Daniel Finkelstein: pathetic and wrong
Fine column by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times today (pay wall). It is about how the Conservatives should deal with UKIP, and concludes that neither copying its policies nor insulting its supporters is likely to work. The only sensible tactic, and even this might not work, is to point out that, by voting UKIP, people might be letting Ed Miliband in as prime minister.
In the course of it, however, Finkelstein makes a brilliant point about how to argue, which should be read by everyone who uses Twitter or internet forums or who goes below the line:
Tagged in: daniel finkelstein, debate, etiquette
After several fruitless exchanges I fear that I responded to a personal comment by telling my interlocutor that I had reluctantly reached the conclusion that he was “pathetic”. I can’t say that I immediately regretted doing this. Or that, even now, I resile from the judgment. But the next day it didn’t feel as good as it did at the time. And a couple of days later I began to wince at the error.
I had, you see, broken two of the rules of politics. The first might be considered the “shoot the messenger” rule…
When someone issues an angry rebuke, observers associate that person with anger. When accusing someone else of being pathetic, whatever the merit of my case, I mainly succeeded in making myself appear pathetic.
The second rule one might call the university fraternity rule. My favourite social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, points to a study of fraternity initiation rituals in the US. The more humiliating the initiation, the more the membership was valued. It’s a psychological trick we play on ourselves to make us feel the humiliation was worthwhile.
Thus by calling someone pathetic I was increasing my antagonist’s commitment to the position I was arguing against. He would become even more wedded to it in order to justify to himself the insults he was enduring.
I had made myself look small while simultaneously making my adversary feel more certain that he was right. Good work there.
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