The Privilege of Charity, Part II

Having ventured into the question of privilege and how it relates to the approach I’ve been putting forward (I really need a pithy name for it; any suggestions?) from one direction, I need to tackle it from the other, more interesting one: Is charity too much to ask?

Is it akin to this comic, where we ask everyone to do the same thing, to practice due diligence in argumentation, but the request is still ludicrously unfair because of the differential abilities of the people involved? Is it true that marginalized people cannot be expected to be charitable to people who intentionally or accidentally use harmful words or convey harmful ideas?

A commenter in an atheism plus thread about this excellent piece on how privileged folks respond to the world being changed around them expressed it in this way,

“For lack of better wording, the parts of me that are oppressed just sighed a bit. It’s a piece that touches on tone, even if it’s not 100% about it. There are days when I can handle my tone, and days when that just is not going to happen. There are days when I can hand out some sympathy and understanding for a person who is clearly just trying to grasp it all. And there are days when I just want to be surrounded by people who already get it, and aren’t asking anything of me.”

This commenter is expressing a sentiment about ability; they simply cannot always be charitable, and so it is ridiculous to expect it of them. I am entirely sympathetic to this. It is hard to talk to people who are long inferential distances away from you, or who are ignorant or apathetic to issues important to you, or who are perhaps being intentionally cruel. It is incredibly tempting to “smack down” the offenders with the wittiest, snarkiest, most “burn” inducing response you can think of, or perhaps tell them exactly how bigoted and awful they are, or any number of other approachesI’ve been arguing against. I understand and agree. I experience that desire myself on a regular basis.

In such instances, charity is indeed, like so many other things, easier for the privileged. People who are privileged have an easier time being emotionally distant enough to not feel overwhelmed by anger, sadness or frustration. People who are privileged don’t have to be triggered, or fear for their life or safety as a result of certain conversations. People who are privileged are less personally invested in the outcome of arguments.

But if you believe the claims Dan Fincke and I have been making, then charity and diligence are both of ethical and strategic importance, whether or not they are privileged pursuits. Being wealthy is a privilege, too, for instance, and that doesn’t change the fact that money is helpful in achieving certain goals, including social justice ones. Wealth being a privilege doesn’t mean that SJ-oriented groups shouldn’t try to raise money. In the same way, even if charity is, in this sense, a privilege, we have to do it anyway. If we are going to argue, we must do it properly. So my answer is no, charity is not too much to ask.

But that is an abstract answer. What about specifics? How do individuals make decisions about how to engage?

Offshoot Discussion 1: There are only two kinds of spaces: safe spaces and educational spaces.  

I firmly believe that charity and diligence are possible for most people in most circumstances. But I freely grant that they are not for all or in all cases. I have certainly felt the inability to respond productively to someone who was really pushing my buttons. When any of us find ourselves in this situation, we should remove ourselves from the conversation. If we need to talk about the issue or the incident, we should find ourselves a safe space. That’s what they are for, and they are great.

But there are only two kinds of spaces as relates to social justice discourse: safe spaces and educational spaces. And educational spaces, where there are those who must be convinced to agree with our causes, can be won or lost on the strength of persuasiveness and argument. Educational spaces are where we must work to be as effectively convincing as possible so as to win support and allies. Educational spaces are where we don’t want unproductive arguments and uncharitable approaches to get in the way of our missions.

To be absolutely clear, I do not in any sense desire that marginalized people be left out of the discussion. Their input is absolutely crucial to making the world better. Without, their ideas, stories and perspective, it is impossible to fix the problems faced by those society mistreats and renders invisible. Anyone, including the (often rightfully) angry, frustrated, offended, can and should participate in public conversations. It is merely the case that we must all hold ourselves to the same general standards, and refrain from engaging if we cannot.

Offshoot Discussion #2: Allies, use your privilege right!

Because charity is, as I’ve admitted, easier for the privileged, it’s my opinion that the privileged should engage in it as much as possible. Natalie Reed, in this fantastic piece, says,

“l context it occurs within (such as a feminist reading and discussion group, or an abuse-survivor’s support group, or a feminist subreddit), it becomes a means by which the importance of a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced and non-oppressive approach to trans issues can be normalized and affirmed as an aspect of that social context…And so long as you benefit from cis privilege, and you acknowledge such social inequities as a bad thing, it IS kinda your responsibility to take whatever opportunities you have for helping make things a bit better. And that includes educating each other. And being nice about it, if that’s what the situation demands.” [Emphasis mine]

And the atheism plus commenter, in the same comment from above, says,

“After all, my privileged half (of course) is saying, “I can do that.” As in, I can see myself nearly 100% keeping my tone calm when I’m in the ally position. I can see myself in “education mode“. I can see myself handing out sympathy while still guiding someone by the hand, when I know they so badly just want to understand what’s going on, and they don’t want to end up the “bad guy”. I have the privilege that their questions don’t hit a nerve with me. I can use that, and should use that.” [Emphasis mine]

It is the role of allies in general to consider how best use their own privilege to the advantage of the marginalized they seek to support. Any ally who feels that charity is overly privileged should consider using their own privilege to do the hard work of charity and due diligence. They, and any marginalized person who feels able to engage in this way, can push conversations forward, moving past mere calling-out to more thoughtful, nuanced discussion about how to improve our communities and societies.

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The Privilege of Charity, Part I

Is the construction of “civil discourse” one that benefits those who already have power? Is my attempt to create spaces where arguments are more productive fundamentally disadvantaging to the people I might be trying to help? Is the very ability to be charitable a privilege?

I think not. But I think these are very good questions, and I’m going to address them.

The issue of the potentially privileged nature of the approach I’ve been discussing lo these many weeks can be split into two main parts: focus and ability. Focus is about the first and second questions above, in which the emphases and priorities of those who defend the approach are brought under scrutiny. In other words, do we care about the wrong things, possibly as a result of our privileged viewpoint? Ability is about the third question above, in which we must ask ourselves whether we are asking for something unreasonable. Does charity require a skill or characteristic that marginalized people tend not to have?

This post will be about focus. The next will be about ability.

The approach I’ve been outlining has three major pillars, which all intertwine and intersect:

1) Effectiveness of Persuasion: Most of the arguments I’ve made have rested on the assumption that the goal is to persuade or convince other people, whether they are in the conversations or merely observers. Given this goal, there is for every situation some optimal approach that is most likely to result in the goal being attained, even if it’s one we can’t know. I have argued that certain methods and approaches have a higher success rate than others.

2) Due Diligence: I reframed “charity” in an almost deontological way, with a basis in the belief that certain forms of discourse are good and others are bad. I defined due diligence fairly broadly, encompassing a wide variety of approaches. Nevertheless, I think there are a number of responsibilities that are incumbent on people who argue, on the internet or elsewhere. I have never stated what specifically I think falls out of this category, but Dan Fincke does an excellent job here.

Importantly, this belief is not in fact deontological, and mostly serves as the set of actions that are most likely to lead to an effective argument.

3) Charitability: The ethos of my approach can be described as one based on empathy, both of emotion, in which we understand how people feel when they are disagreed with, attacked or made to feel that their identity is threatened, and of reason, wherein we seek to understand what others believe and why.

This has an ethical component which may be somewhat separable from merely the best way to win an argument, but it, too is part of what I think is necessary for arguments to be effective.

So, one by one!

1) Is a focus on effectiveness privileged?

Yes and no. I do not think it elevates Voldemort and the Death Eaters over Dumbledore’s Army to suggest that the DA learn better and more powerful spells. It is an attempt, in fact, to do the opposite, to reduce the power differential by improving the tools of the weaker, more just, side. It fundamentally seeks to advantage the marginalized, not disadvantage them.

In some cases, the privileged, whose wands are untouched by actual battle, might appear to be cluelessly asking, “Why don’t you just use better spells?” But anyone who actually offers the olden textbooks filled with spells of hitherto unknown power is helping to make the army stronger. In doing so, they are reducing the effect of privilege, by giving the marginalized access to the quality of tool potentially restricted to the privileged, (itself an equalizing action), and then, by that very action, making the battle against the structures that marginalize in the first place more likely to be won. It is well known that there is a two-prong element to marginalization that allows it to be entrenched so deeply. First a group is marginalized, and then their marginalization removes the tools they need to fight against it. The quest for effective argument is itself two pronged, working to counter both of these elements of marginalization.

To use this West Wing example again: yes, what we see is an older white man correcting, maybe even “educating” a younger black man. Is Aaron Sorkin racist? Maybe. But is Judge Mulready doing harm to the cause of affirmative action and anti-racism? I think not. (Relevant portion 7:18-7:47)

1b) But it is the marginalized who are in the midst of the fight. Do they not know best what they need to win? And if so, is it not privileged to offer, even demand, a change of strategy that has not been asked for? Why have I not asked the marginalized (which, in most categories, I am not), what they need, and supplied that?

This gets three answers. Before I begin, though, it is worth pointing out that my arguments have not been addressed only to those involved in social justice, but to everyone who argues for anything. And insofar as they relate or have been related by me to social justice, I have not been only addressing the marginalized, but also their allies. With that in mind:

One, I have given what I think is useful. Whether or not it is rests only on the strength of my arguments in favor of the approach. If it turns out that what I have offered is useless, then perhaps I have been the clueless privileged person mentioned above, trying to change what did not need changing, or at least did not need the change I could provide. But if not, and I currently believe not, then I have helped in the best way I know how, which I believe is my ethical responsibility.

Two, as a woman, I do belong to a historically disadvantaged group. In fighting against that disadvantage, I am a feminist. That doesn’t give me the right to speak for all women or all feminists, but I think my approach would be highly useful to feminists and greatly improve the efficacy of feminist rhetoric. Given that, in my readings and research I have seen no reason why the effectiveness of argument might be helpful for feminists and not for anti-racists, or trans activists, or gay activists or anti-ableism activists. If someone has one, I would love to hear it.

Three, I belong to many historically advantaged groups. I am white. I am not poor. I am cisgendered. I am able-bodied. In the fights for equality that center around those axes of identity, I am an ally, not a member. And I believe it is precisely my job as an ally to spend a lot of time in arguments, trying to convince people to be and do better. This is even more true if it is in fact the case that being charitable is a privileged thing. Great! I’m privileged! Most of us are privileged in some form or another! Changing the minds of other privileged folks is one of the things we can do to make our privilege useful. The next blog post will expand on this greatly.

2) Due Diligence: Is a focus on due diligence privileged?

No. I do not think that agreeing on a baseline of appropriate and proper conduct in argument privileges one group over another, even if the groups have unequal power to begin with. Is this an example of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls a “dehumanizing hyper-morality”, in which we require of the marginalized goodness far beyond their humanity in dealing with oppressors? No, I do not think so. In an age where there are few physical barriers to being heard (though of course there are others), I think there are ethical standards that are entirely reasonable for anyone engaging in argument. We do not abuse; we do not bully; we do not use damaging slurs. Look at the list I created; is it truly asking too much? I again point my readers to this Dan Fincke piece where he explains these ideas in full.  And again, I think due diligence makes us more effective against the effects of privilege. It’s hard to see, then, if I am correct, how it could itself be privileged.

3) Is a focus on charitability privileged?

No. It certainly looks as if it could be, since the concept might frequently be applied to Social Justice Warriors, claiming they should be charitable to privileged people, a situation which looks suspiciously like protecting the privileged from criticism. But it does not need to be so. First, I must reiterate, that I believe and have argued that charitability makes arguments more effective. It is a rare thing that more knowledge is a hindrance rather than a help. Knowing our opponents, how they make their arguments and what compels them to believe what they do, can only help us convince them. Second, it is a core social justice concept that the privileged are in general not themselves the oppressors. They are caught up in an oppressive system, just like everyone else. It happens to be that they benefit from it, and often perpetuate it, but they are not it. It is a tragedy that white people have learned that their worth lies in their superiority and entitlement. It is a tragedy that men are taught that their masculinity rests on dominance and physical prowess. It is a tragedy that straight people have so little confidence in their expressions of love that they must institutionalize them to protect them. The humanization (and subsequent persuasion) of these opponents, then, is as fundamental to the work of social justice as everything else.

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Bridging the Gap: Inferential Distance and Social Justice

Research2BeDone has put his finger on what I agree is the most fundamental problem facing those trying to discuss social justice issues with people who aren’t familiar with the concepts involved: large inferential distances. Inferential distances are those gaps between our knowledge and the knowledge of others that make it hard to convey ideas. The example given over at Less Wrong is:

Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to a physicist would be easy; even if the physicist didn’t already know about evolution, they would understand the concepts of evidence, Occam’s razor, naturalistic explanations, and the general orderly nature of the universe. Explaining the evidence for the theory of evolution to someone without a science background would be much harder. Before even mentioning the specific evidence for evolution, you would have to explain the concept of evidence, why some kinds of evidence are more valuable than others, what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and so on. This would be unlikely to work during a short conversation.

Similarly, one SJ-oriented friend might be able to convey to another SJ-oriented friend why complaining about the term “cisgender” on the basis that the term is stolen from chemistry is problematic with a single step. They don’t have to explain about the way labels can empower or how words can do harm or how derailing works or what cisprivilege is, let alone privilege in general. They can just allude to all of that shared knowledge and assume it’s understood and believed. For the mathematically minded, all the lemmas have already been shown, and from there the theorem is a one step proof.

But without being able to assume all of the information, ideas and analysis that go into the Social Justice™ system, it’s much, much harder to explain what’s going on. In fact, you can’t do it directly at all. To properly make the argument, some patient and charitable soul would have to start from the beginning, the core axioms, work through all the basic approaches and forms of analysis, arguing all the way that they are legitimate and worthwhile, then showing how they apply to the situation in question, and hoping desperately that they’re still paying attention by the end. And that’s in the best case scenario, where it doesn’t disintegrate into slurs, derailing or unproductive mud-slinging before the explanation is over. Just like in math.

It seems unfair, of course, that in order just to convince someone to stop believing harmful and incorrect things, that much work has to be done. The answer seems obvious, if you already have all of the knowledge, information and assumptions. But from the other side, it isn’t at all. In fact, it’s not rational to find it obvious. Without an explanation that starts with assumptions that are in fact shared, someone who doesn’t currently agree with our fictional Social Justice Warrior doesn’t have reason to believe what they’re being told. Just as so many creationists disbelieve science because it rests on the concept of the scientific method (which they do not accept), and mathematicians dismiss proofs that require unproven assumptions (except the unproven assumptions they like), this non-SJ-er must reject the notion that “cisgender” should be a required part of hir vocabulary. (Much like hir). Note that mathematics and creationism have somewhat different truth values. It doesn’t matter; this is still how it feels from the inside to believe some things and not others.

How do we change that belief? More specifically, “How does one go about helping everyone on either side of an inferential distance gap understand each other?”

By bridging the gap! Get rid of it entirely, by meeting the person you’re talking to where they are.
The following steps provide a guideline (much of which is laid out originally here):

  1. If you require a baseline of civility or respect for the conversation to continue, make it clear from the outset. In the spirit of “you don’t have to get it to respect it,” you can demand that arguments must be in good faith and that certain words that you feel are harmful and cruel not be used for the duration of the conversation.
  2. Find out how far back the disagreement goes by finding the most basic assumptions you agree on. Best way to do this is just to ask: “Do you agree with this? How about this?” until you figure it out.
  3. Start from there and make your case. Try not to use jargon or specialized language that the non-SJ-er doesn’t use without definition. Step by step, get them from their column to yours. If you find you can’t prove your point from that far back, it’s time to ask yourself again why you believe what you believe.


  1. Obviously, use all the techniques I’ve been talking about. Anticipate counterarguments as you walk them through your case. Argue the best version of their position. Be willing to change your own mind. Don’t insult them, even if they deserve it. Don’t assume their intentions are bad.
  2. Since you’re taking them through a long series of steps, be willing to accept compromise. Be happy if you took them through some of the steps, even if you had to stop there. It’s all a journey.
  3. Similarly, since going through this many steps is hard, see if there are any places to make it easier. Skip nonvital steps. Condense and simplify if you get the opportunity. This will both help your argument and teach you what parts of your argument are required for the rest to stand and what parts are not.
  4. If, in order to agree with you, one or more of their identities might be in jeopardy, be careful. Allow the entire thing to be a thought experiment. Try to fit it in with a more deeply-held identity. Try to help build up a belief structure that will replace the one they’re abandoning. Remember that it may not be “just an argument” to them either.
  5. Being able to construct your own argument from first principles is great. Being able to construct the other side’s is even better. It allows for so much insight into why they don’t agree with you in the first place, which makes you more charitable and more effective when you’re looking to win them over.

The tips might look intimidating, but the important part has only three steps. It’s really that simple. It’s hard to be perfectly persuasive all throughout the argument, it’s hard to make an argument that extensive, and it’s frustrating to do it over and over again. But it is simple. For those willing to do it, arguing with people who have entirely different assumptions is just the task of laying out a path, slowly but surely, from one set of beliefs to another.

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

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Worth Talking To

Keith Lowell Jensen, an atheist comedian, has a bit in a talk he gives, where he addresses the question of whether atheists should even bother to engage religious people, or whether it’s not worth it. After all, it never works, right? He responds by asking those in the audience who were once religious to raise their hands. Then he says, “I think we were worth it.”

The same idea, I think, can be applied to the question of engaging with people who don’t understand issues of social justice, of privilege, power, marginalization, rape culture, shaming, oppression and intersectionality. For people who are on the bad end of any of these societal problems and their allies, it can seem like a never-ending and pointless battle to fight with those who don’t get it. The same arguments come up over and over again, the same facts must be rehashed, the same exchanges get repeated. It’s basically like arguing with creationists.

But everyone who agrees with the extensive and intricate understanding of the ways that power is socially organized and allocated that falls under the Social Justice position came to that position somehow. Unlike atheism, it’s not really the kind of thing you can get born into. That means that they all started out not understanding it, possibly not agreeing with it. Most of us, probably started out that way.

So I ask you now: weren’t they worth it? weren’t we worth it?

And so, aren’t many other people? Aren’t they worth talking to?

Now, no one is obligated to engage and educate about social justice (or any other) issues. It’s hard and painful and frustrating and annoying. There are trolls and people arguing in bad faith. Some people are stubborn and ignorant and cruel. But it is worth doing; people are worth talking to.

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Hopefully, working on making our arguments more effective will make the process of discussion and education a less frustrating endeavor.

All-or-nothing is All Wrong

Let us imagine an enormous cavern. Two people who are arguing with each other are on two pillars with spotlights above them. The rest is darkness. Their goal is to get the other person to switch columns. Using an all-or-nothing approach is like talking only about the rightness of Column B and the utter uselessness of Column A, and in fact Columns C-Z as well. Nothing but total agreement is acceptable or has any value at all. There’s a lot wrong with this approach.

1. It’s wrong: It is almost never true that only one position in an argument is reasonable or acceptable. A finite amount of evidence (which itself might be reasonably interpretable in multiple ways) usually gives us a range of positions that could be arrived at rationally given different starting positions. Ignoring those multiple pathways is an intellectual mistake, especially if the people are arguing are have different sets of evidence and different approaches to analysis. For example, when arguing about a complicated subject, not first principles, it’s irrational to think that someone should concede on a point that runs counter to their core assumptions. Arguing about environmental policy when disagreeing about global warming rationally shouldn’t lead to agreement without a proper discussion about global warming, and it’s therefore irrational to expect it.

2. It’s unproductive: Even in cases like a (mostly) round earth, evolution and taxes being a necessary part of government, where there really is only one answer, it is hardly ever the case that accepting nothing but full agreement is a helpful approach to getting someone to change their mind. It’s the column situation above, where Person B continues to argue that Column B is *obviously* right and Column A *obviously* wrong, without telling anyone how to get from one to the other. Even if it seems clear that they should switch, without that knowledge, it’s much safer to stay at Column A rather than grope around in the darkness.

This is basically by definition the wrong way to have an argument. It doesn’t acknowledge any possible counterarguments. It’s not at all charitable to Person B’s Column. It’s not nuanced. It’s a dig-your-heels-in, battle-to-the-death kind of argument. Those don’t tend to change people’s minds. That’s why intransigence is far more likely to lead to backfiring, defensiveness and offense than the desired result.

Also, it’s not even a real argument. Ignoring entirely the possibility of being wrong makes arguments farcical. Not taking anything your opponent says seriously if it doesn’t agree with your position takes away the possibility of learning from them. It’s not a true engagement with the ideas, and it essentially ignores the fact that your opponent can think.

3. It’s a win for irrationality: Even if the all-or-nothing approach worked at changing someone’s mind, it seems that would be almost certain to be a result of deference to a more confident opponent rather than a true acknowledgment of the intellectual benefits of the other position.

All of the points I made above about why these arguments probably won’t change anyone’s mind are the same reasons that make the unlikely agreement unlikely to be rational. After all, arguments that only allow for full agreement don’t tend to lead to a sober analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of two or more positions. They don’t involve a proper assessment of the available evidence. They don’t weigh alternative interpretations of the evidence. It’s hard for me to see, then, how that agreement could actually have been arrived at in a rational way.

This is a problem. We don’t want people just to believe one thing over another, but also believe it for the right reasons. We don’t want to bludgeon our opponents into agreement; we want them to actually agree on rational grounds. Besides the obvious reasons, the only way that they could go on to defend that very position to others is if they understood why they agreed with it in the first place. And also, when we allow our opponents to really think about the position, they might even teach us something.

4. It’s mean: Demanding utter concession makes arguments ugly. It’s a shaming, humiliating approach. It means there can be no compromise, and sometimes not even an acceptance that someone might need to think about something for awhile. This creates a punishment for being wrong without any useful way to become more right, other than total, even unthinking (see above), capitulation. Without full agreement, Person A will simply continue on with how wrong Person B is. Even when there’s been some movement towards column A, Person B is still totally wrong about everything they haven’t conceded yet.

There is a true cruelty to that, one which, frankly, disincentivizes thinking. Because if what someone gets for engaging with new ideas, or even trying to see what changing positions would be like, is the same constant pressure, and no acknowledgement of their thinking, they have no reason to do it any more. Mind changing is painful enough as it is; making it harder only makes it less likely to happen.

How to Do It Better
Every argument should be a chance for everyone in it to learn something. That’s why it’s so great when skeptics are fervent about knowing what would convince them they were wrong, which is the equivalent of knowing the series of steps that would take them from their column to someone else’s and the willingness to walk them if there is sufficient evidence. This ensures that every discussion is, to greater and lesser extents, about every participant making sure they believe what is best supported by the evidence. Arguments like these foster a respectful environment of mutual learning, where everyone is, at least a little bit, productively unsure and figuring it out together.

Arguments should also be, as much as possible, imbued with a spirit of good will. When someone makes a good point, praise it, whether or not it helps your position. (Though, tactically, you should certainly praise them when it seems like they’ve understood or agree with one of your points). Make their arguments better. Acknowledge insufficiencies in your own argument. Tell someone when they’ve made an argument you haven’t heard before, or one that taught you something. Admit when they bring up a piece of evidence you hadn’t heard before. Learning is a process, so offer compromises, even if they’re not totally the position you want them to have. In all things, foster an environment of learning rather than battle.

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Don’t Make it About Identity

The day I started calling myself an atheist, I was reading The God Delusion during Rosh Hashanah services (sorry Rabbi Goldberg!) when I was about 14 years old. At the time I was calling myself a pantheist, but when Dawkins dismissed the notion as “sexed-up atheism”, I felt I could no longer bother with it either. But there was a final hurdle. I shuffled through the seats over to my father, sitting in a different row, and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up, I whispered fearfully, “Babbo, am I allowed to be Jewish if I’m an atheist?” With a smile he said something like, “Well, my reconstructionist synagogue never cared.” (Point of reference: He’d never told me he was an atheist before this).

What a relief! I could breathe easy again, knowing that a crucial identity was salvageable even as another crumbled. It was this which allowed me to immediately start identifying as an atheist. It would have been much harder, and perhaps harder even just to allow myself not to believe in God, had I been told otherwise.

Identity is very hard and uncomfortable to change, so we avoid that change whenever possible, even if it means maintaining a position that another part of us might know is wrong. This is where we get phenomena like cognitive dissonance and denial and confirmation bias; we’ll do seemingly anything to not have to totally reconfigure ourselves. Arguments about identity, then, become very unproductive very quickly. So if we want someone to change their mind,  we shouldn’t make the argument about identity at all, if we don’t have to. If you’re arguing about tax rates, don’t make it about Democrat vs. Republican. If you’re arguing about the Affordable Care Act’s exemptions for churches, don’t frame it as religious vs. nonreligious. All you’re asking for is their brain’s Identity Protection Racket to kick into high gear and end the conversation.

This goes double when you’re “on the same side”, both vying for the title of True Type, like True Christian or True Rationalist. When that happens, the conversation has stopped being about the issue at hand and started to be about the ability of the people involved to protect their emotional investment and their sense of self. That’s terribly unproductive and also overly harsh, for everyone. Stick to the argument at hand, and don’t let it become  the Battle of the Identities.

(And by the way, this all goes triple when the title you’re fighting for is Good Person. That’s the kind of identity we’ll protect at all costs. Threatening that (by trying to get someone to admit that they’re racist or sexist, for instance) usually gets you a lot of trouble. Whenever possible, stick to the facts and the specific argument.)

In fact, what this very cool study suggests is that, far from challenging an identity, we should affirm the relevant identity of the person we’re arguing with. In a sense, try to see them as they see themselves. Make sure they know you see them as what they identify with, and make sure that they know that the debate is not about whether they have a right to that identity. How?

  • You could emphasize the importance of their identity to the debate: “As a Christian, don’t you think you should support helping to universalize healthcare?”
  • You could separate the issue in question from their identity: “Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you can’t like the fiscal cliff deal.”
  • You could even bring in salient figures that match their identity that agreed with you on a position: “Freidrich Hayek, a libertarian (classical liberal) thinker, supported a minimum wage for everyone, possibly paid for by the government.”

He also supported cool mustaches and hair gel, apparently.

These approaches make the argument not about whether or not their identity is correct, but only about whether their position is correct. That’s not only important to the productiveness of the argument, but also to how we’re treating our opponent. After all, our identities are very important to us. Challenging them makes a discussion personal and tense in a way they often don’t need to be. Asking people to think of themselves differently is a tall and difficult order, and it should be treated as such. It isn’t the kind of thing to do thoughtlessly, in the context of a debate that’s about something else.

When we remove the debate from the identity question, we get a much easier and less emotionally fraught issue, which is much more likely to result in a changed mind. That’s what my father accidentally did for me by assuring me that I could remain a Jew. He made me feel like my core was remaining strong and the god issue was just tinkering, which made it easier to change my mind on that question. And even if no minds are changed, the discussion is much more likely to be a productive one, since no one is forced to feel like they have to defend their own identities.

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