You Suck At Arguing.

We communicate to exchange ideas. The reason we protest, debate, share politically-charged social media posts, write opinions articles, and engage others confrontationally is to convince them.

Many of us aren’t doing a good job of that. Why didn’t Clinton win in 2016? Why aren’t people accepting gay marriage? Why don’t people want free markets? Is it because we aren’t loud enough? We haven’t ‘educated’ enough people? Because our news media is providing ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’?

Alternatively, it could be that we simply suck at arguing. Why? We’re disobeying the fundamental starting point of rhetoric: think like your audience. We’ve victimized and polarized those who disagree with us so much we cannot fathom thinking like a bigot.

In other words, we fail to consider alternative value systems. What is a value system? It’s a way of viewing the world, a way of categorizing good and bad. While we may not have a clearly defined value system or have multiple values, such a system represents what we care about. Our value system represents how we think and evaluate the world. Our value system is the way in which we consider new information- arguments.

So, what are some common value systems? Conservatives tend to view the world as barbarism versus civilization. Libertarians: coercive versus voluntary action. Liberals: oppressed versus oppressors. Egalitarians: equality versus inequality. Elitists: leeches versus productives. Distributists: self-ownership versus centralization. And on and on.

So, people have different value systems. Therein lies the big pill to swallow. There are only two ways to convince someone: either change their value system, or argue within it.

Many of us don’t do this, however. This is evident with emotional appeals- appealing to someone’s emotions only work if they have the ‘right’ emotional reaction.

Why can’t you argue outside of someone’s value system? Changing values is hard. It’s not impossible, but if you’re debating a single issue, rewriting their worldview is not where you start. If you’re trying to appeal to multiple values, you have to understand: people don’t undermine their bottom line. You cannot appeal to a compromise if you cannot show that the other side gets anything at all.

And, yelling at someone that they’re a bigot because they don’t value the same things you do isn’t at all effective. Why would it be? You’re not providing a logical case for why someone should consider your values as legitimate.

This is blatantly obvious with the rhetoric surrounding gay marriage. Conservatives see statistics about same-sex couples rearing lower-quality offspring and view this as barbarism. Liberals see same-sex people as an oppressed group in need of more rights. Conservatives appeal to morality and upstanding of community. Liberals appeal to rights and oppression. No one side cares about what the other perceives as bad, so nobody budges. Worse, liberal support in the vein of ‘free love’ only emboldens the conservative viewpoint that gay marriage is undermining societal structure and stability. Liberals only see this as bigotry and fail to realize any value to societal stability.

This is why the other side is always emotional and irrational.

I am someone who believes in a universal and objective truth. But we must accept that our perceptions can be wrong and work within this framework. If we want to convince others, or at least have constructive debates, it is necessary to debate within different value systems than those we subscribe to.

Value systems are not always at odds with one another; we can find cases where multiple value systems agree. Libertarians and Liberals agree quite well on policy decisions regarding the war on drugs. Liberals view certain groups as oppressed by policing and incarceration. Libertarians view the blocking of trade as coercion. Bipartisan policy progress has been made on this front- progress that, to the agreeing parties, is not a compromise.

Libertarians and Conservatives agree on a great deal of issues because they make arguments that reach beyond their value systems. Libertarians show policy outcomes benefitting society, and conservatives show how their policies advance individual liberties.

So how do we go about understanding others’ value systems before engaging them in debate?

We listen.

Don’t listen like a lawyer trying to find incriminating evidence. You have to listen to understand. Listen to your opponent’s’ language. Listen to the values they appeal to. Listen to what they deem important and why. Try to understand it.

This is a scary process for some because it involves the ultimate sin: giving ‘bigots’ legitimacy. But, if you want to convince a bigot, you must understand them, and not in a snobby, “they’re subhuman and uneducated” way.

Now that you’ve listened, start to piece together the ideology. What keywords are used? What expressions? Digest these and contextualize them. Conservatives hold the terms ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ very closely. Liberals do not. You can begin to see how certain policies connect to values. Then, you can begin to suggest policies based on these values


Overall, if you want to convince someone, you have to understand why someone believes what they believe and accept that it could be more than being ‘miseducated’, ‘privileged’, or ‘backwards’. They may just value something different than you do. And usually, that’s OK.

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