Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook

Wait... what? Seriously? What?

Why would you try to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook? Nothing good can possibly come of that.

If you're going to get into an argument with someone -- and I mean argument in the sense of a debate in which the parties share and react to a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition -- or really have any sort of discussion, there has to be some common understanding of the basic rules and goals of the exchange. And here's where you're doomed to failure if you approach the discussion unawares, because the Trump supporter is playing by an entirely different set of rules and with an entirely different goal in mind.

Let's start with the rules. When normal people make arguments, they follow the rules of logic. To condense the entirety of Logic 101 into less than a sentence, this amounts to presenting premises in a valid structure, supported by evidence, that, taken together, give us reason to believe a conclusion is true.

This only works, however, if both parties A) are willing to actually consider the evidence objectively, B) agree on what it means for something to be true and, crucially, C) acknowledge that the truth is important. But the typical Trump supporter, not unlike Trump himself, is determined to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with their preexisting viewpoint. Similarly, most of us outside of Philosophy Departments at major universities hold a view of truth that has something to do with a statement corresponding to what we can observe in reality. But for Trump and his supporters, not so much.

The last issue -- agreement with the principle that the truth is important -- is, however, the most significant consideration. It relates to the other major point of departure the serious arguer has with the Trump supporter: goals. There are lots of potential goals one might have when engaging in a political discussion with someone of a differing viewpoint, on Facebook or otherwise, for example:

  • To change the other person's mind (though this is pretty dubious)
  • To better understand the other person's position
  • To use the process of arguing/discussing as a means to better understand the topic or discover the truth (which may not lie in either party's original position)
  • To understand the flaws in one's own (or one's opponent's) reasoning
The thing is, the Trump supporter's actual goal isn't any of those things.

As Matthew Yglesias at Vox persuasively argues, there's something else going on when a Trump supporter repeats one of the president's statements (or one from the right wing media, or constructs an original argument using material from one of those sources):
[The statement] serves... as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.
I've argued elsewhere, as Yglesias does in his piece, that the essence of Trump-the-utterer-of-falsehoods is not that he is a liar, but that he is a bullshit artist. The difference is that the liar is trying to deceive you about the substance of his statement: he knows something to be true but wants to convince you that what's true is something other than that. The bullshit artist, on the other hand, makes statements without caring whether they are true or not in order to serve some other purpose.

I have long been of the opinion that the defining feature of the Trump supporter is tribalism: putting membership in and allegiance to group above all else. When Yglesias says that Trump supporters repeat statements 'to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community,' he is identifying one manifestation of this tribalism.

When you or I post the opinion on Facebook that, say, it was improper of Trump to fire James Comey under the circumstances that he did, we do so because we believe that opinion to be correct. We believe it is true. We believe it is right. We hope that by posting it and by providing arguments and evidence that support it, we will convince others of our opinion's righteousness. We could be forgiven for assuming that a Trump supporter, in posting the opposite opinion, is doing so because he believes he is similarly correct and with similar goals in mind.

But the Trump supporter is not, in fact, concerned with the righteousness of his statement. He neither believes nor disbelieves what he is posting, and his posting of it is in no way impacted by any evaluation of whether the statement is true. Truth is not important. In fact, 'winning' the argument in the conventional sense isn't even important (since the Trump supporter knows he is unlikely to convince his counter-party and can simply take a page from Trump's book and unilaterally declare victory with no apparent basis at any time anyway).

What is important is loyalty. The purpose of making the statement is to demonstrate membership in and loyalty to the tribe. To demonstrate it to other members of the tribe. To those who are not members. To the president. To oneself. It is the Facebook equivalent of wearing a MAGA cap.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you can't hope to win an argument with a Trump supporter on Facebook. For you, winning involves being successful in convincing your Trumpian opponent to come around to your side. It requires him to engage in a specific way, which he may or may not do (but -- let's be real -- probably won't). For him, however, winning requires only that you engage with him at all, which you've already done by entering the argument in the first place. Once you've engaged, he has all the opportunity he needs to achieve his actual goal: articulate a pro-Trump position and thereby demonstrate his loyalty. And the more you continue to engage, the more opportunities you provide for him to do exactly that. #winning.

None of this is to say, by the way, that I think one shouldn't get into arguments with Trump supporters on Facebook (or be politically active there in general). I just think one shouldn't do so with the goal of winning the arguments in mind. There are plenty of good reasons to argue other than trying to win, and some of them are more important now than ever.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

But Hillary Clinton...

Whenever some new revelation about a bad thing Donald Trump has done comes to light, his supporters practically trip over themselves racing to remind us of something Hillary Clinton (or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or some other hated liberal) did that is supposed to be similar. The idea seems to be that something about one of those Democrats having done the similar thing is more significant than or mitigates what Donald Trump is alleged to have done.

Having tried to engage with a number of Trump supporters who do this, I am convinced that this tactic is utterly disingenuous. Still, I think it's instructive to examine it. What are these folks trying to accomplish when they do this? I think a few things are going on, and I want to talk about why they are all bullshit.

Trying to appear as if they are calling for justice

On the surface, most of these attempts take the form of a call for overdue justice. For example, when it comes out that Donald Trump shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and someone demands that he be held accountable, the inevitable response is "but Hillary Clinton was never held accountable for her private email server!" The implication here is that whatever Donald Trump has done, it is a far greater miscarriage of justice that Hillary's email indiscretions went unpunished. An occasional variant of this goes "We know Hillary did something improper with having the private email server whereas the allegations against Trump haven't been proven, yet you're all concerned with nailing Trump while giving Hillary a free pass."

Why this is bullshit: Someone who is truly concerned with the mishandling of classified information should, of course, be concerned both about what Hillary Clinton did and what Trump is alleged to have done. Since it's not as if there's a finite amount of justice to go around, it's possible to think Hillary should be held accountable and that we should investigate credible allegations of the same behavior involving Trump and hold him accountable if they turn out to be substantiated.

If you want to present yourself as a true and consistent champion of justice, you need to demonstrate that you want to see the underlying principle applied in all cases. But of course the Trump supporter never does this. It's always "but Hillary Clinton..." and then a blank out. No mention of what should be done about Trump's indiscretion, and certainly no suggestion that the same principle should be applied in his case.

Even if the Trump supporter is willing to concede that Trump should be held accountable, the level of concern never rises to Hillary email level (or Bill Clinton doing inappropriate things with a cigar tube level). As I've argued elsewhere, this way of thinking is ridiculous. Regardless of how egregious you think Hillary's actions were in the email case, she is not the current President. In fact, she holds no office whatsoever. If Trump is doing something similarly bad -- or even, I would argue, something considerably less bad -- it's appropriate to be much more concerned about his behavior right now, since he is the current President and is thus in a position to potentially harm the country through his active misdeeds. In fact, by identifying and addressing Trump's misdeeds now, we may be able to prevent damage to our country, rather than having to resort, at best, to retrospective justice (as was our only option in the Clinton email case). It seems to me that someone who was genuinely concerned with the country's well being would be all forr that.

Accusing liberals of hypocrisy

This usually takes the form of "Look at how the media / Democrats / the person I'm talking to is all over Donald Trump but gave a free pass to Hillary / Obama / whoever over the similar thing they did. What a bunch of hypocrites!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the target of this attack is guilty of hypocrisy, the Trump supporter raising the issue entails two significant admissions that undermine his own position. First, because it asserts that the target should have been concerned with the thing that Hillary or whoever did, it means that we ought to be concerned about the essentially similar thing Trump is doing now. Thus, the Trump supporter is conceding the premise that what Donald Trump is alleged to be doing (if true) is cause for concern. Secondly, because the Trump supporter then doesn't go on to demand that Trump be treated the way he believes Hillary (or whoever) should have been treated (see above), he opens himself up to the same charge of hypocrisy he is trying to level against his target.

To obfuscate and distract

Most of the Trump supporters I talk to aren't dumb, so I think they grasp the incoherence of their approach on some level. However, just bringing up Hillary has the effect of changing the subject to something other than the misdeeds of the person they support. As Trump himself has demonstrated, obfuscation and distraction are effective weapons, and Trump supporters like nothing more than to rail against their favorite liberal targets anyway. This tactic is also especially effective against well-meaning interlocutors who assume the Trump supporter is approaching the conversation with the same good faith as they are and attempt to answer the Trumpy's charges against Hillary point-by-point, allowing the Trump supporter to succeed in changing the subject.

Why this is bullshit: It's senseless to argue with someone who isn't approaching the conversation in good faith, and these tactics are prime examples of bad faith. Once it becomes apparent that the Trump supporter has resorted to them, he exposes himself as a partisan sheep who doesn't bring anything to the table intellectually.

To garner sympathy

The Trump supporters often fall into this mode among themselves, but sometimes it bleeds out into discussion with people who don't share their viewpoint. The refrain goes like this "The media / Democrats / whoever are out to get Donald Trump. They never went after Hillary like this. The deck is totally stacked against him. See, unless you're part of the liberal establishment, you can't get a fair shake. Woe is us!"

Why this is bullshit: Even if the media went easy on Hillary, the appropriate response to their going tough on Trump for similar (or worse) misdeeds is thanks (perhaps with a small dose of 'what took you so long?'). But more insidious is the notion that Trump -- and particularly his supporters -- are deserving of sympathy. Trump supporters championed and voted for a man who is, obviously and transparently, the least qualified, most despicable, most pro-authoritarian person ever to hold the office of President. Far from being victimized by those of us who refuse to tolerate this unacceptable state of affairs, Trump's supporters deserve to be held accountable for being complicit in it. A Trump supporter asserting that we, as decent, concerned citizens, are somehow in the wrong for calling the president to task for, e.g., sharing classified material when they themselves participated in enabling him to do so is obscene.

Regardless of the motive, bringing up Hillary Clinton is an attempt by the Trump supporter to switch the topic to one where he believes he holds the moral high ground. But, as noted above, one can only claim to hold such a position if one wants to see the underlying moral principle applied equally and universally. If you don't, it amounts to an admission that you don't believe there is any moral high ground (or principle) at all: just partisanship and allegiance to whatever team you're on. I don't think that's true, and I don't think someone who thinks that deserves to be let off the hook. In the future, my standard response to the 'But Hillary Clinton...' arguments is going to be as follows:

"This isn't about Hillary Clinton. This is about the conduct of the person you put in the White House and continue to support. What he's doing isn't OK, and neither is your supporting someone who does it."