Megan McArdle on How to Win Friends and Influence Policy
By David Henderson
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.