March 04, 2012

Slapping in Public: Arguing With Villains

Truth often fails to win arguments, even with all trumpets blaring and cherubs flapping along in a decorative air show.  If you are right, forthright, honest, insightful, well-researched, informed both subjectively and objectively, open to different perspectives, rhetorically gifted, poetically minded, kind in heart but strong in will - good for you. You are in the sight of God, or perhaps a phalanx of curious woodchucks, as you tirelessly chip down the lesser Limbaugh spewing vomitous hatred and indifferent lies before you.

You will lose against these con men, corporations and malefactors, unless you carefully chose your battles.

To engage a direct argument with an opponent who is dishonest about their motives and facts is to lose the argument. In a public debate, all points become equated as different perspectives- a great starting point in democratic culture with its presumption of fairness, but one now easily anticipated and manipulated.

It becomes relatively trivial to elevate their confidence game to your honestly-held philosophy. All they need to do this is to share a stage: you lose by walking out and shaking hands.  After this, assuming you are trying to argue honestly, you are constrained by love of truth, hobbling your argument; your only real hope in moving hearts and minds is that your rhetoric is superior - in other words, that the rhetoric of truth moves the heart more effectively than the rhetoric of the unshackled villain. 

If you try slapping a dishonest opponent with facts, and he slaps back with lies, and to an audience you both just look like slappers. 

Seeing this, many people conclude: "They're all liars." "They're all the same."  "Both sides are equally to blame."  And the bad guy wins.  The greatest tool of the organized malefactor is cynicism.  It is planned on, and carefully stoked. (This kind of work naturally pays handsomely.)

Scientists often have terrible trouble realizing that presenting hard-won scientific results are not sufficient to win a real debate over real policy.  This is why climate scientists poked with the sword of Truth at an entrenched machine gun emplacement operated by their malicious, ruthless, fabulously powerful opponents in the energy industry, and found themselves losing ground- and with it, very possibly, the life of the earth as we know it.  They naively assumed everyone in power had something of the same respect for reality they did; and then found it utterly maddening - although predictable to the politically experienced- to suddenly face an brick wall when you are presenting what you know to be true.

This reaction is being manipulated right now with fake scandal after fake scandal of climate scientists' emails, illegally stolen emails, which prove little but that in their anger scientists were trying to figure out how to fight the Hydra of the energy industry.  The scientists were played by paid experts, presumably working for the energy industry in a number of capacities, all of them despicable.

Winning a new social policy takes all the economic resources, compromises and organizational and rhetorical skill of any successful political movement.  The truth is always a powerful ally, but in the reality of human societies, rarely a sufficient one.

Generally, don't argue directly with nakedly malicious opponents. It just ennobles them, while it brings you into their pit of filth. Instead, find new audiences, and organize.

It boils down to this: even the best, most honest argument, the most seamlessly logical, the most objectively considered, the most balanced and the most substantively researched, will fail, unless presented skillfully with emotional power, and, here's the key, unless backed by substantial, long-term, social, political, and economic organization.

The era of the whistleblower is gone, when all you do is to whistle into a hurricane of bullshit.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Sometimes, even a corporate tool needs a hug.

March 5, 2012 at 9:57 AM  

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