David R. Henderson  

Megan McArdle on How to Win Friends and Influence Policy

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Megan McArdle has written an excellent, pithy post titled "How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy." I won't summarize it here because it's so good and, as I said, pithy, that it repays your small effort in reading it.

Instead, I want to make a more general point. Although her explicit topic is how to change people's minds so that they're more open to admitting refugees from Syria, her points are more general. Most of them apply whether you're discussing refugee policy, the minimum wage, foreign policy, or, pretty much, anything else.

A few fantastic lines:

The number of people who have ever been convinced to do the right thing because they were mocked as racists, idiots or bed-wetting pansies can be counted on the fingers of your nearest snake.

And the more general point is that you never persuade people by mocking them, even if you don't call them racists, nor should you. I learned this as a teacher. The first time I ever mocked a student--this was after over 15 years of teaching--was in about 1993. It got a good laugh from the rest of the class--and the student I mocked closed down for the next 2 weeks. That was also the last time I ever did it. And, by the way, I remember pretty much exactly what the student said and pretty much exactly what I said that got a laugh. That's how memorable my learning experience was.
"I don't understand how anyone can oppose admitting Syrian refugees! America is a nation of immigrants!" This kind of statement conveys layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am so vastly superior that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet the takeaway when I hear someone say this is a third meaning: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me. In short, this argument says: "I'm stupid."

I have often faced a similar version in talking to people who disagree with me, about whatever topic. The person will say "I don't understand" and then go on to state my position, usually badly, and not understand why I have it. My first step is to say "You don't understand and you want to understand?" That way it opens it up a little.
It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you're a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

Actually, this is one I learned in my late teens from watching my mentor Clancy Smith argue with people. He would often not even get to the argument. He would simply ask questions to make sure he completely understood the objections of the (typically) socialist person he was talking to. It was wonderful to watch, and not mainly because it often caused the other person to squirm, but mainly because it often caused the other person to think "Why do I believe what I believe?"

A young libertarian friend whom I got to know personally when he was an undergrad who had lined me up for a speech at his college came on Facebook the other day to tell his friends that he was about to have a drink with someone who was on the other side of an important policy issue from him. He asked his friends what he should ask this person. I noticed a lot of them not even answering their friend's question but, instead, telling him what he should tell him. I wrote:

After first finding out what his particular views are (because some Greenpeace people probably differ from other Greenpeace people), ask him: "Do you remember a time when you didn't have these views? If so, what new thought did you or what incident happened that caused you to change your views?" And then bite your tongue. Let him answer and don't correct, criticize, or argue.

I would add one more point that I think is implicit in Megan's excellent article: Your own moral outrage at whatever you have heard is not always a reliable guide to the truth.




COMMENTS (13 to date)
Jack PQ writes:

This is a great point and it is also why, unlike most of my friends and relatives, I do *not* think Jon Stewart and the Daily Show are brilliant. Clever and funny, sure, but who have they ever persuaded who did not already have that belief or hold that position?

My motto is, If you think the solution is obvious, you probably don't have all the facts.

Stefan writes:

Applicable to dealing with the Muslim communities here and abroad too.

Andrew Clough writes:

I don't really think it's true that mockery never persuades anyone. Dueling in England and footbinding in China persisted for centuries despite argument, moralizing, and sometimes laws being passed against them. But in the end it was mockery that ended both. It can be a critical tool in changing other people's actions as long as those actions are being prompted by face. In the current debate where opposition to immigrants is being driven by fear then I agree that it's entirely counterproductive but let's not mock mockery so lightly.

Mark Bahner writes:
My motto is, If you think the solution is obvious, you probably don't have all the facts.

My motto is, "Try to think of a 'solution,' however imperfect, to which you think your opponent will not object."

In this case, I would propose something like, "Could we agree that men and women with young children are unlikely to be terrorists?"

If not, "How about just women with young children?"

And if not even that, "How about women with young children, who are sponsored by someone in the U.S. of impeccable credentials?"

And if not even that, I would have to ask, "Is it really security that you're worried about, or is it something else...like they'll be a burden on the public purse?"

Then if the answer to that was "Yes," I'd go do the list of possible things to guarantee that they couldn't be a strain on the public purse.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Great post.

Notorious B.O.B. writes:

I take exception to this. There is an overriding assumption that interlocutors are open minded and/or acting in good faith.

Certainly the bleeding hearts are, although their track records of naivete, selective sympathies, indifference to 2nd order consequences and, many times, hypocrisy, render them unpersuasive.

But in no way should liberal/left political and media elites, however, be granted the assumption of good faith. I call attention to this post by Walter Russell Meade: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/11/17/president-obamas-cynical-refugee-ploy/

Key quote:

"For [Obama] to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than ... evil Jacksonian rednecks...is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time."

"Derisory" "symbolic" "posture" and "cynical" sum it up.

And, on the merits, like the not dissimilar immigration arguments, no limiting principle is offered. Why 10,000 and not 2 million?...or for that matter 6,000? And where ARE the Saudis, the Gulf Arabs and others? Why is it our obligation? There are other valid arguments for extreme limitations as well.

Meghan is right to point out the problematic nature of arguments from religion. And her tone that there are reasonable concerns IS refreshing.

philemon writes:

@Andrew Clough

I don't really think it's true that mockery never persuades anyone. Dueling in England and footbinding in China persisted for centuries despite argument, moralizing, and sometimes laws being passed against them. But in the end it was mockery that ended both. It can be a critical tool in changing other people's actions as long as those actions are being prompted by face. In the current debate where opposition to immigrants is being driven by fear then I agree that it's entirely counterproductive but let's not mock mockery so lightly.

I'm not familiar with how dueling ended but I don't think mockery was the main factor in the demise of footbinding. As far as I know, while there has always been individual voices raised against the practice, it wasn't until the 19th century when there is significant opinion expressed against it. And in any case, quite a bit of government action was involved in the ending of the practice. But maybe there's a gap in my knowledge--any sources?

In general, I'm with DH. If the point is to *persuade* an individual (i.e., to get him or her to change beliefs), mockery is usually not that productive, even counterproductive. But if the point is to exert social pressure upon the open expression of certain opinions or practices, then mockery is often very powerful. As the opinions and practices get driven underground, then, all else being equal, the number of people actually espousing or practicing them will reduce. (Everything is not always equal, of course.)

Hazel Meade writes:

If the point is to *persuade* an individual (i.e., to get him or her to change beliefs), mockery is usually not that productive, even counterproductive. But if the point is to exert social pressure upon the open expression of certain opinions or practices, then mockery is often very powerful.

I agree. It would be nice to convince liberals that mockery doesn't work, because that would force them to try to persuade, which would in turn force them to be open to persuasion. But given that they dominate the media and academia, it's much easier for them to use mockery and other social pressures silence opposition. This is is why there are so few "out" libertarians and conservatives on college campuses. Mockery doesn't persuade, but it certainly punishes and silences.

RPLong writes:

The approach you attribute to Clancy Smith is something I have noticed in you, Prof. Henderson, and something I often try to stick to, myself. I say "try to," because I find myself regularly failing miserably and then later admonishing myself privately for not keeping a cooler head. Still, practicing has made improvements, and I hope to be more persuasive someday than I am today.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kevin Erdmann and RPLong,
Thanks.
@phileomon and Hazel Meade,
I basically agree, except for Hazel’s use of “liberal."

Steve J writes:

With regard to mockery keep in mind you cannot reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into. I think mockery increases as response to reason decreases. In some cases mockery is justified as you want to decrease the spread of irrational ideas.

Hazel Meade writes:

Re: "Liberal". Yes, we should really not call these people "liberal" anymore. But I find "progressive" and "leftist" somewhat awkward and ill-fitting. All sorts of people go around moralizing on facebook whose views are just too ill-defined to peg them as leftists or progressives. They are squishy liberals whose views aren't well thought out, they aren't sufficiently ideologically commited to be called leftists or progressives.

Roger McKinney writes:

Anyone really concerned about persuading others needs to read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

In essence Haidt shows that people decide what is true and false by their moral construct which is generally emotionally determined. Conservatives have six dimensions of morality while "liberals" (socialists) have just three, all of which are similar and revolve around radical equality. Haidt describes himself as a radical liberal.

Logic doesn't work because these dimensions of morality are emotionally based and impervious to logic.

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