Were I a better communication scholar, I would have understood sooner that three principles of argumentation interact with each other. This is largely about clichés, but it is crucial in understanding a difference between Left and Right, because epistemologically, the left wing is more amenable to arguments and reason than the right.
First, one must choose wisely which “battles” to fight. Classically, this entails a cost-benefit analysis. Is this “battle” worth fighting? What would be won? What will be the cost of the fight? But perhaps most importantly, can it be won? Often missed with the last question are the second and third principles.
Secondly, some arguments are not won on the merits. They might be won on prejudice. They might be won on self-interest. They might be won on stupidity. They might be won on uncertainty.
Neither neoconservatism nor neoliberalism are intellectually defensible, but they persist, partly on elite prejudice, partly on elite self-interest, partly on an elite refusal to consider the intellectual merits on account of the other two.
It seems incredibly unlikely we as a species will ever adequately respond to the climate crisis because our system of social organization depends on elites who are incapable of setting aside their own short-term self-interest, even to save an ecosystem we all depend upon for survival, and far too few of us can imagine an alternative system of social organization.
Closer to home personally, my own field, human science, is a dead field, not on the merits, but because like the social sciences, which are also struggling, we do not tell the powers that be what they want to hear, which is that extreme social inequality can be justified.
Third, some arguments are not arguments at all. Among the textbooks I kept from my time at California State University, East Bay, is one chock full of . . . wait for it (I’m intentionally preserving punctuation here) . . . clichés. On the front cover, it includes an endorsement from Tom Peters, yes, the Peters of the Peters Principle, calling it “[t]the best and best researched book ‐‐‐ ever ‐‐‐ on this topic.”
You should all be groaning loudly at this moment, so let’s all just take a pause. My god, this is awful. Whoever wrote this didn’t even manage to do the em-dashes correctly, they each appear as three, count ’em, three concatenated hyphens. I had to look up how even to reproduce them here. I’ll say it again: My god, this is awful.
Unfortunately, it’s also true. And as I look back now, I realize that some of it actually points to theories of truth, none of which withstand critical scrutiny, and the post-modern point of which is to show that we really don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about, even when we think we do. A proper treatment of this problem has now been lost to a “substantive revision” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Truth. The earlier version was brilliant, systematically going through all sorts of ways—and there are a bunch of them—we understand things to be true and debunking each and every goddamned one of them. Most of that is now tragically gone.
Anyway, that textbook, by Robert Cialdini, lists several means of influence, absolutely none of which are very much about arguments and evidence. Here are chapters on:
Social reciprocity: You do something for me, so I have to do something for you. You know those Christmas cards and calendars that charitable organizations used to send out about this time of year? You know, just when you’re running short of the cards. They’ve done something for you. Now you have to do something for them. Send money!
On a broader scale, we might recognize this as a transactional approach to relationships: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s also fundamental to a market system of economics: You provide a good or service and I pay you.
Commitment and consistency: This is where you get me to agree to do something once, but then, in order to preserve my own sense of consistency, I need to do it again and again. I sent money once? Therefore, I must send it again. And again. And again. But hey, I’m consistent. Consistently a fool, you might snicker, but it works—a lot.
On a broader scale, you might recognize this as the fallacy of appeal to tradition: We’ve always done it this way, therefore, we must continue doing it this way.
Social proof: This is largely about various forms of other people are doing this or other people believe this, therefore I must too. Some of it’s really mundane. That tip jar? A wise barista will “salt” it with a dollar bill or a five-dollar bill at the beginning of her or his shift so customers will think that other people are tipping, therefore they must too.
But this reaches far higher. That principle of positivism of public demonstration, now reduced to peer review? Really, the same fucking thing. If my neighbors have seen this or my peers have accepted it, it must have some credibility. And as more people accept it, it becomes a matter of common consent, oh yeah, in a fallacy of appeal to popularity. This, by the way, is one of those theories of truth that has been lost to that “substantive revision” and yeah, you’d better believe I’m grumpy about that.
Cialdini titles a chapter “liking” but this is really more about conditioning. The rat is trained to ring a bell for a bit of cheese because it likes cheese or I might do something because I’d really like to get in bed with that sexy lady asking me to, but it’s also more insidious, indeed part of how conspiracy theories spread and really a derivative of social proof.
If you hear something again and again, like a conspiracy theory on Fox News or Facebook, you’re more inclined to accept it. The difference here is that you don’t actually need to hear it from a bunch of people: The same source or a few sources, saying it again and again, will do, because the bastards couldn’t keep saying it if it wasn’t true, could he?
Authority: Isn’t it curious, at least until Elon Musk put Twitter in a full-throttle nosedive to doom, how we would treat the likes of Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as if they know what they’re fucking talking about? They don’t, really, certainly not more than a scholar who has studied a topic extensively, and this is the fallacy of appeal to authority, but we defer to them anyway. Because in our society, money has become a quantitative measure of intelligence.
This isn’t limited to the wealthy. Really any celebrity or famous person will do: Kanye West might be an artist, but at least until his recent bout of anti-Semitism, he also sold a bunch of consumer goods, including, famously, shoes, and I don’t think I’m reaching too far when I attribute Donald Trump’s support among some young Black males in significant part to West’s influence.
You know those “limited editions?” Or when they say, “get yours while they last?” Scarcity, baby, scarcity. You’ll buy it so you won’t miss out.
Cialdini summarizes that these are all shortcut ways of thinking. We don’t have time to properly consider things, so we take shortcuts. You’re at the the cashier, you’ve been focused on what you’d like to order, there’s the tip jar, and there’s a line of impatient people behind you. Quick, throw some money in.
But it’s really worse than this because, in addition, we have a segment of the population that epistemologically diminishes evidence and argumentation. There is barely, if any at all, a shred of evidence to support a contention that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen, but it’s gospel to a lot of Republicans, especially Trump’s supporters, and some of them, as we saw on January 6, 2021, and still might see, are willing to fight, physically, violently, to get their way.
You might dismiss such folks as extremists, and so they are. But the point of violence is that those who wage it have been unable to get their way by peaceful means. The merits of the argument don’t really matter to them, nor, particularly, does popular support, though they certainly may claim these. They just want their way.
Whether they can win depends on a number of factors beyond the scope of this entry. But what we need to understand, my first point here, is that the merits of an argument are often not what prevails, which is why it sometimes comes to violence.