How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct (2015)
So, how do you win an argument against someone who thinks you’re evil? Who thinks you’re greedy, selfish, wrong, racist, and, like I said, evil? Don’t ask me, I’m evil (but sexy).
But last week, I was walking with a friend of mine, a real estate guy named Joe—and he asked me what I thought of Andrew Cuomo. I said that I thought he was weak, and waffling way too much on fracking (which is partly responsible for a welcome move toward energy independence). I believe we should be fracking, and helping out the rest of New York State, not just the rich-ass Manhattanites. My buddy then said, “But fracking is dangerous!” I asked him how, knowing full well the information he was about to give me. I had heard it before: fracking causes earthquakes, pollutes groundwater, causes your tap water to ignite, makes you grow breasts that shoot out a fiery spray of milk and peppermint-flavored lava.
I was about to bite his head off, but then I pulled back, and realized the only fault he was guilty of was not reading beyond the Times editorials (plus his head didn’t look very tasty). He’s not in the media business—so he doesn’t have to read the crap I read. And he’s got a new wife, a new baby. Unlike me, he has a life. So I argued from false mixed emotion.
This is important because it removes the sweaty veneer of ideological excess. While I love it when I’m certain about something, I realize those are rare moments in life. You cannot be certain about all things. As an agnostic, I do not call myself an atheist, because, to put it simply, “I don’t know.” For all I know there is a god, and it’s some dude in Jersey named Ned. True, I’ve pretty much discounted this theory—Ned has bad skin and a Beatle-do, qualities rarely associated with the divine. But the point is: I can’t be 100 percent sure. So I punt.
Saying “I don’t know” creates a wonderful bridge to other people. Admitting that you’re not entirely 100 percent positive that you’re right allows opponents to relax enough that you can pounce—and beat the crap out of them with facts, logic, common sense, and maybe some nunchuks. But first you must let them trust you by admitting uncertainty. Remember, your job isn’t to confirm but to convert. And conversion requires some humble pie up front. (By the way, this works in marriage. It’s also why it took until I was forty for someone to marry me.)
Uncertainty can only work by paving the path for a rebuttal that is infused with compassion. Meaning: although you agree with them on the premise, after much thought you’ve found a way that makes life more livable for more people. Your compassion for the planet beats their compassion for the planet.
This is key: the left’s primary argument is based on the notion “you don’t care.” But you do. So rather than immediately grant them that territory, take it from them at the start. Show them that you care so much, you can’t possibly agree with them.
HOW DO YOU CARE?
1.You’re so green you think the environment groups are all in cahoots with the oil companies. Don’t trust them.
2.Windmills are agents of the bird holocaust, killing billions of our avian brothers and sisters every year without the dignity of a good brining.
3.If you’re against global warming, you want old people to freeze to death. Which sucks because old people are great! And definitely better unfrozen.
4.I would ban coal, but I fear my white privilege is making me hate something only because it’s black.
Example One: Fracking
So, back to Joe: I pull him gently over to my side by telling him that I too hate polluters and calculating oil companies out to make a buck. But then…
“That’s the weird thing about fracking, Joe: What are we fracking? Natural gas. That’s why I am for it. I am pro-environment, and most environmentalists were for natural gas because it was natural. Natural gas was the alternative to all those dirty fuels.” Then I explain that environmentalists changed their tune as we found better ways to access it. So the only difference among environmentalists, before the boom and after—was the boom: we found more of this amazing clean fuel. In short, the greenie would be for fracking, if we did less of it.
It’s an interesting question, why so many greenies were for natural gas and now are against it. It makes me think they’re only for something that doesn’t work! (Must be why so many are Cubs fans.) My gut tells me once we figure out if solar power can deliver real energy, they’ll come out against that, too (the sun is bigoted against the Irish).
Example Two: Climate Change
Of course, the climate is changing. It always has, and always will. There have been ice ages followed by warming periods, and vice versa—and this happened well before the arrival of the smokestack, the SUV, the Pajama Jean. Hell, my personal climate changes several times a day. If that sounds good to you, get in touch.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore data. You’re intrigued and fascinated by climate models—in fact, they worry the hell out of you. Yes, they worry you. Until you are always relieved when they turn out to be wrong! And you hope that they continue to be wrong. You’re watching it closely—because you care even more than they do! Even more than Al Gore and George Clooney! You weep nightly for nature, and soil yourself every morning in solidarity with the earth.
Then add that while you believe wholeheartedly in protecting the environment, it would be foolish to hand money over to people who think they have the Solution. It’s not just antiscience, it’s anti–common sense. If you wouldn’t hand your money over to a huckster who promises you’ll stop aging if you just use his magical elixir, in a plain brown wrapper (I finally learned), why would you do the same with climate change? Explain that gullibility is amusing only when it’s other people’s money being squandered. (If you really want to lay it on, you can add that that money could be better spent building low-income housing.)
Most important: you must tell them that you hope that there is some climate change, for subtle increases in temperature can actually benefit the planet by making it more hospitable for growth of plants and vegetables. The warmer, the better. That’s science, as told by death. Just a one-degree uptick and we’ll all have beautiful tomatoes growing in our living rooms!
Finally, you can agree that while coal seems dirty, to try to ban it is selfish, evil, and reeks of white privilege. After all, it’s easy for you to ban it, when you’re not in some third-world country burning feces to stay alive. As we all know, there is no force stronger in the rhetorical universe than that of liberal race-guilt. Pin your argument to race and you can convince a liberal to paint his ass red and skateboard down Broadway. Which actually might finally account for some of the things I’ve seen in New York City.
Example Three: Gun Control
When a massacre occurs, the media decides we must do something now. The mistake is to mimic the NRA and come out guns blazing in defense of, well, guns blazing. It’s better to admit that there is a problem (one that isn’t getting any worse, but no one wants to hear that). Concede. Compassionately. Sound like them. Agree that massacres in schools are horrible.…Who wouldn’t? And, of course, we need to figure out ways to stop them. But taking guns away from legal gun-owning, law-abiding sane people won’t stop it. The typical shooter is an unbalanced, fringe loner. I want to stop them, just like you. Is there a genuinely effective way to achieve that?
Bolster your position with facts: that most shooters target gun-free zones; that these school attacks aren’t becoming more frequent—although there seems to be a proliferation of alienated untreated individuals (a problem our society used to address); and that armed security seems to be the most sensible method of caring for students (it’s called protecting them). The idea of more effective permitting is sound—meaning no permits for the emotionally disturbed.
The examples above show you what arguments to make, but also how to make them. Be calm, compassionate, relaxed, informed. The “how-to” part in the delivery can be summed up thusly: don’t be a jerk. You care. You’re destroying numerous clichés at once. And if they don’t return that favor, shoot them in the face numerous times (with a cake-frosting gun).