My past summer began with a tradition many of you may be familiar with: visiting my uncle’s house. I hope none of you are familiar with visiting MY uncle, though. That would be funky. Visiting a relative means a dinnertime conversation with them, which does not necessarily bode well. You could totally talk about normal things — the weather, sports, how sports affect the weather, etc. — but I had the misfortune of talking politics with my uncle. He made a vaguely transphobic comment, and because I don’t know how to pick fights well, I had to interject.
I’m sure you know where this is going — maybe you’ve found yourself in this exact same situation before. You start to confront someone with a problematic viewpoint (let’s be honest too, it was probably a “real” grown-up) about their disagreeable views on politics. It starts off with one off putting comment, but when you challenge it with something “reasonable,” you’re met with more questions. The argument keeps on going, as if there aren’t enough explanations for every question they ask. You feel like you’re on the defensive the whole time. You know the argument is going nowhere. It’s tiring. It’s embarrassing. Beyond that, it’s just not a fun situation to be in, right?
None of that happened to me during my little argument with my uncle. I walked all over him. I included that paragraph to throw a little sympathy your way if you can’t win arguments.
Your version of my uncle is not arguing with you in good faith, since the entire game plan of right wing rhetoric is to put you on the defensive. Often this is done via willful contradictions built into the arguments they make. The point is not to meaningfully engage with you (though, if you’re argumentative like me, you’re probably not trying to meaningfully engage either), but to keep the debate going until you get lost, and it looks like they’ve won. The strategy boils down to gish-galloping talking points and slightly misframing both your arguments and their own.
The last part, misframing their own arguments, is the most crucial aspect here. Right wing trolls are not trying to argue with you using any semblance of consistency or good faith. Their worldview consists of many wildly contradictory beliefs that are brought out depending on the present debate.
For example, if you ask for a conservative’s take on the Black Lives Matter movement, they might mention things like respecting police and the apocalyptic harms of “rioting.” However, their opinion on the Jan. 6 riots — actual riots — is likely gentle in comparison to their take on BLM. Don’t even ask them about their thoughts on the cops defending the Capitol that day. They were all Antifa plants, bad cops or any other number of rationalizations for a fundamentally warped worldview.
Debating a conservative really feels like listing reasons not to have sex with your dog. Number one: The baby might come out weird. Number two: You probably wouldn’t enjoy it. Number three: IT’S JUST WRONG! YOU SHOULDN’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!
Argumentative strategies adopted by conservatives are designed to keep rational questions at bay by asking so many irrational questions that actual legal and moral aspects of the argument sink to the bottom. It becomes the second-to-last priority, one spot ahead of having a consistent worldview. Once you’re confused, you’ve fallen for step one of the conservative’s plan: discombobulate.
At this stage of the argument, you’re backpedaling. There are two or three loose ends, but you’d need to explain a lot to tie them off. Now the gish-gallop begins, with your opponent introducing a flurry of new talking points, all of them sparsely related to one another. Each of these new points is based on a misframed version of your advocacy, making them all the harder to deal with. Soon, those loose ends have tied themselves into a Gordian Knot of contradictions.
You’re confused. You shouldn’t be losing, but it really feels like you are. Even if you’re winning the substance, the argument itself isn’t fun. What do you do?
My first solution: Don’t engage. You’re never going to change a lot of these people’s minds. As much as putting discourse on a pedestal might seem moral, it really does not work. We can talk as much as we’d like about issues, but just as your conservative uncle is not changing your mind, you are not changing theirs. Beyond that, remember that their argumentative strategy is designed to make discussion unproductive and boring. Not engaging is the best thing to do.
My second solution: Ask good questions. Don’t put yourself in a defensive position, ever. When asked a pinning question, analyze the way it’s framed. Often it presumes something that’s fundamentally wrong, or debatable at the very least. More importantly, ask a lot of clarifying questions. A lot of people sheepishly bleat arguments they’ve been spoon-fed, so interrogating their lack of comprehensive understanding can shake someone’s faith in their arguments. Importantly, don’t TELL them they’re wrong — walk them through WHY they’re wrong with questions.
I know I downplayed discourse two paragraphs ago, but even if it is unproductive, that does not mean it has to be boring. My first solution offers you an easy way to disengage from arguments that look mid, and the second is how you navigate an argument that you want to entertain.
At the end of the day, debating your conservative uncle will never be fun. You’ll probably do some verbal shadow boxing in the shower later, regardless of how well you argue. Despite that, I really hope that the next time you HAVE to engage in an argument for the sake of your morals, you better understand the psychology of your opponent.
I wish you good disengagements, and much, much better dunking.