As a philosophy professor, the hardest thing to hear is that people are giving up on arguments. And yet, it is common for people to say that arguing in a polarized society is futile: when it comes to political matters, there’s little we can do to change the minds of people who disagree with us or even hope for productive discourse — the best we can do is silence, cancel or outmaneuver them in the political arena.
It certainly has become easier to ignore each other. Nowadays, 40% of registered voters don’t even have a single close friend who support a different major party candidate. And discussions with those we disagree with are becoming less tolerable. 70% of social media users now report that talking politics with people they disagree with is stressful and frustrating.
It seems then like Americans are tired of trying to persuade one another through rational means. Arguing may be seen as an adversarial endeavor that creates tension, offends, and deepens our divisions. This is an understandable but unfortunate association. It differs from how arguments are sometimes understood in legal or academic contexts. When an attorney presents an argument to a judge, for example, they are not usually trying to pick a fight. Ideally, they would be simply putting forward the reasons and facts to support her case. It is better to think of arguments in this way.
Ironically, it is when we stop arguing and persuading each other that polarization takes hold. When we cease engaging and connecting, we create silly caricatures of the opposition and strawmen versions of their views. These crude characterizations of our fellow Americans are boosted by some politicians and media figures who exploit them to try to divide us for their personal gain. It may be surprising to hear that most Republicans want police to undergo more extensive racial bias training, and it may be surprising to hear that most Democrats do not favor reducing funding for law enforcement agencies. We actually have quite a bit in common.
Our divisions harm us. As Justice Antonin Scalia once said, ‘Democracy [requires] persuading one another’. I think he is right about the essential nature of persuasion. The greatest danger to our democracy may not be that your neighbor is voting for the other candidate, but the fact that you no longer invite him over for beers.
But do arguments really work? Can we really convince others by laying out reasons and facts? Some people think that arguing can backfire, causing opponents to dig in even further to their positions. This issue has been investigated scientifically, and there’s little reason to think this is a genuine phenomenon. However, we do know that it is very difficult for people to change their minds on topics that are politically charged. It literally hurts to hear good arguments and data that challenge deeply held beliefs. It is much easier, emotionally, to discredit and brush away those considerations.
So yes, it is hard to convince others with arguments. So what? Lots of things in life are hard. In this case, it is worth the effort. Social psychologists have found that when people change their minds through a careful analysis of arguments, as opposed to some peripheral reason (like whether the person making the argument is charismatic or attractive), their newly formed attitudes are more robust and permanent.
There’s even reason to think that good arguments can persuade in social media settings. In the last few years, researchers have been studying Reddit’s Change My View forum in an effort to learn more about how humans persuade one another. In this site, users discuss hot topics from abortion to gun rights, and are prompted to flag when they find an argument persuasive. In one study, Zachary Horne and John Hunter Priniski developed an algorithm to determine the quality of over 100,000 comments. They found that comments citing facts and evidence were more likely to change people’s minds. This may be surprising to some who see social media as a wasteland for productive discourse.
Of course, expectations need to be tempered. Even if you give a knock-down argument, the person you are talking to may not even realize it. Learning is a gradual process. Pieces need to fit together. When he considers the issue in the future and conditions are right, he will remember your argument and it will move him. This may take weeks, months or even years. As we’ve all experienced, A-ha moments are spontaneous and may happen when you least expect them.
In addition, far from furthering divisions, arguing can be an expression of respect. If your neighbor takes the time to lay out the reasons behind their opinion, they are treating you as a rational agent worthy of their time and energy. In contrast, the practice of assuming the opponent won’t listen to reason or understand the evidence presented can be dehumanizing. It is an attitude more appropriately applied to animals who have little capacity to analyze facts. According to a long tradition in philosophy going back to Aristotle, responsiveness to reason is a core element of our self-conception as persons. We should not be so quick to assume others lack this capacity even temporarily.
Despite rumors to the contrary, arguments still work. We shouldn’t give up on them. If we engage others with humility and an open mind, we will move our country forward and contribute to the preservation and flourishing of our democracy.