Arguing to Win, Not to Be Right

Two books about how to argue; more on the “national divorce”; and items about the right-wing battle for the next century, train deregulation, a new target list of enemies, and buying your way onto bestseller lists.

Here’s a review in today’s NYT of two books about arguing.

NYT, Jennifer Szalai, 22 Feb 2023: Fight or Make Nice? Two Books Consider How to Listen and Be Heard., subtitled “‘Win Every Argument,’ by Mehdi Hasan, and ‘Say the Right Thing,’ by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, offer different approaches to talking to others.

I don’t plan to read these books, but the descriptions of them echo issues I’ve been following for years, in particular how, it seems to me, conservatives rely on narratives and ideology, liberals more on evidence and reason. (Oops, let’s flip this around: people who rely on narratives and ideology tend to be conservative; people who understand evidence and reason tend to be liberal. That’s a more accurate way of putting it.)

These themes run through the last several posts here, themes that reflect the psychological distinctions writers like Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman have made about differing moral foundations, Type I vs. Type II thinking, and the notion that humans tend to think like lawyers whose mission is to win (to find arguments to support conclusions reached on emotional grounds), not like rationalists whose mission is to understand the truth.

The review begins by citing a distinction between “paranoid reading” and “reparative reading”:

Paranoia entails scanning the horizon for threats, presuming the worst so that you won’t be caught by surprise; a reparative approach entails openness and receptivity, a willingness to wait and see. One pounces; the other embraces. Both have their uses. The “reparative” spirit might sound appealingly generous, but not every situation deserves it. Bad arguments, bad actors, bad faith: Sometimes paranoia is exactly what’s called for.

This also reflects my comments yesterday that the range of human morality functions to serve in different environments, as needed. Different approaches work in different circumstances. (Further, the Michael Shermer book I’m reading, CONSPIRACY, makes the startling but reasonable claim that seeing conspiracies everywhere is a kind of survival mechanism, matching Kahneman’s takes about type errors; better to be paranoid and alive, than skeptical and dead. Of course the human environment has changed greatly since those intuitions were ingrained into human nature.)

Thus the first book is about winning arguments, at all cost.

Hasan’s book is, by necessity, the more straightforward of the two. He has an unambiguous case to make: He will teach you not just how to argue but how to win. Whether you are debating on national television or sniping at the Thanksgiving table, there are distinct parties involved: You, your opponent and your audience. You persuade your audience by demolishing your opponent. By necessity, a good strategy is paranoid; you’re on the lookout for missteps and weak spots so that you can poke a hole in your opponent’s argument and bring it all down. These conflicts are zero-sum. There is no “win-win” here.

The review goes on to describe specific elements of Hasan’s technique: “…drama is crucial. A well-timed pause, some steady eye contact, a dazzling show of confidence…” and so on.
This is how human nature works. Be the lawyer. But it’s not a method for identifying what’s actually true.

Not that the other book is, either. It’s about respecting the right of both sides to be heard, and avoiding discomfort and shaming.

In “Say the Right Thing,” Yoshino and Glasgow are talking about different kinds of conversations. Relating is all, even if the person you’re talking to starts out as a stranger. Disagreement might be part of it, but even disagreement can be reparative; the key is to do it in a way that leads “your conversation partner to feel more heard and respected.”

Well OK, I’m not inclined to provisionally endorse, let alone read, either of these books.


More relevant is the new book Responding to the Right that I mentioned some nine days ago, where the point of “arguments” is about claims about reality. I’m browsing it, so far, and at some point will reproduce its list of a couple dozen “common tendencies in conservatives arguments” (which are about winning arguments rather than finding the truth) and the author’s dozen “tips for arguing.”


Now a couple more links about the national divorce notion that’s still being discussed.

The Week, 23 Feb 2023: Is America headed for a ‘national divorce’?, subtitled “What would happen if the country were to divide itself?”

Both The Week and Vox specialize in summarizing essential aspects of current news stories. Here The Week explains what a “national divorce” is, how it would affect the country, whether it’s even legal, and what Americans think about the idea — with lots of links and citations of various sources.

Politico, Rich Lowry, 6 Oct 2021 (yes from a year and a half ago): Opinion | A Surprising Share of Americans Wants to Break Up the Country. Here’s Why They’re Wrong., subtitled “The deleterious effects of a breakup would be enormous. A disaggregated United States would be instantly less powerful.”

What would happen to the economy? The federal government? The military? Would it actually stem cultural trends? (Needless to say, MTG and her supporters have not thought this idea through.)


A few more just links.

NYT, Charles M. Blow, 22 Feb 2023: America, Right-Wing Censors and the ‘Battle for the Next Century’

Salon, Igor Derysh, 23 Feb 2023: “He should be apologizing”: Critics call out Trump’s lie to East Palestine residents, subtitled “‘I had nothing to do with’ slashing rail regulations, Trump claimed after gutting rail regulations”

Via, 7 News Miami, 22 Feb 2023: DeSantis reveals school board members on ‘target’ list, including M-DCPS member

He has a list! McCarthy had a list too (of supposed communists in Hollywood, in the early 1950s, for those who don’t know). The parallels are eerie.

Forbes, Zach Everson, 21 Feb 2023: Mike Pompeo’s PAC Spent $42,000 On Books The Day His Memoir Was Published. It Became A Bestseller.

Latest example of conservative authors buying their way onto bestseller lists, as mentioned before.

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