Content Note: I've kept things abstract, but this post may still put frustrating politics on your mind.
I have strong political disagreements with a close friend of mine. We both care a lot about certain policies and really want to change the other’s mind, but whenever we try, it just ends in frustration. I've spent a lot of time wondering why our arguments are so unproductive, and after much rumination and journaling about it, I have come up with the following list of helpful reminders. Now when he sends me something politically charged, or when I get the urge to do the same, I stop and read some of the items in the list.
In no special order, they are:
- People's beliefs fall along tribal lines, even when a large part of them really wants to do impartial truth-tracking.
- Do they have any incentive to self-correct about this? Or do they have every incentive to avoid changing their mind?
- When it comes to certain topics, humans will change their minds only slowly and gradually. For those topics it is silly to expect them to perform anything close to an ideal Bayesian update.
- If I had a great need to impart some complex, easily-misunderstood technical problem to my friend, I would want to do so with focused attention and graph paper. I would not want to do it while we were out getting lunch nor while we were just idly texting. This is true for our political arguments as well, to the extent that technical problems are relevant.
- Incorporating confirming evidence is effortless and often emotionally gratifying. In contrast, reading something that challenges my priors leaves me with a choice: summarily dismiss it...or [tired sigh]...fire up the cogitators and begin the arduous process of crux checking, fact checking, and so on.
- It can be borderline impossible to say "you are right and I was wrong" to someone who is being smug, condescending, or mean to you; or who has a habit of making your tribe look bad.
- I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.
- People are not trained to gracefully admit to being wrong, even when it is best to do so. It feels extremely costly, and well...it often is.
- Don't expect it to go well if you try to convince someone that they are the bad guy. Do you have a line of retreat for discovering something like that? Didn't think so.
- Bucket errors and emotionally-charged beliefs are not to be underestimated. They can fully suppress the curiosity of even the most curious people.
- Is changing their mind even worth it?
- People often can't even think straight about how to improve their health, lifestyle, or relationships--domains in which the stakes are real and the results are constantly in view.
- Politics is war and arguments are soldiers. Don't be surprised when they engage you with hostility and no effort to understand.
- Have I righted myself in accordance with all of the above? Let he who is without soldier mindset cast the first stone.
When I review this list, the initial impulse to argue with my friend is replaced by a patient desire to find something more productive to say. And often this newly reformed desire then evolves into a different desire: to simply table the topic until I've become more informed (or just thought about it more).
This felt shift in desire has a familiar gestalt. There's probably a word for this but I don't know it. It reminds me of some sort of acceptance archetype--perhaps like the person who finally accepts that they aren’t just getting unlucky over and over, but rather that there is an underlying issue they must fix before they have a chance of succeeding.
If I'm actually serious about all this, then my next step is to set aside some blocks of focused time during which to: leave a line of retreat, see if I can find and correct any flagrant bucket errors, attack my arguments at their weak points, and maybe also recite the Litany of Tarsky for good luck. Only then will I be able to honestly tell my friend that I am arguing in good faith to the best of my ability. Presuming, of course, that I still disagree with him.