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    « How to Talk to a Far-Left-Winger | Main | If it’s not “Climate Change,” then What Should we Call it? »

    How to Talk to a Far-Right-Winger

    First a word of explanation.

    Please note that the title of this essay does not refer to a “conservative,” but to a “far-right-winger.” As I’ve said many times (most recently with a certain virality), the two terms are in no way equivalent. Far-right-wingers are anything but conservative; they profess some of the most radical and ideologically driven agendas of any on the political landscape.

    Got it? Okay. So now onto the question under review. How DO you talk to a far-right-winger?  

    Answer: You don’t.

    I'm serious. Just stop. Don’t bother. You’re wasting your breath. 

    Michael Shermer, in his fantastic book The Believing Brain, reminds us that despite the scientific age in which we live, the brain is fundamentally a “belief engine.” And on top of that, 

    [o]nce beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes…. 

    In fact, you may be doing even worse than wasting your breath. Every argument you have only makes their beliefs stronger. Don’t believe me? Take a look:



    It’s true. Turns out that talking to anyone with extreme views is rather like struggling with those little finger-trapping toys that were all the rage when I was growing up. 



    And the likelihood of a “belief reversal” (as Shermer calls it)?  Practically nil. It is “as rare as a black swan.”

    So if you can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) talk to a far-right-winger then how, pray tell, are any of us supposed to erode their ideas, positions, and power? Well, I have an answer for that, too.   

    Talk even more with people who agree with you. And talk even more even more with people who sort of agree with you some of the time. Why? Well, for pretty much the same reasons, which boil down to this: the more you believe something, the stronger that belief becomes.

    Why is it important that beliefs become stronger amongst those of us who are rational and thoughtful (whether conservatives or not)? Simple again—the stronger the belief system, the stronger the need to do something about it—and that means that people who are more emotionally invested do more of the most important thing any of us can do, and that’s vote.  

    That’s right. Vote.

    It makes sense, really, if you think about it. If we accept axiomatically that a far-right-winger is never going to change opinions or beliefs, then the only thing we can do is out-vote them. And we do that by encouraging more people to believe just as strongly in what the far right rails against—and getting them to vote. Concerned about the environment? Get out and vote for it. Think the minimum wage needs to go up? Get out and vote for it.  Want to end corporate welfare? Get out and vote for it. Want money out of politics? Get out and vote for it.

    So stop banging your metaphorical heads against the wall. Start having constructive conversations with people who think more like you do; make the change happen by getting more and more people fired up enough to vote against the far-right-wingers. 

    So stop it. Stop fighting with others who only want to fight. Instead start talking with others who will do something about it


    P.S. This same advice goes for just about any extremist. That would include far-left-wingers as well, particularly anyone that insists on using that V-for-Vendetta mask as their Facebook profile picture. Also just about any conspiracy theorist (birthers, 911 truthers, vapor trailers, Roswellians, Illuminati-ists) or those who swear by crystals, astrology, chakras, and oxygen bars. Double for those convinced by creationism or believing that homosexuality is a choice.  I haven’t quite figured out what to do with the anti-vaccine crowd, though….

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    Reader Comments (35)

    This post is scary. You're basically saying that only "those of us who are rational and thoughtful" (= those who agree with you) are worth talking to, and that we should reinforce our beliefs ... Whoa ... I much prefer to question my beliefs by exchanging views with those of different stripes, and if I dare say, have noticed raving beliefs predominant on both sides of the spectrum, which are responsible for an increasing incapacity for "rational and thoughtful" discussion.
    "emotionally invested ..." ... the heart of your fatal flaw, no need to say more...

    " ...Talk even more with people who agree with you. And talk even more even more with people who sort of agree with you some of the time. Why? Well, for pretty much the same reasons, which boil down to this: the more you believe something, the stronger that belief becomes.
    Why is it important that beliefs become stronger amongst those of us who are rational and thoughtful (whether conservatives or not)? Simple again—the stronger the belief system, the stronger the need to do something about it—and that means that people who are more emotionally invested do more of the most important thing any of us can do, and that’s vote...."

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBird's Eye

    It is scary, Bird's Eye; I agree. However, we need to accept the science on this one--arguing with people who disagree with you makes them more fervent in their disagreement. I'm not suggesting talking in a bubble--or building one. I'm suggesting that if we want to defeat extremists at any level, we need to motivate ourselves to do more--and to vote. So the question is: where do we want to spend our time and energies?

    March 30, 2015 | Registered CommenterMichael Charney

    What this says to me is that the outrage we are generating - on both sides, but particularly relative to the far right wing - should be toned down. Way toned down. Continue with calm, and convincing, facts, with compassion, with an effort to understand. These are not weaknesses, these are strengths and more likely to allow one with extreme views to loosen there barriers than the screaming and name calling.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMaggieloe

    I don't even know what the coffee party is. By the way, for every study that says homosexuality is not a choice, there is one that says it is.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Basford

    Don't avoid far-right wingers. BUT remember:

    1) sometimes I debate them in public threads (NEVER in private!) KNOWING they will never face reality; therefore I do this for the fence-sitters so those confused by talking points can SEE what these people really think when debated.

    2) You do not win arguments with them. YOU DO NOT "WIN". When you argue with them, you may inject a fact or two into your argument, but they will NOT debate with facts and reason. They'll simply dissemble every single word you say in your argument and try to ake you look like a fool because of your word choices.

    This is similar to what they're doing with Hillary Clinton. "WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?" was a big crazy-winger talking point. She did not say this in reference to not giving a flying ^&*( about fighting terrorism, she meant that no matter what happens, you bring the responsible party to justice.

    THEN the e-mail drama, because she mentioned in these hearings that she got hundreds of thousands of emails a day.

    Notice...they DID NOT argue facts and reason, they simply pounced on every word she said, and smithed it into a constantly unfolding cluster^%$# of false crises and silly drama.

    This is what they do. So you must do the same with them. DO NOT try to force feed them facts. They will not listen. Instead, dissemble their individual words on a lawyer, wordsmithing level and let them fall apart. But do this publically so others can SEE. Do not do this in private. These people do not operate on common sense, rationality and facts. They operate on fear (THOSE people are gonna get us!) and anger (THOSE lazy people need to go get a job!). They are practically trained in Karl Rove debate strategy to completely ignore the context of everything you say and write.

    Good luck and God bless.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterartisanrox

    In my experience, I agree with this 100% of the time, which is sad. It seems impossible to have intelligent, rational discussion with extremists, sadly - I have found that most of their 'arguments' are entirely emotionally driven and not supported by fact or reason. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with emotion or passion, but I like it backed up by some form of intelligent thought. With regards to the far right wing, I believe this is why Fox News (if one can call it news) is so popular - it is the confirmatory evidence that some people crave to support they beliefs.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey Q

    While it's disheartening at first glance, there's something to this approach. Arguing with someone on the far right gives them equal standing. In a discussion, I have no problem giving equal standing to my conservative friends. They are respectful of my thoughts, opinions, and from time to time, admit that they hadn't considered a particular view point. In return, they get the same from me, and we generally enjoy those discussions. But someone who believes the earth was created 6,000 years ago and wants it taught in school does not deserve equal standing in any discussion. It implies that their view has equal merit, and it simply does not. We fall into this trap that every idea deserves equal time. When in fact, some ideas require very little time. So the next time you hear an extreme view, ask yourself if that idea deserves your time. If it doesn't, ignore it and keep moving.

    The other piece here is that some people fill a need by finding people to argue with. If you don't give them something to push against, you don't fill their need.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris

    Want to "win" an argument with a Limbaugh Republican? Do what they do: you be the one that asks the questions poking holes in their beliefs. Dont offer facts or try to convince them. Unless one of the two people arguing is a specialist in the topic being argued either side could be reduced that point where one does not know all the facts, the total details of a proposed solution, etc. You just need to be the aggressor, the one asking the questions. If you need help on how to do this just listen to Limbaugh himself.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBobFrog

    Hmm. Get like-minded people to vote for a candidate that shares your belief? Should we vote for the candidate that is owned by Monsanto or the one owned by the Koch brothers or the one owned by AT&T or Goldman Sachs?

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercvani

    The problem.with "voting" is that a lot of changes are instituted without the chance on them.I didn't get to vote against the anti-gay discrimination law in Indiana that was just passed, I didn't get to vote out all the Senators that decided to enact treason by penning a letter to an adversarial government undermining the efforts of the White House in nuclear arms negotiations. Voting is powerful but its only so powerful . There needs to be another tool to foster change but info agree that argument isn't really terribly effective and it just devolves into sport.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLesley

    I'm disappointed that you consider yourself a rational person, yet you lump anyone who questions the official narrative of 9/11 in with Creationists and homophobes. I encourage you to listen to some of the world's most respected architects and engineers at www.AE9/ concerning the events of 9/11 and especially the collapse of WTC7. Reinforcing our own beliefs isn't a good thing when it blinds us to facts that would make any rational person reconsider his or her position.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris Barczynski

    Author states: "Want money out of politics? Get out and vote for it."
    This is why we record low labor participation rate, record high welfare and food stamps and record high fake disability claims. Politicians tell the low information voters that they will be financially rewarded with taxpayer money in the form of welfare and food stamps in return for their votes. The stupid people love that but never realize that they are selling themselves out (and future generations in their families) for the crumbs they are thrown and once the election is over they are forgotten until the next election cycle. If ANYONE should be rewarded, it is the people who actually try to better themselves by taking their schooling seriously, behaving responsibly, staying out of trouble, developing a work ethic and possibly starting small businesses. There should be NO FREE LUNCH for people who are physically able to work but who choose to NOT work.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichele

    I'm more with Birds Eye. First, the word "rational" does not apply well to people. Explanations can be rational. Arguments can be rational. Conclusions drawn about observations can be rational. People are the things whose job it is to try and think rationally about important questions. Some do better than others. Some have better habits than others. None "are" rational.

    One obstacle to rationality is the echo chamber. In fact, your recommendation seems to rely on the irrational effect of the echo chamber - use it, you say, (rather than, say Bayesian evidence) to strengthen your beliefs.

    Because beliefs stronger than the evidence warrants will motivate you to take a specific type of action appropriate to stronger beliefs than are appropriate. How exactly is that a good thing?

    And why should we stop with voting? When people who fail to employ rational thinking (let's say the "far right"... or "extremists") - do they always just vote and go home? If the goal is to do motivate ourselves beyond reason, couldn't we go ahead and motivate ourselves beyond that? If we convince ourselves so totally that the Tea Party is a threat to our way of life, who is to say we shouldn't put more into protecting our way of life than just voting?

    Second to last thing - reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Voting against our favorite bugaboo is not necessarily our best course of action, especially in a two-party system where there is only one possible vote against our favorite bugaboo.

    Last thing - my own prescription... for people who go off the rails, be it the "far right", or some other group: Forget arguing with them about global warming or vaccinations or whatever else. Teach them reason. From the ground up. Refuse to discuss any hot button issue until they are so well versed in informal fallacies, logic, cognitive biases, and bayesian inference that you *can* have discussions about important things that will lead to eventual agreement.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersmijer

    I hardly ever encounter a conservative. Most Republicans are extreme right wingers or pander to them.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames B.

    This article is defeatist but I understand the authors point. I've been debating politics for over two decades. Never in my life have I seen such a time when so many on the right are so disconnected from reality. How do you have an intelligent discussion about climate change with a person who thinks it's a hoax made up by Al Gore? Or about evolutionary biology with people who think it's just a theory? Or about equality with people who think homosexuals have chosen their unfortunate lifestyle? Or that Obama is a Muslim socialist? It is amazingly frustrating and you never will get an intelligent discussion going with them. It's just impossible. Therefore I usually don't bother anymore. Talking with a conservative nowadays is like talking with indolent fifth graders who spend all day listening to Fox and Hannity. It's a waste of time. So now I just avoid them. Meanwhile I discuss issues adamantly with all my liberal and moderate friends. We agree the best thing we can do now is get as many people out to vote as possible. It's the only way to win the war against ignorance.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjeff clauser

    I agree with this assessment only to a point. I cannot divorce myself from the nearly 50% of people that are influenced by the extreme right-wing in America or from the facts that get mangled by them and become "truth" to those I share this society with. It simply is not possible, practical, nor logical in the long term.

    It is akin to saying only those that want and have the capacity to believe in reality need to do so, the rest can remain bitterly and belligerently ignorant to science and reason and rationality.... and oh yeah, they are free to pollute the media and politics and society at large with their beliefs.

    I for one have children that I brought into this existence and cannot accept ignoring the ignorant "children" of extreme conservatism or any extreme and irrational ideologies.

    For my part, I will continue to build bridges with my fellow humans, regardless of beliefs, and find common ground wherever possible to show the way to balancing facts against fears, and lead with rational solutions rather than irrational emotional coping mechanisms.

    And I encourage you all to do the same, and find common grounds with all of humanity and nature. -Peace

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGeoff F.

    I won't return to this site since it does not allow up-voting or replies. As a former bonehead I have to say that my mind was changed over time by people who believed strongly and were willing to discuss it outside of their bubble. I agree whole heartedly with cvan's statement above: "Hmm. Get like-minded people to vote for a candidate that shares your belief? Should we vote for the candidate that is owned by Monsanto or the one owned by the Koch brothers or the one owned by AT&T or Goldman Sachs?"

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterktaylor

    The headline is misleading. Don't mislead people with headlines. It makes them stop trusting you. You talk to a right-winger the same way you talk to anyone. Calmly and rationally, until you agree to disagree or they flip out. At which point the group condemns their violent in-fighting behavior and the right-winger is publicly shamed by the group into at the very least, shutting up and at the most, rethinking their isolated, inflammatory views. Peer pressure works.

    This article is pretty much useless as it's just a bait and switch to tell people to vote. So many more options to public advocacy exist. Voting is a symptom of being more politically aware and involved. Who wants an uninvolved, ininformed person to vote? What good would that do?

    Even if every liberal in the country voted, there'd still be bigots refusing to serve LGBT people in Indiana and racists who beat and kill minorities in the south. They don't change because they're insulated. We have to talk to them. We must make it our mission to talk to them unless they retreat. The most isolated they become the more they crave social contact. They'll see. Beliefs change. I know, I changed.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLaw

    Obviously getting heated up will never win you your case, it only reinforces the challenged person to further dig in their heels. I'm surprised that everyone who responded to the article seems to have missed the important key point which is to use good psychology, and ask the adversary to EXPLAIN what they mean, and how they came to their position. The idea is to allow them to discover the error in their thinking without your needing to show them.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHeatherR

    The only point to add to the interesting, divergent points, is that remembering and relating to the basic humanity that all but the most damaged psychopaths share is a necessary first step to 'toning down' the uncivilized debates. The far-right is terrified that the world that they knew has changed and everything they value is being destroyed. Is this not what we on the left fear? Our conclusions about what to do about this go in opposite directions, and are based on very different beliefs, but the energy of that fear is
    the same.

    March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterInterestedPerson

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