Dealing with cognitive biases part 2: I’ll be damned if I do! (the backfire effect)

One of the most difficult biases to overcome both in ourselves and in others is polarization, a.k.a. the backfire effect. You’ve seen it a thousand times: you’re debating with someone, and the more data you throw at them, the more they dig in their heels. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you give them; they are never going to budge. This generally traces back to the backfire effect. It is this polarization which has resulted in increasingly less balanced and more partisan news. The explosion of specialized media both televised and web-based has made this phenomenon the norm. A liberal can tune into MSNBC and have all of his liberal views reinforced, never having to think about the issues from any other perspective. Conservatives can do the same with Fox News. If that’s not enough, on the internet there are niche sites and resources for pretty much every perspective under the sun. Unfortunately, the casualties of all of this compartmentalization have been truth and civility.

I have certainly fallen into this trap myself. I’ll wager we all have, and the more specialized and compartmentalized our society becomes, the harder it is to pull back and look at an issue with unbiased eyes and thus learn what’s really going on. Likewise, the more hostile our opponents are, the more personal it becomes for us, and we can lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish. It can be a tough thing to overcome when there are people out there screaming for your head. As a non-offending pedophile, I am very much aware that there are people who despise me even though they don’t know me at all, including a few who would murder me if they could get away with it, despite the fact that I have never and will never sexually abuse a child. They hate me because they have already formulated an image of me in their heads based on a single character trait: the fact that I am attracted to children. In their minds I am guilty regardless of my actual history.

Well, all of that hate and anger can be distracting if you let it be. Sometimes that is exactly their intention. Your enemies don’t want you to think rationally or be unswayed by their attempts at intimidation. They want you to break down emotionally and run away gibbering. They want to control the debate no matter what. Dealing with people like that can be incredibly frustrating, and you may be inclined to do exactly as they expect you to, or to get angry and lose focus (this has happened to me more times than I care to remember), or to just give up altogether. What you must remember is, when your enemies resort to these tactics, you have effectively won the debate already. As a non-offending pedophile, I already have the moral high ground and they know it. They know they can’t defeat me on that front.  If you also have scientific evidence to back you up, then they have nothing left, so they are forced to use fallacious appeals to emotion and straw man attacks in order to try to send you running. Don’t let them!

Because keeping your cool serves more than just allowing you to win the debate. It also allows you to continue to see things clearly. When challenged, you will almost certainly be tempted to dig in your heals. You have just cause to do so if you are right, and especially if your opponent is abusing and insulting you. I know, I’ve been there . . . many times. But you’re never going to get anywhere by being obstinate and rigid in your approach.

So how do you deal with people on the other end of this discussion? There are a few things that will generally make a difference, and believe me, I struggle with these too. Like I said earlier, I am far from perfect myself. I have bad days too, days when people get to me, but with growing experience, a better understanding of where my opponents are coming from and continuing to educate myself about the best way to convince someone of my position, these are becoming less and less everyday. In terms of studying the most effective methods of debate, here is what I’ve learned:

1) Choose your battles carefully – When someone engages you in a discussion, even if they are angry or upset, if they are trying to make an actual point and not just insulting or threatening you, it means they are generally open to learning. These are people worth engaging. In fact, emotional people are actually easier to convince if you know how to do it, but we’ll get to that in a minute. On the flip side, if someone is simply insulting you, threatening you, or making jokes at your expense, then there is little point in engaging them. It’s usually what they want: to amuse themselves by wasting your time and getting you needlessly riled up. Don’t play their game. You have better things to do with your time and energy.

2) Validate the other person’s viewpoint – Many people think of debate as a fight, and that’s a tempting perspective, especially in the antagonistic environment of the internet, but this approach generally isn’t very productive. It is better to think of it more like a dance. Dances can be organic or structured, cool or passionate, simple or complex, but whatever type of dance you’re participating in, you ultimately want to lead it. If you are completely at odds with the person you’re debating, it isn’t going to be much of a dance, is it? The idea is to flow with your opponent, and to do that you have to recognize where they’re at and what they’re doing. In terms of debate, this means validating their viewpoint early and often. I confess, this is one I struggle with myself. I can be a passionate person, and when you’re in the grip of your emotions it is very easy to lose control of yourself. Being in touch with your emotions is not a weakness; letting your emotions control you is.

Besides, most of the time your opponent’s position is rooted in their morality. You may disagree with their moral perspective, but don’t fault them for being moral people. When it comes to pedophilia, their morality is rooted in the same soil as yours. You want to protect children from harm and abuse, and so do they. Their position is not generally a moral failure but a lack of information and/or a lack of perspective. Your job is to convince them of this, but you’ll likely fail to do that if you’re being combative, exchanging insults, etc. Remember: there’s a lot more to being an effective debater than just adhering to logical principles and knowing a bunch of facts. Empathy is at least as important as those things.

3) Disarm them with humor – You have many tools in your debate bag-of-tricks, and one of the best is humor. Never underestimate the power of levity to disarm an antagonistic opponent. It’s a difficult art form to master, certainly, but even amateur humorists can soften the hardest opponent a little with a well-timed joke or quip. It’s a quick way to disrupt a particular thought pattern. As Gary Gillespie says in his essay Take My Partner, Please: Humor in Worlds-Style Debating:

The first explanation to account for humor is that audiences laugh at violations of their expectations of the world or language.  The mind follows accepted patterns when processing information. Humor crisscrosses these patterns, creating new neural connections that — for some reason — strike us as funny. Jokes cause thoughts to jump tracks and head off in surprising directions eliciting smiles, guffaws, chuckles, and laughs. The new connection forces us to re-examine familiar conclusions about the world and give us what Kenneth Burke calls “perspective by incongruity.”

In other words, humor causes people to look at something in a different way than they’re used to. Try it sometime when your debating someone—stick a joke in at an unexpected point. But be careful you don’t push it too far or in the wrong direction. For example, self-deprecating jokes are okay, but don’t make fun of your opponents, and you definitely don’t want to make light of sexual abuse. It would be in very bad taste and usually isn’t funny anyway.

4) Temper your perspective – Remember, from society’s viewpoint your perspective is an extreme one, even if you are right. When there is an opposing viewpoint that has some validity, acknowledge it up front and address it, and then present the information you have that contradicts the dominant narrative. Just as with good dance, good argument rests on your ability to give a bit when necessary. Remember Aesop’s fable of the oak and the reed. The unyielding oak breaks under a strong wind, but the flexible reed withstands it. Asians have a similar aphorism about the bamboo tree. There are a few ways to do this in the context of debating someone on these issues. The first one, of course, we’ve already covered: validate the other person’s viewpoint.

Another thing is not to sweat the small stuff. I know your inclination is to point out every little thing your opponents get wrong, but you really don’t have to do this. It’s not that you’re agreeing with them if you fail to address every point of contention, but remember, this may be an entirely new perspective for them, and as I’ve said before, this stuff is complex. They aren’t going to be able to process all of that at once anyway, so focus on the major points and don’t spread yourself too thin.

Thirdly, don’t let ignorance gall you. There’s a ton of it out there when it comes to pedophilia, and it accounts for a lot of the hatred and vulgarity we face from the public, but most of the time people aren’t being deliberately bigoted. They simply do not see this as a civil rights issue . . . yet. But most people are decent at heart, and the more we are persecuted out in the open, the more they will recognize that there are important similarities between how other minorities have been treated in the past and how we are being treated now. Continue to educate them with patience and understanding. The good ones will eventually come around; the rest don’t matter.

And finally, a good part of being a flexible debater is being prepared for anything. People will throw the most ridiculous arguments at you sometimes. You may be tempted to just write them off as idiots, but if they’re being sincere, don’t do that. Treat every serious point with respect, humility and calmness. You never know where it is they’re coming from or how much they know or think they know on these issues. The surest way to reinforce their ignorance is to treat them like they are stupid. When you’re debating someone with an opposing perspective, think of Chinese finger traps. You’ve seen these, right? You stick your fingertip in one end, someone else sticks their fingertip in the other, and you both try to get out of them. The problem is, the more you pull away, the tighter they become. The trick is to yield somewhat, push forward instead of pulling away and voila! they become loose enough to remove your finger. It’s also a good idea to study debate tactics and heed advice from professional debaters. There are plenty of good resources online.  Here is one of the better ones. Just remember that this advice is often aimed at folks who are participating in actual debate competitions. You aren’t doing that so disregard anything that puts you in an antagonistic position with respect to the person you’re debating.

That’s it for now. I may add some thoughts to this later, but these are the main points to remember. Above all, keep in mind that if the person you’re debating is genuinely interested in fairness and the truth, they will be willing to hear you out and will listen to your perspective, but remember, they may be fighting every belief or bias they have with respect to this issue, so you will want to tread carefully. If, however, they are completely unwilling to listen to you and offer you nothing but a hard way to go, then you’re likely wasting your time. The best thing to do is ignore them entirely and move on to the next person.

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