Don't Use Your Favorite Weapon

by aaronb505 min read3rd Jan 20217 comments



Why your favorite arguments aren't most likely to land

If forced to condense my political ideology onto the usual spectrum, I’ve always been left of center. I think that the government can and should work to improve wellbeing, and this generally entails change. It’s called “progressivism” for a reason, after all. The opposite ideology, conservatism, is fundamentally about preserving the present or past instead of embracing the untested or novel.

I’m not quite naive enough to think that people generally choose political positions and ideologies on the basis of argumentation or evidence. Even still, ideas and their supporting arguments probably play some role in politics; even if most political positioning can be explained by signaling, genetics, preference falsification, and the like, I would bet that marginal changes in the status quo distribution of beliefs are significantly influenced by a principle like “all else equal, people will choose the idea that for which the best arguments are made.”

Back to me, for a minute: in the last two years or so, for the first time, I’ve gained a modest appreciation for the value of conservatism. This isn’t just some high-minded belief in pluralism - I now just think that there is a little more to be said for deference to systems or laws that have stood the test of time.

There have probably been thousands of books and articles on the failures of top-down social change, perhaps most notably James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. A key idea in this line of thought is Chesterton’s Fence, the principle that one should refrain from removing a custom, law or practice before understanding its function or purpose. To outsiders or newcomers, these things may seem irrational or absurd. In fact, it may seem absurd to those obeying the custom as well.

But more often than we’d expect, there is some hidden function behind the absurdity. As Scott Alexander writes, for example, there is a native Fijian taboo against pregnant women eating shark. Lo and behold, consuming the local species of shark can cause birth defects.

If you transplanted me and my liberal politics into Fiji and asked me whether we should keep this prohibition, I’d probably object that the custom is irrational, sexist, and oppressive. The conservatives would reply that it’s ordained by God or good for business or sexist to allow women to eat shark, and that Critical Shark Theory is infecting the minds of college students. But one thing they wouldn’t say is something like “The custom actually is sort of sexist, but since it’s been around for millenia there’s some reason to believe that it serves an important function, even if we can’t tell or articulate what it is. Therefore, we should exercise caution before rolling it back, perhaps by allowing a particularly progressive jurisdiction to loosen the restriction for a few years to see what happens.”

One reason the Fijian conservatives wouldn’t have said this is that it wasn’t even in their conscious space of possible reasons. Even if it was, though, they wouldn’t have said it because it isn’t their reason for supporting the custom.

The best arguments don’t get used

And this is my point. For salient issues in society like the minimum wage or death penalty or whatever, once one cluster of positions gets coded as belonging to one ideology, it enters a sort of closed system of justification. For instance, raising the minimum wage is solidly considered a liberal position, and so liberal people use liberal reasons that sound good and true to other liberal people to support it.

This isn’t just echo-chambering - it’s intellectual honesty; people honestly report the reasons they have for supporting cause X. This is all well and good, except that there is little or no effort to search for ideologically-inconsistent but legitimate reasons to support one policy or another. Liberals don’t go searching for conservative arguments for a higher minimum wage, and conservatives don’t go searching for liberal arguments against government-provided healthcare.

This, I think, is why it took something like 18 years for me to be exposed to a reasonable-sounding justification for conservatism at large. People who like conservative ideas more than liberal ones tend not to have technical-sounding reasons to support them that ignore the intrinsic value of, say, tradition, loyalty and individual liberty, and people who are sympathetic to technical-sounding reasons and don’t intrinsically value tradition, loyalty, and liberty (like myself) don’t tend to like conservative ideas. And so very few people go searching for technical-sounding reasons that ignore the intrinsic value of tradition, loyalty and individual liberty to support conservative ideas.

The arguments you hear aren’t the best ones

The corollary to this is that given that you aren’t already convinced, the arguments you tend to hear in favor of defunding police or legalizing weed or any other salient issue aren’t the ones most likely to convince you. Why? Because the people sympathetic to these most common arguments are already “converted,” and if you found them convincing you’d already be convinced.

From tax policy to the existence of God, we care tremendously about convincing other people that what we believe is right, and we spend huge amounts of time and money trying to do so. So why don’t people go looking for the arguments most likely to land?

The reasons why

1. It might not be worth it

For smaller movements and less salient issues, it probably makes more sense to spend marginal resources on messaging targeted at those most likely to be sympathetic, and that means ideologically-consistent messaging. For instance, liberals are probably more likely to be sympathetic to vegan messaging, so it’s wiser for activists to focus on suffering and justice than, say, Biblical justifications.

This is fundamentally because a small proportion of liberals are vegan, even though a large proportion of vegans are (I’m guessing) liberals.

2. They do try, but they’re bad at it.

Especially for truly ideological or mission-driven movements or organizations, there can be a genuine effort to see things from the perspective of the other side. Think of climate-change organizations stressing themes of conservation or our duty to future generations, for example.

Even the most earnest effort, though, will face the challenge that it’s hard to guess which argument you don’t personally like is most likely to land with someone of a very different ideological persuasion.

3. The message won’t land when delivered from an “outsider”

It might sound a little disingenuous for a climate activist of a hundred overdetermined liberal-predicting demographics to tell Evangelicals that conservation is God’s will. I’d sure be a little skeptical if someone I wasn’t already pretty sympathetic to tried to tell me that maximizing economic growth is a moral imperative.

I suspect this is one of the most important reasons on the list. Human tribal epistemology is strong, and a message convincing us that the default ingroup position is wrong almost certainly has to come from a fellow member.

4. Arguments aren’t (often) about convincing others

In Hansonian “X isn’t about Y” fashion, we often feel like we’re trying to convince our partner in conversation, even though our behavior is best explained by signalling wit or tribal loyalty. Twitter would look a lot different if everything coded as persuasive discourse was in fact designed for persuasion.

We might even seem less smart or ethical to our friends and colleagues (who broadly share our ideology) if we employ ideologically-inconsistent arguments. If my liberal friends saw me earnestly arguing that a carbon tax is God’s will, I’d come off as somewhere between silly and stupid.

Things that might improve discourse

1. Recognizing the issue

I think there are a lot of well-intentioned people who simply haven’t given any thought to whether their arguments are designed to comport with their audience’s worldview. Presenting the arguments you find most convincing is the path of least resistance, and it takes real effort to identify those more likely to land. It’s not going to happen unless you (i) recognize the issue I’ve described and then (ii) actively try to correct for it.

That said, for reasons 2 and 3 above, I don’t think this is all that likely to work, so here are a few more options:

2. “Tribal Crossovers”

As an entirely unoriginal point, we’re more likely to find arguments persuasive when they come from someone we already respect and trust - that is, a fellow member of our ideological tribe.

This means that, for example, I’m much more likely to be convinced that marijuana should remain illegal by a fellow liberal who supports a robust welfare state, gay marriage and aggressive climate policy. This strategy can take the form of promoting or encouraging others who agree with you on X but few other issues to try convincing others, or (even better) using your comparative advantage by predominantly arguing for your ‘ideologically inconsistent’ opinions.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this approach. First, by definition, a minority of our opinions are ideologically inconsistent. Second, we lose more credibility the more we differ from our ideological ingroup; how many Trump supporters really care that the Lincoln Project folks are former Republicans?

3. Crosscutting Movements

As the final and most promising strategy, new social or political movements that draw on a heterogenous mix of values or beliefs can serve as a sort of larger-scale version of the “tribal crossovers” described above.

The first example that comes to mind is the Neoliberal Project (for a better description, see this piece), which is trying to revive neoliberalism as a positive set of political values and positions. Take one of their characteristic issues, opposition to occupational licensing. If my memory serves me right, I didn’t know much about the issue before hearing it discussed on one of their podcasts, and my default position likely would have been to support the regulations. However, my agreement with the Neoliberal Project on important issues like support for the welfare state and a carbon tax, as well as our shared technocratic style, predisposed me to support whatever position they held.


I don’t think there’s any intrinsic value in unlocking the type of argument I’ve described so far, but I do think that this would generally improve the accuracy or quality of everyone’s beliefs and positions. Insofar as our beliefs lead us to take action, whether by casting a vote or donating money, there is value in doing what we can to make sure these beliefs are the best they can be.


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:33 AM
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I actually think it's not that hard to build a good argument that will work "for the other side", but you need to actually try, and for that you need some genuine sympathy of some sort for the opposite position. 

In my experience it's surprisingly enough easier to do with conservatives than liberals (but that may be because being conservative-leaning center myself I'm more familiar with their way of thinking).

I think that even with sympathy and trying, you are at risk of constructing an argument that has parts that are good-for-you, not good-for-your-audience, simply because your model of them is not perfect and you don't have practice making arguments from their perspective. (Of course, unless you actually do have practice making such arguments; but I guess most people don't.)

This is related to a problem with steelmanning -- if "steelmanning" means providing the strongest support for your opponent's perspective, does it mean "strongest" from your perspective, or "strongest" from their perspective? (When a liberal makes a steelman of a conservative policy proposal, should they use the best possible liberal arguments in favor of the policy, or best possible conservative arguments?) In my opinion, it should be strongest from your perspective, because the entire purpose of the exercise is for you to find the value in your opponent's arguments. But this implies that your opponent will probably not be happy with the steelman of their position, because from their perspective, it defends the right thing for the wrong reason.

Good thoughts! One question I had:

Are you sure you know how a conservative would interpret Fijian shark-meat prohibitions for pregnant women? Or the average liberal? When I was in college ten years ago, on a super-left campus on which I was a member of the super-super-left, I can promise you that the take would have been anti-colonialist. Today, among my progressive friends, intersectional feminism and an appreciation for the information inherent in traditional teachings is well-established.

You also have to remember that the women who claim their child would be born with shark scales might just be messing with the anthropologists.

I can’t speak to how conservatives would interpret this with the same depth, because I haven’t spent the same kind of time with them. But if you talk to thoughtful conservatives, they too will often have a great appreciation for traditionalism as a means of learning, and that you can’t always explain the tradition.

Overall, I think the point you’re exploring is that there’s a difference between the argument that’s intellectually strongest and the argument most likely to convince group X. Optimize for persuasive power and truth separately, but invest in both.

One interesting aspect of this line of thinking is that if what you want to do is spread the truth, you might have to shift your approach. Instead of swaying people who disagree with policy X to support it, find people who agree with policy X but for (bad) reason Y, and argue that they should support it for (good) reason Z.

I’m not sure what this looks like in practice, besides what we do here of course. In fact it might be just as hard out there in the wild as convincing people who disagree with policy X to become supporters.

Or the average liberal? When I was in college ten years ago, on a super-left campus on which I was a member of the super-super-left, I can promise you that the take would have been anti-colonialist

I think that tells you that the super-super-left has turned it's back on progressivism and not that the concept of progressivism doesn't make sense. 

Good points. I certainly don't know how any individual conservative would justify any of their positions. The Fijian example is admittedly a little silly to work with, but based on my experience of contemporary American politics I would bet that the strong majority of Fijian conservatives would not cite Chesterton's Fence-esque reasons for their position. True, the "thoughtful" or intellectual elite conservatives might, but these individuals are often deemed "thoughtful" and survive in academia or other elite liberal institutions because their style of thinking is at least a little more appealing to their more numerous liberal colleagues. 

It's mostly this.

Even the most earnest effort, though, will face the challenge that it’s hard to guess which argument you don’t personally like is most likely to land with someone of a very different ideological persuasion

Which means that ... you probably don't even have good weapons, because it so difficult to build them.

I have found, when talking to people of a different ideological persuasion, that much more progress can be had by asking questions than by posing arguments. I am highly confident that making arguments is a waste of time from the point of view of persuasion, so the bar isn't high, but questions work pretty well for these reasons:

  • Non-hostile: all arguments are attacks, but all questions are not. People interpret a respectfully posed question favorably by default.
  • Information: when they answer the question you get valuable information, especially in terms of context. The further you are away ideologically, the more this helps.
  • Articulation: the pitch is to get them to stumble on the argument you like from inside their view.

Now this is never going to result in a sudden conversion, but it is very good at provoking an appropriate amount of uncertainty and thereby at least weakening their commitment to the "wrong" position.