainly present an aura that causes counterpart defensiveness. Instead, your desire is to help your counterpart see that his thinking is mirroring some of his enemy’s worst habits. It can still be true that he is closer to the truth – the focus is on how he reaches his conclusions, not on the conclusions. In other words, you aren’t directly addressing TI.5 The more you stay in Trying-to-Understand mode, the better. Appreciate that “obvious” parallels between the counterpart’s thinking and his enemy’s will rarely seem so obvious to the counterpart. Help me understand the difference; I agree that the enemy’s sources made boatloads of prediction errors – did yours?; If someone didn’t share your instincts, how should she research this topic to gain your understanding? And on and on. If your tone remains equanimouss and your interest authentic, minds can shift.

Including your own. The upside of this process is that whatever happens to your counterpart, you should absolutely possess a truer understanding of the world and yourself. And isn’t that better than changing someone’s mind?

  1. America is systemically racist. What evidence can I present to prove this is not true? When the answer amounts to There is no evidence that will change my mind, we are in unfalsifiability territory. Religion is the OG here.
  2. If we had a black president I would no longer believe America is systemically racist. Then the falsifying event occurs: Well, look at the discorporate prison populations. Plus, there were so many people who voted against Obama.
  3. Open-minded.
  4. And he will.
  5. I know you want to, but I can almost guarantee the conversation will rapidly devolve if you do.