The Hostile Arguer

by Error 5y27th Nov 201478 comments

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“Your instinct is to talk your way out of the situation, but that is an instinct born of prior interactions with reasonable people of good faith, and inapplicable to this interaction…” Ken White

One of the Less Wrong Study Hall denizens has been having a bit of an issue recently. He became an atheist some time ago. His family was in denial about it for a while, but in recent days they have 1. stopped with the denial bit, and 2. been less than understanding about it. In the course of discussing the issue during break, this line jumped out at me:

“I can defend my views fine enough, just not to my parents.”

And I thought: Well, of course you can’t, because they’re not interested in your views. At all.

I never had to deal with the Religion Argument with my parents, but I did spend my fair share of time failing to argumentatively defend myself. I think I have some useful things to say to those younger and less the-hell-out-of-the-house than me.

A clever arguer is someone that has already decided on their conclusion and is making the best case they possibly can for it. A clever arguer is not necessarily interested in what you currently believe; they are arguing for proposition A and against proposition B. But there is a specific sort of clever arguer, one that I have difficulty defining explicitly but can characterize fairly easily. I call it, as of today, the Hostile Arguer.

It looks something like this:

When your theist parents ask you, “What? Why would you believe that?! We should talk about this,” they do not actually want to know why you believe anything, despite the form of the question. There is no genuine curiosity there. They are instead looking for ammunition. Which, if they are cleverer arguers than you, you are likely to provide. Unless you are epistemically perfect, you believe things that you cannot, on demand, come up with an explicit defense for. Even important things.

In accepting that the onus is solely on you to defend your position – which is what you are implicitly doing, in engaging the question – you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. That is the real point of the question: to bait you into an argument that your interlocutor knows you will lose, whereupon they will expect you to acknowledge defeat and toe the line they define.

Someone in the chat compared this to politics, which makes sense, but I don’t think it’s the best comparison. Politicians usually meet each other as equals. So do debate teams. This is more like a cop asking a suspect where they were on the night of X, or an employer asking a job candidate how much they made at their last job. Answering can hurt you, but can never help you. The question is inherently a trap.

The central characteristic of a hostile arguer is the insincere question. “Why do you believe there is/isn’t a God?” may be genuine curiosity from an impartial friend, or righteous fury from a zealous authority, even though the words themselves are the same. What separates them is the response to answers. The curious friend updates their model of you with your answers; the Hostile Arguer instead updates their battle plan.[1]

So, what do you do about it?

Advice often fails to generalize, so take this with a grain of salt. It seems to me that argument in this sense has at least some of the characteristics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cooperation represents the pursuit of mutual understanding; defection represents the pursuit of victory in debate. Once you are aware that they are defecting, cooperating in return is highly non-optimal. On the other hand, mutual defection – a flamewar online, perhaps, or a big fight in real life in which neither party learns much of anything except how to be pissed off – kind of sucks, too. Especially if you have reason to care, on a personal level, about your opponent. If they’re family, you probably do.

It seems to me that getting out of the game is the way to go, if you can do it.

Never try to defend a proposition against a hostile arguer.[2] They do not care. Your best arguments will fall on deaf ears. Your worst will be picked apart by people who are much better at this than you. Your insecurities will be exploited. If they have direct power over you, it will be abused.

This is especially true for parents, where obstinate disagreement can be viewed as disrespect, and where their power over you is close to absolute. I’m sort of of the opinion that all parents should be considered epistemically hostile until one moves out, as a practical application of the SNAFU Principle. If you find yourself wanting to acknowledge defeat in order to avoid imminent punishment, this is what is going on.

If you have some disagreement important enough for this advice to be relevant, you probably genuinely care about what you believe, and you probably genuinely want to be understood. On some level, you want the other party to “see things your way.” So my second piece of advice is this: Accept that they won’t, and especially accept that it will not happen as a result of anything you say in an argument. If you must explain yourself, write a blog or something and point them to it a few years later. If it’s a religious argument, maybe write the Atheist Sequences. Or the Theist Sequences, if that’s your bent. But don’t let them make you defend yourself on the spot.

The previous point, incidentally, was my personal failure through most of my teenage years (although my difficulties stemmed from school, not religion). I really want to be understood, and I really approach discussion as a search for mutual understanding rather than an attempt at persuasion, by default. I expect most here do the same, which is one reason I feel so at home here. The failure mode I’m warning against is adopting this approach with people who will not respect it and will, in fact, punish your use of it.[3]

It takes two to have an argument, so don’t be the second party, ever, and they will eventually get tired of talking to a wall. You are not morally obliged to justify yourself to people who have pre-judged your justifications. You are not morally obliged to convince the unconvinceable. Silence is always an option. “No comment” also works well, if repeated enough times.

There is the possibility that the other party is able and willing to punish you for refusing to engage. Aside from promoting them from “treat as Hostile Arguer” to “treat as hostile, period”, I’m not sure what to do about this. Someone in the Hall suggested supplying random, irrelevant justifications, as requiring minimal cognitive load while still subverting the argument. I’m not certain how well that will work. It sounds plausible, but I suspect that if someone is running the algorithm “punish all responses that are not ‘yes, I agree and I am sorry and I will do or believe as you say’”, then you’re probably screwed (and should get out sooner rather than later if at all possible).

None of the above advice implies that you are right and they are wrong. You may still be incorrect on whatever factual matter the argument is about. The point I’m trying to make is that, in arguments of this form, the argument is not really about correctness. So if you care about correctness, don’t have it.

Above all, remember this: Tapping out is not just for Less Wrong.

(thanks to all LWSH people who offered suggestions on this post)


After reading the comments and thinking some more about this, I think I need to revise my position a bit. I’m really talking about three different characteristics here:

  1. People who have already made up their mind.
  2. People who are personally invested in making you believe as they do.
  3. People who have power over you.

For all three together, I think my advice still holds. MrMind puts it very concisely in the comments. In the absence of 3, though, JoshuaZ notes some good reasons one might argue anyway; to which I think one ought to add everything mentioned under the Fifth Virtue of Argument.

But one thing that ought not to be added to it is the hope of convincing the other party – either of your position, or of the proposition that you are not stupid or insane for holding it. These are cases where you are personally invested in what they believe, and all I can really say is “don’t do that; it will hurt.” Even if you are correct, you will fail for the reasons given above and more besides. It’s very much a case of Just Lose Hope Already.


  1. I’m using religious authorities harshing on atheists as the example here because that was the immediate cause of this post, but atheists take caution: If you’re asking someone “why do you believe in God?” with the primary intent of cutting their answer down, you’re guilty of this, too.  ↩

  2. Someone commenting on a draft of this post asked how to tell when you’re dealing with a Hostile Arguer. This is the sort of micro-social question that I’m not very good at and probably shouldn’t opine on. Suggestions requested in the comments.  ↩

  3. It occurs to me that the Gay Talk might have a lot in common with this as well. For those who’ve been on the wrong side of that: Did that also feel like a mismatched battle, with you trying to be understood, and them trying to break you down?  ↩

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