By Bryan Caplan
As a rule, I dislike shouting matches. But I especially dislike shouting matches between people I largely agree with. As a libertarian, this puts me in an uncomfortable position, because many libertarians seem to relish shouting matches – even, or especially, with other libertarians.
What is so bad about shouting matches?
First, they aren’t persuasive to people who don’t already agree with you. In other words, they aren’t persuasive at all.
Second, giving into anger makes it harder to tell truth from falsehood.
Third, as someone other than Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” The main person who suffers when you’re angry is you.
Fourth, assuming both sides share worthwhile goals, shouting matches have a clear deadweight cost. The time you spend shouting at each other could have been spent cooperating to accomplish something good. (Or at least independently accomplishing distinct good things).
If my assessment is correct, why do people ever engage in shouting matches? While I can imagine someone defending shouting matches on their merits, the main excuse I hear is: “The other side started it.”
One problem with this story is that both sides usually have some reason to point fingers. Take the recent debate on the shortage of libertarian women. While I disagree with much of Thomas Woods’ reply, this passage resonated with me:
Julie’s critics can’t conclude their attack without unbosoming the lasting trauma of the whole episode for them: today, because of Julie’s video, they’re “a little embarrassed to admit” they’re libertarians. Poor babies. To my knowledge, they have not expressed any embarrassment when libertarians have (for example) gratuitously insulted the religious beliefs of tens of millions of Americans in crude and ignorant ways. I suppose that’s designed to bring people into the fold?
The sensible lesson to draw, of course, would be that libertarians should stop gratuitously insulting anyone. But if you stick to, “Who started gratuitously insulting people?,” Woods could easily be correct. (Indeed, in the past I have personally been guilty of gratuitously insulting common religious beliefs, for no good reason. I apologize). If you’re really going to persist in a shouting match on the grounds that the other side started it, it’s quite possible that detailed historical investigation will reveal that your side started it. Worse, much depends on how you define the “sides.”
In any case, if shouting matches are as counter-productive as I claim, it makes little difference who first left the path of civility. It really does take two to tango. If you find yourself in a shouting match, search your own words and behavior to see if you have needlessly provoked your opponents. Perhaps an apology is in order. If you’re ambivalent, the wise err on the side of contrition. If, after a healthy adjustment for self-serving bias, you find yourself above reproach, it still pays to turn the other cheek, to talk to your opponent as if he were your best friend. While you’ll still probably fail to persuade, you drastically increase your prospects.
You might reply, “The point of the shouting match isn’t to persuade the other side. It’s to persuade spectators that I shouldn’t be blamed for the other side’s embarrassing words.” Perhaps. But if spectators are that easily confused, it’s probably more effective to get the other side to stop embarrassing you. If so, which sounds more effective to you?
“Stop embarrassing me, you horrible excuse for a libertarian!”
“Two of my opponents’ seven complaints about me are fair, and I’m going to stop doing these two things.”
Note that I say “more effective” not “fully effective” or even “highly effective.” As far as I know, there are no highly effective methods of persuasion in these matters. But some remain better than others.
My claims about shouting matches are completely general. But of course I’m most eager to end shouting matches between people close to me. Accordingly I propose a Pax Libertaria – a Libertarian Peace. The terms of the peace: Individual libertarians unilaterally pledge to defuse shouting matches by (a) meticulously searching their own words and actions for shortcomings, (b) erring strongly on the side of making amends for their arguable shortcomings, and (c) turning the other cheek when the other side shouts at them despite their blamelessness. This could mean ignoring the other side, or politely responding to their substantive arguments without further comment.
To avoid misunderstanding, the Pax Libertaria certainly doesn’t follow from libertarian principles. People have every right to engage in shouting matches, no matter how destructive. But as libertarians often say, the fact that you have a right to do X does not mean that it is right for you to do X. The Pax Libertaria is a roadmap to peace for libertarians. It’s an attempt to increase the effectiveness of libertarian persuasion by reducing the frequency of libertarian infighting. If the Pax Libertaria seems like it’s asking a lot, I say you have nothing to lose but your anger. Give Pax a chance.