If you’ve ever tried to convince someone about something important, something about politics, religion, or even something more mundane, then you know that this is a herculean task. Sometimes your argument works, but sometimes your argument fails. The other person is either completely unconvinced by your reasoning or they come back with their own arguments which effectively make no sense to you. This can be incredibly frustrating. You end up pulling your hair out wondering why it is that the other person just doesn’t seem to get it. Why can’t they see things as clearly as you do?
The problem with the way that we tend to make arguments is that we tend to assume everybody is basically the same as us. We assume that the same arguments that we find convincing will also be convincing to others. And there’s some truth to this, of course. There is such a thing as better and worse arguments, and better arguments will tend to be more convincing to people rather than less convincing. Thus, if you find an argument convincing, it’s more likely that another person will as well.
However, this assumes that human beings make decisions based off of reason and logical arguments. While this might seem like a reasonable assumption, the fact of the matter is that we don’t. For better or worse, whether we like it or not, we make decisions based off of pre-conscious thought and other factors like our emotions. This is a commonly recognized fact, but often this is discussed as some kind of personal vice that can or should be reformed. And while I don’t profess to be an expert in this area (or even terribly competent for that matter), I believe it’s safe to say that this issue is something that is too deep for us just to decide to be more rational as is often advocated by many such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Nearly all logic and reason comes after the fact. In other words, we make our decisions pre-consciously and then use our conscious mind to justify the decision we’ve already made. Now, this doesn’t mean that people don’t or can’t have logical reasons for thinking and believing the things that they do, and it doesn’t mean that people can’t even change their minds because of a logical argument. What I am saying is that if you really want to persuade people, you cannot argue to their head or even their heart, you have to argue to their gut.
Values Are in the Gut
I think it’s helpful to think of this in terms of values. In this context I define a value as something, usually some kind of abstract principle, that is automatically assumed to be good. You don’t need to argue for a value. Instead, values provide the compass and North Star to our arguments. Values can be possessed by an individual, a group, or even a whole society. For example, a broadly American value is freedom. We tend to value the idea of people having the ability to do what they like, say what they like, and believe what they like. We believe that it is good for people to possess freedom in general. And it is important to note that what makes this a value and not merely a logical assertion is that this is an assumed good. This is such a deeply held belief that it is not something that people think, but it is something that they think with. It’s like a gut instinct or intuition, at least it feels that way.
Now you may be wondering, “But if these values don’t come from reason, where do they come from?” The short answer is socialization. We pick up our values, in the sense that I’m using, from other people, particularly people close in our social circles. Now, you would think that it’s important for our values to have some kind of grounding in a transcendent reality outside of our own feelings and society. Something/someone like the creator of all things would likely do, but of course this is no longer a given in western society. Anyway, the point is that for all practical purposes, especially for rhetorical purposes, it does not matter whether or not people have any justification for their values outside of themselves and their social group. Unsurprisingly, people are able to hold to values without having any real justification for them. Yet, the values still exist and they still guide people’s decision making. This is the important point for our discussion.
It’s also important to recognize that our values, especially deeply ingrained values, become a part of our own self-identity. We start to identify with these values. Thus, if you’re someone who particularly values care for the environment as a core value, this quickly becomes part of who you are. Any attacks on this value will be perceived as an attack to your person. This is why people can quickly become defensive and get incredibly emotionally worked up over things that wouldn’t normally cause such a reaction.
Why Our Arguments Fail
Our arguments fail not because they’re not logically sound. They fail because our arguments are not appealing to the values that a person holds closest. It goes without saying that different people have different values. You might value things like individual autonomy, personal responsibility, and stability. However, another person might value things like care for the marginalized, inclusivity, and innovation. The arguments that we tend to find most convincing are those that speak to our own core values. And these arguments will work with others if we happen to be talking to people who share our core values, but if we are not, as is so often the case in our pluralistic and diverse society, they will fall flat on their face.
An example is helpful. Let’s say I want to argue for an increased minimum wage. If I am making my argument to someone who is more on the left, then I could very easily make an argument based on appeals to values such as income equality and the role of government in protecting individuals from business interests. I might say something like, “We need a higher minimum wage to ensure that lower and working class individuals are not taken advantage of by their employers and denied a livable wage so that they can provide for their families just like the rest of us.” However, if I am making my argument to someone who is not on the left, but on the right, this argument will fall flat on its face. They might respond with counterarguments about there being potentially fewer jobs available when employers are forced to pay higher wages or that society has no obligation to ensure that it is possible for all people to earn a livable wage. The natural response here would be to deal with these counterarguments and attempt to show how they don’t actually negate the original argument.
However, these counterarguments are not their real issue. The real issue is that I have appealed to values that the other person does not hold as core values. I can have perfect retorts to all of their counterarguments, but they will just keep coming up with more, like a hydra, if my argument does not appeal to core values that they already hold.
This is because all counterarguments are after-the-fact formulations. They are not rejecting my argument because of their counterarguments, rather they are rejecting my argument because my argument was not properly tailored to this person’s gut-level values, where we actually make decisions. Arguments are in a sense like clothes; they have to be tailored to fit the person to whom we are making our argument. Just because one garment fits one person, does not mean that it will fit another person, especially if they are of a very different size or shape.
How to Make an Argument
This is why our arguments must take into account whom we are arguing with if we want them to be effective. We’ll come back to the minimum wage example shortly, but for now let’s look at something a little simpler. Let’s say you are trying to convince your boss at work that there should be an office party for the upcoming holiday. This isn’t something the office has done before and it’s not something that your boss feels very strongly about. She just doesn’t see the point. It seems like it would be a waste of time. Now, there are several angles that you could take. You could make the argument that an office party will fill the office with holiday cheer and allow everybody to have a good time with each other and socialize, and if these are the sorts of things that you boss values (office socialization and emotional atmosphere), then she will find this convincing, but if instead she values things like productivity and data, then you’ll need to make a different argument.
You could argue that despite what you might think, office parties actually tend to boost office productivity since they give people a chance to relax and socialize. It makes people happier, and happier people are more productive people. And then you cite sociological study that demonstrated this very thing with offices. (I have no idea if this is actually true, but that doesn’t matter here.) This argument has a far greater chance of being successful, since it appeals to core values of your boss. These might not be the reasons that you want the office party, but they are the reasons that your boss might want an office party.
Advanced Value Arguments
Of course, some situations are not so simple. Let’s go back to the example about minimum wage. As far as political issues go, this one is not really one of the more volatile hot-button issues, but many people still have strong emotions tied to it.
Someone might be opposed to minimum wage increases because they value things like limited government and the free market. They’re already predisposed against the very idea of the government telling businesses what to pay their workers. This is not an ambivalent matter for them.
The way to overcome this is to use someone’s own values against them. In other words, you have to pit one of their core values against the core value that is causing them to reject the thing that you’re arguing for. If you can construct an argument wherein it is impossible for someone to hold on to both values simultaneously, they will be forced to reconcile the tension. We don’t like this kind of cognitive dissonance and will do whatever we can to resolve it. If you have made your argument well and have chosen a value that is closer to the person than the one that is preventing them from accepting your proposal, then you have a decent chance of being successful. You might not convince them immediately; People are rarely convinced of anything in the moment anyway. But they will be forced to think critically and deeply and see the issue in a new light.
With minimum wage, you might bring up the fact that with many big employers that pay minimum wage, like Wal-Mart, many of their employees are also on some kind of government assistance program like food stamps so that they can pay for basic necessities like food. In the case of Wal-Mart, their employees often turn around and spend their wages and their food stamps at Wal-Mart. One might ask a fiscal conservative, why it is that we have a system wherein the government is effectively subsidizing the wages that Wal-Mart is paying their employees. Shouldn’t companies take care of their own costs without government subsidies?
This argument can be quite successful since it appeals to a fiscal conservative’s disdain for government assistance programs and big government. The argument has been constructed in such a way that a higher minimum wage would be a choice in favor of smaller government since it would diminish the dependence of minimum wage workers on government assistance programs. It also appeals to the value of personal responsibility since it seems to suggest that Wal-Mart as a corporation is being lazy by depending on indirect government subsidies.
These values are then pitted against the value of not having the government tell businesses what to do. People will generally be okay with overriding core values if it is in the service of other more important core values.
This has all been a long way of saying that it is important to tailor fit your arguments to the person that you are talking with. Also, we tend to assume that we can be more successful rhetorically if we just try harder and make more forceful arguments. However, often we will find more success if we take a step back, assess the situation, and then find the angle that will be most successful. In essence: argue smarter not harder.
This is especially important since our society and discourse is rapidly deteriorating and fragmenting into various competing factions. It’s too easy to just talk past people who are coming from a different perspective than us. Speaking to other people’s values rather than from our own is a way of taking our conversation partner seriously. It’s a way of listening to them and then responding accordingly. If we want to be able to have meaningful and productive conversations with people outside of our own like-minded circles, then we have to learn how to take these dynamics into account.
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