How to win an on-line argument

argumentIf I should happen to get in your face and explain in great detail that you are dumb / ignorant / bigoted / stupid / (you can think of lots more), then you would of course immediately embrace and cherish the experience … right?

What if I was actually right and you did in a moment of humanness do or say something that truly was dumb / ignorant / bigoted / stupid / etc… (we all do it at one time or another), would you then change your mind and recognise that you were wrong, or would you instead meet like for like and suggest that I was being aggressive and become very defensive?

Be honest now, this is something for you to ponder over within your own mind, nobody else is watching or listening.

Let’s put this another way, think of all the conversations you have taken part in on either Facebook or Twitter where your have been discussing something with others who hold a different view. You know that you are of course right and that they are wrong, so clearly you just need to convince them that this is the case. So how did that work out, did you win hearts and minds? Perhaps you were indeed wrong, and so did you encounter a good rebuttal that motivated you to change your mind and truly learned something new?

Why do people change their minds, what is it that enables humans to make that transition? Let’s turn that coin over and ask who are the persuaders that can successfully breach the bubbles we live in, and how do they do it?


We generally operate at an emotional level, and so we tend to fall in and out of love with ideas. They come and go and flit in and out of our heads each and every day, but tend to only take root when we become emotionally attached. Now that perhaps explains why we often embrace ideas regardless of the actual merit or truth of the idea itself. Later, if we then give up an idea, it is more akin to a bereavement and we feel an emotional lose as a result.

Having once been a religious believer, a deeply committed one, and having moved on from that, I do recall the sense of lose involved. This is because the human religious experience, like most ideas, is very much rooted within our emotions, and so we embrace such thinking because it meets a deep emotional need, perhaps as a place to belong, or a cause to belong to, or to find meaning, or some other similar reasons, and not because any of it is actually true or factual in any way at all.

When you confront daft ideas, and spell out just how absurd the idea is, and also make the observation that there is simply not one single jot of evidence to back it up …. nothing changes, the idea or belief remains well-rooted and wholly intact, and this is because the idea embraced need not be either rational or reasonable, but instead simply needs to plug into our heads at an emotional level.

Changing Minds Really Does Matter

There are some truly obnoxious ideas, for example the thought that you can get 72 virgins in another life by slaughtering innocent people who do not believe exactly what you believe. For the record, no the vast majority of Muslims to not believe that, but there is a strand of thinking that does think like that, so how can you possibly persuade by engaging with those who might think like that?

Hint: Bombing the city they live within to rubble is not the right answer.

Let’s take a case.

Maajid Nawaz was once an extremist and member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. He changed his mind, quit, and left it all behind … why did he do that, what persuaded him? He was arrested in Egypt in December 2001, and remained imprisoned until 2006, so did that do the trick? Actually no, instead he changed his mind because somebody won his heart not his mind with a better idea.

He embraced the radical ideas because …

“It gave me a feeling that my identity could matter — and did matter — growing up as a British Pakistani who was facing racism from whiter society,”

It was the realisation that there was a better way that helped persuade him …

It was while in prison, surrounded by several prominent jihadist leaders, that Nawaz realized he wanted to take a different path. He was reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm and came to a new understanding of “what happens when somebody tries to create a utopia.”

“I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,” Nawaz says.

He says he began to see that it’s “impossible to create a utopia.”

“I’m living up close and seeing [the radicals’] everyday habits and lifestyle, I thought, ‘My God, I wouldn’t trust these guys in power,’ because when I called it, back then, and said, ‘If this caliphate, this theocratic caliphate, was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth,’ ” Nawaz says.

A year after his release, at the age of 24, Nawaz left the Islamist group and its ideology. He later co-founded the think tank Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs.

“Now, when we see what ISIL [the self-proclaimed Islamic State] is doing in the name of this theocratic caliphate, I believe I have been vindicated that these guys, any of them, if they ever got to power, they would be committing mass atrocities,” Nawaz says.

What also great helped is that Amnesty International adopted him and stood with him, and that touched his heart. In the end it cost him a great deal …

I lost all my friends. There are members — very, very close and dear members — of my family. I’m talking immediate family who simply don’t speak to me anymore and haven’t done so for years. My marriage fell apart. I suffered my second identity crisis, and I was very, very lucky to have been able to get through it.

… but he came out of it all as a far better person because he found a far better idea to embrace.

How can we persuade?

I do so often learn the hard way from making mistakes and getting it very wrong, so here are a few tips that you might find useful …

Socratic Questioning – Let them think it was their idea and not yours, and so if you can leave a trail of breadcrumbs for people to follow then it can be far more effective.

Concede when it makes sense – Demonstrate that you can be persuaded and establish a pattern that doing so is just fine.

Look behind the Mask – What is driving the emotional attachment, examine the life experiences that have carried them into this specific position. This is where the Socratic method can really help. You can of course discuss the nuances of creationism and lay out the facts of evolution, but go beyond all that and engage at a deeper more personal level to make a real difference.

It might be You – Be open to the possibility that it just might be you that needs to be persuaded.

Be Friendly – Basically don’t be an obnoxious jerk, but instead have a bit of empathy and treat others as you would like to be treated.

If you have any additional pointers too add to the above, please do share and drop a comment or two.

In the end we do all have a choice. Do we strive to believe the things that simply offer emotional support, or do we go for embracing as many true things as possible? I’m personally persuaded that the latter is the better course because the one lesson history does truly hammer home is that bad ideas lead to some truly obnoxious behaviour, so perhaps the key to that is to ask yourself this – what world do you wish to live within and what legacy will you leave behind?

Leave a Reply