Great article on polemics. Heres the rules:
- “Forget about trying to convert your adversary. In any serious ideological confrontation the chances of success on this score are so remote as to exclude it as a rational objective.”
This one is incredibly disapointing as it seems like I should be able to find agreement with my close friends and with people with whom I share a common culture. I would reframe this as try to reframe the dispute so you are not adversaries. No, I don’t know how to do this one easily.
On the very rare occasions when it does happen, it will be because the person converted has already and independently come to harbor serious doubts and is teetering on the edge of ideological defection. This is due, more
often than not, to some outrageous action by his own side or some shocking revelation: witness the effects on members of Communist parties in the West of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Khrushchev speech
Perhaps revelations of the NYTimes misrepresentations are good enough (see prior post), but I doubt it.
- “Pay great attention to the agenda of the debate. He who defines the issues, and determines their
priority, is already well on the way to winning.” Totally! Rather than let the debate drift to lots of different accusations without conclusion, I pick one of the accusations an pummel it to death. Really, I should try to reframe to get on top of the general claim being made and try to work from there. Allowing the debate to drift into the question of lying rather than the question of justification is a failure.
- “Preaching to the converted, far from being a superfluous activity, is vital. Preachers do it every
Sunday. The strengthening of the commitment, intellectual performance, and morale of those already on
your side is an essential task, both in order to bind them more securely to the cause and to make them
more effective exponents of it.”
- “Never forget the uncommitted: almost invariably, they constitute the vast majority. This may seem obvious, but intense polemical activity is often a coterie activity, and in the excitement of combat and lust for the polemical kill the uncommitted are often overlooked[…] whenever you think of something that strikes you as particularly brilliant, at
least consider seriously the advisability of suppressing it in favor of something which projects moral and intellectual seriousness in a straightforward way.”
- “Be aware that, at least potentially, you are addressing mutiple audiences. Decide whether, on a particular occasion, you want to make a broad appeal to many audiences, which will usually involve compromise and restraint in presentation, or whether you want to make a sharply focused pitch to a particular audience, even at the risk of alienating others.” Does this blog have too many audiences? Josh was feeling insulted earlier about posts to which he was extraneous. See Clay’s comments on Fork World.
- “Be prepared to go around the block many times. When you have a good point to make, keep repeating it. Success in ideological polemics is very much a matter of staying power and will, and the same battles have to be fought over and over again. ” True and Ugh.
- “Shave with Occam’s razor. Knowing what you can afford to give away is one of the great arts of polemic.[…]The willingness to concede or ignore what is inessential will make it harder for others to characterize you as dogmatic, and is likely to make a favorable impression on the uncommitted.” Amen.
- “Be very careful in your use of examples and historical analogies. More often than not, their illustrative value is outweighed by their distracting effect.” Godwin’s Law anyone?
- “When bolstering the authority of what you are saying by the use of quotation, give preference wherever possible to sources which are not identified with your case.” Notice my use of NYTimes quotations in the last post.
- “Avoid trading in motives as an alternative to rebutting the opposing case.” Also, note when other’s violate this rule. “Motives can explain error, distortion, and falsehood, but they cannot establish the existence of these things.” The left attack on Bush and “its all about oil” violates this rule.
- “In any polemical exchange, make sure that you know several times more about a topic than you can conceivably use or show.” Done. The upshot is that opponents frequently claim ignorance as a defense (as dinner companion did last night). Ignorance is not a defense. It is a failure.
- “Take particular care to understand the position of your adversary – and to understand it not in a caricature or
superficial form but at its strongest, for until you have rebutted it at its strongest you have not rebutted it at all.” This one is violated by the left all the time. Rather than engaging the actualy arguments of the Bush administration, they instead make up straw men e.g. imminent threat, nuclear WMD, Saddam-9/11 etc.