Lily Pads in Space
Adventures in arguing with a redhat
A gentleman of our acquaintance expounded in our kitchen. We’ll call him Aloysius because that’s a name that would annoy him. He was not wearing a red hat but might as well have been, having declared his ardent allegiance long before.
By way of background, my wife has been preparing to make a presentation to a UX (User Experience) industry group next week, on climate change and dark patterns. She has spent two weeks writing, crafting, tweaking, growing frustrated and starting again, finding the path, writing and crafting and tweaking once more. A vicious, two-day headache came with all this effort. She turned in her materials exactly at the deadline, and shortly thereafter, Aloysius arrived for a weekend visit. He heard what she had been working on, and with his usual vigor, he leaped in. “No no no no,” he said as soon as the word “climate” was uttered, “you don’t need any of this stuff. We’ll just send everyone into space.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said. My wife, whose very hard work (and pain) Aloysius had just breezily dismissed, said something ruder.
“It’s totally legit!” Aloysius declared. “They’re like lily pads. You go from earth to a space station to the moon to Mars, these little baby steps and in a hundred years you’re — ”
“We don’t have that much time!” my wife yelled, together with something that was even ruder. In short order she was marching away from the conversation before some kind of dismemberment occurred.
I followed my aggrieved wife but continued the conversation with Aloysius the next day, because I was fascinated (and stupid). The casual dismissal of any chance of saving the earth was simply stunning. Taking Aloysius at his word for the sake of argument (error no. 1), he saw us at the edge of our galaxy in only a hundred years. “But,” I said, “that would cost probably trillions of dollars, why not spend some of that money to fix the problems we already know we can — ”
He waved me off and doubled down. “You have to do it!” he said. “‘Cause eventually the sun is going to explode, and if we haven’t gotten off earth by then we’re all dead.”
“That’s billions of years away,” I said, preparing notes in my head about deep time.
“But if we haven’t prepared, then — and what about the asteroid?”
“The what now?”
“Any day an asteroid could hit us. There was one just a few weeks ago that came crazy close. We have to be ready or we’re gonna be as dead as the dinosaurs!”
“Okay, look, I’m as big a supporter of the space program as anybody, but — ”
“And you know who killed all the NASA funding? Obama!”
At last I began to realize what arguing with someone of this sort is really about. They’re leaping bullfrogs, jumping from idea to idea, never resting in any one spot long enough to get a bead. Whenever you dare to engage with someone of this sort, you begin wherever you begin, with whichever idea you’d like to explore, but before you can develop it at all you’ve been dragged to another thing entirely, and as the mind reels at this new absurdity the conversation is already dancing to another bit of nonsense, another vast pile of bouncing bullfrog bull$#!+.
This is by design, and the design has nothing to do with the Socratic dialectic. Rather it is about finding secure ground, a place where the arguing party can land that leaves the other party feeling insecure. Consensus is never found because it is never sought; the aim, rather, is to win. Conversation becomes part of the same zero-sum game that has infected our national identity: for Aloysius to win, I must lose. And losing is defined broadly: as soon as he sees in my eyes that I’m not confident about whichever topic he has leaped to, as soon as he finds a lily pad I’m not prepared to defend, that’s when he feels he has triumphed.
Inevitably, that’s when some variation of this line will emerge: “You didn’t know I was so well-informed, did you?” That’s usually the moment when my head implodes. But it’s also the most telling moment of all, the moment when, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The redhat doth protest too much.” Rather than defend the indefensible (abandonment of a planet that is being destroyed by his espoused policies), he seeks an emotional victory instead. Something that will make him feel as if he has bested one of those know-it-alls who keep annoying him with facts. (Or with paraphrased Shakespeare.)
One is thus obliged to ask oneself several questions when such a conversation begins. Is Aloysius important enough in our lives to be worth the aggravation of such bad-faith arguments? And if so, is there any actual hope of constructive engagement when you’re operating from one premise but his premise is entirely different? Or can you just give up on the whole thing and talk about sports? (But if you’re Red Sox and he’s Yankees, be prepared for more shouting.)
There are certain tactics that can be employed. You can hold doggedly to your original point and force him to respond to your argument on your terms. Or, if linguist George Lakoff is correct, you can try to dig deeper, find what emotionally gets him going, engage with whatever sense of fear or insecurity moved him in the redhat direction in the first place. This of course takes a considerable amount of time, and the closer you get to his MAGA-pain the likelier he is to squirm and bounce and leap. But what you must do above all is to resist, resist, resist the temptation to take the bait, the plentiful bait that will be scattered in your path. No matter how dazzling the lily pad, no matter how vast the imagined asteroid, no matter how absurd the exploding-sun argument may be, you must hold firm to your first precious idea.
Ideas are worth fighting for. Nobody ever said the fight would be fair, but if a planet is to be saved and not casually abandoned, it’s a battle that must be fought.