The arts of argument and persuasion

This episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Firing Line was broadcast on Sept. 10, 1981

In American political speech nowadays, we need more argument and persuasion and less denunciation.  I am reminded of William F. Buckley Jr., who was a master of both.

I considered Buckley’s political views were not only wrong, but reprehensible.  Yet I was a regular viewer of his PBS program, “The Firing Line.”

Buckley took the trouble to understand his opponents’ arguments.  He read their books.  When he invited them onto his program, although he was not above taking cheap shots, he tried to refute what they actually said.

He played fair.  He gave his opponent a chance to give their views.  That is why he probably changed more minds than Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity ever did.  I think there is much to be learned from his methods, whatever you think of his views.

I remember a program in which his guest was Ralph Schoenman, appearing on the show as the representative of the International War Crimes Tribunal, also known as the Russell Tribunal, and the issue was American atrocities in Vietnam.  Buckley’s claim was that Bertrand Russell, John-Paul Sartre and the other tribunal members were Communist sympathizers and should not be believed.

Schoenman expressed himself in a robotic, staccato manner that fit the stereotype of the dogmatic Communist.  Buckley, aware of this, let him go on at length, knowing his audience would be influenced more by his manner than by his actual argument.

A member of the audience argued that what mattered was the quality of the Tribunal’s evidence, not the views of its members.  Buckley listened respectfully, restated the argument and then asked what the questioner would think of anti-corruption investigators who were all Republicans and whose investigations were all of Democrats.  A bogus argument, but convincing.

I think it is possible to persuade people who strongly disagree with you politically.  Sometimes not, but people can be more open-minded than you might think.

It is important to distinguish winning an argument from successful persuasion.  I have lost many arguments, but I don’t recall ever changing my mind as a result.  My losing an argument only makes me rack my brains for what I should have said, but failed to think of on the spot.

I used to frequently lose arguments with my brother, who is much more conservative, religiously and politically, than I am.  By the way, he and his circle of friends are good-hearted people, well-educated and not in the least like the liberal stereotype of the typical Trump supporter.  The only difference between them and me is the sources of information on which we rely.

I almost always lost my arguments with my brother because he regarded political argument as a contest, with winners and losers, like chess or tennis, and he always entered the argument with his talking points well in mind, and I never did.

One of the few times I ever got anywhere with him is once he was denouncing Keynesian economics.  I asked him what he thought Keynesian economics was.  When he told me, I answered that, if that was what Keynesian economics was, I was against it, too.

That prompted him to ask what I thought Keynesian economics was, and a fruitful conversation resulted.  I  don’t think I talked him into changing his mind.  That wasn’t my object.  I made him understand the reasoning behind a point of view he disagreed with.

I have the same problem with my liberal Democratic circle of friends here in Rochester, N.Y.  They are good-hearted people.  Most of them are doing more to make the world a better place than I ever did.  But they can no more see my point of view than my brother’s circle of friends do.

I’m not good at face-to-face argument and persuasion.  That’s one of the reasons I have a web log.  But I have learned certain things.

One is that it is futile to make arguments aimed at getting people to admit they are  wrong.  Your starting point should always be to ask questions.

You should find out why people believe the things they do (or at least the reasons they give for believing the things they do, which may not be the same thing).  You should listen with an open mind, open to the possibility that they may know more than you about some things.

You should try to show that what you believe aligns with their values and their concerns.  An union organizer named Jane McAlevey wrote a good article last fall about how to do this.

Bernie Sanders was good at persuasion.  The next videos are of a Fox News town hall meeting in Bethlehem, Pa., in 201X, that were shown April 15, 2019, followed by a shorter video showing highlights.

Even though Sanders is out of the running, there are things to be learned from his approach, just as from Buckley’s.





My friend from Texas was fond of quoting the Greek philosopher Isocrates (with an “I”).  Isocrates said a skilled rhetorician will use emotion to get people to listen, but reason to convince them.  Unless you can change people’s basic assumptions about things, you haven’t really changed them.

Afterthought 2

Just to be clear, William F. Buckley Jr.’s opinions were not only usually wrong, but often morally reprehensible.

He was a champion of, among other things, Senator Joe McCarthy’s bogus anti-Communist crusade, white supremacy in the South, the CIA-backed dirty wars in Latin America and apartheid in South Africa, backing down only when these positions were discredited.

He reportedly did have reservations about the invasion of iraq, but said little about it for the sake of Republican unity.  Click on this and this for the Buckley record.


How to Organize Your Friends and Family on Thanksgiving by Jane McAlevey for Jacobin magazine (2019)

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12 Responses to “The arts of argument and persuasion”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    Any dialogue depends on basic facts. And a willingness to listen before responding. The Trump supporters I occasionally try to engage deny the basis of agreeing I’ve given. Many deny that Donald lies. Many deny there are verifiable facts. Try engaging. Impossible. I also liked William Buckley.


    • philebersole Says:

      William, my success record in arguing with Trump supporters is not great. Nor do I have good success in arguing with Obama-Clinton-Biden supporters, who also (in my opinion) are misguided. So what I have written in this post, and am about to write here, is a matter of “do as I say, don’t do as I do.”

      My starting point in arguing with a Trump supporter would be to ask the question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

      Then I would ask what the Trump supporter hoped Trump would do to make his or her life better, and whether this had been done.

      Here I would run into trouble, because I do not know how I would be able to make a case that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden would be able to do anything that would make the Trump supporter’s life any better (or yours or mine, for that matter).

      Maybe I would ask how they think Trump is doing on handling the coronavirus. If they think Trump is doing a great job, I might ask them to predict how the pandemic situation will be six months from now and, if it isn’t, what they might say.

      Or maybe I wouldn’t be that confrontational. I would just state my case, as a way of providing information on how somebody else things, and let things go at that without trying to make the other person admit anything.

      As I say, this is “do as I say, don’t do as I do.”

      I don’t do this well in practice. I let myself be triggered into reacting without thinking, or I use language that doesn’t speak to the other person’s condition.

      But who knows? Maybe you have been more convincing that you realized. And just letting people know that there are people just like them who think differently accomplishes something.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. conartistocracy Says:

    You’ve identified a very common problem. A discussion, a mutual exchange of opinion works when both parties share the same basic ground rules. You do not assume you alone know the whole truth, and each are happy to exchange views to temper and enlarge their perspective, even accept a degree of opposition – all based on mutual respect. But some people view any debate as a win or lose contest, regardless of information or truth. And my Mum once advised, “It is a waste of time debating with a bigot. They have no intention of changing their views, they only enter debate to change yours”


    • philebersole Says:

      Of course you’re right. But if I enter into a conversation with someone I think is a bigot with the view to proving I’m right and he or she is crazy, I’m not going to get anywhere either.

      I think I would get further if I approach things with the idea of sharing information or sharing perspectives. Of course I then take the risk of having my own opinions changed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • conartistocracy Says:

        A good definition of bigot. You probably know the old books “I’m OK, You’re OK” and “Games People Play”. The bigot operates on the principle “I’m OK, you’re not OK”, so you are on the back foot before you even start. As they are operating from the position that they are superior and you are inferior, so any facts you present, or logical argument you make is automatically thrown in the bin as irrelevant. The advice in “I’m OK” was if you found yourself cast to play “not OK” the best course of action was to walk away. If anyone has come up with a way, short of brain washing, to open a closed mind, I have never heard of it. Sometimes retreat is the only sensible course.


  3. Steve in Texas Says:

    Phil, If I’m the friend from Texas that you refer to, that great adage of Isocrates did NOT come from me (although it’s the kind of thing that I can SOMETIMES come up with). Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato, ran a school to train people (okay = well-off young men) in the arts we’re discussing.

    Isocrates was apparently, like all of us, a pedestrian figure compared to the amazing, high-flying genius Plato. The great English poet W.H. Auden, who knew his Greek and died sometime in the 1970s, remarks somewhere that it’s odd that Plato, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, was wrong about practically everything, whereas Isocrates, a “mediocrity,” was right about practically everything.

    We’re still under lockdown in Texas, and I practically never see anyone even to talk to, let alone argue with. A close friend just found for us (and installed) an as-new washer & dryer, so I now have one less reason to go out. But I wonder sometimes whether our whole American educational-democratic project, all the rhetorical methods that I used to try to teach (“always remember to define your terms” etc etc) may not be about to go down the drain.

    Up at the E-Z Wash, I used to talk at length with (usually) guys who were homeless or one jump away from it, and frequently, by any everyday measure, crazy. But I could often get from them some comment or other that seemed wise or witty or both–and they often seemed to possess an awareness of a lot of things that I fear they’re NOT aware of over at NPR, or at MSNBC.

    Like you, I DON’T think things are going to be okay if we can only replace Trump with an administration that intends to take us back to a particular Monday in November of 2016 . . . Best to all!!


  4. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “anti-corruption investigators who were all Republicans and whose investigations were all of Democrats.”

    That kind of one-sidedness usually ends up with evidence being manufactured by both sides that one lacks any way to confirm or deny. But such investigations these days are indeed entirely along party lines. If I smell the possibility of partisan intent, I just raise the bar for what kind of evidence I accept as valid.

    When one debates a person such as Buckley – and God knows I wish today’s conservatives were more like him – you aren’t trying to score points for a win. Guaranteed loss for you if you do. He’s not going to let you turn it into a Socratic inquiry in which you can back him into a philosophical corner. Nor are you going to “beat” him on facts or logic. You will not have the time to reenact the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

    The best you can hope for is to present an alternative vision and hope that a few people in the audience will pick up on it. It is never “You’re wrong! And you’re an evil racist capitalist pig!” Rather it needs to be, “I understand and respect what you’re saying. Here is why I disagree.”

    The harsh rhetoric we hear today is not to convince anyone. It is to rally the true believers. It’s just as true for the left as the right and for every interest group. There is no attempt to win hearts and minds or to win friends and influence people. If you can motivate a quarter (sometimes less) of the population to vote for you, you win when half the population can’t stomach anyone running. That is today’s business model.

    OTOH, if you go about it in a non-judgmental way, it is still possible to bring people back from the dark side. But it is slow work and few are interested.

    For the 4th of July, my son and a couple friends came over to visit and we watched “Hamilton” on Disney Plus. Felt like it dragged in a couple spots but overall a very interesting take.

    Liked by 2 people

    • philebersole Says:

      Fred, the story Daryl Davis told the NPR interviewer is beautiful, but I wonder if the interviewer ever got a chance to count Davis’ collection of Klan robes.

      Converting 200 Klansmen over a period of 30 years means deprogramming six or seven Klansmen every year – more than one every two months.

      If he had told a story of converting one Klansman, it would have believed it. Two hundred? How did he find time to earn a living as a musician?

      Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      But even if the 200 Klan robes story is exaggerated, some of it rings true, and it contains a lot of good thoughts on how you get people to change their minds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fred (Au Natural) Says:

        What is really sad is that he is being attacked for making the attempt. Attacked by other black activists for being a “white supremecist” black.

        It seems Nietzsche was right. When you get angry enough you take on the very traits of the evil you started out opposing. Two hates do not make brotherhood.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Vincent Says:

    Suddenly thought of this little document, issued by one of the parties to an election in Turkey. Simple but relevant, don’t you think?

    Liked by 1 person

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