Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

OPINION: The Key to Having a Persuasive Argument with the Other Side

Created: 22 December, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
6 min read

For the most part, people view the world and politics and make judgments through biases that color what they see and understood. Personal morals or political ideology is a powerful perception-biasing lens that operates intuitively, fast and unconsciously. In essence, this lens is a personal moral framework the mind uses to make sense of the world.

A key function of the unconscious mind is to make the world seem coherent. Coherence happens even when there isn’t enough information. It also sometimes happens when the coherence the mind creates is wrong.

For example, personal ideology or morals can create and maintain false fact beliefs. Further, belief in misinformation is usually hard or impossible to correct because rejecting false beliefs requires conscious effort.

The human mind prefers to avoid expending such cognitive effort unless there is a powerful reason to do so. And, when we do rationally question any information, we are likely to consider just a few things (e.g., does the information conform to personal beliefs and whether it makes a coherent story based on personal knowledge).

All of that makes misinformation and false facts surprisingly sticky.

Issues seen through the distorting lenses of morals and other personal biases often can and do lead to perceptions that are disconnected from objective reality. Those biases include the powerful motivated reasoning bias, which uses conscious reason or logic to support what we want to be true instead of probing for what is true.

Personal biases can unconsciously lead to perceiving causal connections between events when there is no connection or no connection when there is. Common false fact beliefs include belief that climate scientists who argue the reality of anthropogenic climate change are frauds and that vaccines cause autism.

Riding The Elephant

Social psychologist Johnathan Haidt describes human cognition using the analogy of an elephant and a human rider. The unconscious, intuitive, biased mind is the elephant, which has a will of its own and is often pretty smart but can be fooled. It understands written and spoken language within the context of its ideological or moral framework.

The conscious, rational mind is the rider who, when needed, rationalizes and supports what it is the elephant wants to do, even when it makes no sense or is objectively wrong. The rider rarely changes the elephant’s mind or behavior.

Of the two components of human cognition, most of the free will (assuming it exists) or power resides with the motivated elephant, while the lazy, sleepy rider rarely calls the shots and usually doesn’t want to unless the elephant flogs the lazy rider into action.

The rider just isn’t motivated to exert influence or change the elephant’s intended course. Once flogged, the rider’s dominant motive is defending what the elephant wants to see and believe (i.e., defending personal morals or ideology, not getting at objective truth).

Haidt describes human cognition like this:

The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

Note that Haidt’s phrase “outside of awareness” can be replaced by the word “unconsciously.”

Talking to the Elephant

If 99% of what we see and think about politics is intuitive, unconscious and driven by personal morals or biases (the elephant), it is easy to see why liberals and conservatives routinely talk past and misunderstand each other. Their elephants and the resulting perceptions of reality and common sense or logic are different.

That explains why liberal vs. conservative political debate rarely changes anyone’s mind. It also shows why fact and logic are distorted to the point that the two sides typically don’t understand each other. Like it or not, our elephants are stubborn. They don’t like questioning personal beliefs.

That raises the question of how, if at all, one can engage in political debate in a way that reduces unconscious fact and logic distortion to make politics more objective. There is a way to do that despite the subjective liberal and conservative ideologies or morals that dominate American politics.

Putting it simply, being objective amounts to talking to the elephant, not the lazy, sleepy rider. By framing political arguments to directly appeal to the moral values of the people a speaker is trying to convince, the speaker talks to elephants who may or may not decide to whack the rider into action based on what they hear or see.

One research team observed that “political arguments reframed to appeal to the moral values of those holding the opposing political position are typically more effective.”

For example, the conservative argument that English should be America’s official language is usually morally framed as important because it unifies and strengthens America. That argument doesn’t appeal to liberals. However, an English first argument has some appeal to liberals if it is framed as a way to reduce racism.

Getting to objectivity

For speakers talking to a mixed-ideology audience (campaigning in a general election), persuasive communication is more difficult than preaching to the choir (campaigning in a primary) because broader moral sets need to be appealed to. Simply reciting a single-moral fact and logic argument (e.g. liberal or conservative) is ineffective for mixed audiences.

That is why candidates routinely spew hot narrow ideological fire in the primaries, pander to the opposition in general elections, but return to their ideological small boxes after the general election.

In essence, broadly effective persuasion boils down to expanding the moral palette and putting the main competing morals on a more equal footing. In that regard, a broader moral or ideological basis for political debate is a key part (i.e. service to a broadly defined public interest) of the objective three-moral political ideology that Dissident Politics advocates (here, here, here).

The most direct way to increase the role of factual and reasoned objectivity in politics is to adopt and internalize the morals or ideology of objective politics, including the broad moral palette it has to include. That motivates the rider who has to deal with more complex mixed morals-based arguments than the intuitive-moral elephant can deal with by itself.

It also makes the intuitive-moral elephant bigger, but at the same time, more compliant to an invigorated, wide-awake rider.

Since widespread acceptance of an objective ideology is at best a long way off in time, effective political speakers have to deal with the dominant narrow value sets in play today. That will not be as effective as adoption of an explicitly objective (broad) moral framework.

Nonetheless, understanding that it is necessary to appeal to the values that drive the political opposition is a step in the proper (i.e., objective) direction. If nothing else, it forces the speaker to at least consider issues in different moral lights and then try to coax facts and logic into going where the speaker wants them to go.

The exercise can be unpredictable because it could wind up undercutting the speaker’s argument or morals. Regardless, engaging in fact- and reason-based objectivity like that is enlightening and is what best serves the public interest.