I’m developing a new policy before arguing with anyone. Essentially, arguing with people about things that I care about is exhausting. It’s emotionally trying. It can bring me to tears – which is already an uneven playing field for people who don’t care about what they’re arguing, who just want to stir up shit. It’s almost impossible to explain to someone who never has a personal stake in these arguments what it feels like to have a personal stake in these arguments. No, you’re not hysterical. You’re not overreacting. This is your life. It’s personal. It’s real. It matters.
So, when I argue, I’m investing, heavily. Often, the other person isn’t. Often, they just want me to perform.
I’m operating on a limited resource budget. I do not have the spare fuel to dance for the fucking audience.
Here’s my question: do you care about the truth?
No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m asking: do you care about the bigger picture? Do you care about robust statistical analyses and studies that tell us what’s going on? Do you care about the risks, the realities, the danger, the damage, the suffering, the truth?
Does it matter to you that you’re actually correct? Do facts matter?
Or is it more important to you that you score points, throw out rhetoric like a thirteen year old who has just had debating explained to you by your underpaid English teacher?
What if you’re wrong? Honestly. What are the consequences of you being wrong, and do you feel bad about it? If you care about being wrong – if that would actually bother you, if it leaves an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach – that’s a good thing. It means you’re invested.
If you’re wrong, have you done harm by being wrong? Are you willing to accept the possibility that you’re wrong? What would convince you that you are wrong? Or are you so ideologically committed to this argument that literally nothing will convince you? That you cannot imagine the evidence required to shift you on this point?
These are important questions. These are the questions that change the world, the questions that change you.
I’ve seen people change their minds. In Australia, we’ve seen that very recently – the postal survey on marriage equality was an unnecessary exercise in psychological torture, but the result was telling: people have changed their minds. A lot of people have changed their minds. How and why that happened is a story other people have told a lot better than I could, but the important thing is that it did happen.
I’ve seen people change their minds about sexual harrassment and toxic masculinity. I’ve seen people change their minds and admit that privilege is a thing and that maybe that privilege prevents them from seeing certain problems. I’ve seen scientists who were convinced that anthropogenic climate change was a myth run their own experiments to support their theories and step back when the results came in. Because… they were wrong, and wow, did the evidence overwhelm them. They had to let go of the cognitive dissonance.
Obviously, being a progressive lefty socialist sort of person, I find these to be positive changes. I haven’t seen a lot of changes in the other direction, but that’s probably because I’m not looking at the places where those changes happen. I have my own biases that I need to be aware of.
I have to be able to extrapolate beyond my own environment. If I believed the whole world resembled my immediate environment, I’d be living in paradise. I’m surrounded by compassionate, good-natured, generous and intelligent people, the vast majority of whom do care whether something is true, and they do care if something is fair.
I can use anecdotes and experiences from my life as supporting evidence. I cannot say that it’s the whole picture. I need access to a wider picture, to more data. I need to read things I actively disagree with – and believe me, I need to be in a good mental space to do that, because depending on what the topic is, I can be literally nauseated and enraged – because otherwise, I won’t learn.
Because it matters if I’m wrong.
It matters if what I’m doing is right, if what I’m saying is fair, if what I believe is true.
Of course, some shit is subjective. Some shit will only be true because your priorities are different from the other person, whose priorities are different, and for them, what you’re saying isn’t true. Reality needs to be experienced, and it needs to be interpreted, and consequences need to be prioritised. I think most of us are aware of this on some level.
Most of us are aware that, sometimes, we prioritise what we want over what is true or fair. Some of us find that uncomfortable (I sure as hell do), and some of us are perfectly okay with that.
I am really good at rationalising my behaviour, so good that I have to keep an eye on it. When I’m deep in a depressive episode, I can justify all sorts of bullshit impulse decisions. Even knowing that this is true, I have to be on guard.
And sometimes I let myself get away with it. Hell, I’m not perfect. I never claimed to be. I have my subjective priorities, just like everyone does. I’ve internalised a bunch of toxic bullshit, just like everyone else has. And living inside an interrogative framework to make sure that I’m trying to be fair and truthful most of the time is a bit tiring.
All the same, I’m going to ask this question, because some things are too important to leave up to ideology and rationalisation. People have rhetoric and anger and frustration and it builds up and spills over, because we’re fucking mammals, and sometimes we just don’t give a shit. We want what we want, we get defensive as fuck, we’re often bigoted assholes and it can take us a really long time to learn, and that’s if we even want to learn.
But if your response to feminism is “well, I believe in EQUALISM and women already have euqal rights”, or if you think we live in a post-racial society, or if you think that I would be less likely to be murdered if I carried a handgun on my person in the city (instead of the statistical reality that I would be many times more likely to die), then I’m pretty sure you haven’t run the numbers.
Sure. It’s more comfortable to think these things are true. It’s easier.
Climate change is scary. The idea that men kill women at a bizarre and ludicrous and indefensible rate is scary. The fact that people are still racist and bigoted and homophobic and that this perpetuates suffering and injustice and cruelty… is distressing.
Most people don’t want these things to be true. It’s exhausting and upsetting.
Thinking about whether what you believe is true, raising the possibility that you’re being unfair, or unkind, or that maybe there are some things about yourself that are less than fair and forthright- well, that’s uncomfortable. It’s squirmy. It’s painful. It can even be horrifying.
I still think it’s worth it.
Pace yourself when you argue, and – if you don’t already do this – ask whether you care if you’re wrong. Ask whether it matters. Ask whether you can be convinced.
Because if the answer to those questions is no, then you’re wasting my goddamn time.