How Not to Argue Like a Blockhead

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The latest issue of the Tom Woods Letter, which all the influential people read. Subscribe for free and receive my eBook AOC Is Wrong: The Upside-Down World of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a gift.

I understand progressivism very well.

I can make its arguments at least as well as its own proponents.

I just disagree with it.

The same cannot be said for progressives who critique libertarians. I don’t recognize myself in the way they characterize our arguments, and their attacks appear to be based in spite and ignorance.

Jonathan Haidt, the NYU professor who’s fairly nonpartisan, found this to be empirically true: progressives can explain what their opponents are saying far less well than those opponents can explain progressivism.

Yesterday, though, I encountered a social media meme that particularly irritates me.

It was along the lines of, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one!”

Whatever your opinion on abortion, this is an idiotic argument that can’t possibly be expected to change anyone’s mind. (“Oh, you mean I have the option of declining an abortion? What a relief!”)

I could just as easily come back with, “Don’t like slavery? Don’t hold any slaves!”

And then you see the real issue.

For the opponent of abortion it is not enough to refrain from participating in the act, just as for the opponent of slavery it is not enough simply not to hold slaves. Therefore, framing the issue this way helps no one and does nothing to advance the conversation.

In general, “Don’t like X? Don’t do X!” arguments are juvenile and stupid. Since your opponent already knows he has the option not to do X, you’re just being a wise guy.

And your opponent’s point is usually: I happen to believe that if a lot of people do X, the result will be a society none of us will really want to live in. Telling such a person simply to refrain from X in his personal life is another way of saying, “Your concerns are so stupid that I won’t even try to empathize with you enough to understand or address them.”

That can’t be the best way to be.

I am not trying to convict only the left here, of course.

Let’s take Gary Chartier, who’s been a guest on the Tom Woods Show several times. Gary supports vegetarianism and believes animals have moral standing.

Whatever my initial thoughts about that position, I know this: Gary is a smart and decent guy. I would be mortified if, say, after a few drinks I said to him, “Gary, if you’re against the consumption of meat, don’t eat any!”

That kind of response, which we do hear from conservatives from time to time, amounts to an obtuse refusal even to try to understand what the other party is saying.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that the key to winning arguments is never to be tough, or always to be gentle and irenic. That’s a separate matter. I’m not dogmatic on that: some situations call for one approach and some for another.

I’m saying that to be a decent human being with a chance of making a real connection to another person, at least try to understand what that person is saying.

And if I may boast for a moment, this is what is so great about the Tom Woods Show Elite.

These are people who truly seek understanding, not scoring cheap points.

This doesn’t mean they’re pushovers or marshmallows. Quite the contrary.

You belong in here.

Please come see for yourself:

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