“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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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.

It's a situation akin, in form if not in degree, to those of hostages in a prison camp. The usual suggestions indeed apply:
1 - submit and cooperate;
2 - study the environment;
3 - try to gain small victories;
4 - as soon as it's feasible, get out.

Not to detract from anything you wrote, just to provide some perspective.

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.

I have noticed a similar pattern right here on LW. If someone defends their "obviously wrong" beliefs, like religion or homeopathy or what have you, many people tend to ask them to explain, but only to cleverly strawman and pick apart their real or perceived erroneous arguments. Of course, when dealing with what Eliezer used to call a "settled issue" in this community, it is hard to give the other side a benefit of a doubt, given that they tend to rehash the same, or apparently the same, logic.

But if you flip the sides, it's basically the same, only more grave. Your religious parents know with absolute certainty that they are right. They know that you are misguided and that your feeble juvenile mind is corrupted. They have heard all the arguments you may present and rejected them as erroneous. It's a settled issue in their community. They feel responsible for you. If they are unable to save you and bring you back into the fold, they have failed as your parents. They have failed their God, they have failed their congregation and they have failed you. How can one expect them to engage you if not in the Hostile Arguer mode?

7Error7y
I don't disagree, but even if that mode makes sense for them, engaging with it can (and IMO is) still a bad idea for you. I have too, although local norms seem to limit the damage.
0[anonymous]7y
On settled issues: this may or may not be obvious around here, but I think that it's unreasonable to expect of yourself to seriously entertain the possibility that you will change your mind, if you are debating an issue that, in your mind, is settled. There is a meme that you're supposed to always be open to that possibility ("I could always be wrong"), and it always made me a little uncomfortable, until I identified it and ejected it. Like you're supposed to expect to hear something new and mind-broadening, but you can't bring yourself to it. And if you try, you just feel let down afterwards because let's face it, usually it doesn't happen. But if I have, say, a 99% confidence in my position, my initial expectation that the person I'm talking to will change my mind can't honestly go above 1% (except if they are a high level Dark Arts practitioner, perhaps). In fact, it normally will be even smaller: my interlocutor is not guaranteed to bring up the best arguments, ones that will correctly aim at and dissolve my most important objections. Or I may fail at making my position clear enough for them to do so in the first place. Or the gap in shared assumptions may simply be too great to cover before we get bored. In any case, if I talk to someone who I think is wrong, then as an obvious consequence of my confidence level, I should expect to find their reasoning flawed or unconvincing, and I will mainly be trying to understand their position so I can see where they went wrong. Should I feel bad about this? Does it make it pointless to talk to me? I say no and no. What makes me feel like I'm an honest arguer rather than a hostile one (whenever I'm succeeding at this of course) is not my prior for changing my mind, but what I'm doing with what my "opponent" is saying. I have a model of reality, and I know they have a model of reality, and I try to understand just how both these contraptions work. What are the moving parts, how do they interact, what do they depend on, a

Some red flags I've noticed:

Calls you names instead of engaging in your arguments

Tries to put you in a group (e.g. only an X would something like that)

Says "you'll realize that I'm right when you're older". That's not a statement that comes up when people are doing Aumann updates (unless one person is unaware of the other's age).

3Error7y
These seem to fall under "use of dark arts in general."
227chaos7y
How do you deal with Professor Quirrel's version of the argument? It seems basically correct to me that people who are mostly rational will manage to learn from their experience things which the young would not guess. Do you think that the risk you're being lied to about their experience is what justifies ignoring this argument? I think that's often true, but not always. Perhaps the best answer is that people who are rational enough to justify your trusting their word over known arguments do not generally exist?
8Strange77y
It's not that there aren't any people whose unsupported assertion is more trustworthy than an explicit, persuasive-sounding argument for the opposite side, though certainly individuals of such discernment and integrity are rare. The issue is that any person so reliable would also necessarily have enough underlying intelligence to be able to, in any situation not involving implausibly extreme levels of time pressure, construct a better (or at least more contextually specific) argument than "you'll understand when you're older." The only plausible explanation for being so vague is if they not only don't want to tell you, but are further trying not to provide enough keywords for you to look up the real reason yourself.
7ike7y
I'm slightly less cynical; I think they usually do in fact genuinely believe that you'll change your mind and agree with them many years later. The people I've seen this with tend not to be good at putting feelings into words. By the way, I'd love to see someone steelman the experience argument (but am too lazy to do myself). Anyone up for it?
2Strange77y
I'm not saying that someone making the "understand when you're older" argument is being dishonest. They might not even be incorrect. It's just that, if that's the best case they can come up with, even after thinking it over, you're probably better off making your decision on some basis other than their opinion.
9dxu7y
In addition, experience should be transferable; in other words, if you think there's some "experience" to be had that will convince me that I'm wrong about something, you should be able to convey the details of such an experience (as well as why you think the experience would be convincing) to me directly, e.g. Quirrell's conversation with Hermione [http://hpmor.com/chapter/84]: Quirrell didn't just say, "Oh, you'll change your mind later when you experience life a bit more" (although he has done that to Harry sometimes); he actually laid out the details of the argument. That's not to say he was right, but at least his argument is a lot more convincing than just a naked claim that "you'll change your mind with experience". In other words, any time someone makes the experience argument and is able to do so in a legitimate manner, he/she should also be able to give a fairly concise summary of the experience as well as why it should be convincing to his/her opponent. Ideally, then, no one should make the experience argument at all, because every time someone does so, either (a) the argument is illegitimate or (b) there's a better argument readily available that should be used instead. Because of this, if someone makes the experience argument to me without an accompanying summary, then it immediately tells me that he/she is just using it as a semantic stopsign [http://lesswrong.com/lw/it/semantic_stopsigns/] and is not arguing in good faith. This in turn leads me to get out of the conversation rather quickly, if possible.
1ChristianKl7y
Not every experience has a concise summary. If someone tells me that a complex mathematical proof comes to a certain conclusion, than often I have to make a decision about trusting their expertise or spending a few semesters studying math to get the underlying understanding to be able to follow the proof myself.
2dxu7y
Even in the case you described, it should be possible to lay out something to support the argument, even if it takes too long to cover the argument itself. Like, instead of just saying "I know this proof seems counterintuitive right now, but trust me, once you study a bit more, it'll all make sense," the person would do better to say, "Well, I know it sounds absurd that you'd be able to take a single object, disassemble it, and reassemble it to form two of the same object, but in fact it has been proven to be possible given infinite divisibility and something called the Axiom of Choice. If you're not familiar with that, I'd suggest reading a bit about set theory." My credence in the latter case would be much higher than in the former case, and it didn't seem to take that long just to say, "Okay, this statement has its roots in X, Y, and Z, so to understand, you'll want to study those." I maintain that it should be possible to give some context for the experience argument no matter what, and that if you don't do so, you're not trying to argue in good faith.
6CronoDAS7y
I actually can give you an "intuitive" justification of the Banach-Tarski theorem. Suppose you have a rigid ball full of air. If you take half the air out and put it into another, identical ball, you now have twice the volume of air, at half the density. However, the points in a mathematical ball are infinitely dense - half of infinity is still infinity, so it turns out that if you do it just right, you can take out "half" of the points from a mathematical ball, put it inside another one, and end up with two balls that are both "completely full" and identical to the original one.
6Kindly7y
Your explanation suggests the wrong intuition for Banach-Tarski. It's relatively easy to show that there's a bijection between the points contained in one ball and the points contained in two balls. (Similarly, there is a bijection between the interval [0,1] and the interval [0,2].) The Banach-Tarski theorem proves a harder statement: you can take a unit ball, partition it into finitely many pieces (I think it can be done with five), and then rearrange those pieces, using only translations and rotations, into two unit balls. (If there's a canonical weird thing about the theorem, it's that we can do this in three dimensions but not in two.)
3CronoDAS7y
Agreed; it's not a real justification, it's just something that makes it sound less absurd. (When you look at the theorem a little bit closer, the weird part becomes not that you can make two balls out of one ball, but that you can do it with just translations and rotations. And if you look really, really hard, the weird part becomes that you can't do it with only four pieces [http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/2339.html].)
4gjm7y
This intuitive justification likewise indicates that one should be able to do the Banach-Tarski thing with a 2-dimensional disc rather than a 3-dimensional ball. Unfortunately, that isn't true. (Though it is if you allow area-preserving affine transformations as well as isometries.)
1Ronak7y
My steelman is this (without having read anything downstairs, so I apologise if there's a better on extant): the world is a complicated place, and we all form beliefs based on the things we think are important in the world; and since we are all horrible reasoners, it's impossible to believe about some things that they are important movers of the world without seeing it actually happen and viscerally feeling it change things. Cognitive biases in yourself are like this, methinks. Your thought processes really need to be broken down repeatedly for you to be able to start seeing the subtle shifts happening inside you - and anticipating that they happen even when you don't see them (generalising from many examples here, but not nearly enough). Another difficult tripping point for me was intuitive reasoning. Till I saw people who couldn't make any sense do significantly better than me I could not possibly believe it, even fighting against people who told me I over-analysed and spoke too much. I'm slowly coming around on dishonest rhetorical stances, because of the amount of time I've spent trying to convince hostile arguers. Let me soothe the raised hackles of your inner LW-cat by saying that I can't endorse anything like this without finding a Schelling fence,* and am willing to consider anyone who takes such a stance on LW (or in LW-related contexts) evil. *In fact, based on the world being as it is, I strongly suspect there isn't one.
6lmm7y
I'm a professional computer programmer, a field founded on logic and reason. I've been doing it for a while, and am, if I say so myself, pretty good at it. I still find myself frequently hitting places where the best argument I can make for a particular decision is "this feels intuitively like decision x and decision y, and those were the correct choices in those cases, therefore I think this is the correct decision too." And very often that's right. My understanding of the evidence is that within specific fields, experts in that field develop intuitions that really can yield better decisionmaking than conscious reason. Logically, doesn't it seem like this would be true of living in general?
1BloodyShrimp7y
Mentioning a similarity to past successful decisions seems like it qualifies as "constructing a more contextually specific argument than 'you'll understand when you're older'".
1lmm7y
I guess, but the explicit comparison is usually pretty indefensible. "Isn't this actually more like decision w, where the opposite choice was correct?" would be a natural response, and one I wouldn't have any counterargument for.
127chaos7y
Excellent point, thanks a bunch for supplying it. That makes a lot of sense to me.
2ike7y
My point was that you already know their age; and have presumably considered that, and still disagree. It's not new information. (By the way, can you clarify the exact conversation you're referencing? I don't remember off-hand.) I view this retort as an admission that the evidence I can access is against them. I've even been told explicitly that they don't expect me to agree with them. There are two possibilities. Either they are wrong, or they are right, and I shouldn't agree. To the extent the experience claim was true, I would take it into account without them mentioning it. The easiest counter is to look at whether everyone of their age and similar enough life story agrees with them.
-227chaos7y
That makes sense. I don't remember the context of the conversation, but his argument was roughly that while stupid irrational adults might fail to learn from experience smart and rational adults still do benefit from it.

One thing it seems pretty important to establish is the difference between ① someone who will (predictably) have hostile-type arguments with you, and ② someone who will actually do you harm for disagreeing with them.

Or between hostile arguing and abusive conduct.

If your parent mocks your atheism or tries to guilt you into going to church, that is one thing. If they beat you up, lock you in the basement, steal your property, or kick you out of the house at age fifteen because you don't want to go to their church any more, that is quite another. The former may well be emotionally abusive, or it may just be an incompetent way of expressing their fear that you will go to hell. (Or both.) The latter are threats to your well-being as a living organism ... and, in quite a few places, also illegal.

Similarly, if someone on the Internet makes fun of your views, that's one thing; if they organize all their pals to stalk your children, slander you to your boss to get you fired, or call you on the phone and threaten to rape and murder you, that's quite another.

"Are we having an unpleasant disagreement, or are you threatening me?" seems like a pretty useful question in situations that involve both hostile argument and a substantial difference of physical, social, or economic power.

1Antisuji7y
I generally agree, but I'd caution against raising threats to the level of mutual knowledge. Intuitively it feels dangerous to ask things like "are you threatening me?" Thinking about it for a few minutes, it seems that it's dangerous in part because once a threat has been made explicit, the threatening party can no longer back down without losing face and credibility. The question also feels like a power play and can be seen as disrespectful. It's still good to know whether you're just dealing with a hostile argument vs. a real threat vs. intimidation without intent to follow through, but when there's a power differential it's probably bad for the knowledge to be out in the open.
2fubarobfusco7y
Yeah, I should have stated that better — I didn't mean literally asking the other person that question, but rather considering the question during (or better yet, before and after) the hostile argument. Going on previous behavior seems to be a good guideline. Rather than asking, "Does this person hate people they disagree with?" you can ask, "How have they treated me in other disagreements? How have they treated others they disagree with?" For instance, if someone has often been violent before over the (say) fifteen years you've known them, they will probably be violent again, and a new hostile argument might lead to an escalation of that violence. But if they have not been violent, they probably won't suddenly start being violent on account of a disagreement, even a nasty one. For that matter, if someone is abusive to others (such as mistreating a coworker and gloating about it) then they might become abusive to you.

This has some similarities to the coming out process, but the analogy breaks down in a few places. Being gay isn't a belief as such (queer theory notwithstanding), but coming out does position you within a fairly specific ideological region. My own Gay Talk with my parents had some friction, and the struggle to be understood was definitely a part of that, but I don't think I ever tried to convince them of anything really. It was more about being honest and getting the ball in their court. It's less common these days for (anti-gay) people to respond to homosexuality as if it were a wrong opinion, so exposing the gulf is less likely to provoke that kind of argument, hostile or otherwise.

Incidentally, if an underage LGBT person is worried about strong condemnation from their guardians, the usual advice is to lie until they're no longer in a position of dependence- you don't gamble with basic access to food and clothes. I'm not sure how much that advice can be generalized.

I think it's very important to distinguish A. the 'hostile arguer' from B. the 'person with a willingness to make actionable threats and a vested interest in your beliefs'. And when you disentangle the two, I th... (read more)

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.

I'm not sure I agree with this advice. First, interacting with the hostile arguer can make one more clear on why one actually believes what one believes - one just shouldn't have your expected goal in that context of actuallying convincing them. Second, many peop... (read more)

You should have had some discussion of how to distinguish a hostile arguer from one who simply disagrees with you. A lot of people believe they're dealing with hostility even in cases where they actually aren't.

Mmm. I recognize the type of arguer described in the post, but I can very easily see the Hostile Arguer concept turning into a label people slap on others to evade legitimate arguments. (Related.)

Eliezer warned against the use of the Clever Arguer as a fully general counterargument in the referenced post on that subject. I tried to do the same at the end of this one, because yeah, it's a legitimate issue. I'm hoping someone with a better grasp of human signalling will suggest a way to tell the difference.

It seems to me to boil down to the difference between honest disagreement and dishonest disagreement; between argument as contest of truth and argument as contest of dominance. Characterizing that difference alone doesn't help, though. The piece I'm missing is: What signals indicate one or the other? Especially, what signals that are hard to misread through biased thinking? Everyone wants a reason to dismiss the other guy while believing their hands are clean.

The heuristic that comes to mind first, and isn't necessarily correct but might squint towards correctness: Someone who's unwilling to let you tap out is probably hostile.

ETA: Another possible heuristic: If the other party insists on attacking your position, but is unwilling to explicitly defend the one they want you to adopt against attack, that is probably also a bad sign. Especially if they act offended by counterargument, repeatedly cut you off, or take other actions that indicate that they don't really have any interest in anything you have to say.

3John_Maxwell7y
I suspect that (hostile|clever) arguer is a continuous rather than a binary classification. It's probably possible to be a slightly hostile arguer, and most everyone is probably a clever arguer to some degree or another.
327chaos7y
By "explicitly defend", do you mean "specify"? Here's another heuristic: if they criticize what you're saying, but don't provide any positive claims of their own when asked. It's much easier to attack an idea as flawed than it is to prove an alternative idea is better than it.
1Error7y
It seems like this would cover Devil's Advocate cases too, though. I do that all the time with friends. [ETA: usually involves political discussion, because I know people who have strong political opinions but I try to avoid having too many myself.]
0lmm7y
Sounds like it's not worth them spending time trying to convince you?
0ChristianKl7y
That assumes trying to convince is the only point of having a discussion.
027chaos7y
Just a heuristic, remember. I agree there are legitimate purposes for problem stating without problem solving, but problem solving almost always needs to be at least the implicit goal of an argument or it will go nowhere.
[-][anonymous]7y 6

To me, any argument always comes back to the Seven Habits principle: "Seek to understand before you seek to be underdstood."

Hostile argumentation can quickly be defused if you show genuine curiosity about the other persons views.

But if the other person(s) is/are your parent(s), it might somewhat difficult to signal "genuine curiosity" about their views, especially considering that these sorts of arguments generally arise because because the child said or did something the parents didn't approve of, e.g. became atheistic, admitted to homosexuality, etc. If you grew up in the same household as them, then you've been absorbing their viewpoints your entire life, and they know you've been exposed to their viewpoints all your life. So from their perspective, it's hardly going to sound realistic if you try to express "curiosity" about views that you should damn well already be familiar with. Somehow I don't think "Oh, hey, Mom, Dad, I've been introspecting, and I think I'm gay--but I know you think that sort of thing is bad, so now I'm curious why" is going to help defuse the situation.

2ChristianKl7y
You don't have to ask the question that way. You can ask questions like: "Did you ever had a gay friend?", "Did the intensity of your views on the subject change over time? How have they been when you where a child?"
7dxu7y
I think you're seriously underestimating the power of motivated cognition. If they're in argument mode, it doesn't matter how reasonable you sound or how politely you phrase your questions, because their goal isn't to clarify a point or to reach an agreement; it's to forcibly make you give up your position. It's as Error put it in the actual post: Trying to use reasoned discussion tactics against people who've made up their minds already isn't going to get you anywhere, and if you're unlucky, it might actually be interpreted as backtalk, especially if the people you're arguing against have higher social status than you do--like, for instance, your parents. It's unfortunate, but it's the truth. And believe me when I say that I have met people like this in real life. The experience was not pleasant.
6wedrifid7y
At times being more reasonable and more 'mature' sounding in conversation style even seems to be more offensive. It's treating them like you are their social equal and intellectual superior.
2ChristianKl7y
Status is earned. If you don't fight for your own views than you have very little of it. If you however stand up for yourself you can get away with more.
6dxu7y
Okay, let me put it this way: are you going to deliberately get into an argument with (say) your boss? Maybe if you're fortunate enough to have a really understanding boss, but in general, getting into arguments with people in higher positions of power (and thus with greater social status) is not a good idea.
1ChristianKl7y
I'm not advocating getting into an argument. I'm speaking about asking another person for their life experiences, in this case about asking a parent. Teenagers fighting for more power and self-determination is a quite natural part of puberty.
5dxu7y
And I'm not disagreeing with that. The problem arises when the person being asked the questions perceives it as an attack on their status, and then retaliates. Some parents don't take well to being questioned, like, at all. When that happens, you've got yourself a Hostile Arguer. And then it's best to just cut your losses.
2ChristianKl7y
In cases like this there no real way to cut the losses. You do have an ongoing relationship with your parents and you are paying a price the next time because they will expect you to fold the same way.

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.

You're dealing with children[1], but you're treating them like adults[2]. Throw your resentment away, stop arguing, and start manipulating with kindness [3].

[1] Children: Humans with certain mental blocks who nonetheless are good hearted. They might be better than you in some areas, but they can't really think properly. When dea... (read more)

I find myself almost in this situation.

It's probably very difficult to reliably identify a hostile arguer. I mean, my first thought on how to identify such a person is to try and model them to the point where you can think of anything you could say to change their mind. This is probably easier said than done.

You presumably love your family and want them to understand you. I think it's likely that it's easy to delude yourself into thinking you can argue your position to them well enough to convince them of it.

Family is difficult.

2Error7y
Condolences. For what it's worth, it does get better. There is light at the end of the tunnel, after the getting-out-of-the-house thing. My own relationship with my family improved tremendously once I was out from under their power, and I've seen enough people experience the same to believe that it generalizes.
1Dustin7y
Thanks, but I must clarify...the "almost" part of that is that I'm in my mid 30s and married with a kid. Of course, being your own person doesn't mean you don't deal with your family.

You should question your unstated but fundamental premise: one should avoid arguments with "hostile arguers."

A person who argues to convince rather than to understand harms himself, but from his interlocutor's standpoint, dealing with his arguments can be just as challenging and enlightening as arguing with someone more "intellectually honest."

Whether an argument is worthwhile depends primarily on the competence of the arguments presented, which isn't strongly related to the sincerity of the arguer.

9ike7y
Well, as the post is mainly dealing with hostile arguers that have ultimate power over you, that seems justified. Play around with looking for "challenging and enlightening" arguments when it's not so dangerous.
-17geniuslevel207y
3CronoDAS7y
Another reason one might want to engage with a "hostile arguer" is to convince a third party - any opponent in a live debate before an audience is almost certain to act as a hostile arguer.
-5wedrifid7y

meta: On top of the article please link the LessWrong Study Hall to the wiki page about how to access it.

A point against this: I have heard several anecdotes of the following form, as well as a purported explanation using catastrophe theory.

Person A and person B are arguing over X and Y. In the heat of the argument, person B has already determined which position (Y) they believe to be correct, and is looking for clever arguments for it, paying little attention to the arguments for X being advanced by person A, except insofar as they can attack them. Later, when they are in a calmer state, they reflect, and update their position. On subsequent occasions they m... (read more)

[-][anonymous]7y 2

It's important to remember that the truth is decided by reality, not by argumentation. But of course, we've already potholed that Sequence entry here. Discussion is about pulling yourself and others into correspondence with the reality that already exists, not about deciding what is true.

9Dagon7y
Which leads to reminder of a common failure on these topics: use of "believe" in a confusing way. For many mind-killing topics, don't focus on epistemology - it's really not easy to get enough agreement on terms that a useful discussion can be had. Instead, focus on predictions. Not "why do you believe X", but "what do you predict will happen based on X".
1Error7y
This sounds like an excellent way of cutting through mindkill. If there's not a post on it somewhere, I think there should be. [ETA: Bit of a brain fart, sorry. This is making arguments pay rent in the same sense that one should make beliefs pay rent.]
0[anonymous]7y
I think there's at least half a dozen of Eliezer's old founding posts that make explicit reference to this concept: real belief has to include likelihood functions.

I don't think the clever arguer or hostile arguer is a gigantically useful label. In my own case, many of my arguments probably sound like hostile or clever arguer to my counterparty. This is because I start out in most discussions with a previously thought out belief. I can be swayed from my position, and have been often enough.

Many religious people have rehearsed theological arguments. I don't think this means that they are hostile or clever. They are sincere, they are telling you what they believe. My cousin the Jehovah's witness argues with me ... (read more)

If you need to defray an argument, when someone asks for a justification, hand someone a link to a website, or, even better, a whole paper book, written by someone else. Then they'll have to do a bunch of homework before they continue. ;)

For example, you could send them to http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ ...