How to Convince Your Opponents
Speak in the words of those you never want to sound like
This entire post is very easy to summarise: choose what you want to achieve and speak in the language of those who want to achieve the opposite.
“People always think well of speeches adapted to, and reflecting, their own character: and we can now see how to compose our speeches so as to adapt both them and ourselves to our audiences.” - Aristotle, Rhetoric, Part XIII (trans Roberts)
Unlike the period of classical or renaissance rhetoric, for any movements or causes today there are vast examples of all kinds of persuasive attempts to learn from. But the biggest lesson, so often missed, is the ability to speak in the language of your opponents.
If we look at arguments from the outside - its pretty impressive how bad most people are at making them. This is often because winning is only part of people’s motivations, even when winning is vitally important. Often they are largely competing for in-group signalling points (“Look how well I can represent our interests”) or they’re looking for opportunites to embarrass their opponents into submission before their mighty reason/debunking mindset.
I find this quite strange. A laser focus on success is clearly hard to maintain, and too many fall into the trap of forgetting what the goal truly is. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, for example, invested a great deal of money in seats that pollsters warned were essentially unwinnable. In an analysis after their historic losses in 2019, it turned out that the Labour party leadership “ripped up those rules” of listening to polling results and wanted to prove a series of disconnected side-points to their goal of actually winning the election.
Moreso than this, however, it strikes me how little effort people or campaigns actually dedicate to speaking in the language of their opponents. The best example of this recently is the effort to vaccinate as many Americans as possible against Covid-19. (Please put aside your own particular thoughts on vaccination, or covid or anything else - instead, I want to look solely at the tactics used to encourage vaccination).
Becoming vaccinated became, like all things in US politics, yet another front of the culture war. Like left-wing Democrats still wearing masks outside in 2022, becoming vaccinated became a signal (largely) of mainstream Democratic beliefs. One estimate has ~90% of Democrats vaccinated, against ~60% of Republicans. This is clearly tied to Republican beliefs in particular, and not just right-wing movements in general. For example, this is not a pattern matched in the UK, where any difference between party affiliation and vaccination is essentially non-existent - instead, just about everyone is vaccinated (in fact, one small study finds that conservative beliefs made someone more likely to be vaccinated in the UK).
Now picture yourself a part of the US government and tasked with encouraging vaccination. Or picture yourself as a Democrat, who believes that a low uptake of vaccines would cause the US to forever be locked in covid-limbo. Or just picture yourself as the mayor of a republican town seeing massive numbers of infected, with hospitals filled to the brim and people choking to death without medical attention. You have a single task before you: Get more jabs in arms. You have to convince that hesitant 40% to get on board. What you’d predict to see, is clever messaging directed towards those populations, spoken in the language and morals of those populations…
This is obviously not what happened. Instead, I was stunned to see how few arguments were advanced in any republican friendly language. Instead, nearly all of the language used was persuasive to the people making the argument- ie, the people that had already been vaccinated. We saw tactics of shame (a left-wing go-to), we saw “de-bunking” of republican ideas on democrat leaning news sites, and we saw whatever the hell this was. What didn’t we see? Arguments that appealed to those republicans.
This struck me as totally bizarre. It was a situation clearly malleable to hardcore republican sympathies. The messaging should have been relatively clear: There was a virus discovered in China - a nation that a Republican president has recently levied a trade war against. China’s communist government had failed to contain this novel virus, which had since leaked into America and was now felling American citizens as it spread uncontrolled. The vaccine discovery and rollout in the US was spearheaded through a Republican president’s programme, named Operation Warp Speed(!). It was developed by American companies, with American technology, within a record-breaking short timespan - the clearest evidence of American exceptionalism. It was a war-like effort, propelled through American ingenuity, rolled out immediately to protect American lives against the carelessness of the Chinese communists that had spilled their problems onto American soil. Getting the vaccine was a patriotic effort to keep Americans healthy against this new viral enemy. Being an American means getting vaccinated - not doing so, is supporting the weakening of America through the misbehaviour of Chinese communism. Where were the flag waiving TV ads?
When I have floated this idea to Democrats, the response is always the same: “I don’t like the implications of some of that”. They’re concerned about anti-China rhetoric (though none of the above is considered false), or they’re concerned that “it feeds a kind of nationalism”. In other words: Democrats don’t like how republican it sounds. They find it to be distasteful, and they don’t much want to speak like that. The question is - how badly do you want Republicans to get vaccinated to the same level as Democrats? And - of course - the response is, essentially, “I really do, but I’d rather they did so by agreeing with the things I like as well”.
This unwillingness to appeal to opponent’s beliefs and language is across the board. No matter how dire climate change is considered to be, true believers - such as Extinction Rebellion in the UK, prefer to protest through lying in the middle of roads, dressing in bizarre amateur dramatic outfits, gluing themselves to trains, or pretty much anything else other than speaking in the language of those that disagree with them. It’s not that these protests are used alongside efforts to convince or speak to opposing views - its that these protests are the entire persuasive effort. In fact, when it comes to more quieter action, their focus is entirely on further left-wing policies: they expressly tie climate change to left-wing views - ensuring that they cut off at least 50% of their potential audience.
This is far from just a democrat or left-wing problem - this is endemic. In fact, it is arguably worse in right-wing circles. Much of modern right-wing political communication is expressly designed to “own the libs” - just to rile up and annoy their opponents. This is useful for galvanising your own side, but it isn’t useful for political persuasion. Much of modern right-wing political communication exists almost entirely in opposition to the approach of speaking in the moral language of your opponents. This is detrimental to its power to persuade, but also to right-wing governance and thought - it creates an entirely reactive movement, with few clear positive goals. It is also, perhaps, a contributing reason to how successful left-wing views have been culturally, particularly over the past decade. If conservatives want to persuade more of their opponents (and they need to, to win cultural influence as well as elections), then it would be wise to consider the values and speak in the language of their opponents.
Finally, this is not an argument for centrism - nor is it an argument to adopt the values of your opponents.It is an argument for a rhetorical strategy - for understanding the world-view of those who oppose your thoughts, and finding common ground you can speak from. There is an underlying empathy to this - an encouragement to be able to Ideologically Turing Test yourself for the beliefs of those you oppose - but it is not a statement that it is best to compromise with your opponents. There are many issues where compromise is entirely unsatisfactory. But in order to win, it is often essential to speak in a manner that your opponents can understand, even empathise with.
To sell an idea to a group opposed to it, you may need to speak in their moral language. To sell globalist free-market ideas to modern left-wingers, you have to consider arguments of equality, equity and an expanding moral circle. To sell effective charities to those who give to charity to help “the little kid I just saw on the Oxfam ad”, you need to appeal to their emotions, their concern for other human beings, and to tell stories they can latch on to. If your goal is to effectively persuade people, you have to choose to swallow the distaste, and speak in the words of those you never want to sound like.
SSC has a great example of what a persuasive argument for climate change for a Republican could look like
It is worth noting, however, that a large number of successful versions of this approach are from centrist political leaders. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s slogans of “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” are one example of this - but so is much of his approach to leadership. When Harriet Harman announced she would send her son to a private school (a scandal for mid-90s Labour), Blair kept her in his shadow cabinet - he was not opposed to aspiritational conservatism. Blair also famously removed the Clause IV of the Labour party that essentially forced it into wide nationalisation policies - Blair was also signalling a wider pro-market view. The ability to appeal widely, by speaking both to aspirational pro-market conservatism, as well as more classical labour voters, led in part to the incredible success of the 1997 election. It was the greatest success in Labour’s history, led to the only Labour government to last 3 election cycles, and handed the Conservatives the worst defeat they had seen in almost a century. Again - this is not an argument for centrism, but rather a statement that centrist candidates provide some broad evidence of the success of this approach.
But what you fail to understand is that it’s a disagreement over fundamentals (reality, basic principles etc) with a significant proportion of the population. Maybe these are a significant minority, probably not in actuality as most people will follow the crowd, so maybe even larger. Framing it as a small fringe minority plus a much larger group of people that you just need to talk to in the right way is simply incorrect. Same with the memes, the now right use it as a spicy take on reality, the now left think you can meme anything and frequently end up in self parody territory. Also the frequent habit of “we’re not talking about that” (views that don’t stand up to debate) never persuaded anyone…
You’re so far wide of the mark it’s unfunny. 2 years ago I was left leaning and would never think to associate myself with the Republicans. Regarding vaccination, I adopted a wait and see approach since there hadn’t been a successful coronavirus vaccine before, the spike protein likely had endothelial/clotting function potential etc etc. To watch the vaccines then fail to prevent transmission, have a really poor side effect profile, lag natural immunity in efficacy and still have a lot of the political left try to institute mandates (they are still pushing for them), becomes a hard pass on the vaccines and a lot of the ideology of what used to be the political left. No amount of attempting to wrap this in nice language will bridge the gap and any thinking to the contrary is delusional. The cartoon is hilarious because it’s true ;)