This is the second part of an ongoing series on defeating conservative arguments. Read the introduction here.
Intentionally or otherwise, conservative arguments mostly fall into a handful of categories. As you read through this, think of times you’ve faced these tactics before, how you responded, and whether you achieved your goals.
It is important to note that very few people know what strategies they are using in an argument. This is not a high-school debate tournament where you will get bonus points for pointing out their logical mistakes and argument types. The goal of this project is very simply to list common conservative tactics and learn how to beat them.
Argument ad Hypocrisy
Political debates almost always devolve into sparring matches over whose position is the most hypocritical.
If a “pro-lifer” also supports the death penalty, for example, it feels obvious and frankly good to point out their hypocrisy and enjoy their attempts to justify it. However, conservatives have mastered justifying and arguing hypocritical beliefs as a tactic for frustrating and wasting their opponents’ time. Rather than having the real argument (in this example, whether the death penalty or abortions are good), they suck you in to bickering about logical flows and sometimes even the nature of reality. No matter your goal, such an argument is not productive.
It is important to realize that arguing with conservatives means dealing with reflexive responses to anything that opposes their worldview. They are trained by decades of propaganda, enclaves of like-minded people, and America’s deeply capitalist culture to reject most any argument which favors egalitarianism, denies “bootstrapping,” or exists outside of cultural conservatism. Most of the hypocrisy comes from needing to simultaneously defend multiple contradictory beliefs in order to protect the core of conservatism — that some people are lesser and deserve to suffer.
How to respond:
When arguing with a conservative and they bring up two wildly contradictory beliefs, resist the urge to point out their hypocrisy and instead aim to respond to what they actually believe.
The pro-life pro-death-penalty advocates, for example, may try to claim their position is based on the moral worth of the person being killed (ie those being killed by the state chose to do whatever is getting them executed while the fetus did not.) You could approach this argument in good faith — you could point out that a significant percentage of those given the death penalty are innocent. You could quote the religious texts conservatives use to justify being anti-abortion and point out that Jesus was a stark opponent of the death penalty while the old testament was, at worst, a neutral informer on how to perform abortions.
This would be a mistake. Not because your counter-arguments aren’t logically sound, but because your opponent in all likelihood does not actually believe whatever two contradicting ideas they are defending. They may insist they do; they may even believe it — but the only way to maintain a worldview as logically inconsistent as conservatism is to base it on a more fundamental foundation, which is repugnant, but logically consistent. In the case of the death penalty & pro-life contradiction, this real belief is in strict racial and gendered hierarchies alongside a powerful state which can punish anyone “unwanted.” If you believe Cory Robin’s excellent book, The Reactionary Mind, all conservative arguments boil down to favoring legal, racial, economic, and gender hierarchies over equality.
The trick to defeating arguments ad-hypocrisy, therefore, is not to waste your time going in circles about whose arguments are more hypocritical, but to quickly unearth and attack the actual logical basis of your opponent’s position. Depending on your goal, this can take a few forms:
If your goal is to convince your opponent, you have already assumed that they are arguing what they actually believe. Even still, trying to point out flaws in their logic is a high-school debate tactic not suited for the real world. Instead, try to find the “real” basis of their beliefs (as described above), point out how their argument has to follow from that “real basis”, and try to get them to reject the true foundation of their argument, thereby collapsing the rest with it.
Approach with a series of questions rather than your own arguments. If/when they dodge or refuse to answer, calmly repeat the same questions until you get them to admit the contradiction and reject its true foundation, or admit that they are okay with the immorality they are really supporting.
Eg: “If the state has the power to kill adults and to prevent abortions, isn’t that just giving the state power over your entire life? Do you really want a government you don’t trust to decide who lives, who dies, and how half of humanity has to behave? In fact, it seems like the only way you can be pro-life and pro-death-penalty is if you just want the government to control life and death. Is that what you want?”
In order to humiliate an opponent arguing from hypocrisy, point out to all present the hypocrisy of their argument quickly (1), but immediately shift to what their real argument is and ruthlessly attack it. Attack the foundation itself (2) , attack ideas that flow from it (3), and frankly, attack the character of the person arguing it (4).
Eg: “Clearly you cannot be both pro-life and pro-death penalty. The only way to hold such an obviously hypocritical position is if you don’t care about life at all (1). Conservatives just want power, they want the power to kill you, they want the power to force you to risk death, and most of all, they want the power to sort your quality of life by race, gender, and class (2) . Black men are the most likely to be killed on death row and later be found innocent. Black women are the most likely to be denied an abortion and the most likely to die from childbirth (3). Whatever conservatives tell you they believe, it’s clear that they actually support ruthless, cruel racism, classism, sexism, and a domineering big government to enforce it all (4).
Because the goal of argument ad hypocrisy is largely to waste your time and frustrate you while you try to chase down every contradiction and point out every flaw, the best options for frustrating your opponent are to either not engage at all, or to engage in a way that wastes their time and energy instead.
This may feel like schoolyard taunting because that is exactly what it is. If you try to be more mature, engage in good faith, or take the “high road” by treating their confused, bigoted ramblings with respect, you are losing.
Eg: “You clearly have some problems with your logic you need to work out. Call me when you fix them and we can argue.” or “When exactly does it become an abortion? Is a miscarriage an abortion? Is menstruation? When exactly does God decide it’s okay to murder someone? How much evil do they have to do?” etc etc etc (the point is to waste their time).
Read Part 3 here: