Main idea: If your conversation partner insists on refuting an argument you are not making, consider the possibility that he or she agrees with your arguments but is not yet emotionally ready to accept the conclusion. If that is what is going on, your conversation partner is subconsciously panicking and will not likely be able to engage in rational discussion on that issue. Back off, and come back to the topic later.
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Two years ago, I mused about the strange phenomenon of people who engage in debates by asserting their conversation partners believe some ridiculous idea they actually do not. (Let’s you and me argue. You be the kook.) At that time, I could not figure it out.
A debate last night might have given me a clue.
I didn’t play an active part in the discussion among five friends who belong to the Democratic Party. I don’t, so I mostly just listened. All five support Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination.The question that started their debate: “Will you vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination?”
Among the five, only one was ready to pledge to vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is—I’ll call him Roy. He quickly began to argue against the proposition that “Both parties are exactly the same.” Yet none of the others had said that. In fact, I didn’t notice him respond directly to anything his friends actually said. He was completely wrapped up in his debate with the phantom advocate for the idea that both parties are exactly the same.
After Roy had started several sentences with “When you say that both parties are exactly the same…” two of his friends explicitly denied they believed that. It didn’t make a dent in Roy’s illusion–he kept ignoring his friends in favor of the imaginary kook.
As I listened, I tried to tune into Roy’s emotions, his logic, and his illogic. Here’s what came to me:
Roy had heard his friends correctly when they said they would desert the Democratic Party if Clinton is nominated. And appearances aside, he also heard them correctly when they expressed their objections to Clinton’s foreign policy record; her close ties to Wall Street financiers; her support for warrantless surveillance of US citizens; and her long record of support for job-killing international trade agreements.
Roy desperately wants his friends to support Clinton if she is their party’s nominee, so he felt compelled to say something. At the same time, he couldn’t refute the arguments they they were actually making. In fact, he likely agreed with them.
That, I believe, is why his subconscious came to his emotional rescue and created an imaginary kook against whom he could make effective arguments. Debating the kook would satisfy his strong desire to stand up for his beliefs, while freeing him from having to engage with the points his friends were actually making.
I don’t think he was aware of this. My guess is that if he’d been pressed harder, he would have claimed that “Both parties are exactly the same” was the unavoidable conclusion (or underlying assumption, or something) of what his friends were saying. The subconscious is a powerful thing.
Going back to my post from two years ago, I’m thinking my Facebook friend might have been having the same sort of problem. She might very well have agreed with the point I was actually making—that consumers must continuously be on guard because pharmaceutical giants have so much influence over federal drug regulators. She desperately wanted vaccinations to be safe, but couldn’t argue with my point about lax regulation. So her subconscious conjured up an anti-vaccination kook, and she argued with that phantom instead of responding to me.
The next time this particular short-circuit derails a political conversation I had expected to be reasonable, I’m going to look for signs that my conversation partner actually does agree with my arguments but for some reason feels compelled not to concede the conclusion.
Which brings us to the question of what to do about it. My guess: the key is to find a way to calm the panic, even if it means changing the subject. When your conversation partner has already lost control of his or her reason, and is already ignoring everything you say, you’re going to have to save the persuasion for later anyway.
My Democratic friends might have had some success simply changing the subject with a remark like, “Well, the obvious conclusion is that we all need to work as hard as we can to get Sanders nominated.” No one in the room needed to decide that night what he or she would do if Clinton gets the nomination. They could have let Roy off the hook until he calmed down a little.
And I might have been able to save my relationship with my Facebook friend had I simply posted a comment along the lines of “Glad to see we’re both in agreement on the need for vaccinations. Let’s talk later about the best way to make people feel good about getting them.” Had I realized her weird conversational behavior was caused by panic, and that her panic was caused by her awareness that what I was saying was true, it would have been easier for me to step back and let her gather her wits.