I've been thinking a lot about the state of the public discourse, specifically the depressingly self-gratifying but dysfunctional ways we have come to argue with one another. It's an infuriating state of affairs, worthy of a book-length treatment by someone with a better attention span than me..
On Twitter this morning, I raised one example that happened to be on the touchy subject of domestic violence, and got some blowback from someone I respect. Hence this post.
What caught my eye was this opinion piece on domestic violence, in particular the following lede:
Perhaps ill-advisedly given the sensitive subject matter, and given my gender, but my reaction came in the form of this tweet:
My feeling was that the view that women are equal culprits with respect to domestic violence is not commonly held among people who ought to be taken seriously. I have heard from women that it is commonly espoused, so perhaps I am sheltered; in any event, it strikes me as the kind of lunacy a jittery Men's Rights activist with a sideline in 9/11 trutherism might believe.
It is easy, and extremely tempting, to mount an argument by taking on the absurdist fringe of your adversary. But it is ineffective, for two reasons:
- The fringe-dwellers you are citing will never be persuaded;
- The people who might otherwise be open to persuasion, and whom you aim to persuade, won't recognise themselves in the caricature you have painted.
If you want to shift the needle on an issue, it is more effective in my view to present your opponent's arguments in terms that even they couldn't dispute. That is the basis for dialogue. Attributing to them outlandish or unconscionable views, you will certainly win plaudits from people who already agree with you – but you won't reach the persuadable middle.