Do You Have To Have The Whole Argument To Know Where It Ends?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Sometimes I am accused of not having an open mind when I debate with people in my comments. That’s partially true.

Now, where I do have an open mind is that I don’t enter into a discussion unless I’m willing to be proven wrong. That doesn’t mean I’m an open book; if you’re gonna convince me that, say, vaccines cause autism, you’ll have to bring literal tons of credible documentation… and even then you’d run up against my personal wall that I don’t think autism is worse than kids literally dying due to be preventable disease.

But could I be convinced that vaccines cause autism? Theoretically, yes.

Yet here’s the trick:

I have had uncountable arguments with anti-vaxxers. And at this point, most of them are like watching a game of chess that I’ve seen before; here’s the opening moves, here’s the inevitable response, here’s their countermove, and so on to stalemate.

I’m not saying I cannot be convinced. But I do know I cannot be convinced by the arguments they’re mustering. Most of them are citing the same discredited sources, making the same terrible arguments about mercury, and so on.

Not all of them, of course, but I’d say probably 90% of the anti-vaxxers I’ve dealt with are functionally identical when it comes down to the reasons they give for being anti-vaxxers.

And this is not unusual. If I talk about trans people with TERFs? Lordy, they’re all the same arguments, so much so that whole videos have been made that deal with all of the standard objections in a row. If I talk about the problems with guns? The pro-gun people are going to trot out the usual objections about “I’m responsible, why punish me?” and “The second amendment says” and “You know nothing about guns, ha ha” to the point, where, again, there are whole routines devoted to knocking down those arguments one by one simply because they are so fucking predictable.

It’s all a dance. Black Lives Matter? Allemande left to “All lives matter,” shift to “What about black-on-black crime?” and do that twist of implying Marxist involvement.

Nor is that just my liberal ass! I mean, if you’re pro-gun, I’m absolutely certain you could call my shots, so to speak. If you’re devotedly anti-Black Lives Matter, I’m pretty sure there’s no argument I’ll haul out that will make you gasp in horror to go, “Oh… I didn’t think of that.”

And yet I get people saying, “Ferrett, you’re not engaging with these people properly. You should hear them out.”

To which my response is, “How many times do you have to listen to the same argument before you realize you don’t have to take the time to hear all of it?”

Because here’s a commonality among the people calling for me to listen to every argument: They have small audiences. I mean, if you never have an essay or a Tweet go viral, it’s pretty trivial to engage meaningfully with the two or three dissenters who wander into your responses every month.

But if you have thirty enraged people a day – and that’s a low volume for those who have even mid-sized audiences – then it becomes impossible to functionally keep up with all of that.

And, I’d argue, what the low-volume people get is functionally little more than warm fuzzies. Do they convince the other person? Not usually, no. But they’re very polite, a feature they seem to value over actually changing hearts and minds, and when the other person goes “Thanks, but you’re still completely wrong and I am clinging to the traditions I came here with,” they go, “Well, we had a nice discussion, and that’s what matters.”

Not all of ’em, but… enough.

And to my mind, many of those calls of “You should be more open-minded” are actually a secret call for “I think you’re not listening to their arguments because you didn’t hear them out.”

Which is the big question:

Do you have to hear every bit of the argument as presented before:
a) You realize you’ve heard it before, and:
b) You think it’s without merit?

Some people’s answer is “Yes, you should do that dance with everyone who extends their hand to you on the dance floor,” but I’d argue – as I just have – that their dance card isn’t that full. I’m not saying that me engaging with die-hard men’s rights activists will never result in change, but I am saying that the odds of that happening that me devoting twenty hours a week in polite discussion in the hopes of finding the one guy a month are, effectively, a waste of time.

And that time? Gets greater as you get more engagement. I’m small fry. I’ve seen what happens whenever a Tweet escapes and goes viral, and man, engaging every angry response politely becomes fucking impossible.

Those who say “You should engage with everyone deeply and without preconceived notions!” are free to do so on their own time. But I think they’re coming from a weird place of privilege, which is to say, a fair amount of spare time and not a lot of people weighing in.

For the rest of us, I’d argue that arguments are like the proverbial shit sandwich; you don’t have to eat the whole thing to prove what it’s gonna taste like.

Yet there are occasional times – precious times – when an argument doesn’t go the way it’s intended. For example, I’m a liberal who’s for gun control but not against guns. So when I engage with a conservative who’s all like “I KNOW YOU, YOU HATE AND FEAR GUNS” and I’m like, “Actually, I love shooting and I wish I could own a gun but I’m suicidal and can’t risk it,” there’s often that feeling of being overlooked.

So how do I handle it?

I usually leave open one move.

Which is to say, if someone leaves a comment that makes me go, “Right, I know where this is going,” I try to reply with an open-ended comment that both refutes the argument they’re making but also leaves room for them to respond in ways that aren’t the standard dance. Sometimes I’ve misread them, or they have beliefs out of line, and I learn something.

But if they respond to that one move with a tried-and-true response, one that I could have slipped in an envelope before they got back to me and then dramatically revealed my prediction, well, I don’t really need to engage with them all the way.

I’ve tried not to dunk on them too much, but it’s often a necessary shorthand to point out the absurdity through sarcasm… Simply because honest engagement takes time and effort that’s not gonna convince ’em anyway.

And the people who refute this will go, “You, Ferrett, are why America’s so divided! You’re not listening!”

The problem is, America’s not divided because nobody’s listening. America’s divided because we’ve listened thoroughly, and we’re not convinced. You can sing the gospel as much as you’d like, but the fundamental flaw of so many of the centrists is that they legitimately believe that if we just heard what the other side had to say, of course all sides have a point, if we just listened compassionately we’d be swayed to the center.

But a lot of those voices you want me to be swayed by are telling me awful things – that my friends aren’t fully human, that they’re kiddie molesters who can’t be trusted to use a public bathroom, that they deserved to get shot because they scared cops, that regular mass murders are not only an acceptable price for the privilege of owning guns but that there’d be nothing we could do about them anyway.

You can argue that I’m misrepresenting them, of course. But at the very least, they’re okay with accepting some of those ideas as part of the baseline. And do I have to listen to them all the way before I realize that we’re not going to clasp hands and hammer out a compromise?

I argue that I can listen to them part-way. Enough to give them a chance to be different. But if they’re not, it’s not that I haven’t heard what they had to say, it’s that I have heard it too much.


  1. Van
    Aug 7, 2020

    Usually I read your posts via an RSS feed. But THIS is why I’m glad I read onsite today:

    NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

    I almost snorted coffee out my nose.

  2. Jacqui Bennetts
    Aug 7, 2020

    great points and I think you are right on the money.

  3. conniejjasperson
    Aug 12, 2020

    Hello! Awesome arguments made for ideas I’ve had but couldn’t articulate.

  4. raemon777
    Aug 12, 2020

    I roughly agree with the thrust here, but wanted to flag specific disagreement about sarcasm-as-way-to-end-conversation:

    I definitely think there’s a need to have _some_ way to end a conversation that isn’t going anyway. But I’ve come to think sarcasm is actually fairly harmful to the public discourse.

    It’s so easy to find people on both sides of many issues giving bad arguments while dismissing their debate partners. When Alice and Bob have both heard each other’s arguments a million times and feel like the conversation isn’t going anywhere, what’s *actually* necessary (often) for Alice to change their mind is to feel listened to and understood, and feel safe that if they change their mind they’ll still be socially safe.

    It’s not your (or my) job to listen empathetically to every single person with a political ax to grind. But I think it’s important _not to make the problem worse._

    I enjoy a good sarcastic dig, and they may have a role of breaking the spell of someone who’s never seen a particular belief questioned before. But most of the time when I see people being sarcastic on the internet, I think they’re mostly just causing people to dig in their heels and feel more threatened, and often justifiably angry.

    I think it’s better to just say “Sorry, I’ve had a bunch of conversations like this and I don’t think this conversation is going to go anywhere. I need to tap out now” than to try to get a final sarcastic zinger in on your way out.

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